WITS Voices: What is a Detail?

By Arianne True, WITS Writer-in-Residence

This past week, my classes focused on details – what and where they are, and putting them into our own writing. We defined details, went over senses, and totally rocked an exercise on noticing them all around us in the classroom.

For practice finding details in poems, we read Ada Limón’s “The Noisiness of Sleep,” and I asked them to notice sensory details. Yet, tons of kids in every class jumped right into analysis and evaluative statements. I had to go over precisely what I was asking multiple times, tying it back to the classroom-detail-noticing activity we’d just done before they could let that part of their brains go, to see what was in front of them without trying to figure out what the poem meant or how they felt about it.

This caught me totally off-guard, but it makes sense now that I’ve seen it. In academic spaces (and creative ones, too), we tend to jump right into questions like “what is Thing X doing?” or “what does Thing Y mean?” or “how do those two relate?” instead of asking our students to just be present with the piece.

Those more cognitive and evaluative questions, often regarded as “deep” questions, are absolutely important, and I learn so much from how my students answer them. But those aren’t the only questions worth asking, and this week showed a gap in how my students have been taught, including by me. I had to explain to them, in great and repeated detail, how to just notice moments in the poem without trying to attach meaning or analysis. How to observe without interpreting. In writing poetry, this is a major skill, but in reading poetry with my students, I’d forgotten to center it.

When we talked about another poem, which actually was intended for analysis and poking at, the same gap came up. So many students were so quick to give their opinions and say what the poem meant, and were so eager to make sense of things, that they hadn’t been really listening to the poem and were totally off about major points (or straight-up projected ideas and moments). It’s not really their fault, though – we (their educators) ask them to look at new texts and make sense of them immediately, all the time, without pausing first to take it all in.

When we just noticed details without trying to figure the poem out, they picked up on such beautiful moments. One student noticed that in Limón’s line “consider this, / with your combination of firefly / and train whistle” that a visual image and a sound image were right next to each other, while another student said, of the same line, that they were both sound images, but the firefly was totally quiet, so they were really different sounds close together. What does any of that mean? I don’t know yet. But isn’t it lovely? Doesn’t it make the poem come more alive to you? Doesn’t it point out a technique you could try, putting visions and sounds, or sounds and sounds, together like that?

Poetry is so much about witnessing and being present, and those are important (often overlooked) skills to develop. I’d like to ground myself and my students more in what’s there and what we can sense, and teach my students to read poetry not just like academics, but like poets.

If you want to play with this too, here’s an exercise you can try:

1. Ask, “What is a detail?” and listen for definitions.

2. Then, share that a detail can be anything, and that our focus is on sensory details – anything we can sense with any sense we have. Go over some senses (add in non-traditional ones like sense of balance, sense of temperature, etc.).

3. Have students look around the room and see what they notice, what details they can sense. Share out with the class for a few minutes, which may need prompting questions (like “what color is the floor?” and “what do you notice about the ceiling?”). Every time they make evaluative statements (like “the walls look old”), nudge them back to what they can sense (“what do you notice that makes them look old?”).

4. For debrief and transition, ask if they heard any details they hadn’t noticed before, and what those were. Share that taking time to notice these details makes the room come more alive for us when we’re here, and that those details are also what make the room come alive to someone who’s never even been to our classroom – and that that is what poems can do. Filling our poems with details helps us share something, through words, in the ways we want someone else to know it.

5. Now, try it with a poem. I like Ada Limón’s “The Noisiness of Sleep” because there are lots of senses and lots of details, but there’s also a lot of other stuff going on in the poem, so students do have to parse out which parts are actually sensory. You can read them the poem and tell them their job is just to follow along and to hold onto one sensory detail in the poem to share after. In discussion, remind them it’s just like the classroom activity we just did – we’re only noticing and sharing details, and if they start to analyze or evaluate, nudge them back to what details they noticed to give them those ideas.

This is trickier than it looks, and also totally fun.


Arianne True (Choctaw, Chickasaw) is a poet, storyteller, and excitable human from right here in Seattle. Arianne has more than a decade of experience working with youth of all ages, and has taught and performed everywhere from the temperate rainforest canopy to under Seattle’s streets; from the intertidal zone to the deck of a tall ship. Currently, Arianne is proud to be an MFA student at the Institute of American Indian Arts.