Coltrane and the Haiku: A Mélange of Form, Music, and Play

By Nina Vega-Westhoff

Nina Vega-Westhoff

Christina (Nina) is a recent graduate from The University of Arizona's MFA program in poetry.  She has worked as a teacher, translator, and community organizer.

A classmate one day brought in to Laynie Browne's course "At the Intersection of Writing and Teaching" the Michael Stillman poem "In Memoriam John Coltrane."  The poem was exciting, an immediate encounter with repetition, rhythm, and word play.  As a class, we seemed to have a collective a ha! moment with the poem--I personally felt I should have discovered this poem long before--and so it seemed an ideal literary model around which to structure a lesson.  But I wasn't sure how to do so--there were so many possibilities immediately suggested and yet I wasn't sure where I wanted to go with it.  

The actual process of creating the lesson came piece by piece.  One day I found the haiku maze in The Adventures of Dr. Alphabet by David Morice.  Then eventually--after putting the Stillman poem aside and returning to it again--I discovered it was made up of three haiku.  The last magical ingredient was John Coltrane's actual music.  

Throughout my residency at Sam Hughes, I searched for ways to focus my students' attention on listening.  This lesson is special to me because the students reminded me of how much they love to listen, of how happy and engaged they become when they do--and of how engaging their own creations become after listening.  It taught me again how dynamic mixed-media can be in the classroom and how important our own enthusiasm is as teachers.

I used the haiku maze as the introduction to the lesson, and the students followed their pencil around the maze creating word combinations that surprised and animated them--they laughed and wanted to share what they had found.  We started to talk about haiku, where the form comes from, and how it is often written in English.  We read "In Memoriam John Coltrane"--I asked my students to listen for repeating and changing sounds, what they saw and felt while listening, and what they might guess about John Coltrane.  Then we talked about the poem's haiku form and made notes on syllables on the side of the poem.  They looked at their maze creations and rewrote them in the haiku form.  Before listening to Coltrane's song "Blue Train," I asked the students to close their eyes and let the music remind them of smells, sounds, memories, tastes, etc.  I told them that as soon as the music ended they could open their eyes and start their poems.  I reminded them to include comparisons, and the five senses...



Oh come back now
There is a fire coming
Oh just come here
The music is like
Organs.  I think about food.
If you touched the music
You would start dancing.

- Marco Rivera, 3rd grade

Music sounds like fire in
Trains with rumbling wheels that
Hit the bumps on ground.

- Denham Carlisle, 3rd grade

jazz player dancing
fun musicians suit singing
the party coming
you got the feeling
so get up and dance singing
come join the party
if you have the blues
come dance and have a blast
singing and dancing

- Savanna Morales, 4th grade

Materials Necessary for this lesson:  

Haiku Maze from Dave Morice's The Adventures of Dr. Alphabet,
Michael Stillman's poem "In Memoriam John Coltrane,"
and the song "Blue Train" by John Coltrane

Created on: 
Monday, June 28, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents