The Gift of Our Finest Language: Reading Poetry with Children

Many beloved lines and rhymes from Dr. Seuss have been floating around The Children’s School recently, thanks to our Seuss-themed Spring Event. But there are many wonderful writers of verse for children that we hope will find their way to your reading pile. Poetry is a uniquely memorable form of language, one that children are innately drawn to. And when children hear poetry read aloud—or chime in to finish a much-loved line—they are building an ear for language and metaphor that will last them a lifetime.

Some of the finest poetry for children was written by A.A. Milne, of Winnie-the-Pooh fame. His books When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, with their delightful illustrations by Ernest Sheppard, are unsurpassed classics; you can see in them where Dr. Seuss found his inspiration. Milne’s books showcase all the “special effects” that are unique to poetry. And the most crowd-pleasing of these, among children, is rhyme.

Starting with Mother Goose, children start to pick up the classic rhyme schemes of English poetry. They learn by ear the patterns of couplets, quatrains and limericks, just as they learn to create patterns of color and shapes by eye in sensorial lessons. The challenge of verse in English is that our language is notoriously short on easy rhymes. Hence, poets resort to wit, invention and outright rule-bending to get our language to fit. A.A. Milne has a lot of fun with this game in this stanza from “Furry Bear”:

If I were a bear,
And a big bear too;
I shouldn’t much care
If it froze or snew;
I shouldn’t much mind
If it snowed or friz—
I’d be all fur-lined
With a coat like his!

Another pleasure unique to poetry is that it can be as much a visual art form as an aural one. Poets can fool around with spacing, punctuation, orthography and capitalization to create drama and humor. Milne’s poem “Disobedience” has all these fun tricks—and a child who giggles at these stanzas will be up for the eccentricities of E.E. Cummings and Emily Dickinson later on:

King John
Put up a notice,

J .J.
W. G. Du P.
Took great
C/o his M*****
Though he was only 3.
J. said to his M*****
“M*****,” he said, said he:

Of course, Milne’s verse is very English in subject and style. If you want to read poems that speak in an American voice, look for Eloise Greenfield; her books have won many awards, including the Coretta Scott King Book Award. These are the opening lines of her poem “Harriet Tubman”:

Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And wasn’t going to stay one either

“Farewell!” she sang to her friends one night
She was mighty sad to leave ’em
But she ran away that dark, hot night
Ran looking for her freedom

Greenfield shows how a poem can convey, or stand up to, powerful feelings. As the writer Jeanette Winterson noted: “A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”

There are poems that pack a punch, and there are ones that teach you to swing. We can all delight in metered verse; it’s a kinesthetic pleasure to read aloud, like the verbal switchbacks in Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat”:

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”

And the beautiful old counting rhyme “Over in the Meadow” almost pushes you along, teaching you how to read it aloud:

Over in the meadow, in the sand, in the sun
Lived an old mother frog and her little froggie one.
“Croak!” said the mother; “I croak,” said the one,
So they croaked and were happy in the sand, in the sun.

But perhaps the best reward of reading poetry with children is seeing how they easily they take in—and somehow understand, on a deep level—language that goes over their heads. They are neurologically designed to learn languages, voraciously remembering new words and interesting turns of phrase. And for minds exquisitely primed for language, poetry is a cornucopia of linguistic sophistication.

Hence, don’t hesitate to share poems with your children that were originally written for adults. Children will cheerfully intuit the emotion and meaning of a poem as much by its abstract music as its concrete sense. They can hear the horse galloping in Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and the snicker snack of the vorpal blade in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Indeed, hearing complicated poetry read aloud strengthens a child’s inner ear and “sixth sense” for unfamiliar syntax and vocabulary.

Even feelings we think of as adult emotions can “cross over” in the guise of a poem. A child who is yearning to return to a favorite summer hideaway may recognize Yeats’ longing for the lake at Innisfree:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade. […]

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Poetry makes us more articulate; it sharpens our sense of pacing and timing. In poems, children will hear again and again the skillful use of a pause, a meaningful echo, an expertly delivered punch line. This kind of linguistic skill, making the spoken word really count, is one we admire in great actors and orators . But poets are at the top of the heap.

And children may be poetry’s best audience; their capacity to take in the subtleties and fireworks of our language is more or less infinite. As Emily Dickinson explains:

The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets – do –

So read a poem every night with your children; you are giving them the gift of our best and richest language.