Monday, February 05, 2007

Waking the Poet Within

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.
Charlotte Mason

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!

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...


  1. Lindsay5.2.07


    Thank you for your encouraging post! As a former English teacher (now SAHM with my 19-month-old daughter), I know I sucked the joy out of poetry for many a student. (sigh)...But I didn't know how else to do it. Now I am so excited to teach my daughter of the joys of poetry in a natural and Charlotte Masonesque way!

  2. Betty5.2.07

    Soo glad you're back!! I've missed you! Hope you all are close to being settled and are enjoying your new house.

    We've been going through RLS A Child's Garden of Verses and each child has picked out a poem to learn (even me). We can't seem to be progressing in the memorization part. I'm not even doing well. Any hints?

    I do like the idea of just one poet per term. We feel like we really have gotten to KNOW Robert Louis Stevenson.

    Blessings to you!

  3. What a wonderful idea!
    When I was a child my Dad was getting his MA in English Literature. One year, when he was studying Chaucer, he read aloud to us as he studied--so we heard wonderful poetry although we did not understand it. I think a person can "feel" it before she understands it.
    But I have been wondering how to introduce my 13 year old boy to poetry now that we have taken him out of school.
    This sounds good!

  4. Ah, all is right with the world again, my dear friend is back! :0)

    Have a blessed and WONDERFUL day!

    - Kim

  5. Hello Linda!
    So glad you are back. And what a great post too!
    I truly am thankful to have found you who pointed me toward Charlotte Mason while my children are young. We have been reading poems almost every day this year. I have enjoyed it as much or more than my daughter.
    Thanks for the great tips. You always remind me not to be too "schoolish". I am grateful...I'm sure my daughter is too..she just doesn't know it yet :)

  6. Debbie6.2.07


    I am so glad you are back!! I hope your move went well. Thanks for reminding me that we don't have to do a lesson on poetry - listening to it is enough!


  7. jeanne s.6.2.07

    oh, so glad you are back!

    thanks for the poetry post. your posts are always so helpful and practical and i love that.

    it's a shame that most of us were not exposed to poetry "properly" i guess you'd say. wouldn't it have been great to have had a teacher that read poetry to us just to read it? so glad we can do this with our own kids!

    curious as to what was the origin/cause of your DH's love of poetry? a parent? a teacher? just in his nature? what was his first exposure to poetry? i'm aware that some people's personality probably gravitates more to poetry -- i've heard matt whitling talk before and if i recall correctly he said there was a time when he didn't really appreciate poetry like he does now. he also mentioned a time when he was reading ... dante's inferno? can't remember exactly ... and he was reading aloud the part where eve was about to take the fruit from the serpent, when his five year old son cried out, "NO! Don't do it!" the point being that even little ones can understand it on some level.

    to betty -- we have a CD of RLS poems that is just lovely -- a child's garden of songs: the poetry of robert louis stevenson in song by ted jacobs.

    thanks again, linda. welcome back!

  8. I'm glad you're back! Hope you're settling in. I love this idea for studying poetry. I have an old battered copy of Poems Children Will Sit Still For that I read from to the children. They already love it.
    I'm making my way through A Charlotte Mason Companion to get my toes wet before reading the real thing. I'm loving her ideas- thanks so much for introducing me!

  9. I am one, (of many) glad to see you back!
    I find myself constantly trying to improve my lessons.
    Poetry is one of several lessons that I need to improve on.
    This really means that I need to learn how to appreciate and
    enjoy it and pass that enthusiasm on to my children.
    Thank you for encouragement!

  10. Thanks to all of you for the very warm 'welcome back.' I'm so, so glad some are inspired to put away the poetry 'lessons' for awhile.

    Lindsay, I understand! I used to teach in the public school system and often wish I could undo some of the ways I taught. I just didn't know any better. Like you, I am excited to teach my own 'differently.'

    Betty, we love Stevenson, too. We read poetry from a poet for six weeks before we decide what we want to memorize. I schedule a five minute slot into each child's day for memory work. They do it mostly on their own, except the little ones and Friday Group Days. I found that if I didn't schedule it, it didn't get memorized. Also, I reward my kids with a full day spent at a friend's house if they say ALL their memory work for the term with only an error or two. They LOVE it.

    I wish I could respond to each one of you; please know that your comments are always read with pleasure and appreciation that you took the time. I'll be stopping by blogs soon.


  11. Poetry is so beautiful to share with young children. I think it begins earlier than we think...with those first nursery rhymes. Some of them are quite ingenious, especially if you know the history behind them (although some you might not want to let your children know the true meaning of!).

    We read a lot of poetry, too, but we certainly don't analyze it. We're just enjoying it at the moment! Glad you are back to posting!

  12. Linda,
    When you read a poem each day do you read a totally different one everyday? Also, do you read a different poet to each of your kids? And finally, when you say they usually choose to recite their poems on Friday, does this mean you give them a choice?

    Thanks for clarifying. I might be asking a lot more questions in the future since I'm trying to revamp our schedule a bit.

    Have a great day,

  13. Elisabeth,
    Those are good, practical questions. I'll just tell you what we do. This isn't

    We read one poem a day unless it is extremely short such as Rosetti's poems. Then, I will read a couple. If the poem is extremely long, we will only read part of it that day.

    I read aloud the poetry selections for each child until fourth grade, then they read it alone but I require them to read it aloud to themselves. And yes, if a child is in a different level from another child, their poet will be different. I do this because I want to make sure my children don't miss out on an important poet who may potentially be the catalyst that creates that love of a certain poet's style within my child.

    On Fridays, each child gets to choose whatever poem she wishes from the week's readings. But I only do this with my younger children- those that I read poetry to. But for group time, we have RECITATIONS and the kids recite OLD poems and scripture from previous years. They never know what I will choose.