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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.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim McKenna February 2, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Hi Pat,
Beautifully written. I was reading it with a lump in my throat for poetry, poets, and readers. Poetry has not lost it’s way, but maybe we have!
My earliest memories of reading was being asked to recite poetry by my mother at family gatherings. She wrote poems her whole life, and inspired me to read-aloud at a very early age. Those early poems are still in my head, and are the reason I am a storyreader today!
Keep Writing Pat….great Job!!

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Ceci Miller February 2, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Absolutely. Appreciate so much your defense of poetry written for children (which so often gets undue criticism from those who would have children poring over Keats and Shelley when they’ve barely begun to understand metaphor and personification). It’s important to keep perspective that students learn to love what they enjoy. That can begin early on with nutty poems that make them laugh, progress to simple-but-poignant verses that they relate to, and eventually — if not right away — encourage them to try writing their own. Reading poems aloud and then sharing our thoughts and feelings about the poems we keep coming back to, gives young readers a model for enjoyment of poetry. Our enthusiasm, as well as our acceptance and appreciation of whatever merits exist in the range of poetic writings, shows children and teens that, in reading, open-mindedness is a good thing. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post!

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Helen Frost February 2, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Thank you, Pat.
For writing this, and for all you do in classrooms every year.
You are amazing.

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Kenn Nesbitt February 3, 2010 at 12:13 am

Amen.

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sue corbin February 7, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Children are poetry. Their language is poetry. Their wonder of the world is poetry. If children’s poetry doesn’t matter, then children don’t matter. And sadly that’s the reality in some peoples’ worlds. Test scores matter. AYP matters.

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Steven Withrow February 19, 2010 at 11:14 am

Thanks for this, Pat. You practice what you preach, and I’m grateful for that.

I remember being 8 years old, in 1982, and picking up a copy of Dogs & Dragons, Trees & Dreams, a collection of poems by Karla Kuskin, that had fallen from a school library shelf while I was hunting for something else. (My favorite books have always pounced on me like eager kittens.) The book fell open, and I read (from “Spring Again”):

Buds on the branches
a breeze in the blue
and me without mittens
my sweater unbuttoned
a spring full of things
all before me to do.

I loved the sound of it, and I still do. I started raiding the poetry section that day, and I haven’t stopped.

I’m sure it was the intimate intensity of that unexpected experience — and the randomness of it, like clicking on the radio and hearing a secret song played just for me — that bonded me to poems. At that age, I was never quite as enthusiastic when a teacher tried to introduce a poem in a classroom or we were asked to read one aloud as a group. In fact, if you’d asked me then if I liked poetry, I would have said (aloud at least), “Yuck, that’s girl stuff.”

But the fact that the book was there in a place where it was possible for me to collide with it — that was a gift from the universe (along with Ms. Kuskin, the school librarian, and the good people at Harper & Row) to me and me alone.

We need to put as many of these books in the paths of as many kids as possible, then get out of their way as much as makes sense, and let the words do their work.

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The Well-Versed Mom February 19, 2010 at 2:01 pm

It’s a shame that poetry is such a hard sell – both to audiences and to agents/editors. I do agree that quality is key.

Reading poetry at a young age introduced me to the magic of words – and how I could play with their sounds and meanings. I’m trying to pass this on to my own kids, and even to my adult friends who might think that light verse = bad poetry.

It seems to me that verse for children is more acceptable than verse for adults, though. So maybe encouragement needs to come from both age levels.

I saw a presentation last night by Austin Kleon (http://newspaperblackout.tumblr.com/) a local poet whose “Newspaper Blackout” poems are soon to be published. He encourages working with kids to create their own poems using his method – which looks very fun, indeed! Perhaps a more interactive activity like this could help inspire our little ones to step away from the video game and put pen (or marker, as it were) to paper.

–The Well-Versed Mom

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Kristine George February 20, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Thank you, Pat. Beautifully said!

Kris

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Diana Murray February 28, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Inspiring, thought-provoking and emotional. Thank you!

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Mary Cronin March 4, 2010 at 7:39 pm

I could not have found your essay at a better time; I’m currently teaching a course for preschool teachers about using poetry in the early childhood classroom. Bravo!

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Jeannine Atkins March 5, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Thank you for the inspiring essay. And I was happy to meet a teacher this week, too, who passionately told me how poetry covers everything they’re expected to cover in their language arts curriculum.

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Jimmie April 2, 2010 at 8:21 am

“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.”

Yes, yes, and yes! We usually read a poem each day. Just for fun — very little analysis although we do that at times. Thankfully this approach has instilled a love of poetry and poetic language into my daughter’s little heart.

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Patricia Hubbell April 22, 2010 at 6:27 am

Hello, Pat,
Thank you for this wonderful article! I’m especially glad that you talked about the importance of being introduced to poetry early by teachers and parents. Without the warm experience of having had my mother and grandmother read poetry to me when I was little, I doubt if I would have become a lover of poetry and a writer of poems myself. And I’ll bet that goes for many other poets, too.
Patricia Hubbell

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Arn McCallum April 16, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Thanks Pat for your essay on poetry and kids. It was very informative and honest.
I write poetry for children and have
4 anthologies published here in Canada.
I also have several teachers actually teaching reading using Poetry. I present in Classrooms and libraries with my own poems and I now teach beginning readers with “RAP”. We memorize short “Rap” pieces and then we can read them to our parents. [even K.P. kids can do
it"]. They all say Reading is easy. They walk away believing in themselves and that is 90% of the battle. Stay the course.
You Shine Pal,
Arnot, A.K.A. 60 CENT

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