What is it about poetry that strikes such fear in people that they visibly cringe, look at the ant crawling around on the sidewalk or the nonexistent plane flying overhead, and practically hyperventilate? Seriously! Poems are just another form of storytelling. Admittedly, the way they're laid out on a page looks a little strange. But, if you retyped a poem to resemble something more familiar, like sentences, suddenly it doesn't look so weird. And just like stories, how we interpret and understand them all depends on our previous experiences. I don't mean our previous experiences with poetry. I'm referring to things we've experienced in life, our frames of reference.
Everyone at some point early in life enjoyed poetry. Stop shaking your head. You did. It's called "Mother Goose." "Hickory Dickory Dock," "Jack and Jill," "Humpty Dumpty," they all are poems kids get a kick out of. Why? Because they're silly...and kids are silly. They can identify with the silliness. Do they have to understand the "message" in the rhyme? No, and neither do you. Admit it. How many of you out there know the true "meaning" behind "Humpty Dumpty?" Uh-huh. Thought so. Why are "we" so bent on deriving "deep and meaningful messages" from EVERYTHING we read, especially poetry?
The answer lies somewhat in something former poet laureate Billy Collins once said: "Poetry goes to high school to die." He's right. For the most part, we enjoy poetry up to and including junior high...although depending on the teacher the death of poetry may actually take place then. Well-meaning teachers, as Collins points out, introduce certain poems long before a child can actually make sense of what he or she is reading. This idea can also be applied to anything a child reads. Content and age appropriateness are elements that must be considered. For example, you wouldn't necessarily want to read A Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer to a three year old...especially if said child was convinced one lived in HIS closet (or under the bed, in the basement...wherever). However, a six year old who understands there's no such thing as monsters in closests (or anywhere else in the house) would find the humor in the story. So, why are poems that are beyond a child's developmental stage introduced at all? This is what Collins meant by poetry proverbially choking on a chicken bone in high school.
Think back to grade school. Does the name Shel Silverstein ring any bells? Uh-huh. I thought so. How about Jack Prelutsky? Well, both write poems kids (and adults!) can identify with. And that's the key, connecting to a story. What causes a connection? The "Yes. That's how I felt" moment and all of its cousins. For example, an eight year old can easily identify with this from Prelutsky:
My father's listed everything
he's planning to repair.
I hope he won't attempt it,
for the talent isn't there,
he tinkered with the toaster
when the toaster wouldn't pop,
now we keep it disconnected
but cannot make it stop.
(from "I Wish My Father Wouldn't Try to Fix Things Anymore" in Something Big Has Been Here)
Read this to a group of kids and sprinkled amongst the giggles will be bobbing heads of understanding and a few shout outs along the lines of "Yep. That's my dad." Or, how about this one:
iguana tail tarts
toad a la mode
pickled pelican parts
puree of platypus
steamed centipede skins
squid sucker sundaes
fried flying fish fins
meadow mouse morsels
cracked crocodile crunch
the school cafeteria
serves them for lunch.
("Grasshopper Gumbo" in There's No Place Like School)
If these are the types of poems that kids enjoy and can relate to, why then do "we" suddenly make them jump to things like Blake or Dickinson in high school? There isn't, at least initially, a big difference between a 13-year old graduating from middle school to a 14-year old beginning high school. There's plenty of time for Blake and Dickinson...like, college. But until then, a solid foundation must be built just like a house. Or, to use another analogy, you can't make a pizza without the crust.
The good news is, it's never too late to discover a new food. There is something out there for everyone. Some people like anchovies on their pizza. Others prefer plain cheese. Reading is no different. Some love vampire fantasy such as the Twilight series, but don't enjoy Harry Potter. And yet both are considered fantasy. There's no rule that says it's an all or nothing thing. You can like bits and pieces and still legitimately say you like it. Same is true for poetry. You like Silverstein and no one else. Or, you enjoy Prelutsky, Eugene Field, and Ogden Nash and other more silly-type poets over the likes of Coleridge. Fine.
Two other ideas that influence the interest, or lack thereof, in poetry are 1). generalizations, and 2). knowing how to read a poem. Generalizations can be lethal, especially in the arts. Many people say they dislike art and yet are avid collectors of black and white photographs. Um, guess what? Photography is an art. So is literature. In my travels I cross paths with many who say they don't like to read. Yet I'll note they have the latest issue of Car & Driver in their hand and point that out to them. The response is something along the lines of, "Yeah. But, this doesn't count." Why not? There's no rule that says you must read literary fiction to be considered a reader. Again, this goes to the generalization idea.
Knowing how to read a poem, poetry in general, can go along way to appreciating it. Collins has a simple solution: Read it as if you would a story, stopping at appropriate punctuation--not the end of a line--and all the usual reading rules. If it helps, retype it. It's meant to be read out loud, and nothing says you have to get it right the first time. The idea of perfection in reading is overrated and really serves no purpose anyway. Some poems sort of lend themselves to being sung, such as Prelutsky's "Grasshopper Gumbo." Play with it. Try different speeds. See what fits you. Find out what you like on your poetry pizza. For me, hold the anchovies. I'm more of a Hawaiian or Supreme kind of girl.
Something Big Has Been Here by Jack Prelutsky
Published by Greenwillow, 2010 (reprint)
There's No Place Like School by Jack Prelutsky
Published by Greenwillow, 2010 (reprint)
Jack Prelutsky's web site: www.jackprelutsky.com