Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Poetry for kids (part one)


38600_logo Now, let's not pretend for a second I know anything about this subject. Well, that's not quite true. I have a daughter and she was a kid for quite a wee while. And, of course we did all the nursery rhyme stuff, the classics, 'Humpty Dumpty', 'Ol' King Cole', 'Mary Had a Little Lamb', but after that I sort of lost track until she turned into an angst-ridden teenager writing angst-ridden poetry that she refused to let me read.

I was thinking about the poetry I did at school and to be honest the first poetry I remember doing was in Primary 6 — which would make me about 10 — and our project for that year was Robert Burns. That's the only time I can ever remember pupils being made to recite a poem in front of the rest of the class although I can't remember me doing it; I guess it was traumatic and I blocked it. The next year was poetry intensive — Wordsworth, de la Mare, Masefield, Tennyson etc (thank you Mr Wallace) — but what happened between five and nine? I have no idea.

And this got me thinking. What poetry is there out there before we introduce our kids to the 'real stuff'? I have to say I've never been slightly tempted to write poetry aimed at juveniles. I have a couple that come under the general heading of 'nursery rhyme' but that's about it and they were written many years ago. This is the only poem I can think of that might appeal to juveniles and that's mainly because it involves bodily functions:


Sometimes you have to go
to zed
before you can get
to be
and sometimes you need
to stop
to pee on the way back.

7th June 1997

Now, I'm sure those out there with pubescent children (and some pre-pubescent children though trying to find out what age range that covers is next to impossible) will know whether that would appeal to their kids. (American readers can, of course, replace 'zed' with 'zee'.) I'm not sure the title might not confuse but then at what age is it proper to introduce alternative philosophical schools of thought and poke fun at them? I don't think I would've got the title till I was well into my teens.

I wrote my first 'official' poem when I was thirteen by which time I was I was in love for the first time in my life. That relationship lasted four years and if I hadn't been the emotional runt of the litter it would have led to marriage so it was no crush I can tell you. If socially I was backward, intellectually, at least, I was old for  my years (and had been for years) so I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask what those wilderness-years kids would read. Even as a kid I wasn't interested in kids' stuff.

I suppose what I'm looking for is the poetic counterpart to Tracy Beaker.

I did a search using Google Insights to see what I could find comparing 'poetry for kids' (orange), 'poems for kids' (red) and 'kids poems' (blue). The resultant chart is interesting:


Searches for kid-related poetry are apparently on the increase but why is the UK lagging so far behind? It can't be anything to do with head count because look who's at the top. Well done New Zealand.

I typed in "poems for kids" into Google and the first site that came up was Kenn Nesbitt's of whom I knew nothing. I had a click on one of two, e.g. 'My Nostril Smells Awesome' and 'My Chicken's On the Internet' which were a bit on the silly side but they were also pretty much what I expected, light verse arranged in quatrains on topics that would keep the kids' attentions. And then I clicked on this one which is exactly the kind of poem I think should be directed at young potential poets:


Today I wrote this poem,
but I'm not sure if it's good.
It doesn't have the things
my teacher says a poem should.

It doesn't share the feelings
I have deep inside of me.
It hasn't any metaphors
and not one simile.

It's missing any narrative.
Alliteration too.
It isn't an acrostic,
diamante, or haiku.

There's nothing that's personified.
It doesn't have a plot.
I'm pretty sure that rhyming
is the only thing it's got.

It sure was fun to write it,
and I think it's long enough.
It's just too bad it's missing
all that great poetic stuff.

I put it on my teacher's desk
and, wow, she made a fuss.
She handed back my poem
with an A++++!

Basically this poem would have had the same effect on me if I'd read it at eight that 'Mr Bleaney' had when I was thirteen. Larkin taught me that poetry was more than technique. This poem does much the same. It's like a lot of the poetry I've been writing myself of late, self-referential works that make you question the nature of poetry. The other thing I liked about the site was that it also gives lessons in how to write poetry. It does focus on funny poetry and I really have no problem with that. As kids age they'll vary the topic and approach to suit their moods and needs.

So, I moved on and a couple of sites down the list came to Poetry180 which is designed to present a poem a day for each day of the American school curriculum. I like the idea of that. Poetry is something you can most certainly get too much off. And kids can get sickened off very easily. The poems in this site are definitely the next step up from Kenn Nesbitt's. Most of the poets were unfamiliar to me but that's neither here nor there. The one that leapt off the page though was #127, Julie Sheehan's 'Hate Poem' from which I'd like to show this excerpt:

The blue-green jewel of sock lint I’m digging
     from under by third toenail, left foot, hates you.
The history of this keychain hates you.
My sigh in the background as you explain relational databases
     hates you.
The goldfish of my genius hates you.
My aorta hates you. Also my ancestors.

