“Poem to My Yellow Coat” by Lucille Clifton
Last winter, I wrote a post about a fun, creative activity called Treasured Object poems. Click here for that link.
In that post, I included three student-written poems that former students had written. One was about turquoise Converse shoes, another was about a piano, and another a rocking horse. I also included a Treasured Object poem I had written about my vintage 1990s bomber jacket.
Note: If you’re unfamiliar with Treasured Object poems, think of them as an easy way to introduce your students to the creative and personal expression possibilities of poetry. Treasured Object poems are short free-verse poems about an object students value. Paying tribute to a precious personal item encourages students to think positively about their lives and builds their creative writing skills.
I remember in January wishing I had a published Treasured Object poem that students could draw inspiration from. Good news! Last week, I found a treasure from African-American poet, Lucille Clifton (1936-2010), in The Paris Review.
Below is Clifton’s poem that I plan to use the next time my students write Treasured Object poems.
Poem to My Yellow Coat
today i mourn my coat.
my old potato.
my yellow mother.
my horse with buttons.
today she split her skin
like a snake,
refusing to excuse my back
for being big
for being old
for reaching toward other
cuffs and sleeves.
she cracked like a whip and
my terrible teacher to the end;
to hell with the arms you want
be glad when you’re cold
for the arms you have.
Locate the poem here: The Paris Review, Summer 2020.
Below, I’ve written some general steps for how I plan to include Clifton’s poem the next time my students and I write Treasured Object poems. In addition to reading a few student-written mentors, we’ll spend some time asking questions about “Poem to My Old Yellow Coat.” Read on for those general steps I plan to take.
Read the poem aloud to students two to three times to fully hear its complexity. Pause between readings and discuss any or some of the points listed below under the Discuss subheading.
Hear Clifton read this poem (and others) at voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Audio Video Library. Here’s more from voca’s About page:
“voca… features recordings from the Center’s long-running Reading Series and other readings presented under the auspices of the Center. The earliest of these recordings is a Robert Creeley reading from 1963. voca includes multiple recordings of poets who have read for the Poetry Center numerous times over the years. All recordings are made available with the permission of the reader. Images are from the Center’s photographic archives.”The University of Arizona Poetry Center
Clifton’s reading of “Poem to My Yellow Coat” is interesting because it’s recorded live before an audience. As a result, there’s an informal air to the poem that is a nice contrast to the heavier thoughts conjured by the poem’s weighty word choices.
- Talk about those metaphors:
- How could a coat be a horse? A rind? A mother? A potato?
- Can’t you imagine the rich discussions about Clifton’s intention with using these out-of-the-box comparisons?
- Talk about the repetition:
- What’s the effect of for being big, for being old, for reaching
- Notice the sensory imagery with sound (splitting of the skin, hissing, the cracking whip)
- Notice the lack of capitalization. What’s the effect? Is it actually effective? How?
- According to this poem guide from the Poetry Foundation, “Without capital letters of any kind, it’s immediately clear that Clifton’s words and ideas aren’t bound by conventional rules.”
- What’s the purpose or effect of comparing the coat to a snake or the cracking of a whip?
- How could a coat be a terrible teacher?
- What does it mean to “Be glad when you’re cold for the arms you have?”
- What else do your students want to discuss? What more do they notice?
Make a poem:
To start, ask students to fill in the blank in this sentence:
Lucille Clifton’s yellow coat, at the end of the poem, makes me think of my _______________.
In other words, have students think of something they’ve used so much that it’s worn out and write a Treasured Object poem about it. Here are some ideas: track cleats, hunting vest, felt-tip markers.
If a student struggles with thinking of an object… suggest that they may write about an object that belongs to someone else, such as a family member. For example, what about that old chipped bowl their mother uses, for example, or a really old tool from the garage? After all, many students may not be old enough to own something that has worn out, so extend their thinking to objects that others have used.
If you still get blank looks from a student or two… extend their thinking to something valued that has been lost. For example, three years ago my favorite old pocket knife was confiscated by airport security when I was boarding a plane in Venice, Italy. Read this post from my other blog about that scenario. Memories about that knife, which had resided inside a little blue floral zipper bag in my purse throughout my children’s growing up years, are perfect fodder for a Treasured Object poem.
Tell your own story:
Think of a something you own that you’ve worn out and tell your students about it.
- My own example: About a year ago, our letter opener finally gave out when the blade separated from the handle. It had been a wedding gift (28 years earlier!) and was engraved with a Y. Think of how many things it had opened: electric bills, birthday cards, medical bills, junk mail, letters from my grandmother’s visits to Texas years ago.
Don’t underestimate the power of telling stories to get your students started. Recall something of your own that would make a meaningful treasured object poem, and then…
Write alongside your students.
Some final thoughts:
- Ask students to pack as many unexpected metaphors as possible into their poem. For unexpected metaphors, suggest that students look for fresh words in magazines or old newspapers. Use the process of headline poetry to generate unusual, yet powerful, word choices.
- Display poems in your hallway, in your classroom in a “gallery walk” style, or for online learning, have students post their poems to Padlet.
- Middle school students are invited to submit their poems for publication by Creative Communications. This company publishes hardcover poetry anthologies. There is no purchase necessary to submit poems or to appear in the anthology. Read here for more information. The deadline for their summer anthology is August 13.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like to receive a PDF file of my Treasured Object Poem guidelines to use with students, enter your email address below and I’ll send it to you pronto, along with more ELA teaching ideas and lesson plans.
“Poem to My Yellow Coat” by Lucille Clifton used following guidelines from the Center for Media & Social Impact Best Practices for Fair Use of Poetry