Monday, March 5, 2012

Evaluating poetry

The muddy puddle

I am sitting In the middle
Of a rather Muddy Puddle,
With my bottom
Full of bubbles
And my rubbers
Full of mud.

While my jacket
And my sweater
Go on slowly
Getting wetter
As I very
Slowly setttle
To the bottom
Of the mud.

And I find
What a person
With a puddle
Round his middle
Thinks of mostly

In the muddle
Is the Muddi
Ness of the Mud.
Dennis Lee

Evaluating poetry
Why bother introducing children to poetry? Sutherland and Arbuthnot expressed it best:
Poetry can bring warmth, reassurance, even laughter; it can stir and arouse or quiet and comfort. Above all it can give significance to everyday experience. To miss poetry would be as much of a deprivation as to miss music. For these reasons it is essential that we know poetry and that we know how to introduce it to children. The experience of poetry should come with so much pure pleasure that the taste for it will grow and become a permanent part of a child’s emotional, intellectual and aesthetic resources. (274)

What is poetry?
“There are as many definitions of poetry as there are poets,” says American poet Lee Bennet Hopkins in Pass the Poetry, Please!

Perhaps the best known definition is this one from American poet Emily Dickenson:
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head was taken off, I know that it is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way
Hopkins also comments –
A poem is an experience – something that has happened to a person, something that may seem very obvious, an everyday occurence that has been set down in a minimum number of words and lines as it has never been sat down before. (8)
Poetry can be distinguished from prose in three ways. First, poetry is usually brief. Its language is more compact and condensed than the language of prose. Second, poetry is usualy more emotionally intense than prose. Poets use figurative language, such as similies and metaphors, to paint word pictures. Finally, poetry often follows some sort of pattern. That pattern may direct the structure of the entire poem, such as is used in haiku poetry. Free verse may not apppear to follow a clear pattern, but it still has its own internal logic.

Children’s growth and poetry
Is there such a thing as children’s poetry? Hopkins offers this opinion:
There is really little difference between good poetry for children and good poetry for adults. Poetry for children should appeal to them and meet their emotional needs and interests. (9)
Children are natural poets. Even before their birth they have been exposed to the rhythm of their mother’s heartbeat. Listening to skipping rope rhymes and other school yard chants provides more examples of how children incorporate rhymes into their play.

With some guidance children can develop a life-long love of poetry. Where to begin? Mother Goose. ... nursery rhymes are an important part of most young children’s listening experiences and their first experience with the musical play of language.

Saltman suggests that children go through stages of appreciation of poetry:
It begins with the irrational musical play of nonsense verse and the stylistic virtuoisity and geniality found in humourous and light verse. Proceeding through the dramatic suspense of narrative poetry, the process finally arrives at lyric poetry’s melodic intensity. (225)
It’s important to remember that no matter what stage a child has reached in his/her appreciation of poetry that we present poetry for the joy of it. We do not tell children that there is one “right” answer for what a poem means, and we let them know that poetry doesn’t have to be understood all at once. Children’s poet Walter de la Mare expressed it this way: “That is one of the pleasures of reading – you ma y make any pictures out of the word you can and will; and a poem may have as many different meanings as there are different minds.”

What do children like?
When choosing poetry for children it’s important to keep their interests in mind. Listening to or reading poetry should be an enjoyable experience for children.

Saltman considers some of the issues that must be conforted –
Does children’s poetry require a simplification of style and subject matter because of childhood’s limitations of experience? Or are such assumptions the result of artificial and patronizing adult attitudes? Despite attempts by adults to construct well-intentioned barricades, children continue to seek out poetry, whether children’s or adult, that kindles imagination. Perhaps it is the ongoing development of that imagination and an intuitive response to emotion that enable children to take delight in poetry far beyond their conscious understanding. (222)
Hopkins notes that many teachers and parents shy away from reading “sophisticated” poetry to children, but that children often enjoy being challenged by poetry.

Children are especially attracted to poetry about animals and other children. They enjoy nonsense and humour. Older children enjoy a good story when it is told through narrative verse. Children also like poetry when it is written in the first person and older children will enjoy poetry that contains a message or moral. Whatever the content or theme of an individual poem, its subject matter must be comprehensible. The individual child may not have experienced what is being described in the poem, but a skillful poet can make it understandable for that child.

Building a poetry collection
Every children’s collection should contain lots of poetry. There are many excellent poets writing for children today. Too many, in fact, to list in this module. The bibliography in this module serves a starting point for exploring the vast number of books available.

