How to Connect Poetry to Everything Else in Life
Ben was quiet and seemed uncomfortable in his own skin, a boy’s boy with a father who hung out with the guys, who watched sports during those years a couple of decades ago before wives and girlfriends had begun to join in. Ben’s father didn’t much know what to say to his wife and daughter. And his son Ben seemed barely comfortable enough on the sports field and with his buddies. He was stocky in a muscular sort of way, with a husky voice that came from his struggles with allergies.
As our annual poetry night approached, Ben’s community mates vied with one another for the poems, even jockeying a little too much to get their hands on the one they had in mind. The boys were partial to several poems among the fifty or so in the stack of those printed on laminated page-size cardstock and set out on the shelf. They jockeyed almost too vigorously, bordering on unseemly community behavior, trusting I would countenance a bit more of it when it signaled their love of poetry. Popular at all times throughout the year, these poems became golden around Poetry Night.
Ben managed to swipe his favorite just before one of his buddies got it. With suppressed glee he set about the process of preparing the poem to recite for the parents a couple of weeks later. His buddies contented themselves with others of their favorites and settled into them. These poems were such as “The Eagle” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; “Acquainted with the Night” and “The Woods” by Robert Frost; “Eldorado” by Edgar Allan Poe; “The Red Wheelbarrow” by Sara Teasdale; “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams; and “The Haunted House” by Valerie Worth.
I had gathered this collection slowly over the years, selecting each with particular care for its accessibility to children of ages six to nine, its connectivity with the history and geography curricula with its joyful art. I always read them to myself, listening for phrases that would engage the senses, for ideas that would strike the imagination, and for emotional content that would touch the heart. When I read these to myself I would imagine the children listening four times; once with eyes wide open to hear a new poem for the first time and three more times with eyes closed; once to listen for the delicious sounds of the words to the ear and awakening of other senses (here I would, of course, mention Proust and the Madeleines); once for ideas, symbolism and history (such as found in Eldorado); and once for movement of the heart (such as asking forgiveness while feeling both joyful pleasure and guilty regret over the eating the plums in This Is Just to Say). And slowly over the many years I had refined the presentation of each new poem, taking care to excavate the riches during brief daily interludes at unexpected moments over a couple of weeks.
Ben had chosen “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” not a poem he would have chosen had the Shel Silverstein poems been available at school instead of saved for relishing at home. My approach was that the Silverstein poems were so approachable, had such a quick accessibility and were so easily likeable that any child in any home could enjoy them with any set of parents. My aim was to give the children the experience of digging for hidden treasure, treasure that was buried and still not easily recognized even once dug up; poems their parents would likely not be drawn to. I wanted the children to experience the joy that follows a mighty effort of the intellect, leap of the imagination and journey of the heart; the joy of a sudden appearance of meaning and pleasure that emerge unexpectedly even when expected.
And so Ben had chosen to prepare “Upon Julia’s Clothes” to present to the parents at the poetry gathering. What struck his imagination, he said, was the phrase “liquefaction of her clothes” and the sense of how much like water silk can look. What moved his heart was “oh how that glittering taketh me” which showed how the many things about a person we love can move our hearts and take our breath away. What awakened his senses was the phrase “how sweetly flows” because it was like honey flowing or water or the thick molasses that his mother used in ginger snaps. It also reminded him of the science experiment on density, for which liquid flows faster.
Of course Ben didn’t come up with all this out of the blue. He came up with it because we had a moment of poetry almost daily and I came up with so many free associations, thoughtful reflections and imaginative interconnections that he and the other children had developed an inclination for listening to poems that way. They had become sort of like detectives of hidden meaning, a kind of sensory explorers, or travelers of the heart. And I made sure the children’s ears were tuned for internal rhyming such as in “brave vibration.” Ben was a fisherman so I led him to notice that we can cast our eyes the same as we can cast a line. I didn’t tell him. I led him to notice.
Upon Julia’s Clothes
by Robert Herrick
The following are examples of the way we can think out loud about poems. Each of the points would be made off handedly on separate occasions. It is good to make comments about a poem during a science experiment or in relation to history, when passing by a child painting or researching for a report. The easy way of connecting poetry with every other pursuit and casually connecting every other pursuit with poetry makes it a powerful and relevant part of everyday life.
I never gave these points as lessons. I introduced each poem a week or two apart in a simple way, eliciting comments from the children on separate days. For an example of that, read Poetry in the Elementary Community.
For The Eagle:
Nice to have this poem in mind when any child explores birds, especially raptors.
When children are painting, it’s nice to use the word azure with them and connect it with a poem. “I’m not usually fond of the color blue neither for interiors nor for my clothing.” (Note the use of neither and nor as a way of spicing up this sentence.) “But the word azure in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem The Eagle can make me long for blue.”
Or when speaking of Frida Kalho, “What particular hue of blue is azure? I like cobalt as a color for clothing for myself. I like azul anil for interior accents partly because Frida Kalho used it claiming it was said to keep away evil spirits.”
