ESSAY - Our First Language :
Why Kids Need Poetry
I believe poetry belongs in every kid’s backpack. Poetry came to me through stories read by my parents at night, songs learned on the playground, and my first grade teacher, whose poetry curriculum was also a primer in paying attention and speaking with purpose.
For me poetry is akin to my favorite garden shovel: always on hand for fun and difficult work alike. I use poetry to dig through questions. On October 31, 2011 our world population passed 7 billion, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon posed us these worthy queries:
What kind of world has baby 7 billion been born into? What kind of world do we want for our children in the future?
When I consider how we will learn to share justice and prosperity among even a fraction of our 7 billion voices, I can only conclude that we must first learn to do the work of poetry. By sharing poems with kids from alphabets onward, we equip them with critical tools for twenty-first century cooperation.
Poetry is practice in communication basics like curiosity, attentiveness, patience, confidence, and empathy. To interpret poetry, we must cultivate a curiosity for the experiences of other people, attend carefully to each word, have the patience to read through repetition and ego, maintain the confidence to be honest in our responses, and use our empathy to allow each poet’s words and experiences to broaden our world perspective.
These same communication skills enable us to cooperate and work together in groups. Cooperation requires every person to have a say in the decisions that affect their livelihood. When someone speaks, we must be an attentive audience to hear beyond what is spoken. So what do we do when a conversation turns bitter, or data gets confusing, or people start to behave badly? As with poetry, when something is unclear or uncomfortable we must learn to look again, listen closer, embrace uncertainty.
Few kids may plan for cooperative work with fellows, but most kids like to play and have fun. Poet and nurse-midwife Rebecca Frevert muses:
I believe that poetry is our first language; we hear it from birth in the rhythms of ditties and lullabies as our parents soothed us to sleep. I’ve wondered why we lose this love of language as we grow up, becoming intimidated and put off whenever the word “poetry” is attached to a reading.
My educated guess is that kids will not embrace poetry when the practice is not fun. An early start may also be a key to lifelong poetry appreciation. Frevert read poems to her sons from a young age, and she admires how they read and write poems as adults. “I feel that if elementary level teachers performed poetry for the students, it would catch hold and stick,” she says. “For our family, the Youth Speaks program in Seattle with poetry performances at the Moore Theatre were a great influence.”
In 2009 Frevert began to extend poetry to her community in Everett, Washington with a poetry kiosk. She explains how when life gave her a dirt pile, neighbors grabbed shovels and made daffodils:
Years ago, after a load of compost dumped on the parking strip burnt the grass to death, my seventy-year-old neighbor Emory and I dug up the sod and planted a flower bed. He’s left earth now, but I’ve always called this little garden Emory’s Bed. A perfect spot to catch the eye of the walkers who might stop a few minutes to read a poem. The poetry stand is a simple design painted blue with a Plexiglas lid that keeps out the rain (but not the spiders who love to leave cocoons in its corners).
Her sign encourages passersby to read poems and contribute. When the Frevert family’s beloved dog Sunny passed away in 2009, one of her sons placed a poem about death and loss in the kiosk. Neighbors replied over several days with flowers and notes of sympathy. In 2011, a young poet named Devany (now 10 years old) shared three of her own handwritten poems in the kiosk, including this one:
She has lots of
She really likes blue
She has a baby
It drives me crazy
But she says love makes a true lady.
Frevert’s kiosk visitors demonstrate the communal nature of poetry, and remind us that poems are shared person to person through language and breath. Poet Robert Pinsky elaborates:
The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing … in poetry, the medium is the audience’s body … The reader’s breath and hearing embody the poet’s words. This makes the art physical, intimate, vocal, and individual.
Poems are “intimate…individual” conversations that we can use to share ideas, gain audience, and discuss challenging subjects. By teaching kids to experiment with words, we can prepare them for the hard work of adult problem solving.
University of Cambridge Professor of Children’s Poetry Morag Styles makes the case for children’s poetry. In addition to didactic and popular children’s poems, she celebrates perhaps the most sacred of all kid poetry—ridiculous songs that kids create with each other. Styles shares a few rhymes from the Scotland playgrounds:
Man United are short-sighted
tra la la la la la la la la
They wear rubies on their boobies
tra la la la la la la la la……
She goes on to quote 2010 T.S. Eliot prizewinner Philip Gross, who suggests: “children imbibe poetry from people who bring to it some ease and passion … young people can be bold readers of rich and demanding poetry – and writers of it too – when they come to it as participants, rather than as passive consumers.”
A new national curriculum released by the British Department for Education may help nurture the next generation of poetry participants. Under the proposed curriculum first year students would focus on phonetics, while second year students would be expected to hear and discuss classic and contemporary poetry, be familiar with a range of stories, fables, and literary language, and be capable of reciting poetry with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear.
My adult-poet self says, “Awesome! Way to bring home the poetry, Secretary Gove.” However, my inner perpetual teenage-poet self says, “Curriculum, phonetics, intonation? Yawn. Can’t breathe with all this hot air!” Kids know that the proper order of operations is play first, then work.
During his time as US Poet Laureate, Billy Collins hosted the Poetry 180 Project at the Library of Congress to help American high school teachers and students have fun with poetry. Useful resources like “How to Read a Poem Out Loud,” accompany 180 handpicked poems. Collins uses his own “Introduction to Poetry” for Poem #1, which describes an attempt to share a poem with students. Instead of heeding his guidance to carefully consider the poem, students “begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.”