A closed window is both a closed window and an obvious
     symbol of how I hate you.

There's no happy ending to this one. It's funny but in a very different way to Nesbitt's work. It'll also be a poem that youngsters can relate to because they tend to express their emotions is all-or-nothing ways; best friends at the start of the day can be bitter enemies by close of play.

There are quite a few good poems in the list. I liked #086, 'Sure' which deals with drugs and death — a far cry from the romanticised vagabonds I was reading about — and #097, 'The Hymn of a Fat Woman' which deals with body issues and religion and the very timely #099 'From On Being Fired Again'. I don't think I knew an unemployed person all the time I was at school but within three months of leaving school I was one as were many of my school mates; the times certainly were a' changin'. And they clearly still are.

I thought I was going to have to wade through loads of sites before I found what I was looking for but I guess not. I think this single web page would probably have enough links for anyone but The Children's Poetry Archive would be as good a place to start as any. It's not on that list. I found it researching nursery rhymes which I'll discuss in a separate article.

From all accounts the inclusion of poetry in the day-to-day curriculum is not something that has been given a high priority in recent years. One has to ask why. In his essay Sharing Poetry with Children, Roberta Mazzucco, points the finger at the teachers:

For many, poetry is a difficult and boring assignment to teach. Since the teacher may not have enjoyed poetry, the minimal amount in the reader is just fine. As is the case also with the state of science in many schools, there is a lack of confidence in teaching the subject, so it is avoided at all cost or minimally done. Even worse, the teacher’s lack of enthusiasm results in a half-hearted attempt to cover the poem.

The whole article is worth a read because he gives some good pointers about how to teach poetry. Like this:

Because of the short length of many poems, they are convenient for teachers to use whenever the moment seems appropriate. Here again there is the danger that every lull becomes the time for the teacher to whip out a poem. Poetry needs to come in at relevant and timely moments. A poem for every day and every occasion can be overkill. We want neither to keep poetry a secret that most readers cannot fathom, nor to trivialize it so as to make it banal.

Most of the literature suggests that any unit on poetry should presume that children have been listening to poems from the beginning of the year and that this is not just a two or three week foray into a genre which will then be forgotten. The literature on poetry and young children also suggests the strong tie between the reading and writing of poetry. The writing of poems is to be strongly encouraged because it not only helps the child to understand the poets’ craft but affords the child another outlet for expressing his/her ideas and emotions

Teacher ignorance and apathy are one thing. In the introduction to his book, Teaching Poetry in the Primary School: Perspectives for a New Generation, Dennis Carter addresses another problem:

On the one hand there are the demands made by poetry, the spirit of creativity and the nature and needs of children. On the other there are those made by the Education Reform Act of 1988 with its National Curriculum and, more recently, by the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) with its 'Literacy Hour'. Unless these contrary forces are reconciled, however, the future of poetry in schools and, more importantly, the future development of children's sensibilities are grim indeed.

Who'd be a teacher these days? is all I have to say on that.

I have no doubt that poetry cropped up from time to time throughout my childhood, at school at least, but the only years I remember poetry from were Primary 7 (age 11) and Third and Fourth Year (ages 15-16) at secondary school. Why these years? Because the teachers were especially good at bringing the poems to life. I've mentioned Mr Wallace before. As kids we were never told much about him and he never told us much apart from stories about him chasing Germans round haystacks. He was old though — probably a good 60 — and I've always held the opinion that he had been brought out of retirement to teach us. I'm grateful for that because he was old fashioned. Had we had a younger teacher then we might have been exposed to the likes of Edward Lear and Ogden Nash, not that there's anything wrong with them but they were easy to catch up on in my own time later. As an article on the website puts it:

It is a simple fact that some children are more drawn to words and literature than others. Sometimes all it takes is the influence of the right person or book at the right moment, to tap something that is set to blossom inside — a love of language, of the sound or meaning of words, of their look on the page. But it is critically important for all children that the right opportunities, the right people, be there when the moment is at hand.


The trick is how to translate this energy, once aroused and captured, into the desire to read poetry seriously, to do the intellectual work necessary to gain a basic mastery of the literary art, just as one does, say, with math, biology, or Spanish. - Serious Play: Reading Poetry with Children

I'd like to leave you with a quote from the article What's Children's Poetry For?

We can overprotect children from difficulty refusing to expose them to things beyond their knowledge when the purpose of education is to teach students things they don't know. But there's a difference between exposing children to things beyond their knowledge and exposing them to things beyond their comprehension.

