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Teaching Great Poetry to Children

Giraffes, how did they make Carmen? Well, you see, Carmen ate the prettiest rose in the world and then just then the great change of heaven occured and she became the prettiest girl in the world and because I love her.

Lions, why does your mane flame like fire of the devil? Because I have the speed of the wind and the strength of the earth at my command.

Oh Kiwi, why have you no wings? Because I have been born with the despair to walk the earth without the power of flight and am damned to do so.

Oh bird of flight, why have you been granted the power to fly? Because I was meant to sit upon the branch and to be with the wind.

Oh crocodile, why were you granted the power to slaughter your fellow animal? I do not answer.

—Chip Wareing, fifth grade, PS 61

I

Last year at PS 61 in New York City I taught my third-through-sixth-grade students poems by Blake, Donne, Shakespeare, Herrick, Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, and Federico García Lorca. For several years before, I had been teaching poetry writing to many of these children, and they liked it so much that I thought there must be a way to help them read and enjoy great poetry by adults.

I found a way to do it, in conjunction with my students’ own writing, which enabled the children to get close to the adult poems and to understand and enjoy them. What I did, in fact, was to make these adult poems a part of their own writing. I taught reading poetry and writing poetry as one subject. I brought them together by means of “poetry ideas,” which were suggestions I would give to the children for writing poems of their own in some way like the poems they were studying. We would read the adult poem in class, discuss it, and then they would write. Afterward, they or I would read aloud the poems they had written.

When we read Blake’s “The Tyger” I asked my students to write a poem in which they were asking questions of a mysterious and beautiful creature. When we read Shakespeare’s “Come Unto These Yellow Sands,” I asked them to write a poem which was an invitation to a strange place full of colors and sounds. When we read Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” I asked them to write a poem in which they talked about the same thing in many different ways. The problem in teaching adult poetry to children is that for them it often seems difficult and remote; the poetry ideas, by making the adult poetry to some degree part of an activity of their own, brought it closer and made it more accessible to them. The excitement of writing carried over to their reading; and the excitement of the poem they read inspired them in their writing.

I had used poetry ideas in teaching my students to write poetry before, to help them find perceptions, ideas, feelings, and new ways of saying things, and to acquaint them with some of the subjects and techniques they could bring into their poetry; I had proposed poems about wishes, dreams, colors, differences between the present and the past, poems which included a number of Spanish words, poems in which everything was a lie.* I would often suggest ways of organizing the poem as well: for the Wish Poem, starting every line with “I wish”; to help them think about the difference between the present and the past, I suggested alternating line-beginnings of “I used to” and “But now”; for the Comparison Poem I suggested they put one comparison in every line, for a Color Poem the name of a color in every line. These formal suggestions were most often for some kind of repetition, which is natural to children’s speech and much easier for them to use in expressing their feelings than meter and rhyme.

With the help of these poetry ideas, along with as free and inspiring a classroom atmosphere as I could create (I said they could make some noise, read each other’s lines, walk around the room a little, and spell words as best they could, not to worry about it), and with a good deal of praise and encouragement from me and from each other, my students in grades one through six came to love writing poetry, as much as they liked drawing and painting, sometimes even more—

The way I feel about art is nothing compared to the way I feel about poetry.
Poetry has something that art doesn’t have and that’s feel- ings….
—Rafael Camacho, 61

My poetry ideas were good ideas as long as they helped the children make discoveries and express feelings, which is what made them happy about writing—

I like poetry because it puts me in places I like to be….
—Tommy Kennedy, 6
You can express feelings non- feelings trees anything from A to Z that’s why
IT’S GREAT STUFF!
—Tracy Lahab, 6

They wrote remarkably well. Sometimes my students wrote poems without my giving them an idea, but usually they wanted one to help them get started to find new things to say.

Teaching students who were enthusiastic about poetry, good at writing it, and eager to get ideas for writing new poems, I considered the kind of poetry that they were usually taught in school (and the way it was taught) and I felt that an opportunity was being missed. Why not introduce them to the great poetry of the present and the past? It was a logical next step in the development of their own writing: it could give them new ideas for their poems, and it would be good in other ways too. If they felt a close relationship to adult poetry now, they could go on enjoying it and learning from it for a long time.

