A point which I should like to bring before the reader is the peculiar part which poetry plays in making us aware of this thought of the ages, including our own. Every age, every epoch, has its poetic aspect, its quintessence, as it were, and happy the people who have a Shakespeare, a Dante, a Milton, a Burns, to gather up and preserve its meaning as a world possession.
As a young adult, I did not enjoy poetry and could not understand those who did. What was all the hullabaloo about, anyway? How could poetry thrill one's soul? I have vague memories of school lessons introducing haiku and cinquain. I thought them most boring and endured this part of my English classes. Then I met my husband-to-be. He loved poetry and could sit for long periods reading Chesterton's 'The Ballad of the White Horse', quote Elizabeth Browning, Emily Dickinson, Kipling and several others; he would write lovely, stirring poems whenever inspired. I began to feel that I had missed out on something beautiful in my youth. His enthusiasm captured me and I started reading poetry for enjoyment, gradually developing a sincere appreciation for this art form. I learned that poetry has the power to capture a particular emotion, inspiring heroism, faith and beauty. When my children came along, I was determined to give them a better introduction to poetry, but was a little intimidated too. How does one teach 'form' and 'meter' and all those other technical sounding words while keeping the child's interest?
Miss Mason came to my rescue. Just as she thought nature should be enjoyed before analyzing it, she suggested that children should learn to enjoy poetry by simply hearing it before being required to study it and pick it apart. Later, AFTER the heart is awakened to the rhythm and beauty of words, the mechanics of poetry can be studied in greater detail. This made perfect sense to me. Perhaps all those schoolish exercises had sucked the life out of it for me. I never had time to just enjoy poetry as I had done with a good story book. I determined to try this with my children. Oh! I can't rave enough about our success in using this method. We have become a poetry loving family. The results are far better than I ever envisioned. And yet, what we do is so simple!
IN OUR HOME
Just as we study only ONE artist and ONE composer over several weeks, we study only ONE poet per term. In this way, the child develops a love for that poet and is often able to recognize his or her style. Once they can do this, they like to try to write poems, all the while copying the style of the particular poet they now feel is an old friend. My children listen to poetry read aloud from the time they are four or five years old so that it becomes as natural to them as eating and drinking. No twaddle whatsoever is tolerated; with so many great poets, there is no time to waste on the mediocre. By the time they are nine or ten years old, the appreciation is deeply ingrained and they are able to strike out on their own with a poet for the term. I continue to read poetry to the younger children while the older ones enjoy reading from "their poet" on their own for the most part. They love this feeling of ownership.
When I introduce a poet, I give just a wee bit of background about his life or tell an interesting tidbit (no one cares to hear a long biography at this time) and then I set aside five minutes a day to read just one of his poems aloud to the children. That's all I do. No assignments, no deep discussions; we simply enjoy his poetry. If the poem is long, it is broken up over several days. Usually on Fridays each child chooses to reread his favorite poem read that week. I do not teach about the structure of poetry until my children are older.
After several years of this type of poetry study (which actually involves no study at all), I hand a copy of Matthew Whitling's The Grammar of Poetry to them and do the first lesson or two together. After that, they are again, on their own, learning about the structure of poetry, analyzing it more deeply. By this time, they are ready for such a study and enjoy it immensely. It clarifies several ideas for them. At the same time, they continue to study certain poets, never completely dropping the daily poetry reading.
All my children love poetry and have filled several poetry journals with their own creations. (I give a small, pretty, blank poetry journal to each child around the age of 8-something large can be intimidating.) They have memorized many, many poems for the sheer enjoyment of it. Poetry is a vital part of our family life, now.
If you are beginning poetry study with older children who have yet to develop an appreciation for it, it is of utmost importance that you begin by choosing a poet that appeals to your child's age and interest. The ladies at Ambleside have put together a wonderful list of poets with age-appropriate poems. You can simply download the poet of your choice with his collection of poems, print them out and read aloud. Older boys tend to appreciate Kipling and Longfellow. Younger children often enjoy Stevenson. Young ladies may like Dickinson or Teasdale.
Poetry reveals to us the loveliness of nature, brings back the freshness of youthful feelings, reviews the relish of simple pleasures, keeps unquenched the enthusiasm which warmed the springtime of our being, refines youthful love, strengthens our interest in human mature, by vivid delineations of its tenderest and softest feelings, and through the brightness of its prophetic visions, helps faith to lay hold on the future life.
William E. Channing
one step at a time...