In the halcyon amplitude of their mother’s lap, two children were once weaned on outsized, hoary orange gospels known as the Childcraft series. One of those eager tots was me; the other was my twin brother. Among Aesop’s treasures and the Grimm boys’ delights lay the verse creations of two dab hands who went by the names Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. No children’s poets writing since have achieved such an impressive body of consistently eloquent nonsense as Lear and Carroll. Marvelous word turners, past or present—N.M. Bodecker, Charles and Guy Carryl, Charles Causley, John Ciardi, X.J. Kennedy, David McCord, Ogden Nash, Shel Silverstein—would readily admit that they stand on the shoulders of Lear and Carroll.
But a specter haunts children’s poetry—or verse—and the specter is mediocrity. Dana Gioia described it best more than 20 years ago when he referred, fleetingly, to “the cultural demimonde of light verse and children’s poetry.” Leave aside the arguments for the health or infirmity of adult poetry. The democratization of children’s verse, the notion that “everyone is a poet”—seen most clearly in the proliferation of blogs and the digitalization of treacle—is a view so entrenched that it is scarcely worth mentioning. Gorillas might enjoy a good laugh when one day they observe humans speed writing poetry with their thumbs.
What has all this meant for schoolchildren? First, like most bloggers, children are not poets any more than those who first climb up on a piano stool are pianists. Adults do children a great disservice by asking them to believe otherwise. They are, or should be, in it for the practice!
Second, in the teaching community, a rupture in the fault line has set “the choir,” that small band of true believers in the care and nurture of quality children’s poetry, sailing off to a quaint, remote island. But as a veteran of piping down elementary-school valleys wild (more than 500 of them), I am more often met by the mainlanders, those teachers who believe that poetry ought to be ladled out to the young in “units,” according to state-dictated standards, for two or three days out of the school year at most, the gods be thanked. (As Paul Verlaine once said about the word concept, when you hear standard, get up [at once] and leave the room.) To encapsulate the mainlander attitude, this quatrain will do as well as any.
The poetry unit is normally
a pinch of Frost and Emily,
a tickle of Jack Prelutsky, Shel,
and … “Goodness, there’s the bell.”
Who can blame teachers? In their own college courses, pain trumped pleasure as they followed instructions to field-strip poems as though they were intractable M14s. Why should teachers project their own unpleasant experiences on children?
The trouble, of course, is that teachers who disdain poetry know nothing about it. For them, anything that rhymes is a poem. Incapable of winnowing wheat from the considerable chaff and unaware of the wealth that exists beyond the arts and literature, they would never think to look for poems in science and technology, biography, history, or even nature.
Begin with one ineluctable maxim: children will not gravitate to poetry. It must be brought to them. Here’s a modest proposal: give the most important room in the school—the library—a poetry-focused edge. As David Foster Wallace once wrote, “I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.’” The bite of the library bug never heals.
The only way to grow poetry is to make it a habit, and the library can be its hothouse, a permanent nursery of verse. I have seen scores of schools in which librarians and teachers have done the heavy lifting, searching out classic work. In these schools, poetry becomes, as it should, a part of every child’s everyday experience.
Establish a poets’ corner where students come to read or listen to readings. Apart from the puerile doggerel that thrives on barf and boogers (the less said about it, the better), “let a hundred flowers blossom” with books of verse from every school imaginable.
Photocopy well-known poems, hide them in books throughout the library, and “reward” students with laminated bookmarks or some other largesse of the librarian’s creation.
Post a poem on a SMART Board every other day, and ask kids if they can find the poem in a library book. The first to unearth it might get a free book of children’s verse or young adult poetry.
Get rid of all poetry contests in schools. Writing verse is not a competition but its own reward. Usually, the winner composed a ditty merely to satisfy a requirement, a motivation that is unlikely to encourage the habit.
Let children discover in poems those “ah-ha” moments, their faces set in a rictus of wonder, when words become frosted fire, and young readers realize that they have never thought of a thing in quite that way before.
Open a poetry café. Invite parents to after-school readings but only if they are prepared to let ingenious, even devious, machinations become the purview of wily librarians and teachers devoted to rescuing poetry from the nurse’s office and sending it to the head of the class.
No one believes that poetry can become “the great flywheel of society,” as William James defined habit; most people have not read a book of poems in their lifetimes. That poetry is far from the American national pastime is hardly a reason to deny children the opportunity to go on the magical mystery tour that is their own language.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This essay was commissioned as a part of the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute's project to collect ideas for getting children interested in poetry. For more ideas, download a free copy of the book Open the Door: How to Excite Young People about Poetry.