This result seemed unlikely to be produced by the poetry children were being taught in school. The poems my students wrote were better than most of those in elementary-school textbooks. Their poems were serious, deep, honest, lyrical, and formally inventive. Those in the textbooks seemed comparatively empty and safe. They characteristically dealt with one small topic in an isolated way—clouds, teddybears, frogs, or a time of year—

…Asters, deep purple,
A grasshopper’s call,
Today it is summer,
Tomorrow is fall.2

Nothing was connected to any serious emotion or to any complex way of looking at things. Everything was reassuring and simplified, and also rather limited and dull. And there was frequently a lot of rhyme, as much as possible, as though the children had to be entertained by its chiming at every moment. When Ron Padgett at PS 61 asked our fifth-grade students to write poems about spring, they wrote lines like these—

Spring is sailing a boat
Spring is a flower waking up in the morning
Spring is like a plate falling out of a closet for joy
Spring is like a spatter of grease….
—Jeff Morley, 5

Jeff deserved “When daisies pied and violets blue” and “When as the rye reach to the chin” or William Carlos Williams’s “Daisy” or Robert Herrick’s “To Cherry Blossoms,” rather than “September.” If it was autumn that was wanted, I’m sure that with a little help he could have learned something from “Ode to the West Wind” too. There is a condescension toward children’s minds and abilities in regard to poetry in almost every elementary text I’ve seen:

Words are fun!… Some giggle like tickles, or pucker like pickles, or jingle like nickles, or tingle like prickles. And then…your poem is done!

And so is my letter. But not before I wish you good luck looking through your magic window…3

says one author to third graders; but my third graders could write like this:

I used to have a hat of hearts but now I have a hat of tears
I used to have a dress of buttons but now I have a name of bees….
—Ilona Baburka, 3

I had discovered that my students were capable of enjoying and also learning from good poetry while I was teaching them writing. In one sixth-grade class I had suggested to the students a poem on the difference between the way they seemed to be to others and the way they really felt deep inside themselves. Before they wrote, I read aloud three short poems by D. H. Lawrence on the theme of secrecy and silence—“Trees in the Garden,” “Nothing to Save,” and “The White Horse.” They liked the last one so much they asked me to read it three times:

The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent they are in another world.

The Lawrence poems seemed to help the whole class take the subject of their poems seriously, and one girl, Amy Levy, wrote a beautiful and original poem which owed a lot to the specific influence of “The White Horse.” She took from Lawrence the conception of another world coexistent with this one, which one can enter by means of secrecy and silence, and used it to write about her distance from her parents and the beauty and mystery of her own imaginings—

We go to the beach
I look at the sea
My mother thinks I stare
My father thinks I want to go in the water.
But I have my own little world….

In my new teaching my aim was to surround Amy, Ilona, Jeff, and the rest of my students with other fine poems, like Lawrence’s, that were worthy of their attention and that could give them good experiences and help them in their own writing. Some of the poems would be much more difficult than “The White Horse,” and all of them would probably be “too hard” for the children in some way, so I would not merely read the adult poems aloud but do all I could to make them clear and to bring the children close to them.

II

I began with the general notion of teaching my students the poems I liked best, but I soon saw that some of these were better to teach than others. Some poems came to me right away because of some element in them that I knew children would be excited by and connect with their own feelings. The fantasy situation in Blake, for example, of talking to an animal—or the more real-life situation in Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” of apologizing for something you’re really glad you’ve done. Certain tones, too—Whitman’s tone of boastful secret-telling. And strange, unexpected things, like Donne’s comparisons of tender feelings to compasses and astronomical shifts.

  1. *

    See “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry,” NYR, April 9, 1970. Published in book form by Random House.

  2. 1

    Here as elsewhere in this article, the number following the child’s name indicates the grade he or she was in when the poem was written.

  3. 2

    From “September,” The World of Language, Book 5 (Follett Educational Corporation).

  4. 3

    A Famous Author Speaks,” Our Language Today (American Book Company).

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