Can Children’s Poetry Matter?
by J. Patrick Lewis
In 1991 the American poet Dana Gioia’s famously provocative article, “Can Poetry Matter?” argued that poetry had lost its way. Its practitioners, molded by graduate creative writing programs, were now penning verses for an elite clan of mutual admirers in a subculture of the Word.
Sixty years earlier, W.H. Auden had put it this way: “[W]riting gets shut up in a circle of clever people writing about themselves for themselves.”
However it was that poetry became an island unto itself, children’s poetry is in a different quandary. Its strongest critics describe it not as insular but as irrelevant, puerile, or both. Even Mr. Gioia suggested that, along with light verse, the genre inhabited a “critically disreputable demimonde.”
He has a point: Far too much published verse is embarrassingly vapid, an affront to trees spawned by the notion that writing for kids is “so easy anybody can do it.” But doggerel disease has not infected a score or more of fine poets whose work for children is being published today.
In the latter nineteenth century, the inestimable Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll had much of the field to themselves. A century later, in the early 1980s, a highly placed editor told me, the door to publishing children’s verse is closed. And locked. A half dozen worthies, she said, have saturated the market. New applications are not being accepted. Find another career.
Rank silliness? Well, quality, it turns out, is a remarkable locksmith. But the truth is that today—thirty years on—many well-published children’s poets are discovering closed doors, a renewed hostility to the genre. If the publishing industry is struggling in a fractured economy, the K-8 poetry business, verse novels excepted, has been a leading indicator of decline.
It’s not for want of trying. A veritable army of hopefuls—poets and poetasters alike—shoot manuscripts like tracer bullets at beleaguered editors, many of whom have already received pink slips. And the more unsolicited manuscripts submitted, the greater the resistance to reading them.
Nothing’s official yet, but the death of The Book has long been foretold in newspapers (also gravely ill), on the internet (breathing fire), and for all I know, subliminally, on buses and billboards. Little wonder perhaps in an age of roaring e-technology, publishing industry woes, and empty wallets.
But instead of more damning with taint phrase, how about a bit of unPollyanish piping down the valleys wild for this especially vulnerable genre and the books that carry it to kids?
American children grow up in a country that poetry forgot—or that forgot poetry. The reasons are not far to seek. I have visited four hundred American elementary schools here and abroad as a latter day Pied Piper for verse, and I can confirm that too many teachers still swear allegiance to an old chestnut: the two worst words in the language when stuck side by side are “poetry” and “unit.”
The poetry unit is normally
a pinch of Frost and Emily,
a tickle of Jack Prelutsky, Shel
and … “Goodness, there’s the bell.”
Even otherwise gifted teachers are often the victims of university college classes in which poetry instruction was tantamount to performing lobotomies on stanzas that raised their tremulous heads.
This is not to ignore or disparage the impassioned poetry aficionados among keepers of the young. Indeed let’s award a teaching Newbery to every mentor who makes verse a daily experience in subjects that gallop across the curriculum and beyond.
But let’s be honest. No matter how zealous, they are drowned out by the hallelujah chorus for nonfiction, picture books, middle grade fiction and YA novels.
Children rarely gravitate to poetry on their own. It’s an acquired taste. They must be introduced to it early and often by their teachers and parents, the critical influences in their lives. And not in the way Billy Collins has memorably described—and vilified—by tying poems to chairs and beating them senseless until they finally give up their meaning. We do not look to poetry to find answers or absolutes. Nor do we investigate verse with calipers and a light meter, though at least one benighted school of thought has tried.
Installing poetry on standardized tests is both oxymoronic and inimical to wonder. The late British poet Adrian Mitchell admirably prefaced most of his collections with a caveat: “None of [my] work … is to be used in connection with any examination whatsoever. Reduce the size of classes in [public] schools to twelve and I might reconsider.”
Poetry is the tunnel at the end of the light; prose, bent out of shape; the idiom of djinns; the sound of silence…amplified. Poetry predates books, predates the alphabet, and once we graduated from humming, it was the first vehicle to bring music to our ears. What are nursery rhymes if not the irresistible echoes of the siren songs of ancient whimsy?
Few if any adults are capable of convincing a ten-year old that poetry can be as much fun as volleyball or video games. Nor should we try. Entertainments are not a zero-sum game. Why should my increasing love of soccer diminish by an equal amount my affection for verse? Both can intensify our feelings for the world and an appreciation of our places in it.
But any genre buried in unread books is useless. Make poetry a habit with students. If children are reading poetry they find insipid or pointless, they naturally reject it for the playground. Let them choose their own verse favorites. Encourage volunteers to read them. Open a Poetry Café, no textbooks allowed. Ask students to ask their parents for their favorite poems. Then invite the parents to the classroom/café to read them.
Go to the source: Seek out the poetry lovers among teachers and discover the strategies that have worked best for them.
The answer to the question posed in the title of this piece may not be immediately obvious but consider this: decades hence some erstwhile youth, faced like so many of us with incalculable stress or sorrow, might just be able to pull from that inconspicuous hideaway, the heart, a few remembered and redeeming lines of verse.
Perhaps that is when children’s poetry can matter most.