Image of a person looking at a gallery wall featuring a large mural of an open mouth with black lips.

     The tree.
     The tree swayed.
     The tree swayed with.
     The tree swayed with a.
     The tree swayed with a girl.
     The tree swayed with a girl swinging.
     The tree swayed with a girl swinging on.
   The tree swayed with a girl swinging on one.
  The tree swayed with a girl swinging on one of.
 The tree swayed with a girl swinging on one of its.
The tree swayed with a girl swinging on one of its branches.
     Its branches were.
     Its branches were suffering.
     Its branches were suffering because.
     Its branches were suffering because the.
   Its branches were suffering because the girl.
  Its branches were suffering because the girl was.
 Its branches were suffering because the girl was so.
Its branches were suffering because the girl was so heavy.
                     —Kristine Acquino, fifth grade

The chant poem is a form that catalyzes energetic and expansive student poems and yet offers numerous formal techniques, such as the use of repetition.

Chant poems draw on the ancient roots of poetry. Some qualities of poetry have been with us since the beginnings of talk. Poetry existed long before writing: just look at the amazing bodies of song and recital preliterate peoples have today. Anthropologists speculate that poetry—as distinct from speech—probably began in religious ceremonies, perhaps around a fire, to accompany dance. Nonsense syllables chanted rhythmically may have been the first poems. These vocalizations grew into song and poetry, which at base are the same.

In his book Primitive Song, C.M. Bowra gives some interesting ethnographical background:

Song begins with some sort of tune, and to adapt real words to it is a sepa- rate and subsequent task which calls for considerable dexterity. ... When Captain Charles Wilkes of the H.M.S. Beagle visited Tierra del Fuego in March 1838, the first inhabitants whom he met belonged to the Yamana. Two of his company visited them in their huts and received an unexpected greeting. Their mode of expressing friendship is by jumping up and down. They made Messrs Waldron and Drayton jump with them on the beach, before entering the hut, took hold of their arms facing them, and jumping two or three inches from the ground making them keep time to the following song:

          Ha ma la
          ha ma la
          ha ma la
          ha ma la

          O la la la la la
          la la la la

It's good to know that the music comes first; rhythm and sound have primacy over meaning. Knowing this encourages students to use abstract, "nonsense" words in their own poems.

As words with meanings got into the act, they too tended to be repeated a lot—for meaning, memory, and magic, as well as music— as in this tiny but poignant Bushman song:

Famine it is
Famine it is
Famine it is here

Or in the Semang song about wild ginger:

The stem bends as the leaves shoot up,
The leaf-stems sway to and fro, 
To and fro they sway in various ways,
We rub them and they lose all their stiffness,
On Mount Inas they are blown about,
On Mount Inas, which is our home,
Blown about by the light breeze,
Blown about is the fog, blown about is the haze,
Blown about are the young shoots,
Blown about is the haze of hills,
Blown about by the light breeze,
It nods upon the hills,
It nods upon the hills of Inas,
Hills of Beching, hills of Siong,
Hills of Malau, hills of Kuwi,
Hills of Mantan, hills of Lumu,
Upon every mountain is our home.

 This piece has a sort of overlapping structure that gives a feeling of an intimate geography of the Malaysian jungle.

Chanting and dancing are linked by their use of repetition. One example of this basic tie between dance and poem is the following Eskimo women's song from the Mackenzie River:

My arms they wave high in the air
My hands they flutter behind my back / they wave above my head
      like wings of a bird
Let me move my face / let me dance / let me shrug my shoulders /
Let me shake my body
Let me fold my arms / let me crouch down
Let me hold my hands under my chin

Repetition establishes rhythm and enchants the listener. But only to repeat gets boring, hence variety. Repetition and variety are opposites that co-exist and strengthen each other.

