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Teachers – Poetry For Children – Characteristics and Examples
I believe that one of the most important concepts of poetry is that “like a song, poetry is meant to be heard” (Larrick, 1987, p. 20). While good prose can be read aloud or silently, poetry almost always needs to be read aloud. That poetry needs to be heard can be attributed to the characteristics of poetry that distinguish poetry from prose, i.e. rhythm, sound patterns, figuration, compactness, and emotional intensity ( Lukens, 1990). I’ll explore each of them in more depth, below:
An example I often use when first teaching students the attribute of rhythm is Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Was Ever a Dream A Drum?” [Be sure to read this aloud!]
Was ever a dream a drum
or a drum a dream?
Can a drummer drum a dream
or a dreamer dreams a drum?
The drum in a dream
strong books to the dreamer.
Now the moon tonight over Indiana
is a fire drum of a phantom dreamer.
Carl Sandburg in Hopkins, 1982
When reading it aloud, I tap a desk, the book, or my lap to produce the sound of a drumbeat that accompanies what I read. Then I read it again, but this time the students were hammering out the beat on their own laps or desks.
“Was Ever a Dream a Drum” can also be used to demonstrate how poetry uses sound patterns, i.e. words as sounds. However, my favorite poem to use is “The Man in the Marmalade Hat is Coming”, from Newbery Award-winning Nancy Willard’s book, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers. Just the first verse (read aloud, of course) gives you an idea of how Willard used sound patterns in this poem:
The Man in the Marmalade Hat
arrived in mid-March,
equipped with a bottle of starch
to straighten out bends in the road, he says.
He was carrying a bucket and a mop.
A most inconvenient burden, he said,
and he asked for a room upstairs.
Children ask to hear this poem again and again – so they can play with the language of the poem. Simply enjoy repeating “a most inconvenient load” multiple times – and you too will be addicted!
A third characteristic of poetry is the author’s use of words as meaning, that is, as figuration. worth All the little poems book is full of examples you can use for this feature. A wonderful specimen is his poem titled “Safety Pin”. [You may want to have a safety pin to look at while you read and enjoy this poem!]
Closed, he sleeps
On his side
Open, it slams
His tail out
Like a thin
Shrimps and eyes
Point with a
So many images… so few words!
… Which leads to the next characteristic that children should know about poetry – its compactness. I once heard Virginia Hamilton, the author of young adult novels, exchange views with her husband, the poet Arnold Adoff, on which one of them needed to work harder. The question was whether it was harder to say what you wanted to say in 15,000 words… or in 15 words. The question has not been answered and probably never will be, but students can learn to appreciate the care with which a poet’s words are chosen. Lukens (1990) says,
The main difference between prose and poetry is compactness. A single word in poetry says more than a single word in prose; connotations and images suggest, imply and suggest other meanings. (p. 187).
Because poetry is so sparing with its words, each carries a lot of weight. No pun intended, watch (and read aloud) part of the poem “ELEPHANT” by Barbara Juster Esbensen:
The word is too heavy
He must have invented it
himself. This is a lumberjack
gray word the ears of it
are huge and beat like cowards
wings a word with
wrinkled knees and toes
like boxing gloves…
A poem that I often read to primary and secondary school students is from Arnold Adoff’s book Sports Pages. It exemplifies the last characteristic of poetry that I will discuss here: emotional intensity. A poem in this book tells the story of a boy who twisted his knee during a football game. The following poem begins thus:
My knee is only sprained,
is only swollen, and
the doctor says I will be
Well. I will play again.
He says it like he
sits on his quilted
leather chair that
can rotate 360 degrees
why can’t the knees?
Once children know these characteristics of poetry (i.e. rhythm, sound patterns, figuration, compactness, and emotional intensity), they will enjoy the challenge of finding poems that illustrate one or several of the features. Their appreciation of poetry is enhanced by their additional knowledge. They are ready to live poetry more fully.
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