Written by Hannah Vanderpool of Praying with One Eye Open.
We’re in the living room. Two of the kids are stretched on the couch and they’re tugging a blanket between them, though they know better than to wear it out further.
The middle boy sits on the loveseat. He smiles and flops himself flat, legs off the side.
He knows he has the better seat, the one across from me.
I pick up the poetry book. It’s a thick, yellow anthology, one we’ve been working through for almost a year.
Every day we sit in our places and I read from it — words about love, and trees and ordinary people. Today is no different.
This morning I read my best, paying attention to the rhythm and flow of the lines. I finish the last line of a Langston Hughes poem and then I don’t say anything because there is meaning in the air and I want them to feel it.
The kids aren’t little anymore. They don’t need me to read to poems to them — haven’t needed it for years, really.
But I do it anyway, for them, but also for me.
Poetry is a velvet box between whose walls are hidden the things that make us human.
I read aloud other people’s treasures so that we learn to recognize art when we hear it, and so that my children will see that even harsh truths go down easier if they’re expressed beautifully.
Some of the poems we read are silly, like those of Lewis Carroll or Ogden Nash. They’re the ones the kids ask me to read twice, or even three times in a row, because who doesn’t love a made-up word or a little alliteration?
Others are sweeping and romantic, like those of Longfellow or Tennyson. The middle boy has no time for these, and lets me know how ridiculous it is to go on and on about a woman’s hair. My daughter, on the other hand, loves the exquisite heartbreak of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot.
I’ve sometimes wondered if all of this poetry reading is superfluous.
I love it, but what if it’s time we could spend in a more productive way? I’m heartened to learn, however, that leaders in the fields of education and child development advocate the reading aloud and memorization of poetry because it helps promote language development in young children, literacy in older children, and social and emotional development for all ages.
Morag Styles, Professor of Children’s Poetry at the University of Cambridge reminds us that,
“Poetry is an intense form of language. It can be simultaneously personal and universal. It enlarges the sympathies, helps us understand ourselves better, gives us the pleasure of vicarious experience and offers us insights about being human. It provides a way of working out feelings, giving order to experience by reducing it to manageable proportions.”
We find this to be true in our family, particularly when my tween and teen boys listen to poems about heroes and live through their exploits for a few moments.
Listening to, and discussing, poetry helps them to channel their all-over-the-place emotions in an appropriate way, and points them to things worth caring about, as it did for the boys in the movie Dead Poets Society.
Poetry is an acquired taste, but it’s easy to acquire if children (and grown-ups!) are exposed to it gently.
Developing a poetry-reading habit calls for the same baby steps that most worthwhile habits require in the beginning.
Purchasing or borrowing a good anthology of children’s poetry is a start. Then, focusing on daily readings of two or three poems — especially those with concrete subjects for small children — will help to ensure that the time is both fun and easy to digest.
(Discussing a poem after its conclusion isn’t necessary, especially at first, but can be enjoyable if the child wants to. Otherwise, it’s perfectly fine to read, smile, and close the book).
Eventually, many children come to love poetry time because it feels like “miniature story time.” And when a child has reached this point, he’s discovered the joy that well-written words have to offer.
Twenty minutes later, the kids and I are still in the living room. They eye me. They can tell I’m ready to move on now. We have other things to do. The oldest boy, his voice popping high and then low these days, says, “Wait. You’re not done already …”
I pretend to close the book, but he knows me well. I open it again and smile.
“One more,” I say.
I’m glad he asked.