“I like hearing the words crag and crooked in the same line.”
“It’s interesting to hear the sea described as wrinkled. Hmm. What could that mean?”
“I like it when a word is used in a surprising way, such as crawl being used to describe the movement of water.”
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
For Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:
Nice to have poetic language in mind when presenting the grammar boxes and mixing the order of words, “Is this the way we say it?” “Usually we would say, ‘I think I know whose woods these are,’ but in poetry the order of words or phrases or clauses are often changed to make an impact.”
“I like how the poem suddenly takes the horse’s perspective and describes the horse’s way of expressing his introspection.”
“The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year and the longest night, but maybe not the darkest. What could make it brighter?”
When coming across children observing in silence for signs of autumn to list: “Sometimes it’s pleasant to observe in solitude, without being seen. It reminds me of the line in Robert Frost’s poem, ‘He will not see me stopping here.’ I’ll leave you to enjoy it.”
“I like to think about the sharp sound of harness bells in the dark and silent woods. I can imagine the sound of easy wind, but not the sound of downy flake.”
“I think about what else could make a sweeping sound so I can imagine the sweeping sound of the wind and the flake.”
When passing by a child sweeping the porch: “The sound of your sweeping brings to mind the line in the Robert Frost poem, “the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.”
When passing by children becoming distracted from their work of drawing the negative and positive spaces: “I like contrast. I like the contrast between two colors or two shapes. I also like contrast between what is present and what is absent, as in negative shapes revealing positive presence. It brings to mind those lines in Robert Frost’s poem, ‘without a farmhouse near, between the woods and frozen lake.’ The farmhouse is like a negative shape while the woods and lake are positive.”
Sometimes it’s interesting to establish the custom of incorporating lines from poetry to support daily life. “You have a lot of cleaning up to do here before you go to join Robert and Nancy; sort of like in the Robert Frost poem, ‘miles to go before you sleep,’ Sammy.” It’s fun when lines from poetry become part of the children’s lingo. “Get back in here, Rachel. You have miles to go before you eat. Your work mat needs attention.”
One child says to another, “Danny, as did Robert Frost, you have ‘promises to keep.’ Remember you said if you joined in on this project you’d do your share of the writing, not just the drawing.”
Of course each of these comments is tossed in casually at odd moments, never given as preachy-teachy lessons on poetry. That means the poems have to live in our hearts, minds and spirits.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost
When reading the poem for vocabulary before beginning to prepare it for recitation, “Hmm – ‘gaily bedight’ – that reminds me of an old German lullaby that goes ‘with roses bedecked and lilies bedight.’ That’s the only other place I’ve heard that word. After while I’m going to look up bedecked and bedight – if someone doesn’t beat me to it, that is! Well, wait a minute, I have heard someone say, ‘You’re all decked out. Where are you going?’ ”
When a child chooses the poem by Edgar Allen Poe, “Eldorado, hmm, don’t we have a book on the Spanish conquistadors and their search for a city of gold called Eldorado? Where is that book? Let’s set it out.”
While searching for my pencil, “Well I am feeling like that knight in the Edgar Allen Poe poem. A shadow of disappointment is falling over my heart. I’ve been searching for my mechanical pencil to no avail. At least I haven’t been searching so long that I’ve grown old!”
When someone comes in tired after the weekend, “You remind me of a line in our poem, Eldorado – so then ‘his strength failed him at length.’ A shadow appears at this point, and it’s a personage, a pilgrim.”
When a child reads the poem to me upon choosing it to prepare for presenting, “Let me see, I’ll say the poem again and you count how many times we hear the word shadow in it.”
As the child goes to the mirror to look herself in the eye while saying the poem with expression, “That phrase ‘Valley of the Shadow’ reminds me of the line in the Twenty-third Psalm from the Bible, ‘Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death no evil shall befall me.’ ”
When doing grammar boxes, “Usually, in prose, we would just say ‘But this bold knight grew old,’ but in poetic language it says, ‘But he grew old – this knight so bold.’ It sounds more like a song.”
When children are reading about the Spanish explorers and come across Eldorado, “I like the lines in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem that end in the word Eldorado. Let me see, how many are there?”
by Edgar Allen Poe
For Acquainted with the Night:
When looking up at a plane sparkling in the sky, “‘And further still at an unearthly height, a luminary plane against the sky . . .’ That’s from a line in Robert Frost’s poem Acquainted with the Night, only in the poem it was not a plane, but a clock.”
When coming and going in the rain, “‘I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.’ That’s from a poem by Robert Frost.”
While pulling on rubber gloves to pick up litter on a service outing, “Well, I am sure I have not ‘looked down the saddest city lane’ but this littered-filled stretch of park does remind me of that line in Acquainted with the Night.”
When someone asks the time, “Brings to mind the line in a Robert Frost poem, ‘I proclaim the time is neither wrong nor right.’ What could that possibly mean?”
Acquainted with the Night
by Robert Frost
For Poison Tree:
When children complete a peer mediation and go off together smiling, “William Blake’s poem always comes to mind when we go into our peer mediation, the way really telling and really listening helps us open our hearts to healing.”
