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November 3, 2009

On poetry and verse

We’ve been delighting in verse since Harriet was born. We’ve read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, When We Were Very Young, Jelly Belly and Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee, and we’ve just started Till All the Stars Have Fallen: Canadian Poems for Children. Reading the poems aloud has been tremendous fun, and Harriet likes to listen (most of the time), and I’ve enjoyed rediscovering poems I read years ago and reading many others for the first time– I’d never read the Eliot or A.A. Milne before. I do wonder, however, how much the fun we’re having with verse constitutes anything to do with poetry proper. Will the one lead to the other for Harriet, and for ourselves? And what’s the relationship between the two? Is verse the pop music of literature? How does one cultivate an appreciation for poetry in a child? By which I mean, what is the way from Macavity the Mystery Cat to Prufrock?

7 thoughts on “On poetry and verse”

  1. charlotteashley says:

    Those are good questions! For my part, I adored "poetry" when I was a child – I could recite anything at all by Dennis Lee and Robert Service and read Edward Lear endlessly before bed. But as an adult I find poetry daunting for the most part, or incomprehensible. It doesn't generally have that music to it that children's verse does.

    On the other hand, I am very musically inclined. To this day I prefer poems which sound pleasing (Lewis Carroll, Lear) than which mean anything. I see Maggie (now 16 months old) interpreting poetry the same way – as song. She dances when I read her a poem with a good cadence to it, like Alligator Pie. Though maybe that's because I tap my feet to keep time?

  2. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Poetry is the classical music of literature. The novel is the pop music equivalent.

    And I suspect Harriet has the answer to your question about how to begin appreciating poetry. Start by doing what Harriet does: don't try to UNDERSTAND Prufrock on an intellectual level, start by just LISTENING to it, to the rhythms and the cadences of the language. Remember what Robert Frost said: you read poetry as much with your ear as with your eye.

  3. Randy Banderob says:

    It's a bit hit and miss (more hit than miss, though), but the Random House Book of Poetry for Children has always been a favourite in our house.

  4. Kerry says:

    Thanks for the feedback. And I've ordered the Random House book from the library.

  5. Randy Banderob says:


    Did you read the article in last month's New Yorker about how children and their tantrums are dealt with in children's literature, including Harriet You'll Drive Me Wild. It's a pretty good read.

    On another note, the other day I listened to a 40 year old man read to his 3 year old daughter. I've heard him do this before, but it was always in a monotone. This time his daughter handed him Old Hat, New Hat followed by Hands, Hands, Finger, Thumb. Next thing you know, the dad became a reading virtuoso . . . he was practically singing by the end of the second book. Very cool . . . great monkey illustrations too.

    And along that line, I'd highly recommend Sheree Fitch's There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen which I believe to be one of the most creatively (almost subversively) musical children's books of all time.

  6. marinela says:

    I like to check out the workshops on all the poetry sites

  7. Laurel says:

    I really think that for me, as a reader and a writer, it was about sound. My mom is fond of telling people I recited Yeats at age 2. And whether that's true or not (I don't remember) it *is* true that we were reading Yeats at bedtime. And I do still know lots of those poems by heart, along with the Milne, Old Possum's, Blake, Roethke, etc.

    I think you can sort of stamp the brain with the music of metric poetry, if that makes sense. And that as kids grow, that sing-song becomes, in some kids, something they look for (or challenge the meaning of) in the language of the world.

    Does that make sense?

    It's a long way from Wandering Aengus to the poetry I read/write now, but they're connected.

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