on teaching poetry

Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? [excerpt]

Giraffes, how did they make Carmen? Well, you see, Carmen ate the prettiest rose in the world and then just then the great change of heaven occurred and she became the prettiest girl in the world and because I love her.

Lions, why does your mane flame like fire of the devil? Because I have the speed of the wind and the strength of the earth at my command.

Oh Kiwi, why have you no wings? Because I have been born with the despair to walk the earth without the power of flight and am damned to do so.

Oh bird of flight, why have you been granted the power to fly? Because I was meant to sit upon the branch and to be with the wind.

Oh crocodile, why were you granted the power to slaughter your fellow animal? I do not answer.

—Chip Wareing, 5th grade, PS 61


Last year at PS 61 in New York City I taught my third-through-sixth-grade students poems by Blake, Donne, Shakespeare, Herrick, Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, and Federico García Lorca. For several years before, I had been teaching poetry writing to many of these children, and they liked it so much that I thought there must be a way to help them read and enjoy great poetry by adults.

I found a way to do it, in conjunction with my students' own writing, which enabled the children to get close to the adult poems and to understand and enjoy them. What I did, in fact, was to make these adult poems a part of their own writing. I taught reading poetry and writing poetry as one subject. I brought them together by means of "poetry ideas," which were suggestions I would give to the children for writing poems of their own in some way like the poems they were studying. We would read the adult poem in class, discuss it, and then they would write. Afterward, they or I would read aloud the poems they had written.

When we read Blake's "The Tyger" I asked my students to write a poem in which they were asking questions of a mysterious and beautiful creature. When we read Shakespeare's "Come Unto These Yellow Sands," I asked them to write a poem which was an invitation to a strange place full of colors and sounds. When we read Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," I asked them to write a poem in which they talked about the same thing in many different ways. The problem in teaching adult poetry to children is that for them it often seems difficult and remote; the poetry ideas, by making the adult poetry to some degree part of an activity of their own, brought it closer and made it more accessible to them. The excitement of writing carried over to their reading; and the excitement of the poem they read inspired them in their writing.

I had used poetry ideas in teaching my students to write poetry before, to help them find perceptions, ideas, feelings, and new ways of saying things, and to acquaint them with some of the subjects and techniques they could bring into their poetry; I had proposed poems about wishes, dreams, colors, differences between the present and the past, poems which included a number of Spanish words, poems in which everything was a lie. I would often suggest ways of organizing the poem as well: for the Wish Poem, starting every line with "I wish"; to help them think about the difference between the present and the past, I suggested alternating line-beginnings of "I used to" and "But now"; for the Comparison Poem I suggested they put one comparison in every line, for a Color Poem the name of a color in every line. These formal suggestions were most often for some kind of repetition, which is natural to children's speech and much easier for them to use in expressing their feelings than metre and rhyme.

With the help of these poetry ideas, along with as free and inspiring a classroom atmosphere as I could create (I said they could make some noise, read each other's lines, walk around the room a little, and spell words as best they could, not to worry about it), and with a good deal of praise and encouragement from me and from each other, my students in grades one through six came to love writing poetry, as much as they liked drawing and painting, sometimes even more--

The way I feel about art is nothing compared to the way I feel about poetry.
Poetry has something that art doesn't have and that's feelings....

--Rafael Camacho, grade 6

My poetry ideas were good ideas as long as they helped the children make discoveries and express feelings, which is what made them happy about writing--

I like poetry because it puts me in places I like to be...

--Tommy Kennedy, grade 6

You can express feelings non-feelings trees anything from A to Z that's why
IT'S GREAT STUFF!

--Tracij Lahab, grade 6

They wrote remarkably well. Sometimes my students wrote poems without my giving them an idea, but usually they wanted one to help them get started to find new things to say.

Teaching students who were enthusiastic about poetry, good at writing it, and eager to get ideas for writing new poems, I considered the kind of poetry that they were usually taught in school (and the way it was taught) and I felt that an opportunity was being missed. Why not introduce them to the great poetry of the present and the past? It was a logical next step in the development of their own writing: it could give them new ideas for their poems, and it would be good in other ways too. If they felt a close relationship to adult poetry now, they could go on enjoying it and learning from it for a long time.

This result seemed unlikely to be produced by the poetry children were being taught in school. The poems my students wrote were better than most of those in elementary-school textbooks. Their poems were serious, deep, honest, lyrical, and formally inventive. Those in the textbooks seemed comparatively empty and safe. They characteristically dealt with one small topic in an isolated way--clouds, teddybears, frogs, or a time of year--

Asters, deep purple,

A grasshopper's call,
Today it is summer,
Tomorrow is fall.

--from "September," The World of Language, Book 5.Follett Educational Corp.