Alliteration and rhyme in "primitive" chant poetry occur richly but intermittently. The music is ever-shifting, just as it is in that most modern Western phenomenon, free verse. The best chant poems are expansive: each stage is lovingly lingered in, at the level of word, line, stanza, and then developed by a sequence of images.

Chant poems are fine for people of all ages to write. Within the form's flexible constraints, any degree of sophistication or simplicity can operate. A good approach is to write the words repeating and changing on the board and let students know that these are the keys. Read some examples by adults and kids, energetically emphasizing rhythm. Aim for variety, and show the students how the different examples work, exactly how they repeat and change. With older students you can use a sophisticated example such as D.H. Lawrence's "Bavarian Gentians" (which has eighteen uses of the word dark, including nine in the second eight-line stanza alone).

Next, ask your students to pick their own word, phrase, or idea, write it down, and start playing with it on paper, making up ways of "keeping it in the air." Simply giving a range of options and encouraging inventiveness can evoke wonderful spontaneous pieces from the kids. I discovered over the years that it helps to discourage the formulaic; specifically inveigh against the tedious In-the-kitchen-there's-a-knife / fork / spoon / pot / pan / eggbeater / wall / floor / mom sort of regularity. Of course, repetition is important, but so is chaos and wildness; the repetition helps prevent the chaos from slipping into entropy. Above all, urge invention. It's best to have students concentrate on writing one poem each. Chant poems are usually best fairly long, to give the rhythms some room to develop. If students have trouble getting started, have them write down a word, take a deep breath, and just start improvising on paper. Remind them that they can always scratch it out and begin again. If a student feels his or her poem is done, you can suggest a "Part II," taking off on a new tack.

Then collect the students' poems and read them aloud—or better still, have the students read them. If they do, emphasize performance values and rhythm.

Below are some good example poems by adults and children, with commentary.
Walt Whitman rolled out his long lines with a great deal of chant sensibility, as in the following excerpt:

Ever the hard unsunk ground,
Ever the eaters and drinkers, ever the upward and the downward sun,
Ever myself and my neighbors, refreshing, wicked, real,
Ever the old inexplicable query, ever that thorned thumb, that                                breath of itches and thirst,
Ever the vexer's hoot! hoot! till we find where the sly one hides and bring        
        him forth,
Ever the sobbing liquid of life,
Ever the bandage under the chin, ever the trestles of death.

Closer to the contemporary are these excerpts from Anne Waldman's "Fast Speaking Woman":

because I don't have spit
because I don't have rubbish
because I don't have dust
because I don't have that which is in air
because I am air
let me try you with my magic, power:
I'm a shouting woman
I'm a speech woman
I'm an atmosphere woman
I'm an airtight woman
I'm a flesh woman
I'm a flexible woman
I'm a high-heeled woman
I'm a high style woman . . .
        I'm the rippling woman
        I'm the gutted woman
        I'm the woman with wounds
        I'm the woman with shins
        I'm the bruised woman
        I'm the eroding woman
        I'm the suspended woman
        I'm the woman alluring
        I'm the architect woman
        I'm the trout woman
        I'm the tungsten woman
        I'm the woman with the keys
        I'm the woman with the glue

        I'm a fast speaking woman

               water that cleans
               flowers that clean
               water that cleans as I go . . .

Kids don't usually get self-conscious about a lot of repetition-which makes them naturals at chant poems:

People look People
people how people
people many people
people times people
people I people
people told people
people this people
people stupid people
people person people
people to people
people say people
people people people
              —Eylin Velez, eighth grade

(Read this poem down as well as across.) Rhythm flourishes here due to double p's (percussive pop) in people.

When I look into the light I see dancing girls doing a marathon
When I look into the light I see brightness & darkness.
When I look into the light I see the gentle fast movement of the light.
When I look into the light I see the electricity passing through the
      lines to the light.
When I look into the light I see a crispy sharp look.
When I look into the light I see the nice blue waters moving to a
      rhythmic beat.
When I look into the light I see the light is talking to me.
When I look into the light it's telling me, "Look, smell the rhythm."
When I look into the light it smells delicious & sweet, innocent &
               —Anonymous, fifth grade

In this poem, a large, primal vision develops out of an everyday optical fact. The poem's scatteredness helps offset the extreme regularity of the line beginnings.

