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Teaching Great Poetry to Children

Some poems presented no problem. Once the children saw what they were about, they were eager to write poems like them of their own. This was the case with “This Is Just to Say.” Apologizing for something they were secretly glad they had done was so familiar and amusing an experience that in order to inspire them to write about it I had only to show them what the poem was about. Ashbery’s river poem had an equally obvious and immediate appeal just as it was, a poem with a different river in every line. In this case, however, I was a little afraid of a merely mechanical response, so I said, “Write a poem with a river in every line, and really imagine you are seeing the river or are floating on it, and say how it really looks and feels. If you want to, put in colors and sounds and times of year. Think what color each river is, what kind of sound it makes, what month of the year it reminds you of.” Ashbery’s poem doesn’t include such details about each river, but thinking about such details helped the children go from one real, sensuous experience of a river to another—“Delaware—green with April birds and flowers / Missouri—red January bugs and laughter…” (Mayra Morales, 5).

Herrick’s poem, like Ashbery’s, had something immediately appealing for the children to imitate: a list of subjects they had written poems about. However, to enjoy making such a list, as Herrick evidently did, a child would have to be in a similarly pleasantly expansive and satisfied state of mind. I could help to make children feel this way by reminding them of the poems they had written for me about colors, noises, wishes, lies, and dreams. I could suggest that they think, too, of their poems in more detail. Had they written, as Herrick says he has, of flowers? of girls? of love? of things to eat and drink? That was good as far as it went, but some of the children had written only a very few poems. To help them out, and to give to everyone’s poem more of the impetus of pleasure and desire, I made it part of the poetry idea that, along with writing of what they had already written about, they could say what they would like to write about in the future. This makes the poem more exciting.

Williams’s “Between Walls” had an appealing idea—something supposed to be ugly which really is beautiful—but the children would get more out of it if I could connect it to their feelings as well. I did that by using the words really and secretly, which I found as helpful here as, in other lessons, appealing to the children’s senses and asking them to think of colors and sounds. My suggestion was, “Write a poem about something that is supposed to be ugly, but which you really secretly think is beautiful, as Williams thinks the broken glass shining in back of the hospital is beautiful.” Secret was also a help in the Blake class, when, to make the children believe more in the reality of the situation (their talking to an animal or other creature), I said that they should pretend they could speak its secret language.

I saw right away that Shakespeare’s “Come Unto These Yellow Sands” was attractive to children for its gaiety and for its use of sounds, but I didn’t find a way to connect it to their feelings until I began to think about its being an invitation and how exciting the situations of inviting and being invited are for children. Invitations are connected with birthdays and all sorts of mysteries and surprises. My poetry idea, which helped the children get the genuine strangeness of this and other Shakespearean songs, was to write a poem inviting people to a strange and beautiful place, full of wonderful sounds.

Sometimes my students’ reactions would lead me to change the poetry idea. In the Blake class my poetry idea was to ask a creature questions. Several children asked me if they could put in the answers too. I said yes. Though including answers would make a poem less like Blake’s on the surface, it could make it more like his in a more important way if it helped the child believe in the human/animal conversation. Conversations are easier to believe in if someone answers. Another question in the Blake class was “Can we talk to a different creature in every line?” I agreed to this, too. It would make the poem easier for those children who that day didn’t feel up to sustaining a whole poem about one animal, bird, or insect and might help them refresh their inspiration in every line. And Blake himself had addressed a number of different creatures in Songs of Innocence and Experience.

These variations of the poetry ideas weren’t false to the poems except in insignificant ways. I didn’t want a poetry idea which commanded a child to imitate an adult poem closely. That would be pointless. I wanted my students to find and to re-create in themselves the main feelings of the adult poems. For this purpose, a lot of freedom in the poetry idea was necessary. They would need to be free, too, from demands of rhyme and meter, which at their age are restrictions on the imagination; and from the kinds of tone and subject matter which might oppress them. In relation to “The Tyger,” this meant suggesting they write a poem in the form of repeated questions rather than asking for five stanzas of couplet-rhymed tetrameter; and that they write about talking to a strange creature, rather than that they write about The Wonder of God’s Creation.

