Waking the Poet Within

Poetry reveals to us the loveliness of nature, brings back the freshness of youthful feelings, reviews the relish of simple pleasures, keeps unquenched the enthusiasm which warmed the springtime of our being, refines youthful love, strengthens our interest in human nature, by vivid delineations of its tenderest and softest feelings, and through the brightness of its prophetic visions, helps faith to lay hold on the future life.
William E. Channing

As a young adult, I did not enjoy poetry and could not understand those who did. What was all of the hullabaloo about, anyway? How could poetry thrill one's soul? I have vague memories of school lessons introducing haiku and cinquain. They bored me and so I merely endured this part of my English classes. Then I met my husband-to-be. He loved poetry and could sit for long hours reading Chesterton's 'The Ballad of the White Horse', quote Elizabeth Browning, Emily Dickinson, Kipling and several others; he would write lovely, stirring poems whenever inspired. I began to feel that I had missed out on something beautiful in my youth. His enthusiasm captured me and I started reading poetry for enjoyment, gradually developing an appreciation for this art form. I learned that poetry has the power to capture a particular emotion, inspiring heroism, faith and beauty. When my children came along, I was determined to give them a better introduction to poetry than I had received, but I was utterly intimidated. How does one teach 'form' and 'meter' and all those other techniques which seem so daunting to the uninitiated and hold a child's interest at the same time?

The Secret to Enjoying Poetry
Charlotte Mason came to my rescue. Just as she thought the natural world should be enjoyed before analyzing it, she suggested that children should learn to enjoy poetry by simply hearing it before being required to study it and pick it apart. Later, AFTER the heart is awakened to the rhythm and beauty of words, the mechanics of poetry can be studied in greater detail. This made perfect sense to me. “Perhaps,” I thought, “all of those schoolish exercises had ruined it for me by turning it into a lesson and leaving out the art. For, art is surely pleasure or it is nothing. I never had taken the time to just enjoy poetry as I had done with a good story book, so I determined to try this with my children. That was several years ago.  The results have been far beyond what I had hoped to achieve. We have become a poetry-loving family. have memorized many, many poems for the sheer enjoyment of it. We have evenings of poetry recital with family and friends. My children spend their pocket money buying collections of their favorite poets. They write poetry regularly and just for pleasure. They have even entered and won several national poetry contests, receiving cash prizes. And yet, our approach to poetry is amazingly simple!
Just as we study paintings of only ONE artist and listen to the works of only ONE composer over several weeks, we hear the poetry of just ONE poet each twelve-week term. This allows the children to develop a love for a particular poet and get a feeling for his or her style. If we are always bouncing around from poet to poet, we forget who wrote the poem and never have a chance to develop a relationship with the poet and his style.  Charlotte Mason recognized that children need to form various bonds with the materials presented to them in order for true learning to take place. Throughout the years, we have spent several weeks reading the poetry of one poet. Some poets have been more appealing to a particular child than others.  This is good and to be expected. Children will form definite opinions. 
“Oh, I can’t stand that poet!” but I love Emily Dickenson.” 
“I really like some of Wordsworth’s poems, but some of them are too mushy.” 
“Walt Whitman is highly overrated.”
“G.K Chesterton is the greatest poet that ever lived!”
These are the telltale signs of real learning taking place. There have been times when we didn’t care for a poet, but we kept on reading his poems until the term finished.  By the end of the term, even though the poet did not become a favorite among us, we found we appreciated several of his poems; poems that we would have missed if we had given up too soon. 
My children listen to poetry read aloud from the time they are four or five years old so that it becomes as natural to them as eating and drinking. Twaddle of any kind is anathema. With so many great poets, there is no time to waste on the mediocre. By the time they are nine or ten years old, the appreciation is deeply ingrained and they are able to strike out on their own and read a poet’s works for themselves. They do this by reading out loud daily for just a few minutes. I continue to read poetry to the younger children.
When I introduce a poet, I give just a short background about his or her life, or provide an interesting tidbit of information (no one cares for a long biography at this time), and then I set aside five minutes a day to read just one of his poems aloud to the children. That's all I do. There are no assignments and no deep discussions. We simply enjoy the poetry. If the poem is long, it is broken up over several days. Usually on Fridays, each child chooses to hear again his favorite poem read that week.
After a few years of simply listening to poetry read aloud, most children like to try their hand at writing poems. They tend to copy the style of the particular poet they now feel is an old friend. This is a necessary step that all good writers go through. All too often, in school settings, children are asked to write poetry or stories from their own meager exposure to words and then we wonder why it is simply awful. The reason is simple. They have skipped a crucial step. First, they must learn from the Masters by hearing them over and over again. Only then, should they be expected to produce something worthwhile. Eventually, they begin to develop their own unique style. It is a beautiful thing to watch unfold in each child. Some children need a little urging to get started because they are afraid of failure.  I help them along by assigning a particular time each week for them to write a short poem in the style of the poet they are studying.  No lessons are necessary to teach this. The more they read from a poet’s works, the more they notice their style. No effort is marked wrong.  Eventually, their little creations begin to take better shape and sound more pleasing to the ear.  In order to encourage this further, I give the children beautiful little blank, lined poetry journals as gifts on special occasions.
When they are older, and only AFTER they have developed a love for poetry, they begin to learn the structure of poetry so that they will be able to put together their own creations in a more orderly fashion. I use Matt Whitling’s simple workbook, The Grammar of Poetry, in order to accomplish this task.  It is interesting, to the point, and relieves the burden of being the ‘all-knowing teacher’.  I work through the first few lessons with my students and then hand it over to them to be completed leisurely throughout the year. By this time, they are ready for such a study and enjoy it immensely. It clarifies several ideas for them. Meanwhile, they continue to study certain poets, never completely dropping the daily poetry reading.

If you are beginning poetry study with older children who have yet to develop an appreciation for it, it is of utmost importance that you save the lessons for later and simply begin by choosing a poet that appeals to your child's age and interest. Older boys and girls tend to appreciate selections from Sara Teasdale, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry W. Longfellow and Robert Frost. Younger children often enjoy Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses or Milne’s When We Were Very Young.  Or you can use books that focus on each poet.  There is an illustrated series called Poetry for Young People that provides a good starting point for those new to poetry.  Each book includes the works of classic poets. It is important that you be selective in providing poems from each poet. Don’t just buy a thick edition of a particular poet and read through it together. Be choosy.
My experiences with children have taught me that there is no such thing as some children having a bent for poetry while others do not. All children can read and write poetry for enjoyment. If we will just put away the lessons, we can provide an outlet for our children to enjoy beautiful ideas in words that sing, and thus stir the soul to imagine greatness and perform great deeds. It is our task, as parents and educators, to awaken the poet within each precious child.

“I believe that if, for one-half hour a day, a teacher were to read good poetry aloud with his pupils, not fretting them with comments, not harrying them with too frequent questions, but doing his best by voice and manner to hold their attention, and encourage them to read in their turn, pausing only at some salient beauty, or some unusual difficulty, above all giving the poetry time to sink in--I believe thoroughly he would find himself rewarded beyond all calculations. For a child’s mind is a wonderful worker if we only trust it. A child’s imagination is as susceptible of improvement by exercise as his judgment or memory. Can we not so persuade our schoolmasters that our children may hear this music more clearly and more constantly than we?”

-A. T. Quiller-Couch, Elson Grammar School Reader Book 3

one step at a time...