This blog is part of Educating My Boy: Chronicles of a Free-Schooler
One of my pet peeves is the way children are introduced to poetry these days. It’s similar to a lot of music education going on. Children are asked to write poetry and make music as their first introduction to poetry and music. This is totally absurd. Children should first hear poetry and music, they should become sensitized to it. Making poetry and music is impossible if you don’t hear them first.
Through our year, Jack’s sixth grade, I read to him some poems from the seven volumes of My Book House that we have so far covered. Every single time he says that he hates poetry. The only comment he ever makes about poetry is that a particular poem is or is not “realistic” – not that he can tell me what he means by realistic, and I never push him to give me a definition.
I had marked three poems to read to Jack from Volume Seven: “The Cloud” by Shelley, “The Bells” by Poe, and “The Peddler’s Song” from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.
I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers.
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams…
“Very realistic,” said Jack, “but I don’t like poetry.” I pointed out the visual part of the poem, the images that are evoked and the “realistic” scene that is painted in words.
Hear the sledges with the bells---
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars, that over sprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight...
Here I pointed out the “realistic” sounds evoked by the poem. Tinkle, sprinkle, twinkle – all imitate the sounds that bells make. The repetition of words – “tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,” and later in the poem “time, time, time” – also imitate the repetitious sounds of bells. I also pointed out the pitch differences between words, from higher pitched “tinkle” to the progressively lower “time” and “bell” – all resembling the difference in pitch between smaller and larger bells.
Then we moved on to Shakespeare. In “The Peddler’s Song” the travelling peddler is advertising his wares:
Will you buy any tape,
Or lace for your cape,
My dainty duck, my dear-O?
Any silk, any thread,
Any toys for your head
Of the newest and finest, finest wear-O?
Lawn as white as driven snow,
Crepe as black as e’er was crow.
Gloves as sweet as damask roses
Masks for faces and for noses.
Bugle bracelet, necklace amber
Perfume for a lady’s chamber,
Golden quoifs and stomachers,
For my lads to give their dears,
Pins and poking sticks of steel
What maids lack from head to heel,
Come buy of me! Come! Come buy! Come buy.
Buy, lads, or else your lasses cry!
He smiled at the advertising going on. I recalled for him some songs and chants from my own memories of hearing peddlers in the streets when I was a child, but also of not so long ago on subways in New York City. I asked Jack to condense this poem into a short advertising jingle (media time is expensive, I explained!). This is what he came up with:
Will you buy any tape
My dainty duck, my dear-O?
Any thread of the newest
And finest, finest wear-O?
Come buy, come buy, come buy,
Or else laddies your lassies will cry
As serendipity would have it my husband had marked a very nice poem for me to read in the Times Literary Supplement. I had read Kate Bingham’s “By the River Lau” the night before and decided to read Jack a few lines from it to see how he would react. The poem is a long one; here are the first three stanzas:
In Mino by the River Lau
there lived the artisan
who pressed and dried the pulp that made
an origami man.
Like onion silk her washi paper
crackled in the air
long-fibred fine as a sheet of light
a single shining square
that held between her fingertips
she folded in her mind
until she had by heart a map
of intersecting lines…
I had planned only to read a few stanzas to Jack. But as I started reading he stopped his fidgeting and listened attentively, so I didn’t stop. I read the poem in its entirety and he listened with rapt attention. My niece who was working on her computer nearby also stopped and listened. She noticed Jack’s rapt attention as well. (Who would have thought!) So I asked him what he thought. “Dumb and boring,” he said.
A few week later, I don’t know what inspired Jack to write a poem. There is a very cute formula in one of my most favorite books, The Boys’ Book: How to Be the Best at Everything, for writing poetry. Jack had written a few poems before following that formula. He came up with this new one (punctuation and lack thereof included):
Blue and calm.
Swooshes, falls, and runs.
Is it gods love?
The first creation
This concludes our sixth grade poetry class – for now.