A quick online search for “why do people hate poetry?” or “poetry sucks” retrieves hundreds of articulate poetry students (and teachers) who describe feelings of expectation and disappointment when they approach a poem, think poems sound absorbed with distant and unknown language, or feel like poems are written as private and unsolvable mysteries. These honest writers call out what many people think: “I totally don’t get this, and I have no idea where to start.”
I often get the “where to start?” feeling when I read too much news. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye describes how we can use poetry to gain perspective on difficult situations:
… I do think that all of us think in poems. I think of a poem as being deeper than headline news. You know how they talk about breaking news all the time. Too much breaking news; trying to absorb all the breaking news, you start feeling really broken. And you need something that takes you to a place that's a little more timeless, that kind of gives you a place to stand, to look out at all these things. Otherwise you just feel assaulted by all the tragedy in the world.
Before donning the weight of all the tragedy in the world, some kids can be overwhelmed by personal hardships. Founded in 1992 by Richard Gold, the Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project is a nonprofit volunteer effort to help kids in distress express themselves through poetry. Pongo reaches out to children and young adults who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives. By sharing poetry with kids in a safe environment, Pongo participants learn to discuss losses and traumas like the death of a parent, abandonment, neglect, abuse, rape, addiction, or a parent's addiction. In a recent blog post, Gold writes:
I've seen that life's worst experiences can exist as strangers in us, separate, like people we don't know and don't want to know … I've seen that our emotions after life's worst experiences can be sealed in a variety of containers, some buried, or in a black hole, some that explode unexpectedly … But I've also seen that through poetry, people can open these containers, and move their contents, these painful emotions, into new frames that are more open and repurposed for a meaningful life.
The poem that follows Gold’s remarks is entitled, “Poetry Saved My Life” by Bad One, a young woman, age 14. Bad One’s poem describes how she chooses poetry, rather than violence, as her path to resolution. Why does poetry work for Bad One? Perhaps it is the warm Pongo welcome:
You don’t have to be an experienced writer to create Pongo poetry. We appreciate the importance of what you have to say. Honesty is the quality we value most.
Pongo makes poetry accessible if not through jubilation, then at least through honesty and direct speech. With their open approach, Pongo uses poetry like a discussion table of unlimited seating capacity, where the most sensitive subjects are open for everyone’s respectful consideration.
In Yemen, poetry is an essential mode of community and political discourse within rural areas and among metropolises. The introduction to Johanne Haaber Ihle's documentary “Men of Words” states, “In the context of illiteracy and censorship, current problems are discussed through the ancient tradition of poetry.” Programs like Literacy Through Poetry (LTPP) use poetry and oral traditions to teach Yemeni girls and women how to read without formal education. Dr. Najwa Adra explains:
Using women’s poetic expression serves not only to promote literacy, but to preserve a valued and valuable tradition as well. In Yemen, short, two line poems are utilized effectively to mediate conflict. Poetry synthesizes the issue at hand and allows for disagreement without confrontation. When someone feels insulted, expressing anger in a poem is more sophisticated than physical violence or shouting. Moreover, rhetoric that one’s adversaries appreciate increases their willingness to accept compromise. This is critical thinking at its best.
Folk poetry is also a centuries-old oral tradition in poet Kristiina Ehin’s home of Estonia. In an interview with The Bitter Oleander, Ehin describes her delight at how quickly children can adopt the traditional regilaul—runo song. These rhythmic narratives tell amazing, sometimes frightening stories with themes that preserve layers of unwritten cultural laws:
Yesterday I sang regilaul to the children at the seashore. To my surprise they listened in fascination and sang along … if you explain the dialect and archaic words a little, then children can find it very interesting. Going to bed in the evening, five-year-old Emma started singing to those tunes, making up her own words. She sang a long regilaul … it was very special to hear how easily a child had acquired the metre and poetics of this form and how easily she improvised in it.
Ehin goes on in her interview to articulate the tasks of the poet:
How can I find common ground with my listeners, and introduce my poems in such a way that even themes that might seem strange to some are nevertheless interesting to them?
These are the tasks for all of us: to listen to each other for subtle common ground, to speak with thoughtful honesty, to visualize and experiment. The collective needs and messes of 7 billion people demand the slow, creative work of cooperation among neighbors as well as nations.
Without tools like poetry to move us beyond fear, our ability to think clearly and creatively will suffer. Poetry empowers us to meet the “where to start?” feeling with curiosity, attentiveness, patience, confidence, and empathy. If we want to acknowledge old ways that do not serve prosperity, move on toward a more just and equitable future for everyone, let us teach our children to play with poetry.
Please join our conversation with a link to a favorite poem, or a fun idea for teaching poetry for kids. To enjoy weekly poetry discourse I recommend the PoetsWest broadcast on KSER community radio every Thursday at 6:30pm Pacific Time. When in doubt, pop a poem in your pocket and share it with someone you meet.
Photos of Poets in Schools courtesy of the Skagit River Poetry Project in La Conner, Washington.
Photo of Poetry Kiosk and Devany’s poem courtesy of Rebecca Frevert
The author wishes to acknowledge the generous contributions and enthusiastic support provided to her by:
--- Director Molly McNulty, Linda Talman, and staff at the Skagit River Poetry Project
--- Washington State Poet Laureate (2012-2014) Kathleen Flenniken
--- Washington poet and nurse-midwife Rebecca Frevert