Nothing was connected to any serious emotion or to any complex way of looking at things. Everything was reassuring and simplified, and also rather limited and dull. And there was frequently a lot of rhyme, as much as possible, as though the children had to be entertained by its chiming at every moment. When Ron Padgett at PS 61 asked our fifth-grade students to write poems about spring, they wrote lines like these--

Spring is sailing a boat
Spring is a flower waking up in the morning
Spring is like a plate falling out of a closet for joy
Spring is like a spatter of grease...

--Jeff Morley, grade 5

Jeff deserved "When daisies pied and violets blue" and "When-as the rye reach to the chin" or William Carlos Williams's "Daisy" or Robert Herrick's "To Cherry Blossoms," rather than "September." If it was autumn that was wanted, I'm sure that with a little help, he could have learned something from "Ode to the West Wind" too. There is a condescension toward children's minds and abilities in regard to poetry in almost every elementary text I've seen:

Words are fun! . . . Some giggle like tickles, or pucker like pickles, or jingle like nickels, or tingle like prickles. And then . . . your poem is done! And so is my letter. But not before I wish you good luck looking through your magic window . . .

"A Famous Author Speaks," Our Language Today, American Book Company.

says one author to third graders; but my third graders could write like this:

I used to have a hat of hearts but now I have a hat of tears
I used to have a dress of buttons but now I have a name of bees . . .

-- Ilona Bahurka, grade 3

I had discovered that my students were capable of enjoying and also learning from good poetry while I was teaching them writing. In one sixth-grade class I had suggested to the students a poem on the difference between the way they seemed to be to others and the way they really felt deep inside themselves. Before they wrote, I read aloud three short poems by D. H. Lawrence on the theme of secrecy and silence--"Trees in the Garden," "Nothing to Save," and "The White Horse." They liked the last one so much they asked me to read it three times:

The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent they are in another world.

The Lawrence poems seemed to help the whole class take the subject of their poem seriously, and one girl, Amy Levy, wrote a beautiful and original poem which owed a lot to the specific influence of "The White Horse." She took from Lawrence the conception of another world coexistent with this one, which one can enter by means of secrecy and silence, and used it to write about her distance from her parents and the beauty and mystery of her own imaginings--

We go to the beach
I look at the sea
My mother thinks I stare
My father thinks I want to go in the water.
But I have my own little world . . .

--from Wishes, Lies, and Dreams by Kenneth Koch, p. 251

In my new teaching my aim was to surround Amy, Ilona, Jeff, and the rest of my students with other fine poems, like Lawrence's, that were worthy of their attention and that could give them good experiences and help them in their own writing. Some of the poems would be much more difficult than "The White Horse," and all of them would probably be "too hard" for the children in some way, so I would not merely read the adult poems aloud but do all I could to make them clear and to bring the children close to them.


I began with the general notion of teaching my students the poems I liked best, but I soon saw that some of these were better to teach than others. Some poems came to me right away because of some element in them that I knew children would be excited by and connect with their own feelings. The fantasy situation in Blake, for example, of talking to an animal--or the more real-life situation in Williams's "This Is Just to Say" of apologizing for something you're really glad you've done. Certain tones, too--Whitman's tone of boastful secret telling. And strange, unexpected things, like Donne's comparisons of tender feelings to compasses and astronomical shifts.

Sometimes a particular detail of a poem made it seem attractive: the names of all the rivers in John Ashbery's "Into the Dusk-Charged Air;" the colors in Lorca's "Arbolé, Arbolé . . ." and "Romance Sonambulo;" the animal and thing noises in Shakespeare's songs (bow-wow, ding-dong, and cock-a-doodle-dow).

Some poems had forms that suggested children's verbal games and ways children like to talk, such as the lists in Herrick's "The Tyger." Such forms would be a beginning for a poetry idea, since they were something the children couldimitate easily when they wrote.

It was usually one of these appealing features that brought a poem into my mind as good to teach children. Of course, I wanted it to be a poem they could get a lot from. There are terrible poems about talking to animals and there are great ones. And the same for lists, strange comparisons, and the rest. I was looking for appealing themes and forms in the very best poems. "

In deciding on poems, I wasn't put off by some of the difficulties teachers are often bothered by. Unfamiliar words and difficult syntax, for example, and allusions to unfamiliar things. My students learned new words and new conceptions in order to play a new game, or to enable them to understand science fiction in comics or on TV, so why not for poetry, which they liked just as much? Furthermore, since they were going to write poems themselves, the lesson did have something of the atmosphere of a game; and if they didn't find the poems as interesting as science fiction, I would have to figure out what was wrong with my teaching. In fact, in the excitement of reading the poems, the children were glad to learn the meanings of strange words, of old forms like thee and thine, and of strange conceptions like symmetry and sublunary.

