From Goodnight Moon to Emily Dickinson, reading poetry with kids

From Goodnight Moon to Emily Dickinson, reading poetry with kids

Red Hills with Flowers, by Georgia O’Keeffe
Art Institute of Chicago

Sally Thomas, poet and homeschooling mom, recently recorded a podcast about teaching poetry, The Mason Jar #17: Sally Thomas on Poetry. It’s well worth a listen. I always love Sally’s thoughts about teaching and about poetry and especially about teaching poetry.

I don’t often listen to podcasts, not even my husband’s, except for the podcast for the liturgy of the hours. I get too frustrated by interruptions from the six other people in this house and I don’t have much patience for chatter that just fills time. Cut to the chase, skip the filler. When are we going to get to the good stuff? But I listened to this podcast while making my New Year’s Day lasagna. Everyone else was watching the football, so there were no children underfoot to interrupt. (Well, only half a dozen interruptions instead of a constant stream.) And I knew this one would be worth listening to.

I was nodding in agreement with Sally’s description of Goodnight Moon as a favorite childhood poem. I’ve long thought that the words are a really good poem, the kind I don’t mind reading over and over. I love the rhythm and the flow of associations and, yes, the surprise of goodnight nobody and goodnight mush.

And Sally’s poem about “my favorite child” made me cry as it always does. How lovely to hear it in her voice.

Also, Sally’s description of reading Emily Dickinson with her children and having to go look up the word “frigate” reminded me of a golden morning when the girls and I read one Dickinson poem after another and discussed them one by one. There is something about Dickinson, her denseness and less familiar language maybe, that does invite a sort of shared experience of explication. As if the children are looking to you to help them find a way in to the meaning of the poem whose language has already enchanted them. It was as if they extended the invitation and asked me to be a guide rather than that I was putting on my teacher hat and telling them “what the poem means”. It was a really joyful expedition into poetry and we must have read ten or twelve short poems and discussed them.

I’m not very deliberate with teaching poetry as part of a conscious, structured curriculum, but it is something I enjoy and share as the opportunity arises, it’s much more organic and part of family culture than a part of what I think of as ‘schooling’. And that seems to be Sally’s experience as well.

Sally talks about how nursery rhymes are children’s first introduction to the world of poetry. They teach rhyme and rhythm and the joy of language, the delight of sound without meaning. As she points out, we don’t worry about the lady who is riding on a white horse and where she is going and what she means. We just enjoy the sound of the words and maybe delight in the image they conjure.

At most nursery rhymes ask a riddle as Humpty Dumpty does, but children don’t usually become aware of that second layer of meaning until much later. Adults don’t feel a need to dissect and analyze nursery rhymes, but sadly we tend to lose sight of that simple joy of language as children get older. We start to worry about meaning.

From nursery rhymes most children graduate to picture books. Many of the best picture books continue the strong rhymes and rhythms of the nursery rhymes, but organize themselves into more of a story. But where, Cindy asks, where do we go from there? What’s the next step after nursery rhymes and rhyming picture books? And what do you say to a mother who dislikes poetry herself about the importance of teaching poetry, how can she overcome her aversion?

Sally admitted that was a hard question, but finally ventured that perhaps she might ask why, what was it that made you dislike poetry. And she speculated that much of the time it was a particular bad experience where a teacher explained a poem and made the reader either feel stupid for not seeing the “correct” meaning or feel like the poem is suddenly no longer enjoyable or relatable because it’s “really” about suicidal urges instead of a lovely walk in the woods.

And Sally urges listeners to not make poetry about lessons, about poetic meters and forms and understanding terminology. Instead, focus on enjoyment and delight. Find poetry you like and read it, memorize it, live with it. Let it become a part of family culture. And it need not be serious highbrow poetry, comic poetry might be a better entry point.

Here I want to digress a bit and muse that in our family another first verse form has been the Psalms. All of my children have been hearing the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours since before they were born. I might not have been the mom to read to her kids in utero or even as infants, but they did hear me reciting the divine office. And all of them have started praying along from the time they began to string sentences together. The rhythm of the prayers is a kind of deep knowledge.

