Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Young Poet

While there have always been precocious mathematicians, the ranks of precocious poets are a bit more thin. Gifted young people who read a lot and think a lot can often write clearly and compellingly. But an understanding of the human condition is a bit like wine. It tends to deepen and become more complex with age. As Roald Hoffmann, poet and Nobel Prize winner (in chemistry!) once told me, "Children write beautiful poetry. There is an innocence and power to observations that are not stunted by too many things. Children are also repositories of our romantic notions about innocence. They write interesting poetry." But... "They don't write great poetry."

Of course, adults seldom write great poetry either. One of the reasons we don't write it is that most of us don't read it. Few books of poems make the display tables in Barnes & Noble's. Of major general interest magazines, only the New Yorker publishes it. Consequently we don't know what good poetry sounds like (for often, it is meant to be said aloud) and even people who might write good stuff wind up cranking out greeting card fare.

So that's why I was thrilled to see an article at the Poetry Foundation's website about homeschoolers re-introducing poetry to a new generation. Poetry can be extremely kid friendly (although the tale of the 4-year-old lisping Emily Dickinson is hilarious: "Because I could not stop for deff, He kindwee stopped for me..."). When poetry drills deep into our heads as we memorize it, we wind up meditating on the words and finding deeper meaning in them -- something that often happens for me with songs. But that requires memorization, something traditional schools have all but dropped. That's too bad, because it's a fun challenge for bright kids. Bright pre-school aged kids often commit books to memory just because they like them so much. Why not continue that with poetry? Homeschooling gives you the time to commit a text to memory -- or at least the freedom to read and read the good stuff. Hopefully at least a few regular school programs do this too. Without reading the good stuff, it's unlikely there will be many great poets in the future.

I'm curious about which poetry texts readers of this blog like sharing with their children, and if your kids have been interested in memorizing poetry. Do they like to write it too? Which books are best for parents looking to introduce the genre to their little ones?


Sandra Foyt said...

I'm learning to appreciate poetry with my son. Somehow, I managed to miss learning about poetry in school.

I keep stacks of poetry that my son picks up at will. He is partial to Jack Prelutsky and Shell Silverstein, but enjoys a wide variety.

As for teaching guidance, I like Georgia Heard's Awakening the Heart. This year, we're also using Deconstructing Penguins and Poetry Matters by Ralph Fletcher.

My son hasn't memorized any poetry, but occasionally he does write some. I think that's Ralph Fletcher's influence.

JoInOKC said...

We like the Poetry for Young People books. Scholastic Book clubs sells paperback copies at really nice prices. The hardback copies are nice, too, but obviously much more expensive.

She has memorized some poems -- a couple by Emily Dickinson, one by Robert Frost, etc. At one point, she had Runny Babbit memorized.

Michael Clay Thompson has some great books on discussing and writing poetry. Last year we used Poetry, Plato, and the Problem of Beauty.

Anonymous said...

My daughter (11) has been memorizing a lot of poetry over the last year or so. This summer she was entranced by Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott, in part due to the lovely illustrations by Genevieve Cote in the book published in the Visions in Poetry series.

Anonymous said...

We also have several of the Scholastic Poetry for Young People books including Frost, Dickenson, Whitman and Poe.

Each became “published” poets in 3rd grade (along with ¼ of the class) through some national educational marketing company.

Our daughter chose to memorize and recite The Raven (tap, tap, tap) for a 6th grade assignment. Our son (then in 4th) memorized it at the same time (and can still recite it) by listening to her practice while on a long drive over Christmas.

Anonymous said...

my first grader demanded that I buy her Shell Silverstein's 'A light in the Attic'. then again she read portions of 'The Giving Tree' to her kindergarten class last year. I never learned to appreciate poetry except that once I got out of school I realized that Shakespeare HAD to be read out loud.

dgm said...

My ten- and five-year-old both love Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky as well. When I was a kid I loved Dickenson and Frost and some e.e. cummings, but as an adult I never learned to appreciate modern poetry (it always sounds either too forced or like too much of a stretch.)

My kids just started at a school that holds traditional recitals in the winter and spring, where the kids recite classical poetry and speeches rather than reenact "Frosty the Snowman." (Not that there's anything wrong with school plays...)

The Princess Mom said...

Sharon Creech's "Love That Dog" is a great poetry book. It's the story of a teacher sharing a poetry unit with her class. One of her student keeps writing a poem about a dog the different styles of the famous poets she introduced. Lovely story but very sad. I was sobbing by the end.


Evan Adams said...

I had to memorise a lot of poetry when I was homeschooling. It was a broad range although, as one of my college English teachers rather snidely pointed out, mostly American poets. I like having that stuff in my head, and I routinely use the memorisation skills I learned in the process. I also don't suck at writing poetry, although the thing I went to school for is fiction.