SPaRK – This is a Poem that Heals Fish

Investigating style and connotation, imagery & symbol - English Stage 3, English Stage 4

by Dr Cathy Sly - author and consultant.

Resource overview

Engage students in the delights of poetic style with this whimsical picture book by Jean-Pierre Simeon and Olivier Tallec. 'This is a Poem that Heals Fish' tells the tale of Arthur's concern for his beautiful red fish, Leon, which seems to be unwell. Arthur fears the fish will die of boredom.

When he calls on his mother for advice about how to save his fish, she suggests that Arthur should give him a poem. Uncertain what a poem actually is, the young boy goes in search of this enigma.

After scouring the house and not finding a poem anywhere, Arthur goes out into his community to ask the people he knows. The bicycle repairman, the baker, an old man, Arthur's grandparents and even his pet canary all offer him their own impressions of what a poem is. When Arthur returns to Leon, he admits that he has not found a poem, but he recites what each person has told him. Arthur's collection of imaginative, sensory fragments creates an 'accidental poem' and the beautiful red fish revives. In response to Arthur's poem, the fish comments, 'And my poem is my silence ...'

Book cover of This is a Poem that Heals Fish
Image: This is a Poem that Heals Fish

Educational significance

With imagination, sensitivity and astutely employed poetic devices, 'This is a Poem that Heals Fish' lends itself to considering the English textual concepts of style and connotation, imagery and symbol. The text's concise verbal language and whimsical illustrations exude the essence of the poetic style. Explicit teaching of the textual concepts will give students a clear understanding and will enable them to examine the text through these lenses. They should discover that the poetic style is built on carefully honed elements of connotation, imagery and symbol which, when used in a particular manner, enable ordinary aspects of life to be seen anew.

Suggestions for using this text

'This is a Poem that Heals Fish' is an intriguing picture book that fosters an understanding of the nature of poetry. In terms of investigating style, both the written and visual modes of the text provide examples of the imaginative, sensitive and whimsical. In addition, an investigation of the textual concept of Connotation, imagery and symbol can be supported and enhanced by examining the figurative language and sensory images evident in both the written text and the illustrations.

Understanding style at different stages of learning

Stage 3

Students understand that particular styles result from the use of identifiable language features appropriate to each mode and medium.

They learn that

  • style may be changed by manipulating certain elements
  • style creates connections between and among texts
  • literary devices such as sound, images and figurative language can enhance expression
  • personal style can be cultivated. (English textual concepts)

Syllabus links

  • experiment with text structures and language features and their effects in creating literary texts, for example, using imagery, sentence variation, metaphor and word choice (ACELT1800)
  • recognise and explain creative language features in imaginative, informative and persuasive texts that contribute to engagement and meaning
  • identify the relationship between words, sounds, imagery and language patterns in narratives and poetry such as ballads, limericks and free verse (ACELT1617).

Stage 4

Students understand that style is a way of conveying individuality, specialised knowledge and values.

They learn that

  • they need a range of styles for their personal, social and academic contexts
  • style is understood through exposure to wide reading in a variety of styles
  • style can be imitated and adapted
  • particular styles have particular effects
  • style is an important element in the pleasure of the text. (English textual concepts)

Syllabus links

  • use increasingly sophisticated verbal, aural, visual and/or written techniques, eg imagery, figures of speech, selective choice of vocabulary, rhythm, sound effects, colour and design, to compose imaginative texts for pleasure
  • identify and evaluate devices that create tone, for example humour, wordplay, innuendo and parody in poetry, humorous prose, drama or visual texts (ACELT1630).

Understanding connotation, imagery and symbol at different stages of learning

Stage 3

Students understand that richer meanings are produced when responders recognise and engage with imagery.

They learn that

  • imagery prompts evocative comparisons which may add new meanings to a text
  • figurative language extends the meanings of words
  • figurative language compresses ideas through the connections it makes
  • figurative language can persuade, inform and engage audiences emotionally in different modes and media. (English textual concepts)

Syllabus links

  • understand, interpret and experiment with sound devices and imagery, including simile, metaphor and personification, in narratives, shape poetry, songs, anthems and odes (ACELT1611)
  • identify the relationship between words, sounds, imagery and language patterns in narratives and poetry such as ballads, limericks and free verse (ACELT1617).

Stage 4

Students understand that the effect of imagery is subjective.

They learn that

  • imagery and symbol communicate through associations which may be personal, social or cultural
  • words invite associations (connotations) in responders which bring related ideas and feelings to a text
  • figurative language can invite participation creating emotional resonances or potentially exclude and challenge. (English textual concepts)

Syllabus links

  • explore and appreciate the aesthetic qualities in their own and other texts and the power of language to communicate information, ideas, feelings and viewpoints
  • understand, interpret and discuss how language is compressed to produce a dramatic effect in film or drama, and to create layers of meaning in poetry, for example haiku, tankas, couplets, free verse and verse novels (ACELT1623)
  • interpret and analyse language choices, including sentence patterns, dialogue, imagery and other language features, in short stories, literary essays and plays (ACELT1767).

Teaching activities

Prereading

Apart from explicitly teaching the focus concepts, spend some time considering the pivotal question of this narrative: What is a poem?

