When, Exactly, Do Children Start Thinking They Hate Poetry?
Chris Harris on Teaching Kids How to Write Verse
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE FEWER HAIKUS
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE
Because April is National Poetry Month, I’ve been spending the past few weeks speaking at grade schools. At each stop I share poems from my own book of children’s poetry and beyond, sweat way too much for an experienced public speaker, and try to convey my enthusiasm for poetry to children besides my own, who’ve suffered enough over the years. I also ask the students if they’ve done any poetry-related activities in class lately. So far, there’s one answer I’ve heard at every single school. That’s right: haikus.
There are no haikus in my own collection. The closest, unintentionally, may be a few lines on an early edition of the back cover: “Hey kids! / Do you (think you) hate poetry? / This book is for you.” I have mixed feelings about that message, and not just because it’s a terrible haiku. On the one hand, yes, this book is for you, please buy it. On the other hand, when we tell kids “You won’t hate this poetry,” I wonder if we’re subtly telling them that they should hate most poetry.
It reminds me of that classic parental con line, “You might not like most vegetables, but this vegetable is delicious—try it!” When did poetry become literary broccoli? What’s next, cheerfully singing, “Here comes the airplane!” before we start reading a sonnet into our kids’ ears?
I’m pretty sure kids aren’t born hating poetry. They’re surrounded by it in their early years: nursery rhymes; picture books; that stupid song about what the fox says. So what happens? That question got me thinking about how kids often encounter poetry in schools, versus how other topics are taught.
In art, we start with finger painting and materials exploration; there’s no bad art. In writing, the trend is toward “creative spelling”: when you’re an early writer, there’s noo rong wa tu spel ennythgn. In mathematics. . . actually, I still don’t get Singapore math, even though it seems cool; scratch that one for now. And in sports like T-ball, “everyone gets on base” and there are no official scores (although unofficially, I knew who won every single game my kids played). In nearly every area, the idea is to ignore the details and start by letting kids get their hands dirty—literally in the case of finger painting—because the first step in mastery is gaining confidence and real experience. We tell them to play around. Explore. Don’t worry about the rules.
And in poetry? We write haikus.
I don’t mean to body-slam a several-hundred-year old art form that will long outlive anything I’ll ever do in my own pathetic lifetime. Haikus in the right hands—a category which emphatically does not include my own hands—can be transcendent. But haikus are also phenomenally subtle. Quietly, meditatively drawing a line between nature and the human experience, they’re easy to write, but tough to get right.
I imagine it’s popular in grade schools because it’s a simple format. True. Then again, My Dinner with Andre has a simple format, but I’m guessing it doesn’t play gangbusters at a nine-year-old’s birthday party.
It also must be refreshingly simple to teach. And when teachers in most states these days barely have the funds for a piece of paper on which to print out a request for more funding, there are bigger issues to deal with than reexamining our methodology on poetry.
“If we can help kids think of poetry as expansive rather than constrictive, they can discover just how many directions there are to explore.”
Still, for parents and for the three or four districts out there that do fully fund their schools, here’s my thought. Without a larger context, experiencing poetry solely through prefab formal structures like haikus, acrostics, cinquains and diamante poems could make students feel like poetry is just some sadistic fiend’s attempt to make English even more complex and irritating. “POETRY: It’s like regular writing, but with even more rules!” No wonder some kids go from enjoying poetry, to (thinking they) hate it, to (knowing they) can’t stand it.
One approach I’ve landed on in my talks is to help kids think of poetry as almost the polar opposite of that: Instead of a form that has more rules than standard grammar, what if we think of poetry as writing that’s free from the standard rules? Unshackled from the usual concerns of standard grammar, proper sentence structure, conventional margins, and—if you’re E.E. Cummings—ever bothering to use the shift key, look at how versatile and powerful English words can suddenly be.
Note that I didn’t say “no rules.” I’m not some goateed, bomb-throwing anarchist. Rhythm and meter and emotions are still important to consider, even at the earliest stages of learning poetry. The point is more that instead of just handing them syllabic blueprints, let’s make sure kids get the chance to play around with words—finger paint with them—the way we let them explore other topics.
If we can help kids think of poetry as expansive rather than constrictive, they can discover just how many directions there are to explore. Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll find bouncy joy in nonsense words that magically make sense anyway. Nikki Grimes uses imagery and laser-specific moments to make the personal feel universal. John Grandits ingeniously blurs the line between words and illustration—the poem is the picture. Kwame Alexander’s use of layout and words-as-sounds (fine, I’ll use the proper term: onomatopoeia) make the reader lean forward and feel surrounded by a heartbreaking moment. There are infinite forms of poetry; which form you choose depends on what you want to convey.
Now, my own book is like a crayon scribble on a kids’ menu compared to those authors’ works. Imagery in my poems is limited to things like four-humped camels and balding werewolves. The only poem close to a classic form is an acrostic for the word “LOVE,” but even that goes off the rails when other letters (like R, G and P) butt in and make a strident plea for inclusion in the word.
But what I tell kids is that my book, full of poems that I wrote to make my own children laugh, and smile, and occasionally scratch their heads, is what resulted when I decided to play around, and explore, and not worry about the rules. One poem is written in a circle, which means the poem goes on and on forever. Another poem is written backwards. Another poem is all paradoxes (“The sun that night was freezing hot. . . ”). Another is almost exclusively the word “Avocado” in different intonations. Another, “The Duel,” has no words at all but uses the letters b and d to tell a visual story (spoiler alert: they end up as the letters q and p).
I even tried to play around with the structure of the book itself. The page-numeration was done by some people who apparently forgot about the existence of the number “8.” Every collection of poetry has an index of poems in the book; I also included an “outdex” of extra poem titles that weren’t good enough to make it into the book. Another spread is titled, “Alphabet Book by the Laziest Artist in the World.” It shows 26 pages of an alphabet book in which an artist used the exact same doodle for every single page, and just labeled it differently.
Is all of this technically poetry? Probably not. They’re really just my own written finger paintings—but if a sweaty bozo like me can come up with a whole book, I tell them, then imagine what each of them can do.
Children’s poetry sometimes gets dismissed because so much of it is, or is trying to be, humorous. Of course it is. Laughter is one of the first social experiences that a human shares with other people. More importantly, laughter is a gateway emotion—if you can make someone laugh, then you put them at ease; you’ve built some trust with that person, and from there it’s easier to explore other emotions. It’s why every wedding toast starts with a joke about how much Uncle Pete has had to drink before getting weepy. Laughter is the easiest way to establish a connection—between the writer and the reader, for example. That’s why I also start my talks with a few funny poems from the book; once their guards are down, then we can get into some of the more serious poems (“I’m shy on the outside, but inside my head? I’m not at all shy; I’m outgoing instead. . . ”). Getting back to the broccoli analogy, we can make exploring serious emotions a lot more palatable if we deep-fry them in a batter of humor.
See? I told you I’m no good at imagery.
Okay, I’ll try one more image: At the risk of encouraging more poets in the world—and thus more competition for me—I hope that when we introduce poetry to grade schoolers, we can make sure they get some time to play around on the entire landscape of words, and not only in a certain 5x7x5 corral. There’s so much to discover with meter, with word placement, with rhymes and alliteration and all the different tools at a writer’s disposal. If they get to wander around a little, they may discover a new way of writing that feels perfect for them. It could be a poem that also draws a picture, or a poem where every word starts with the same letter, or a poem that bounces around in perspective to show a small slice of life.
It could even be—yep—a haiku.