Some Thoughts on Poetry and Speed

Posted on March 27, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Poetry |

Okay, time for a confession: I’m a poet. Academically trained, have a book out and everything. But I’ve been working outside the genre the last couple of years–doing some other worthy and exciting projects, including my first science fiction stories.

Now though, poetry’s calling me back and I’m moving that direction, not just as a writer but as a reader too. I get something from reading and writing poems that I don’t get anywhere else and it’s why I’ll probably always wander back eventually, no matter where I’ve been roaming.

I love the way the language of a poem slows me down. Makes me enter a moment, a thought, a feeling, an experience with a deliberation and awareness I wouldn’t normally bring to the page. It sounds counterintuitive to say such quick little lines, readily consumable in a single reading, can actually go slower than prose–but here’s the thing, in poetry there’s nowhere to go.

To work, a prose narrative has to effectively carry me from page to page, there has to be a reason to keep reading, keep turning those pages. A poem that really works is going to have me stuck on the same page, reading it over and over, wanting to just crawl between the lines and pitch a tent so I can stay there even longer.

Let me give you an example. When I was eleven or twelve, I got into a stash of literature textbooks my Mom had kept from one of her college classes. I discovered both Shelley and Tennyson that year and took to memorizing lines I loved. I was in college before I intellectually understood a lot of what I was reading, but there was something so compelling about the language, I didn’t care that I didn’t get all of it. I took what meaning I could from it and took the rest on faith. By the time I had to write about In Memoriam in college, I’d had six or seven years of rolling these words around on my tongue and in my heart: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, /Believe me, than in half the creeds.” “And Power was with him in the night, /Which makes the darkness and the light, /And dwells not in the light alone…”

I recently read an argument about what kinds of poems we should be offering our kids in order to instill a love of poetry in them. One side argued they need quick and clever rhymes, puns and wordplay to keep drawing them back to the magic of language that’s so wonderfully concentrated in poetry. The other side argued that kids needed poems that would help them explore the subtle texture of the world, develop their emotional and spiritual selves. The text, of course, resolved the argument by saying quite democratically that we need to offer kids all kinds of poems.

I’d buy that resolution if I really believed that most kids, most teachers, most homeschooling parents had ready access to age-appropriate poems of both kinds. Seems to me that while poetry collections aimed at adolescents manage quite handily to move between those two distinct types of poems (I might say between rhymes and poems)–that poetry collections aimed at younger children tend overwhelmingly toward the bouncy stuff. I’d love to be wrong about that assertion, so if any of you are aware of poems or poetry collections for children under the age of 12 that do have that tendency toward slowness, I’d love to hear about them. Comment away!

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