Ask students to consider dictionary definitions of 'poem' and 'poetry' such as those suggested below, and then compare these with comments made by poets about poetry (see suggestions below).

Ask students to explain what a poem or poetry is. Ideas could be compiled and presented as a class diagram.

What is a poem?

Working with dictionary definitions and peoples' perceptions.

Definition of poem and poetry from the Macquarie Dictionary
Image: Poem/Poetry - Macquarie Dictionary

Poets' comments on poetry

'Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.' - Dylan Thomas

'Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.' - William Wordsworth

'Poetry is a language in which man explores his own amazement.' - Christopher Fry

'Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.' - Carl Sandburg

'A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.' - Robert Frost

Applying ideas to the focus text

Both the front and back covers of 'This is a Poem that Heals Fish' provide an opportunity for investigating elements of visual literacy.

Ask students to look closely at the picture on either the front or back cover of this book and to suggest any of the elements used by the illustrator that convey a poetic mood. By considering such aspects as line, shape, colour, texture, modality, juxtaposition of subjects, salience and symbolism, the students examine style and look for visual elements that use connotation, imagery or symbolism to communicate a richer level of meaning.

Reading

Depending on the number of books available, this text can be read aloud to the class or read in small groups. The images form an important part of the narrative and need to be studied closely. An online audio-visual reading of the book is available at 'This is a poem that heals fish Story Board Read-Aloud'.

Focusing on style and connotation, imagery and symbol

'This is a Poem that Heals Fish' makes use of a fusion of verbal and visual symbols to convey its story and themes. Both the written and illustrative content may be considered poetic. That is, they employ elements of style that seek to invoke a reader's emotions or imagination. In terms of language, this involves word combinations chosen for their sound and rhythm as well as the use of poetic devices such as simile, metaphor and imagery. Thus, the written language can be investigated through the textual concept connotation, imagery and symbol. The fanciful illustrations enhance the poetic style by establishing a dream-like atmosphere. Therefore, the artistic elements that create the tone, mood and symbolism of the pictures can be considered in detail.

Ideas for promoting deep thinking and discussion

Using a table like the one presented below, students make notes about the characters and their responses to Arthur's question, 'What is a poem?'

Students contemplate what the written text tells us about each of the people to whom Arthur speaks. Examine how and what the illustrations add to our understanding of these characters and their responses to Arthur's question, 'What is a poem?'

Students:

  • make notes independently and contribute their findings to a class discussion
  • work in groups whereby each group focuses on one of the characters and later reports their collaborative findings to the class.
A table inviting students to describe what the written and visual text tells readers about the characters of Lolo, Mrs Round, Mahmoud and Aristophanes
Image: Sample note-taking table

The paradox of Arthur's investigation

When he returns to his ailing fish, Arthur sadly tells Leon that he has been unable to find a poem. Nevertheless, he recites what he has discovered about a poem. When these disparate ideas, couched in figurative language, are put together, it appears that Arthur has indeed found a poem.

Activities

Students look closely at Arthur's recital of ideas about poetry (p.38) and explain why this could be considered a poem.

Look at the layout and examine the words and phrases to discover examples of figurative language such as:

  • Similes
  • Metaphors
  • Repetition
  • Alliteration
  • Personification
  • Juxtaposition
  • Enjambment
  • Rhythm

Arthur's poem (pp.44-45) is presented in a visual and verbal manner. Students discuss how the images and typography on these final pages add another dimension to the ideas delivered in the written text.

Experimenting

Encourage students to create their own poems about poetry using words and images.

For inspiration and ideas:

1. Read 'Distant Rain' by Shaun Tan in 'Tales from Outer Suburbia' (pp.28-35).

A double page spread from Distant Rain in Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
Image: Distant Rain by Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan presents a poem in the style of a collage made up of scraps of written text and sketches. His poem, 'Distant Rain', is about what happens to fragments of poetry that different people write, and may provide inspiration for students to create their own mixed media poetry.

2. As in the examples below, typographical features can be used to enhance a poem.

A PowerPoint slide defining poetry including a sample poem with text which twists and flows down the page
Image: Using typographical features to enhance a poem

3. Blackout poems are also an interesting way to create poems. These involve selecting words from a page taken from an old book.

Here are some examples from many that have been collected on Pinterest.

Two pages from old books with selected text coloured in to form poems in the shape of a heart and splashed water
Image: Blackout poems (source: Pinterest)
Two pages from old books with selected text coloured in to form poems in the shape of a superhero and a curving, netted pathway
Image: Blackout poems (source: Pinterest)

References and further reading

Blackout poems. Pinterest.

Braydon, G. 'What is a poem?'. Poetry project.

Kennedy, C. (2017). This is a poem that heals fish story board read-aloud. YouTube.

Simeon, J.P. & Tallec, O. (2007). This is a poem that heals fish. NY: Enchanted Lion Books.

Tan, S. (2008). 'Distant rain', in Tales from outer suburbia. Toronto, Canada: McClelland & Stewart.

How to cite this article - Sly, C. (2020). 'SPaRK - This is a Poem that Heals Fish', Scan, 39(3).

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