The Read-Aloud Handbook [excerpt]

     Writing begins long before the marriage of pencil and
     paper. It begins with sounds, that is to say with
     words and simple clusters of words that are taken in
     by small children until they find themselves living in
     a world of vocables. If that world is rich and exciting,

     the transition to handling it in a new medium—
     writing—is made smoother. The first and
     conceivably the most important instructor in
     composition is the teacher, parent, or older sibling
     who reads aloud to the small child.

     —Clifton Fadiman, Empty Pages: A Search for Writing Competence in School and Society

"What's Right or Wrong with Poetry"

If "lobster" were an important subject in the curriculum, we would have lobster classes for twelve straight years: where to find them, how they live, and, of course, how to catch, prepare, cook, and eat them. But if, after graduating from school, the end result was a lifelong loss of appetite for lobster, there would be a general reassessment of the lobster curriculum. And this is precisely what has happened to poetry in the United States--except no one is reassessing the poetry curriculum.

The contrast between how children respond to poetry and how adults do is seen most strikingly in two facts:

  1. Until The Road Less Traveled surpassed it, Shel Silverstein's collection of children's poetry, A Light in the Attic, held The New York Times record for the longest time on its bestseller list (186 weeks).
  2. The worst-selling department in bookstores is adult poetry; it sells so poorly, many stores no longer even stock it.

Poetry dies for most people on graduation day. The thickest coat of dust in a public library can be found in its poetry section. Considering how much time is spent in secondary classrooms dissecting poetry, one would expect graduates to be ravenous poetry consumers. Wrong. Why is this so?

One of poetry's strengths is its brevity. A poem is not a novel or a short story, yet it can be very revealing in its smallness--like one of those see-through Easter eggs. A poem should add up to something, a slice of life. One expert put it this way: "Unless a poem says something to a child, tells him a story, titillates his ego, strikes up a happy recollection, bumps his funny bone--in other words, delights him--he will not be attracted to poetry regardless of the language it uses."

Therefore the choice of poets and poems will have everything to do with how children react to poetry. But the American approach ignores those factors. It is more interested in "covering the core curriculum" than creating lifetime interest. The higher the grade level, the more obscure and symbolic and less humorous and understandable the poetry becomes. Because all the poetry is obscure, every poem must be dissected like some kind of frog in biology class, and we end up making poetry appear so unnecessarily complicated, people like children's author Jean Little decide not to stop the next time they come to the "woods on a snowy evening."

This attitude of the secondary faculty may be a result of the Segal Syndrome (in honor of Erich Segal, the Yale classics professor and author of Love Story). Usually associated with college faculties, but often spilling down to high school English departments, the Segal Syndrome works like this: A professor's esteem on the faculty is in inverse proportion to his or her public popularity; that is, if a professor writes a book, the more copies it sells, the lower he sinks with his peers; the fewer it sells, the higher the peer rating. "After all, if the public understands and enjoys him," the faculty reasons, "how deep can the guy be?" Extended to poetry, if anyone can understand it--or, God forbid!, someone laughs over it--how deep can it be?

The Segal Syndrome affects even elementary grade poetry. Shel Silverstein, Judith Viorst, and Jack Prelutsky are three of the most popular children's poets of the last twenty-five years, yet none of them has collected any of the major poetry awards from the academicians. (How good can they be if the kids like them?) If teachers or parents are sincerely interested in turning children on to poetry, they need to look first at which books actually work with children and then at why they work.

To begin with, all three poets can be serious but, more often, they make young people laugh. And laughter is a dirty word with some educators. As Garrison Keillor once noted in an interview with Larry King, humor may be one of the things missing in the American poetry picture. King mentioned that Keillor was going to a poetry reading that evening at Georgetown University, a reading with Rowland Flint, whom Keillor described as "the only very good poet in America who is really funny. In American poetry, there's an excess of symbol and a dearth of humor," Keillor noted. Any high school student in America would have agreed with him.

In an effort to find the poetry pulse of middle-grade students, Karen Kutiper exposed 375 Texas seventh-, eight- and ninth-graders to 100 poems (10 a day for 10 days, from a variety of forms), and surveyed their preferences. In a listing of their top 25, there were tongue-twisters, limericks, nonsense poems, and two poems each by both Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky. Nearly all their favorite poems were narrative (with an emphasis on humor), all but one rhymed, and only two could be considered serious. The ninth-graders, however, showed a slightly higher preference for serious poetry, a sign of maturity and perhaps a signal to teachers that serious poetry can be taught if you keep in mind that readers are first interested in story or narrative.

If secondary schools included more narrative and more humor in the poetry curriculum, there might be more interest in complex poetry as adults. In any case, the old prescription hasn't worked, so why keep prescribing it?

Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein, is so popular with children, librarians and teachers insist it is the book most frequently stolen from their schools and libraries. Over the last eight years I've asked eighty thousand teachers if they know Where the Sidewalk Ends(two million copies in print), and three-quarters of the teachers raise their hands. "Wonderful!" I say. "Now, who has enough copies of this book for every child in your room?" Nobody raises a hand. In eight years, only eighteen teachers out of eighty thousand had enough copies in their rooms for every child.

I continue, "Do each of you know the books in your classroom no child would ever consider stealing?" They nod in recognition. "Do you have enough copies of those books for every child in the room?" Reluctantly, they nod agreement. Here we've got a book kids love to read so much they'll steal it right and left and we haven't got enough copies; but every year we've got twenty-eight copies of a book they hate.

If we wish children to believe poetry is important, the worst way to teach it is to develop a two week poetry block, teach it, and then forget it--because that's what children will do with it. The best way is to incorporate meaningful poetry throughout the day.

From The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease, pubished by Penguin Books, 2001. Used with permission.