Essay

What Can Poetry Do for Parents?

Poetry offers plenty of benefits for the beleaguered parent.

by Elliott Vanskike
What can poetry do for Parents?Image ©iStockphoto.com/JamesBrey

I’m not sure why I was driven back to poetry when I found out my wife was pregnant with twins. I had studied and written poetry in college, but I hadn’t given it much thought after I graduated. Perhaps, as poet Mark Doty has observed, “[I]t seems almost hardwired into the human nervous system that we turn to heightened language at times of heightened feeling. When we fall in love, when we want to mark an important passage in a life, we turn to poetry.”

If my kids ever needed to turn to poetry, I wanted to start laying down the circuitry. So, on sleepless nights, I’d pull The Norton Anthology of Poetry from the shelf, pace, and read, preparing to hardwire my children by reciting poetry from memory to them.

I tried and failed to memorize “Kubla Khan,” never getting beyond the “sunless sea” and onto the “fertile ground” with its walls and towers and garden. Then I moved on to Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Son.” Any expectant parent, fearing the impending sleep deprivation, can appreciate the opening stanza’s invocation of “a strong ghost” to stand guard “That my Michael may sleep sound, / Nor cry, nor turn in the bed / Till his morning meal come round.”

But the poem rolls on and on, stanza after stanza. Despite the spot-on content, it flattened my efforts to commit it to memory. I ended up memorizing Yeats’s six-line ditty “A Drinking Song” instead. The poem is mostly about drinking and dying—wholly inappropriate for newborns—but the length was right.

Congratulating myself on committing Yeats’s bawdy toast to memory, I realized that perhaps I was turning back to poetry not solely for my twin sons, but also for myself. Even in small doses, poetry proved an essential tonic for the raw vulnerability of being a parent—a flayed-open feeling that nothing can prepare you for. This vulnerability takes profound forms: seeing a homeless person shambling along and realizing, as if for the first time, that this person was once a baby who had known love. And it takes mundane forms: all those commercials for cameras, greeting cards, auto insurance, lunchmeat, and fruity snacks that use kids to sell you stuff.

Before my sons were born, both the ads and the homeless person would’ve been met with cynical reserve. As a new parent, both the sledgehammer reality of homelessness and the cloying appeal to parental connection that’s exploited by advertisers move me to the verge of tears. When true misery and bathetic manipulation start to blur, the astringency of poetry helps me sort things out. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s dead-eyed “I know what I know” from “Spring” chastens, as do its lines “Life in itself / Is nothing, / An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.” Stevie Smith’s depiction of being overwhelmed and overcome in “Not Waving but Drowning” provided me with some equanimity, especially the closing lines, “I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning,” which I used as a psychic flotation device.

Poetry offers other benefits for the beleaguered parent. A large part of parenting consists of mindless repetition—changing diapers again, cutting pancakes into triangles again, saying, “How do we ask for things nicely?” again. But poetry uses repetition to sound new depths of meaning and find nuance in sameness. Think of the way the repeating lines of a villanelle take on new shape and significance with each stanza or the way different echoes emerge from “And miles to go before I sleep” at the end of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

The climax of George Garrett’s “Or Death and December,” in which the speaker’s puppy lifts a hind leg to pee for the first time during a frozen morning walk, might seem tailor-made to exhort and comfort parents working to potty-train their kids. But the poem stuck with me because of the description of the wind: “like a deuce-and-a-half, a six-by, a semi / huge with a cold load of growls.” There’s something very reassuring about a resonant phrase like “cold load of growls”—the way it shapes your mouth and prods your tongue. I rolled those words around my mouth so many times during the boys’ first years that they became a fetish for me, verbal worry beads I used to mollify my punch-drunk mind. I have also spent countless hours singing along with and silently repeating a stunning putdown in Lily Allen’s pop song “Shame for You.” I’m still not convinced that “Oh my gosh you must be joking me / if you think that you’ll be poking me” isn’t one of the best couplets ever written. Take that, Robert Browning!

At the level of pure aural pleasure, the differences between “cold load of growls” and the “joking me / poking me” couplet vanish. Both delight me in a way that I see no good reason to question. And it’s at “delight” that, finally, my reciting poetry to my twin sons comes back into the story. I eventually did manage to memorize a poem longer than Yeats’s “A Drinking Song.” Even beset by the frantic brain of the expectant first-time parent, there was one poem I could recite from memory: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

So, soon after the boys were born, in addition to singing to them any hymns, lullabies, pop songs, and show tunes I could remember, I would recite “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” My having done so may not edify them at all. Exposing them to poetry alone doesn’t presage bright academic futures. It may not even mean they’ll end up falling back on their poetic hardwiring. But, for now, the boys recite from memory Frost’s calm, elegiac poem before we tuck them into bed, though sometimes neither calmly nor elegiacally. (Listen to them on Poems by Heart!) I get chills every time they speak the closing lines. They can also recite from memory three E. E. Cummings poems and have taken a stab at Blake’s “The Tyger.” But we keep coming back to Frost and to the allure and comfort, the bleakness and responsibility of that closing stanza. There’s joy for them in reciting the poem, and reassurance in the repetition. There’s delight beyond measure for my wife and me just to hear our sons grapple with the poem, sink into Frost’s final lines, and then drift off to sleep.

Originally Published: April 19, 2010

COMMENTS (14)

On April 19, 2010 at 1:17pm Gwendolyn Bradley wrote:
The Faerie Queene is also very good for reading out loud to defenseless children. Not sure you'd want to memorize it, though.