It's a wise teacher who knows when to make the transition from poetry that simply entertains to poetry that makes his or her students think. I have a lot to be grateful to Mr Wallace for even if this thank you has been a long time coming because I'm sure none of us really appreciated what he was guiding us towards.

I'm not sure what the future will bring. I can guess but that would me being pessimistic. What I do believe is that natural poets will find their true calling with very little encouragement. And this is where the Web is so important. It's where our kids will look for encouragement and support and there are sites (One Night Stanzas jumps particularly to mind) to provide exactly that.

Next time: In this day and age who needs nursery rhymes? In the meantime, those of you with kids about the right age might want to check out Poetry Matters: Writing A Poem From the Inside Out — the book looks interesting. I wish I'd been presented with something like that when I was ripe for it.

Also, especially for those in the UK, the Ofsted report on Poetry in Schools makes interesting reading as does a generally positive report on the effect of The Literacy Hour in English Schools by Stephen Machin and Sandra McNally prepared for the Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics.


Marinela said...

I enjoy reading what you write :)

Rachel Fenton said...

My daughter likes your poem! She was told she wasn't good enough to enter a school poetry competition because her Haiku was not a 'real' had the correct number of syllables per line and was, in every sense, a haiku, except that it was a fantastical haiku, one in which the movement/moment being described was my daughter knocking someones block off! Too violent me thinks. Anyway, she wrote to Cilla McQueen (NZ poet laureate) and got a spiffing letter back - all is not lost!

Some teachers really should have taken a different career path instead of discovering their ineptitude for teaching at the expense of kids' dreams.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for dropping by, Marinela, and for your kind words. I had a wee look at your site. I wish I'd found it when I was preparing this article because I would have made a point of highlighting it. I wish I'd had the Web available when I was your age.

And, Rachel, say 'thank you' to your daughter for me and tell he not to worry about what her teacher said. It's disappointing to learn that our teachers don't know everything but that's a part of growing up.

In the teacher's defence (I'm assuming it's a primary school teacher) he or she is probably being asked to teach a whole variety of subject and they can't expect to be experts in or even interested in them all. It takes a bit of bottle to admit to a student that you're knowledge is limited. And the thing is I find that can actually earn them more respect.

You should post your daughter's poem on your blog (if she is agreeable).

Conda Douglas said...

I adore the Tao poem. And I don't believe you need to be old enough to know the title or young enough to be fascinated by peeing!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Conda. I have to say I have no idea where that one came from but I'm not complaining. So much poetry is way too serious and I'm as guilty - more I would suspect - than the next man. I find it next to impossible not to include humour in my prose, so why's it so hard with the poetry? Maybe I'll write a blog about that.

Dave King said...

A good canter through the subject Jim. Full of minefields and you seem to have avoided them all. Very well done. I loved the Tao poem, too. I always found (nearly always found!) that there were two things that kids of any age liked: writing their own poems and choosing their own. With regard to the latter they always surprised me: some would choose poems well above their notional age; others, for whatever reason, would seem to regress and choose baby stuff - though they didn't necessarily write it. When being read to, relevance was the major consideration.

Jim Murdoch said...

Interesting comment, Dave. I can't comment so much on the poetry side but certainly when it came to books – and Carrie was exactly the same – we were very keen to punch above our weight as soon as we could get away with it.

As far as poetry goes, I would be eighteen before I started seriously looking for new stuff. There is an element of fun to go backwards though. I can see that. I suppose that was part of what motivated the 'Tao' poem, to revel in language for a minute.

Kass said...

I grew up in iambic pentameter. Every greeting card had original poems by my Dad (kind of bad ones, but lovable). I get tired of pretentious poetry. You're refreshing!

Jim Murdoch said...

I've tried to avoid writing too many cute poems like that, Kasscho. There is definitely an art to it and it is so easy to get wrong. My wife quite often sticks a poem in with a card but I've never been very good at writing poems to order. Glad you like the blog.

Marion McCready said...

Ted Hughes wrote fantastic kids poetry. I've also got a great wee book of his called 'Poetry in the Making' which is based on a series of BBC programmes he did for schools on imagination and how to write poetry - it really is great stuff.

Jim Murdoch said...

See, Sorlil, I told you I knew nothing about the subject. I knew about his prose but not the poetry. Apparently a long-lost long poem called Timmy the Tug was recently discovered and has just been published. You can read bout it here.

Marion McCready said...

How interesting! Thanks for that.

Cy Mathews said...

Jim, I highly recommend Kenneth Koch's books on this subject - specifically "Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children."

"Talking to the Sun: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems for Young People" and "Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry" are also fantastic.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Cy, and for visiting my blog too. Hope to see you again.

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