I could be fairly sure I had a good poetry idea worked out when examples of lines to illustrate it came easily to me. If I could think of lines inviting people to strange places or of ugly things that are really beautiful or of comparisons between geometry and magnetism and how I felt about someone, the children, with my help, would be able to as well. The final test of the idea, though, would be in class—if my suggestions for a poem weren’t exciting and clear to the children, then I would have to find a way to make them so.

There are, of course, different writing suggestions, different poetry ideas that one can use with a particular poem. I approached the wonder and amazement in Blake through the theme of talking to an animal. My own childhood had been colored by the fantastic hope that I would be able to speak to animals and birds and share my feelings with them and find out their secrets, and this was one thing that made me feel my students might respond well to this particular idea. But I could just as well have approached the wonder and amazement through the theme of origins, of thinking of all the strange things in the world and imagining how they were made. Or by the theme of marveling at the superpowered being who does everything that is done in the world. In such a poem, for example, each line might begin with “Who would dare…?” and the children could be helped to begin by a few examples like “Who would dare to make a tiger?”: Who would dare to lift the red-hot sun out of the street every morning? Who would dare to push the electricity through the subway tracks? Who would dare to go out into the middle of the ocean and push the waves to shore?

Writing suggestions have been used with teaching poetry before. Those I have seen in textbooks, however, are unhelpful either because they don’t give the child enough (Write a Poem of Your Own about a Tiger), or because they give him too much—often, for example, telling him what to feel (Write a Poem about How Beautiful You Think Some Animal Is). “Write a Poem in Which You Imagine Talking to an Animal” is in the right direction, but not dramatic enough. A writing suggestion should help a child to feel excited and to think of things he wants to write.

IV

I would go to my classes at PS 61 with copies of poems for everyone. I would pass them out and ask the children to read them. I would tell the children that I would explain what was unclear to them and that after talked about the adult poetry they would write poetry of their own that was like it in some way. Interested, as they always were, in anything connected with their writing, my students read the work to themselves, then listened to me read it aloud, and our discussion began.

When I talked about the poems, I tried to make the children feel close to them in every way I could. The fact that they were going to write a poem connected to the one we studied was a start. Beyond that, I wanted to make the poem as understandable as possible, and also as real, tangible, and dramatic as I could. I wanted to create excitement about it there in the classroom. When I could judge from what the children said and from their mood in general that they had understood the poem and its connection to themselves and to things they wanted to say themselves, I would have them write.

Many details of adult poetry are difficult for children, but they are glad to have them explained if they are interested in the poem, and if they aren’t made to feel that the poem is over their heads. I immediately made the dramatic situation of the poem clear, often by a few questions. Who is Blake talking to? Why does he think that the tiger is “burning”? I responded in a positive way to all their answers; even wrong answers would show them thinking about the poem and using their ingenuity, trying to understand. Once started on that path, with my help and that of their classmates, they eventually understood. As soon as I could, I would begin to associate the poem with their own experience. Have you ever talked with a cat or a dog? Have you ever seen its eyes in the dark? Did they shine like those of the tiger? Unfamiliar words, such as fearful and frame, and odd syntactical constructions, such as “What dread hand? and what dread feet?” I treated as small impediments in the way of enjoying the big experience of the poem, to be dealt with as quickly as possible. I explained them briefly and went on.

Along with doing all I could to make the poem available and easy, I did things in every class to dramatize the poem and make the children excited about it. When we came to Blake’s lines about the creation of the tiger’s heart, “And what shoulder, and what art / Could twist the sinews of thy heart?” I asked the children to close their eyes, be quiet, put their fingers in their ears, and listen hard: that strange, muffled thumping they heard was their heart—how must Blake have felt imagining the tiger’s heart, which was probably even stranger?

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