On April 19, 2010 at 1:23pm nora wrote:
the most vivid memory i have of enjoying an activity with my mother is her reading poetry to me. she had an anthology that at the time seemed ancient and tatterered, and which now is held together with duct tape. i can still recite "the tale of custard the dragon" in full. i remember curling up next to her to hear about "the village blacksmith" again and again. when i got old enough, i would read to her. one of her favorites was "the children's hour." my son and i read through this book every now and then, although he prefers shel silverstein. either way, snuggles and giggles, vocabulary questions and attemps at word-play of our own always follow. and, of course, the occasional reciting of "fog" in the style of a punk performance. ain't poetry grand?

On April 19, 2010 at 1:29pm amy barzdukas wrote:
see if you can find any old "poetry in motion" subway placards to hang in their bedroom. Bishop's "even the swimming sailors who/would like a schoolroom platform, too" still sings in my mind.

On April 19, 2010 at 9:52pm Greg O'Connell wrote:
Hi Elliott et al. As a children's poet performing in New Zealand primary (elementary) schools, I can confirm that young audiences continue to delight in rhyme, rhythm and repetition, both on the page and on the stage. To read some of my most popular current poems, you are very welcome to visit the homepage and NaPoWriMo page at www.gregoconnell.com. Thanks, Elliott, for your entertaining article. And thanks Poetry Foundation for EVERYTHING.

On April 20, 2010 at 12:08am Rita wrote:
Thank you for these elegant insights, Elliott. I was especially moved by the homeless man and the thought of the intense hope, love, and value his mother had for him when he was born.

The many poems my dad memorized as a child were such a comfort to him all his life.

On April 20, 2010 at 1:30am Erika Gubrium wrote:
This made sifting through 13 pages of unread AAUP email worthwhile. I'm inspired! Frost before bed is a wonderful idea.

On April 20, 2010 at 2:19pm Julia wrote:
As a first time parent of a one year old I truly appreciate knowing that I am not alone in my new found vulnerability and extreme sensitivity. Parenthood gives you an open wound to the world, beautiful and painful. Also, how strange that just last night I had..."But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep"...echoing in my head. Thank you for sharing.

On April 24, 2010 at 7:35pm Andrew wrote:
Thank you!

Many years ago, as she was growing up, I read to my daughter much and she has several times recently expressed gratitude for those shared times. You gave me now the opportunity to reread some poetry and recollect, in tranquility, good times.

On April 25, 2010 at 12:13pm Emily Halderman wrote:
Great article Elliott!

I love your thoughts on evolving meaning through repetition. It is this process that makes the Sestina such a compelling form, I think -- that thrill of finding the old suddenly new again. It gives us adults insight into why the wee ones could possibly want to hear "Hop on Pop" for the 25th time today.

For poetry for tots, I have to suggest Edward Lear. There are some very excellent illustrated copies of the Quangle Wangle's Hat out there. I have warm memories of my own parents reading that spectacular nonsensical poem to me. (The role of nonsense in both early childhood development and poetry is an essay for another time!)

http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/ll/quangle.html

On May 23, 2010 at 7:28am Mary Quattlebaum wrote:

Thanks much, Elliott, for your smile- and thought-provoking article. It brought back so many memories of the power and sheer loopy goofines of poetry for kids. My earliest memory is of my dad reciting nursery rhymes to my siblings and me at bedtime. We could pick whichever we wanted and invariably wanted to hear the same ones ("Hickory Dickory Dock," "Little Bo Peep) again and again. When my daughter was little (she's now in 5th grade), I remember murmuring certain mouth-pleasing poetic phrases to myself as I changed her diaper or wheeled her stroller (Yeats's "gong-tormented sea" and Bishop's "mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst" and "battered and shiny like the moon"). Who knows why? Hope your guys enjoy rollicking and reflective adventures with poetry long into their future.

On June 6, 2010 at 10:41am K D Pederzani wrote:
Two suggestions of books I read with my (now post-college) children:

The Bat Poet by Randall Jarrell with illustrations by Maurice Sendack

Inside Turtle's Shell and Other Poems of the Field by Joann Ryder drawings by Susan Bonners

On June 18, 2010 at 9:06pm C Bannan wrote:
I read "Goodnight Moon" to my children when they were infants. I loved its’ spare form and repetition (still do).

Dr. Seuss of course was well-loved for his satisfying couplets, and imaginative characters and story. “A Child’s Garden of Verses” was one of my favorites to read aloud. We did eventually graduate to Frost.

I encouraged my kids to memorize favorite poems and say them aloud when bored. This fine idea had limited success, however. Shel Silverstein's poems were the exception: they seemed easier for my children to memorize because the emotions are so relatable to kids.

Kudos to parents who continue on with more advanced poetry reading, but don't discount the power of Silliness.

Vanskike may have made a point inadvertently: that parents enjoy reading poems aloud not just for the sake of their children, but for their own needs and pleasure. Poetry illuminates human conditions and confusions, and parenting is often confusing. Thanks for the article.

On June 24, 2010 at 8:55am Jason Zippro wrote:
I just had to say I loved listening to your children recite the poem in the attached audio file. I've been listening to several different recordings of the poem recently and the one by your children has been my favorite, second only to Frost's. Thank you.

On September 1, 2010 at 2:51pm Patricia Anne McGoldrick wrote:
Thanks Elliott and sons! Robert Frost's poem is one of my all-time favorites--that last stanza is haunting and now I will recall the sound of these voices as they repeat those treasured words.
I echo so many of the comments above in my love of words, reading and writing poetry. My son and daughter are now finishing their university programs but they have taken a fondness of words with them.
May they and your sons continue sharing words with the future!
Patricia
http://sites.google.com/a/pm27canada.com/p-a-mcgoldrick/

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Biography

Elliott Vanskike lives in Madison, WI, with his wife and twin 4-year-old sons. He has a graduate degree he almost never uses and a bike he rides whenever he can. His writing has appeared in CMJ, Raygun, and the Washington Post.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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