When discussing giving living characteristics to nonliving things, “I like the way the poet makes wrath like a living plant by ending the first stanza with grow and beginning the second one with watering.”
When a child is practicing reading the poem, “So tears are liquid and smiles are warm. That’s how the poet leaps to watered and sunned?”
When children are reading from Greek mythology, “The golden apple of discord reminds me of the line, ‘Till it bore an apple bright’ in the Poison Tree.
When reading the poem together for understanding its vocabulary, “How is night like a veil? Who wears veils today? Who wore veils yesteryear?”
When children are looking at Adam and Eve in art, “I’m thinking of an apple in a poem by William Blake.”
by William Blake
When carving a pumpkin, “Brings to mind the nice sibilant sounds from a Valerie Worth poem – slick, seeds, stuck, strings; the first two pure and unstopped and the second two stopped short by the ‘t” that follows.”
When reading the poem for understanding the vocabulary, “I like ‘scooped and scraped’ for the action completed. Hmm…are those past tense verbs strong verbs or weak verbs?”
When a child is practicing the poem Pumpkin, “So how is it that the light is ‘creeping’? It reminds me of the line from The Eagle that says, ‘The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls.’”
When harvesting from the garden, “Wait a minute, let me think, so is a squash on its vine dead or alive? When it’s cut from its vine is it dead or alive? And when it is chopped for cooking is it dead or alive? When it is cooked? Reminds me of how in customs and poetry we are not always accurate scientifically. For example, in Pumpkin by Valerie Worth – when a pumpkin is carved into a jack o’ lantern, I like that it is light that gives warmth and life. By our custom and in the poem the pumpkin becomes a living head to us.”
When celebrating Los Dias de los Muertos, “In the poem Pumpkin, the phrases dead orange vegetable skull and sharp gold grin sound so menacing to me! And yet it’s just a jack o’ lantern. Yet all the skeletons and skulls and Catrinas in Los Dias del los Muertos, aren’t taken as menacing at all by the Mexicans.”
by Valerie Worth
When naming the bones in the model skeleton, “The phrase breezy ribs in the poem by Valerie Worth makes me want to laugh! Our ribs aren’t breezy because they are all filled in with flesh. In what way could a skeleton’s ribs be breezy?
When passing children reading the poem Skeleton, “I’m thinking of the long vowel sound that is repeated six times in five consecutive lines of this poem. Wow!”
When preparing for the celebration, Los Dias de los Muertos, with all the dancing calaveras, catrinas and esqueletos, “Brings to mind the line from the Valerie Worth poem, ‘The frisk and Prance of their Skittering dance!’”
by Valerie Worth
For Haunted House:
While reading the words of the poem Haunted House, “I like aching stairs. That makes me laugh! It reminds me of playing hide and seek in my old house. Our stairs do sound so much like they are groaning in complaint of the aches of aging. Those complaints always give away whether we are hiding upstairs or down.”
When suffering from a sore back, “My sore back makes me think of the poem Haunted House. It brings to mind all the ways that haunted houses are like old people.”
When children pass by with the poem to practice, “In this poem the owners are dead but still there. I’m trying to think of the ways in which they could still be there.”
When telling each other stories about our grandparents, “When I went into my grandmother’s house after she died, everything I saw and touched reminded me of a story. I remembered all the things we had done together.”
When returning from my grandmother’s funeral, “When I went into my grandmother’s empty house, her jelly jars weren’t empty. They still had jelly in them. And her curtain rods were still attached to the wall and holding up the curtains she had made for them.”
by Valerie Worth
For Poem (As the Cat):
“This poem reminds me of the story of little Peter Rabbit in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Except this poem feels slow and calm while that story feels hectic and harrowing.”
When someone bumps something over, “Time to study William Carlos Williams’ As the Cat, although I know cats that knock things about when they pussyfoot around on the surfaces of furniture. This cat seems so sure-footed.”
When children are working on Interpretive Reading with cards and go on to act out from poems, “In the picture I see in my mind, the cat in William Carlos Williams’ poem As the Cat is placing each paw precisely. This poem feels like it happens in slow motion to me.”
When a child is practicing reciting the poem As the Cat for recitation, “I like the explosive ‘p’ sounds at the end of the poem. Funny how they make the action seem soft and slow and precise by punctuating it.”
When a child cozies up among the floor pillows to read a book, “Even though the poem ends before it happens, I can see in my mind the cat, in the poem As the Cat, curling up so cozily in the close quarters of the empty flower pot, just the way you are now among the floor cushions.”
When the vase tumbles off the shelf, “I’m thinking of the poem As the Cat and yet it could be that the empty flower pot would begin to teeter and rock. Then it could tumble off the shelf, cat and all. It could shatter into sharp shards spilling the soft furry cat onto the hard floor.”
Poem (As the Cat)
by William Carlos Williams
For This Is Just to Say:
What ideas do our colleagues have for this poem?
This is Just to Say
by William Carlos Williams