The tune
The tune
The tune
The tune
Never miss
The tune
The tune
The tune
The tune
Cause you never miss
The tune
The tune
The tune
The tune
to get rid of the? . . .
The tune
The tune
The tune Yaaaa!!
     —Grace Kruszewski, third grade

Poetry is falling down
Poetry is letters
Poetry is 1-2-3
Poetry falls off the waterfall and hits its head
Poetry is sliding off a rainbow
Poetry is like a lion climbing up a rainbow
Poetry is like a kite
Poetry is like the air
Poetry is like the air in the sky
Poetry is like white clouds
Poetry eats horses
Poetry is like the spring
Poetry is like summer
Poetry is like a candle burning out all by itself
Poetry is climbing up the mountain like a cloud
Poetry is the sky all over the world
Poetry is like a cry
Poetry is like a fluffy pillow
If you don't wear a helmet you might get hit in the face
Poetry is like a radio walking into the zoo
Poetry is funny
Poetry is like someone eating ice cream
Poetry is like a bow on its head
Poetry looks like ice cream
Poetry is like a blue butterfly in the sky
Poetry is like somebody eating a peanut
Poetry touches the lightbulb and pulls the string and falls down
     —Class collaboration, kindergarten

On this occasion I served as chalkboard secretary for the lines the kids called out.

I hate
hate strange
strange people
people only
only smoke
smoke little
little lines
lines white
white shades
shades darken
darken shores
shores swish
swish bowl
bowl burning
burning furiously
furiously I
             —Lola Benjamin, twelfth grade

Lola's poem is tough, slim, original.

Cats go crazy 
                                      Cats go crazy like
Cats go crazy like me
                                      Cats like
Cats like to
                                      Cats like to go
Cats like to go crazy 
                                      Cats like to go
Cats like to go downtown
Cats like to
Cats like to drive
                                      Cats like to drive cars
Cats like to drive a car but bang boom crash
                                                    Cats like to
Cats like to wreck
                                                    Cats like to wreck into
Cats like to wreck into you
                                                    Cats like people
Cats like people to
                                                    Cats like people to scratch
Cats like kids
                                                    Cats like kids to
Cats like kids to play 
                                                    Cats like kids to play with
Cats are dead because they got in so many wrecks
                —Crystal Jensen, fourth grade

The following poem ends with a reference to the teacher, whose name is Meridean.

Two-timer elephants using some
kind of elephant ventriloquism
elephant pies plus elephant cakes
calling 200,000 elephants reading
awesome elephant poetry
like elephant ice cream cones
tax-collector elephants shot by
poachers looking for elephant
ivory always around for
elephant mischief contracting
rats trying to do elephant
multiplication and elephants
step on other rodents eating
the elephants' acorns ironic
supersonic elephants charging
at some elephant book of poetry
iguanas eating elephant hide
watching some dramatic elephants
reading iguana poetry leaving
elevated elephants who are
anti-iguana carnivore elephants
eating other elephants wearing
3-D sunglasses made especially
for elephants who are waking
at dusk while the Greenwich
Prime Meridean is facing the sun.
      —Benjamin Miller, fifth grade.


Jack Collom, "The Chant Poem" from Old Faithful: 18 Writers Present Their Favorite Writing Assignments. Copyright © 1995 by Jack Collom.  Reprinted by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.
Originally Published: August 10th, 2015

Jack Collom was born in Chicago. He joined the US Air Force and was posted in Libya and Germany before returning to the United States. He earned a BA in forestry and English and an MA in English literature from the University of Colorado. Collom started publishing his poetry in...