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Poetry Lesson: Fog by Carl Sandburg

What follows is an ESL lesson I use with Fog by Carl Sandburg. I present it from the point of view of a teacher talking.

The objective is to get the student writing, and that process is divided into three parts. Students first examine the poem and answer questions about its structure. Then students think about simile and metaphor. Third, they write a poem using a simile or a metaphor.

The third part of the process, the writing, is divided into three parts itself: the actual writing, then the rereading and editing (facilitated by each student reading and correcting the work of others), and finally, the rewriting.

1. Taking a look at the poem

I learned a poem by Carl Sandburg when I was in 4th grade. I always remember it.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over city and harbor
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Look closely at the poem. How many lines are in it? How many words are in each line? How many syllables are in each word? Do you see a pattern?

There are six lines in the poem.

The first line has three words in it: The fog comes

the second line has four words: on little cat feet.

the third line has three: It sits looking

the fourth line four: over city and harbor

the fifth three: on silent haunches

and the sixth four: and then moves on.

How many words have one syllable? How many words have two?

Fourteen words have one syllable

and seven words have two:

that’s fourteen words with fourteen syllables

and seven words with fourteen syllables.

Out of the first seven words there is only one with two syllables, the word little. It’s interesting how the largest word in these seven words is also the smallest. When you think about it, the fog is big covering city and harbor, while the cat is small. The poet brings big and little together in this harmonious way.

Did the poet write the poem carefully or carelessly? What do you think?

2. Thinking about the poem (metaphor and simile)

When Sandburg writes the fog comes on little cat feet he is using a metaphor saying something (fog) is something else (cat feet).

When I write

A frog’s a song
Heard in the fog

that is a metaphor because I am linking the frog in the fog to a song with is, the verb to be, elided into the frog with an apostrophe s (frog’s).

When I write

A frog
sings in
the fog
as song

I am comparing one thing (frog) to another (song) using as; this is a simile. A simile resembles, but is not the word it is joined to by as or like. A simile is like and a metaphor is.

3. Writing a poem of your own

How does a cat resemble the fog? How does the fog resemble a cat?

Other than a cat, think of other animals that might enjoy the fog or resemble it in some way. Write down the names of three animals explaining why you think they compare well to the fog. Share your animals and your explanations with the class.

Write a short poem about the fog using a metaphor or a simile. You may use an animal, but feel free to write about emotions or other images. Here is an example of a poem by Jane, a student of mine from Wuhan University in China.

The fog in the morning is rolling among the hills
It never sounds and can never be cut up.
My love for you is just like that fog,
It never sounds and can never be cut up.

To the teacher: I encourage students to write their first drafts quickly without any worry. Get it done! After they finish, I let them look at their poems and make any changes they want, writing a second draft. Tell them not to erase or throw away their first drafts. When they’ve finished a second draft, have them compare both drafts and write a third if they want. Let them ask themselves, “Did I say what I want? Is it done?”

When students have written poems they like (or have at least finished one), have them exchange these drafts with their classmates. Time them. Each student should have five to ten minutes (or perhaps even more time; see how they’re doing) to read and comment on every other student’s poem. They can remark about something they like, or something they would like to see; and they can also correct grammar or misspellings. Every student must write something on every poem. All the poems should be passed along at the same time. When students finally get their own poems back, they will not only have read and commented on every other student’s poem, but they will be holding their own poems with all of the other students’ comments and corrections on them.

Let them take these annotated poems home to read and think about, and write a final draft. It might be the poem as they already have it. Students might take to heart something another classmate wrote and want to change their poems. But make it clear to them that although all critiques are to be read and considered, every poet is the final judge of his or her own work.

Carl Sandburg

Two students

Recently two students of mine did versions of the poem I enjoyed very much. One was by Gurami, who is from Georgia. His original poem was very exciting like saying English in a new way for the first time. Gurami’s second draft written with the expected syntax wasn’t as much fun as his first. Maybe correct English isn’t always the most poetic:

The Fog

The fog comes
like climb by climb
as a snake
into the forest of jungle
with quietly creep
and it’s spreading everywhere.

Chaffee on the other hand has a better command of English, and his Chinese sensibilities come through it gently loud and clear in an exacting image of life.

White Mouse

Life lies in movement.
White mouse runs in its circle cage.
How could it find the way to the end?

Collage of Sandburg on a wall in Philadelphia

One Comment

  1. Neddi Heller

    How would I love to be a student in your class.
    There is a beauty in your approach to teaching.

    “Fog” by Carl Sandburg is a poem of gentle strength and great latitude. “Fog” is part of my canon in teaching art.

    This poem relates with Haiku, as well.

    So many steps in the right directions.


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