In fact, the other day as I was cooking in the kitchen I heard Sophie begin to chant in the living room as she was playing. The rhythm and the words were clearly riffing on the chanted Magnificat from the podcast. But she was consciously playing with the words, making them deliberately silly, mixing them up, deliberately using the wrong parts of speech. “He told us that we were too lowly… and worshiped us all generations…. he has come to worship you in your healthiness and knock down all your consciousness… he will come to worship you I doubt you and you will give him some bread…. you lowly bread and water… and sacrifice his life for you… he will come to worship you in all generations and will never conceit you…. he will count out arms at your bidding and eat bread and water… he will deceive you of your enemies and never have any doubts…” It was delightful to hear how she was playing with the language, but also how intimate her knowledge of the prayer, in order to extemporize like that she had to know it pretty well.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like poetry. I remember memorizing several poems in elementary school and some of them are still with me, in my memory locked and some of them still remain as fragments. Crossing the Bar by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Success is Counted Sweetest by Emily Dickinson. I remember walking to my mother’s office after school when I was in high school while working on memorizing a Shakespeare sonnet just because I liked the sound of it. In college I was an English major and focused heavily on the poetry of Eliot but I added many more poems and snippets to my memory hoard then as well. I wish I knew more poems, but I’m glad I have as many as I do. I often recite my bits and pieces at the kids and at various times I’ve consciously worked at memorizing new poems, letting them see me work and struggle to get the lines down. Interestingly, they memorize faster than I do so by the time I have a poem down several of the kids likely have it memorized as well.

For me poetry seems to be seasonal. There are times when I crave it and cram it and seasons when I don’t touch it at all. But my hope is that I can share a culture of poetry love with my children and that they will all eventually come to love memorizing and reciting as I do, even if I’m not very good at doing it on schedule. Above all, though, what I want is for poetry to be something they enjoy and do not fear. Because it seems to me there is nothing sadder than hating poetry.

image via Flickr

Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • When I was young, I enjoyed the poetry of hymns in the hymnal (Lutheran here) and learning what the rhythm notations meant (like 8-6-8-6) and then finding other hymns with the same cadence and singing the original to the new tune. Like singing Amazing Grace to House of the Rising Sun 🙂

    • Oh that is a fun mashup. I’ve played around with that a bit since the hymns in the Liturgy of the Hours don’t have music notation (not that I could read it). There were a bunch of them I didn’t know the tunes to but I read online somewhere that you can sing somes with this notation to this tune and suddenly I could sing a lot more of them.

  • It is such a joy to share poetry with children. I think people assume it will be a dull subject, and especially that children won’t like memorising. But in my experience the opposite is true. I remember one literature class I took in our homeschool co-op, I asked the children to memorise part of a poem in separate family groups. They came back the next week having memorised the whole long thing, they had enjoyed it so much.

    • I love reading poetry with my kids, but I have been shy of assigning memorization as a task to do. I guess I’m afraid of sucking the joy out of it. Instead what I’ve done has been to work on memorizing poems myself, out loud where they can hear me. I find that they usually have it down before I do. I haven’t done that in a while though. I should pick a poem and get cracking. The last thing we worked on was Ogden Nash’s Custard the Dragon. We memorized most of the poem, I think we were only lacking the last couple of stanzas. The kids really did enjoy it, such a fun poem.

  • This school year I started having a weekly poetry tea with my kids. I pull out the fine china*, a lunch of cheese and crackers or sandwiches, a sweet treat, and tea. The kids each scan the shelves for a poem they want to share. Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost, Tolkien, e.e. cummings, Jack Pretzlusky, Robert Service, all have made appearances, and those are just the ones I remember. I don’t pull apart the poems; we just listen, then one or two might share what he likes about them before moving on. It’s a lovely break in the school week and a joyful, no-stress encounter with beauty and humor.

    I think the humor is important, and overlooked if someone is trying to cram Important Poetry into a unit of study. It’s an easy trap to fall into: “There’s too much Important Stuff to waste time with frivolity— harumpf!” But if part of the goal of poetry with kids is wanting them to enjoy it, find funny poems. “When Father Carves the Duck,” Belloc’s Bad Children, “Eletelephony” or even “I eat my peas with honey.” There will be time to branch out into serious or highbrow ones, but the joy of playing with language sticks for a long time, and that’s a vital first impression to have. Thank you for the mention of Custard the Dragon. I’ll bring that one out at a teatime soon!

    Have you encountered the book “This Place in the Snow” about kids building a snow fort? It’s a picture book but the rhythm of the language strikes the ear like poetry. I love the assonance and alliteration. “It lay like lace along the trees. It hatted the houses. It capsuled the cars in thick and sticky white…” It’s a joy to read aloud.

    I’m enjoying the regular poetry posts. Thanks for sharing them!

    *For those old enough to know not to throw dishes on the floor. The one year old, Raphael, gets plastic. The three-year-old, Lawrence, gets less-fine china. The older ones can have anything in the china cabinet. I figure if a dish gets broken in loving service it does the soul better than a complete set gathering dust.

    • I rather wish we had some fancy china. But we really don’t have cabinet space for it. I like the idea of a fancy tea but so far my internal reaction to the idea of actually planning such has been a firm “not yet.”

      I haven’t seen This Place in the Snow, but that sounds delightful. I love well-written picture books that play with language. They can be so very poetic.