Monday, October 11, 2010

Sharing Poetry with Children

I am sometimes astonished by the number of people I know and love who don't "get" poetry. They simply don't see the point. Or they find it boring. Or it doesn't speak to them.

I can't help thinking, boy, they must have met the wrong sort of poetry. Or all their experiences with poetry have been of the wrong sort... not to diminish their feelings! I know poetry isn't for everyone and that's okay. It's just that so many of these same people love words and prose, I can't help but wonder why the walls are up around poetry.

I believe that school kills poetry for a lot of people. Teachers feel obligated to share poems of substance, that are good examples of form, that can be analyzed, picked apart, checked for meter and stresses and stanzas and rhymes. The sad result of this approach is that the beauty of the words and how they fit together is lost in the cold dissection of the poem.

The thing about poetry is that the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Poetry needs to be experienced by immersion, by jumping in and allowing yourself to be moved along by the ripples and currents of the words and lines. It's an act of surrender, much like meditation, as you let each word, each phrase touch you with its own unique weight and substance.

Yes, there can be a time and place for analysis. But only after an affection for poetry is firmly established. Otherwise, learning about meter, etc. becomes a task of drudgery rather than a joyful exploration of language.

That goes for writing poetry, too. The way to know how to write good poetry is to hear and read good poetry, a lot. And "good" is a subjective term... some children will never want to read the more serious poetry. They will always prefer the fun or silly poetry and that's okay. We are changeable beasts, we humans. We grow and change and develop and transform... we are not constant. A child who loves only silly poetry may grow into someone who loves Tennyson and Byron and Dickinson and Yeats and Poe and Blake and Neruda and Whitman and Plath and Ginsberg and...

So share poetry with your children. Read it at bedtime. Recite it when brushing teeth. Make up silly poems when driving the the car. Act it out with puppets. Set it to music.

One of the best ideas I've ever heard for sharing poetry with your children is to have Poetry Tea Parties (this is a Brave Writer idea). Have some delicious treats on hand, a cozy pot of tea, make it fancy if you want to (simple works, too), and be sure to have a stack of poetry books on hand (you'll find these in the early 800s of your local library's Children's Non-Fiction section). As you are preparing the tea, you may ask your reading children if there are any poems they'd like to share. They can then have time to look through the books and choose poems that interest them. Or you can ask your children if there are any poems they'd like to hear. When he was young, my son independently memorized some of the poetry we read aloud to him, so a child who is not yet reading may have something they'd like to share - a poem, a song, a joke. When everyone is at the table, enjoying their tea and crumpets, people take turns sharing the poem (or three) they've selected.

[BTW, teatimes are also a magical way to do read alouds (on any topic of interest) with children (and adults).]

Poetry isn't just on the page, either. Poetry is also in song...

People Are Strange - The Doors

People are strange when you're a stranger
Faces look ugly when you're alone
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted
Streets are uneven when you're down

When you're strange
Faces come out of the rain
When you're strange
No one remembers your name

When you're strange
When you're strange
When you're strange

(Bet you never had to analyze this in highschool!)

Children's poet (among other things) Shel Silverstein often set his poetry to music. He was a bona fide songwriter and the man who penned The Unicorn Song. Here he is, reading/singing his poem "Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too". (We quite like his albums of poems.)

Poetry is also Spoken Word.

Shane L. Koyczan performed We Are More at the Opening Ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

It's possible to share poetry in so many ways that go beyond our worst memories from school. If we can move beyond our own bad experiences with poetry and open ourselves to it, we can have fabulous adventures with words.

Here are some places to get started:

Books and Anthologies

The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, selected by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Arnold Lobel

Jack Prelutsky is the King of Children's Poetry. Not only does he write wonderful poetry for children, but he's an amazing ambassador for all poets who write for children. And for poets who simply write poetry that children happen to enjoy. If you are to buy just one book of poetry for your children, this is the book. It's a classic.

20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury, selected by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Meilo So

A selection of wonderful, more "modern" poems, beautifully illustrated.

The Oxford Treasury of Classic Poems, Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark

There are many wonderful poems by British authors in this timeless, illustrated anthology.

'Til All the Stars Have Fallen: Canadian Poems for Children, selected by David Booth, illustrated by Kady McDonald Denton

David Booth is the Canadian version of Jack Prelutsky in terms of being an ambassador for poetry. This is a fantastic anthology of Canadian poetry for children, although it will be missing anything written over the past 20 years.

Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection, selected by Michael Rosen and pictures by Paul Howard (Candlewick Press)

Candlewick has come out with a beautiful series of illustrated classics,  including this collection of poetry. The nice thing about this volume is that it includes a number of American poets.

The Everyman Book of Nonsense Verse, edited by Louise Guinness

For children who like silly poems, you can't get much better than this collection. Poets such as Hilaire Belloc, Lewis Carroll, Edward Gorey, Edward Lear, Spike Milligan, and Ogden Nash are showcased in this volume. There are illustrations throughout, including some by the irrepressible Quentin Blake.

The Top 500 Poems, compiled by William Harmon

If you have an older child and you'd like an easy way to access the most famous poets and poems (written in English), this is your volume. I often pull it out for poetry tea parties so I can read poems like Kubla Khan, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Lady of Shalott, and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, selected by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Chris Raschka

If you are looking for a book that explains all the poetic forms in an entertaining and informative way, this is the book for you. The examples used are by a variety of poets, including Eleanor Farjeon, Robert Service, William Shakespeare, Allan Wolf, Edward Lear, William Blake, and many more.

Note: The above are suggestions as to where to begin. There are so many wonderful anthologies and books of poetry out there that are either intended or suitable for children that you can discover and explore. Please feel free to add your not-to-be-missed favourites in the comments!


In my always humble opinion, one of the best ways to enjoy poetry is to listen to it. There are some wonderful volumes of poetry that are on CD... and there are also many performers whose songs are wonderful poetry as well. Here are some poems and songs we've enjoyed over the years.

Shel Silverstein Where the Sidewalk Ends
Dr. Seuss Presents Fox-in-Socks
Charlie Parker Played Be Bop (Chris Raschka)
Al Simmons' Celery Stalks at Midnight
Carole King Really Rosie (lyrics by Maurice Sendak)
Buckwheat Zydeco Choo Choo Boogaloo
John Lithgow Singin' in the Bathtub
Raffi Baby Beluga
Sharon, Lois, & Bram One Elephant, Deux Elephants


Jack Prelutsky
Shel Silverstein
Paul B. Janeczko
Dennis Lee

Writing Poetry

A solid guide for poetry writing is Paul Janeczko's How to Write Poetry... but do wait until your child is in love with poetry, has already written some on his own initiative, and is interested in pushing (or, at least, understanding) her poetic edges.

I love what author May Sarton had to say about writing in general:
Remember to write about what you are seeing every day. If you are going to hold people's interest, you need to write very well. What is writing very well? It is seeing very well, seeing in a totally original way.
Writing poetry is like painting a picture. It's a way of sharing not only what you see but how you perceive it. You slow down so you can feel and hear and and smell and taste and touch and see the details as you put words on the page.

Here's an example of "slow writing" just for you. It's by one of my all-time favourite poets, Mary Oliver. I encourage you to read it. Sit with it. Breathe it. Surrender to it. Let yourself feel it. And most of all, enjoy it. (And if you don't, that's okay, too.)

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

from New and Selected Poems
Copyright 1992 by Mary Oliver