Books of poetry for children can be divided into three categories:
  • Single authors
    This category includes collections of poetry by individual authors. Consult the bibliography for some key Canadian and American poets who write for children.
  • Single poems
    Some poems naturally lend themselves to elaborate illustrations. For example, Ted Harrison, a Canadian illustrator, has produced beautifully illustrated versions of two Robert Service poems: The Cremation of Sam Magee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Lorinda Bryan Cauley’s illustrated version of Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat is suitable for very young children.
  • Anthologies
    Many large publishers have printed anthologies of poetry for children. Some of these books are general, that is, the poetry included covers a wide range of topics, themes and styles. Two excellent Canadian general anthologies that are included in the bibliography are The new wind has wings and Til all the stars have fallen.
Some anthologies may be more specialized and contain poems that all relate to a specific theme. Two theme anthologies included in the bibliography are Cats are cats and Mice are nice, both compiled by Nancy Larrick.

When reviewing anthologies look for a balance of old and new poems. The best anthologies preserve the best of the past and give us a taste of the current.

Evaluating poetry
Before you read a poem aloud, spend some time determining if it is worth sharing with children. Good poetry has a number of distinguishing characteristics including –
  • Strong rhythm
    Poetry doesn’t necessary have to rhyme, but it still needs to have a strong sense of the “music” of language.
  • Distinguished language
    Good poets use language in fresh and interesting ways. They employ similes and metaphors to make us see the world in a new perspective. The actual content of the poem may be about an everyday event, but the poet helps us to see it in a new, fresher way.
Poetry that will not appeal to children is usually easy to spot. It will display one or more of the following characteristics:
  • Sentimentality and condescension
    Beware of using what is often called “children’s verse”. This type of poetry is full of sentimentality and condescension. This is poetry that is “too sweet.” It is full of pretty birds, sweet smelling flowers and sparkling dewdrops. Children are quick to pick up on false emotion and they dislike this type of poetry intensely.
  • Didacticism
    Older children do appreciate poetry that contains a moral or lesson. However, that lesson should evolve naturally out of the poem and not be too obvious.
  • Nostalgia
    Be careful not to confuse poetry that is written especially for children, with poetry that is written about children. Sometimes a poet’s longing to recreate childhood leads to a poem more suitable for adults than children.
Saltman explains –
The poet who keeps alive the intense memories of childhood will create poetry suffused with respect for children’s intelligence, imagination, and perceptions. This will be a poetry that is not a nostalgic reminiscence about childhood for adults, but rather a celebration of childhood, as gritty and stimulating, as it is, for all children. (223)
Finally, you need to be aware that not all poetry has aged well. For example, “Foreign Children” which is included in the children’s classic collection, A Child’s Garden of Verse by R.L. Stevenson is now considered racist.

Presenting poetry to children
Your goal is to make the listening to or reading of poetry an enjoyable experience for children. Unfortunately, you may have to overcome a dislike of poetry from the children you are reading to. Jacob and Tunnell examine the reasons why some children come to dislike poetry –
Children have a natural affinity for poetry which is exhibited before they enter school by their love for nursery rhymes, jingles and childhood songs. Sometime during the course of their schooling, a great number of children seem to change their minds about the appeal of poetry. Indeed, some of our teaching practices might be responsible. When asked what sorts of poetry-related school activities they found distasteful, our undergraduate students invariably listed these: memorizing and reciting, writing poetry, and heavy-duty analyzing of a poem’s structure and meaning. Many students reported a distaste for playing the “I know the true meaning of this poem; it’s your job to discover it” game with their teachers. (160)
When presenting poetry to children keep the following tips in mind:
  • Start with humour or action
    Starting with a funny or action-packed poem attracts the children’s attention.
  • Encourage younger children to repeat familiar lines
    If the poem you are reading has refrains that repeats, encourage the children to join in with you.
  • Pace the reading
    Include a wide range of subject matter and pacing.
Hopkins offers this advice:
We can read about what poetry or a poem is, what it should do, learn all about meters, rhyme schemes, cadence and balance; yet all of this does not necessarily help to make a poem meaningful. The one criterion that we must share for ourselves is that we love the poems we are going to share. If we don’t like a particular poem, we shouldn’t read it to our children; our distaste will certainly be obvious to them. There are plenty of poems around. Why bother with those that are not pleasing? In the world of poetry almost any theme can be located.....While working with boys and girls across the country, I have always read a balance of the old and new, poems written “for adults,” poems written “for children,” and often poems written by children for children. (9, 10)
Above all, don’t be guilty of the DAM approach when presenting poetry. It is not necessary to have children
Dissect the poem
Analyze the poem or
Meaninglessly memorize the poem.
(Hopkins, 11)

Engage in such activities quickly ruins the experience of poetry for children.

Further details about how to present poetry to children are included in Appendix B of this module.

So why share poetry with children? Where else can you find emotions like this expressed so beautifully?

Poetry can stir and arouse or quiet and comfort.


Muffle the wind;
Silence the clock;
Muzzle the mice;
Curb the small talk;
Cure the hinge-squeak;
Banish the thunder.
Let me sit silent,
Let me wonder.

A M. Klein

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