As a teacher of creative writing, I work with both poets and fiction writers. We read both poetry and fiction, and the students write exercises in whichever genre they are working on. When the week’s assignment is based on a poem, the fiction writers sometimes protest, “But I don’t understand poetry!”
“Don’t worry about understanding or not understanding,” I tell them. “Just take up the poem as an experience. Listen to the voice of the speaker.”
The response of some of my students to the task of reading a poem is not, unfortunately, atypical. Where does this anxiety about poetry come from? How can we let go of that anxiety, rediscover the pleasure of poetry, and share our delight in it with our children?
Children and Poetry
Many of us may trace our anxiety about poetry back to middle or high school classes, where poems are usually taken up as objects to analyze rather than as experiences to enjoy. The process of analysis can be a process of mystification; it implies that poetry is full of hidden meanings that can be uncovered only through a great deal of ingenuity.
Children, however, are unconcerned with hidden meanings — and are naturally drawn to poetry. After all, poetry is of the body. Even free verse poets pay special attention to the sonic qualities of language — the rhythm of the syllables, the sounds of the consonants and vowels. And so much of poetry originates in play: play with language, image, metaphor, and strange juxtapositions.
Take, for example, “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll. The poem begins:
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
What on Earth do these lines mean? Does it even matter whether or not you understand? Of course not! Years ago, a voice teacher instructed me to “chew the words” as I sing. I love that image! Don’t worry about understanding or not understanding. Be like a child again! Just chew the words!
The Way Back
If you are one who has been estranged from poetry, the way back to a childlike joy in it is as simple as following these three steps:
- Read poetry.
- Find some poets, books, and/or poems that you like.
- Read and re-read them, again and again, aloud if possible.
I speak from experience. I, too, was once estranged from poetry — baffled by it, left in the dark. And then, about twelve years ago, I realized that all those notebooks I had filled with (pretty bad) poetry throughout high school and all those late nights I had spent reading Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Alicia Ostriker in my Norton Anthology of Literature by Women could only mean one thing: I was a poet! Clearly, I had to get over my bafflement — and I did so by taking stacks and stacks of books of poetry from the library, finding poets I liked, and reading their work again and again and again….
Whatever your relationship to poetry may be, these are books you — and your family — are likely to enjoy. If you are hoping to renew your feeling for poetry, I especially recommend reading with your children so that you may share in their natural enthusiasm for wordplay and surprise.
For reacquainting yourself with poetry: Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? by Kenneth Koch
Nobody used the exclamation point as magnificently as Kenneth Koch did in his poetry, and in the early ’70s he shared his enthusiasm for poetry with third-through-sixth-grade students at P.S. 61 in New York City. In Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? he explains how he taught the work of such poets as Blake, Shakespeare, and Whitman to his young students, using what he called “poetry ideas” to help them discover and discuss each poem before they wrote their own poems using a similar technique. After an introduction in which Koch explains his teaching method, the book includes ten of the “adult poems” he taught, an explanation of the poetry idea he found in each poem, and a generous selection of his students’ poetry. Koch’s lucid, down-to-earth prose and his students’ innovative, idiosyncratic poems show how to approach poetry with delight and imagination. You — and your little ones — may find yourself writing your own poems based on Koch’s poetry ideas, such as these lines, based on “The Tyger” by William Blake:
Oh, you must come from a hairy god.
Where do you get your funny voice?
— from “Monkey” by Michelle Woods
Glub blub, little squid. Glub blub, why blub do you glub have blub Glubblub blub such glub inky blub stuff blubbb?
— from an untitled poem by Markus Niebanck
Dog, why are you here?
Your shiny fur shines in the night.
How come you don’t talk?
— from “Dog” by Leda Mesen
For mothers: Antebellum Dream Book by Elizabeth Alexander
As both a mother and a poet, I often return to this book by Elizabeth Alexander for inspiration. Its middle section is comprised of dream poems, many of which are about the experience of becoming a mother. I love the wild surrealism of these poems — as wild, surreal, and inexplicable as early motherhood can be. From “The female seer will burn upon this pyre”:
Sylvia Plath is setting my hair
on rollers made from orange-juice cans.
The hairdo is shaped like a pyre.
… She speaks a word,
“immolate,” then a single sentence
of prophecy. The hairdo done,
the nursery tidy, the floor swept clean
of burnt hair and bumblebee husks.
Also, there is the book’s final poem, “Neonatology,” a collage that captures all the wonder and fear of crossing the threshold from expectant to first-time mother. “Giving birth is like jazz, something from silence, / then all of it,” begins the poem’s conclusion, which you can read here.
For seven-to-eleven-year-olds: Collected Poems for Children by Ted Hughes
It never crossed my mind that Ted Hughes might have actually written poetry for children; I placed a hold on this book at the library because I thought it was an anthology edited by him! Alas, I have found no anthology of poetry for children (not at the Brooklyn Public Library, anyway, though I’m still looking), but this surprise of a book includes more than 250 poems by the late Poet Laureate of England, most of them about or from the point of view of an animal — including animals of the sea, animals of the farm, animals of the north, and animals I never think about, such as the whelk. Animal lovers may love this book, too, but note that the attitudes struck in the poems are sometimes sophisticated, as can be the syntax and word choice; and the moods are not always comfortable, as in the first poem in the book, “Seal,” which concludes:
I thought, by the way
It stared at me,
It has lost its mother
In the sea.
For eight-to-ten-year-olds: Water Music by Jane Yolen
This book is the result of a collaboration between beloved children’s author Jane Yolen and photographer Jason Stemple. Stemple took photographs based on the theme of water and selected the best images, and Yolen responded to the images in poetry. The result is gorgeous, Yolen’s simple verses beautifully complementing Stemple’s vivid photographs. My favorite poem is the simplest, two sentences titled “Icicle,” comparing ice to “frozen time.”
For nine-to-twelve-year-olds … and their parents: If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries by Judith Viorst
Yes! Judith Viorst, mother of Alexander of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day — yes, that Judith Viorst — has written poetry! This collection is everything you would expect from her: frank, sensitive, and full of wry humor and wisdom about the hopes and anxieties of children. I especially enjoy Viorst’s contrary take on fairy tales, such as in “… And After Many Years, a Brave Prince Came at Last to Rescue the Princess”:
… Often I dreamed.
But the brambles grew thicker
Until I became an old princess, accustomed
To daydreams, the safety of towers,
This room, and this chair.
… No, my prince.
No, my dear.
I will not let down my hair.
Viorst has also written a second collection of poems, titled Sad Underwear and Other Complications.
What about you? What are your favorite books of poetry to read — on your own or with your children?
Photo credit: Author
Rachael is the work-at-home mother of a vivacious two-year-old boy. As a freelancer, she edits and writes educational materials for K–12 students and teaches online creative writing classes through The Writers Studio. She is also a poet who was foolish enough to have married an artist. Though Rachael never planned to do anything other than attachment parenting, her pre-motherhood self probably would be surprised to see her happily nursing a toddler — and in a family bed! She is grateful to have found an online community of others doing much the same. Rachael writes about making her way toward work-life balance in a family of artists at The Variegated Life.