When I was child in grammar school, we memorized and recited certain poems every year. Each of us stood and recited them in front of the entire class, and these poems have remained imprinted on my mind ever since. As each child gave his or her own recitation, I think we all learned something important: it is almost impossible to ruin a really good poem merely by reciting it ineptly.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree. . . .
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.
When I think of this poem, “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, a rowdy boy named Eldon, with his shock of blond hair, comes to mind. He belted out those words and gave an entirely new meaning to this sensitive, spiritual poem. After many decades I still remember him, with his head thrown back, his hands clasped to his chest. We laughed at the wonder of this bully-boy telling us that poem about the beauty of a tree.
We also learned Longfellow’s “The Old Clock on the Stairs”:
Somewhat back from the village street
Stands the old-fashioned country-seat.
Across its antique portico
Tall poplar trees their shadows throw;
And from its station in the hall
An ancient timepiece says to all—
We were nine and ten years old. The rhythm made Longfellow’s poem easy for us to memorize, and I remember loving the unexpected rhyme of “portico” with “shadows throw.” We did not know that the poem was about the tragedy and beauty of death. I didn’t understand that until much later, as I watched myself and the people around me grow older. But my attachment to the poem, and what I’ve drawn from it over the years—its associations, its insights, the comfort and predictable order—has stayed with me. It has been a part of my life now for almost 60 years.
As children, when we stood at the head of the class, we felt called to perform our assigned task, and we felt a sense of equality: this poem we each learned and recited was for everyone. And we learned that everyone’s interpretation of a poem is valid, different, and interesting. Eldon felt the meter in the words, and his recitations boomed around us as if he heard a marching band. I remember the surprise I felt when I heard the words fizz against each other and the poems returned unexpectedly to an earlier sound. Hearing that sound set loose a flutter in my chest. It was private, thrilling, visceral—and mine. It still is.
Repetition didn’t make the poems tiresome. Instead, the repetition became part of us. It was entertaining! Joy is vital in our daily lives, and those poems brought us joy. And as I’ve lived with them, they have resonated with truth that I’ve confirmed internally: “Forever—never! / Never—forever!” Yes, I’ve found, that’s right, again and again.
Such a lofty mission for a mere poem, you say? Yes. I believe we come to formal poems naturally, the way a child comes to language. “Bath, book, bottle, bed” are soothing to children because they know what comes next. So is “Mary had a little lamb / whose fleece was white as snow / and everywhere that Mary went / the lamb was sure to go.” The rhythm comes measure by measure, as does the rhyme. It is a wonderful pleasure for children—for all of us—to be able to predict what comes next.
But what about nonsense poems? A poem can also call us to laughter, to play. What about a ditty such as this:
Shoo fly pie
And apple pan dowdy
Makes your eyes light up
And your tummy say howdy!
I love the rhythm—and the glee! The very sound of the words “shoo fly,” “pan dowdy,” and “tummy” make me smile. There can never be too much joy in the world. There is so much pleasure to find in repeating, smiling, clapping, and moving.
Poetry can create a frame that lifts us beyond the ordinary, into the foggy edges of the realm of human experience. It makes us pause. It causes us to remember.
When it comes to literature, one must ask, is there a special poetry for children?
Obviously, subject matter and treatment are always a consideration when it comes to children, and I think this is the only important criterion. Is the language appropriate for a child? Is the subject too mature? Children don’t need to be insulated from crisis or powerful emotion, but age and individual sensitivities should be considered. I would not present Holocaust literature to a child under seven or eight, however mild and gentle it may be. Nor would I introduce topics such as suicide or abandonment to young children. There is a time for every season.
As adults, we’ve learned to turn to poetry to mark an important occasion: a wedding, a death, a graduation, the birth of a child. Poems are large enough to capture the emotional richness of the event. But I think we forget that poetry is also large enough to encapsulate everyday experiences—and children’s poetry does that so well: the wonder of seeing a caterpillar wind its way across the sidewalk, the birth of a butterfly, the beauty of a pansy, the taste of maple syrup. Children’s poems take for their subjects every possible relationship, training the heart and the mind to savor and pay attention in a language that a child can understand.
Pictures enhance poetry for children. The sounds of words paired with pictures are especially appealing to the child—and also to the one who reads to the child. My children and I adored Dr. Seuss: “Do you like green eggs and ham? / Try them, try them, if you can.” Dr Seuss’s rhymes became part of our family fun and our family lore. One St. Patrick’s Day, I even made green eggs for breakfast!
Silly and soothing, these poems are now as much a part of childhood as the nursery rhymes of old—and they’re more accessible! Try to explain to a child why an egg should sit on a wall, what a king’s horsemen are, and why they care to mend him! But cats and hats, bread and butter, caps and creatures are known quantities in a child’s life, and as such, their placement in this zany form makes the familiar strand delightful—like peering into a kaleidoscope for the first time.
Children’s poetry has also adapted to the hybrid prose poem that currently enjoys favor in the adult poetry world. Some children’s books are entirely written as prose poems, and with enormous success, such as Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust and Sonya Somes’s Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. Both books deal with serious and painful topics, and the form draws the reader in but also permits a certain distance.
In my own work as a novelist, I’ve sometimes found that a poem, inserted into the narrative, is the best way to express a sentiment or highlight the theme. Poetry is concise and unabashedly emotional. I would encourage children to invent poetry, using actual words or nonsense syllables, accompanied by hand clapping, dancing, and singing. It will draw them out. It will attach them to the rhythms of the world and their own bodies. As a species, I believe we have an innate love and need for the subtle but strong influences of poetry, in both the general and the literal sense. Like music, poetry connects us one to the other as it blends and harmonizes our inner and outer selves.