Who’s Afraid of Poetry?

“But this is a poem,

and the only characters here are you and I,

alone in an imaginary room

which will disappear after a few more lines,”

-from “The Great American Poem” by Billy Collins

What’s the best way to get your children interested or even exposed to poetry? Reading it to them, of course. But I’m not talking about Shel Silverstein or even Dr. Seuss, useful as they each may be in their own right. I’m encouraging poems with a little more depth and sophistication. And this is not to scare the little ones away, but instead to begin to instill a more critical and creative ear that will serve them well throughout at least their educational lives. This fear of more modern poetry begins in childhood and continues thru adulthood. You just had to be there at my last book club meeting when I proposed that we read poetry next. There were more than a few blank stares. Sure there were those who were excited at the challenge and those who welcomed something new, but I could sense that everyone was just a little fearful of this unknown entity and I know that because I was too. And now that we’ve almost finished the collection I chose – Aimless Love by Billy Collins – I’ve heard from more than a few of my friends that they’ve really enjoyed the poems.

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When I was teaching middle-schoolers, I had the delight of facilitating a project/competition with my students in which they were tasked with selecting a poem, memorizing it, and then reciting it aloud to their class and perhaps the whole school (if they made it that far in the competition). Without a doubt, each year at least three or four students chose Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” from Through the Looking Glass perhaps the most nonsensical of all his work. For those who don’t remember or aren’t familiar with this poem, here’s a taste:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe?

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Though Humpty Dumpty tries – mostly in vain – to explain the poem’s meaning to Alice, the reality is that a lot of the words are made up, so it’s not easy to say for sure what’s really going on. The beauty of this poem, though, is the way it can be read aloud. The reason my students continued to select to MEMORIZE and RECITE this difficult poem, is that they saw the older students do it the year before. They saw how powerful and entertaining this poem can be when recited with gusto and confidence. Always, one of the students who selected this poem would move in to the next round and often even take home the grand prize. So in this case it wasn’t just about the poem’s meaning, per se, but how the students felt as they were performing these words aloud. They all become empowered as they were forced to interpret the poem’s meaning through their tones and gestures. Yes, it was important to think about what the poems means – but there was no one right way to see it.

And I like what Alice says about poetry:  After first reading “The Jabberwocky” she  says: “it seems to fill my head with ideas–only I don’t know exactly what they are!” This is the thing with poetry for adults and children alike. It’s not about exactly figuring out what the poem is ABOUT . Maybe it’s about what it makes you feel and think or even do. If you begin to deconstruct it and pull it apart too much, it can lose its luster. Of course if you’re working on your Ph.D. in English Lit. you are probably required to know what every word and phrase means, but for the rest of us, the lucky ones, our only requirement is to read it and then welcome whatever reaction comes. If you’re reading a collection of poems and you’re not connecting with the words, turn the page. That’s your right as a reader. And this is the impulse and right we can try to begin to instill in our young readers.

There are plenty of collections of poems for younger readers out there – some better than others – but I encourage all of us to find and read aloud the poetry we love. I tried this out with a friend at a playdate yesterday with some Billy Collins. We each chose poems that weren’t too long and perhaps had some images the kids could hold on to. What I liked best was watching their faces as we read aloud. They could tell something different was going. They didn’t understand what I was reading, but they understood it was something different and when I asked (the older ones) what they liked about the poems, they’d say “the cat” or “the horse,” and they’d ask me to read another one. It reminds me of how ever expanding their young minds are at this point, and what better time to feed these minds with poetry they may encounter later on down the road…





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