I wasn't put off, either, by passages in a poem that I knew would remain obscure to them. To reject every poem the children would not understand in all its detail would mean eliminating too many good things. I knew they would enjoy and get something fine from Stevens's blackbird, even if the ironic allusiveness of "bawds of euphony" was going to escape them; and I was sure they would be inspired by Donne's compass even though certain details about neo-Platonism and Ptolemaic astronomy would be too hard to explain.

Though it occurred to me, at first, to reject all poems with sex or religion as part of their subject, I decided it was all right to teach poems that dealt with these subjects in certain ways. The sexual theme in Donne's "Valediction" is implicit but not the main theme of the poem; the real emphasis is on love, the pain of parting, and the hope for reunion, all of which children can respond to. Blake's "The Tyger" is not sectarian in a way that might bother children, but touches on religious feelings of a more basic kind. Children can feel wonder and amazement and fear, and they are fascinated by superpowered beings; they can respond without difficulty to the Creator of the tyger.

Like its textural and thematic difficulties, a poem's length can make it seem impossible to teach to children. I thought if something about the poem was just right for my students, however, that it was all right to teach them only a part of it, which is what I did with "Song of Myself." I chose sections 1 and 2; in class I explained the relation of this part to the rest of the poem. There was no short poem of Whitman that I thought would teach them as much. I felt free also to select poems in another language if they had something fine in them for my students, as I thought several poems of Lorca did. I gave the children the poems in Spanish and in English translations. Translations are imperfect, and only a few children understood all the Spanish, but the good things here (the dreaminess, the music, the use of color, the contrast of original and translation itself) seemed to outweigh these disadvantages.

Rhymed poems and poems written in the language of the past could have had bad effects on my students' writing, but I didn't want to omit such poems. I dealt with rhyme by showing my students the other kinds of form there were in the rhymed poem--the series of questions, for example, in "The Tyger," and the repetition of words--and suggested they use that kind of form in the poems they wrote in the lesson. Along with the rhymed poems, I included some that didn't rhyme--those by Whitman, Stevens, Williams, and Ashbery. I explained the present-day equivalents of all out-of-date words and phrases in the poems, and, while the children wrote, I urged them to use the words they really used whenthey spoke. After five lessons on past poets, I did notice some conventional "literariness" in their language and in the subjects they wrote about. I didn't wish to discourage all literary imitation, since sometimes it helped the children to express genuine moods and feelings, such as awe and grandeur, which they might not have been able to express without it. However, I didn't want them to get lost in literariness. So I taught them Williams, who wrote in contemporary language about ordinary things. The example of a great poet who did this, I thought, would help the children do it for themselves.

What I saw in my students' own poetry was helpful to me in choosing poems to teach them. The extravagance of their comparisons in earlier poems ("The cat is as striped as an airplane take-off...") had something to do with my deciding on Donne. Jose Lopez's poem about talking to a dog ("Oh dog, how do you feel with so much hair around you?") was one thing that put Blake's "The Tyger" in my mind. The tone of secrecy in the poems my students wrote inspired by Shakespeare's Songs made me think of teaching Whitman and of emphasizing a tone like that in his work. In writing for the Blake lesson, some children went backwards in the history of English poetry to an earlier style of talking to nature, lamenting mortality and whimsically inquiring into origins. "Rose, where did you get that red?" and, "Oh Daffodil I hope you never die but live forever!" showed me a connection I had never thought of and showed me, too, that my students might find it interesting to read Herrick.

The usual criteria for choosing poems to teach children are mistaken, if one wants poetry to be more than a singsong sort of Muzak in the background of their elementary education. It can be so much more. These criteria are total understandability, which stunts children's poetic education by giving them nothing to understand they have not already understood; "childlikeness" of theme and treatment, which condescends to their feelings and to their intelligence; and "familiarity," which obliges them to go on reading the same inappropriate poems their parents and grandparents had to read, such as "Thanatopsis" and "The Vision of Sir Launfal." One aspect of "childlikeness" which is particularly likely to work against children's loving poetry and taking it seriously is a cloyingly sweet and trouble-free view of life. Even Blake's "The Lamb," alone or in context with other sweet poems, could betaken that way. It is constant sweetness that is probably the main thing that makes boys, by the time they are in fifth or sixth grade, dislike poetry as something sissified and silly.

I ended up teaching, in this first series of lessons, three twentieth-century poets who wrote in English and one who wrote in Spanish; two poets who I suppose could be called Romantic--Blake and Whitman--one English, one American; two seventeenth-century poets; and Shakespeare. There was nothing of a survey about what I did. My point was to introduce my students to a variety of poetic experiences. Other teachers will doubtless want to try other poems. There are many poems children can learn from, and a teacher has a pleasantly wide choice.