KIDS AND POETRY: A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN
The day I sat down to write this paper, a snail began a slow tour up the glass door in the kitchen where I was sitting surrounded by piles of books, electronic things and scribbled papers. ‘What’s he doing here?’ I mused, taking my eye off the ball for a moment. Maybe it’s a sign. I like signs. I turned around again and the snail had vanished. Where had he gone? The penny dropped. Little snail was surely a sign of how I wanted to start out our seminar. I needed to pose the question about why on earth I’d be interested in such a strange little flat-footed thing; something both odd and everyday. Not at all cuddly. A spirally creature riding a trail of slime…seen in a flash…vanishing in a blink.
What in the world do wandering snails have to do with poetry, you may ask? What is poetry, exactly? What do children have to do with poetry? What role do imagination and creativity and reading play in this whole scenario? And listening?
Let’s go back to our snail. And special moments. And signs. And the mystery of rituals. Now imagine yourselves five years old. Your pet hamster dies … or you find a dead bird … what do you do? You make a parade. Maybe you create a burial ceremony. But whatever the action, you have a deep-seated need to create something special.
Or perhaps you are older and you spot a racing hare or a totally orange sky or what looks like a dinosaur print. You want to capture the excitement, the awe, the fluttering pulse you have at that moment. It feels only right to give shape to the feeling that sits inside of us. Maybe even to tell someone else. To share it in some way. Maybe that inside feeling is a rock. Perhaps it’s a swallow.
Our job is to guide children to recognise that giving expression to what rests in their hearts is a good and fundamental thing. That process is called arts education. We need to teach our youth that what matters to us as humans is important. We need to validate ritual and understand it’s relationship to poetry.
Let’s begin with Sylvia Plath. She once commented that a poem is a smallish thing. Something akin to a glance. The same glance you might have in the seconds between when a door opens and when it quickly shuts. What might we see in that instant…maybe a bird, or a bee, or a mountain, or a train, or a garden, a raindrop, your cousin, a heart, a city…that’s how small a poem is and how big at the same time. Imagine a paperweight. One of those old fashioned glass balls that has a country scene inside of it; trees, a pond, a snowman, a barn. Now turn it upside-down and watch the snow fly down. Everything is changed. That’s how a poem takes place. A poem has the capacity to change how we see things.
Philip Larkin insisted that he wrote to preserve the things he had seen or thought, or felt; both for himself and others. This impulse, to preserve the images we encounter in life, he felt is basic to the human experience.
Ted Hughes argued that poetry writing and reading for kids is really a matter of getting them to think for themselves.
Let’s step back a bit. Let’s talk about the building blocks of a poem; words. We’ll return later to the other living parts of a poem; the images and rhythms. But for now, let’s consider words; words we all come to learn and experience each day. And let’s add to that a big concept that we educators and artists and parents think about so much; imagination.
This might be a good time to let you know a bit about me, about me and how I relate to words. I don’t remember exactly why or when I started to write poetry. I cannot recall an AHA! moment, or my first lines, but one thing I do know, I have always been encouraged to follow my instincts. And my instincts and desires were not very different from those of any other child.
Like everyone else I loved to play and to make things up. Imagination was the obvious currency. Music, dance, and words of all varieties, for various reasons, took a big hold on me. I don’t think this was so unusual. Most of my friends followed the same path. We found ourselves in a dynamic world in America during the 50’s and 60’s where words, lyrics, rhymes and tunes were around us continually and stimulated us to the core. There was exciting just-sprung rock and roll, newly re-discovered folk music, the Broadway show tunes my parents listened to, the endless jingles on television. All new. All thrilling. My friends and I sang along to everything, danced, made up plays, struggled with guitars and learned lyrics. These were powerful influences.
As an adult I came to understand that having fun with words which somehow sounded just perfect next to each other, with their rhythms, energy and imagery, led me down a path where putting words together was an adventure. I loved these words and it didn’t take long before I discovered poetry and its trusty sidekick, metaphor. At around nine or ten, I remember sitting on my parents’ front porch and reading THE WORLD’S BEST LOVED POEMS over and over. I memorised a lot of pieces in that book, including The Gettysburg Address, Sir Walter Scott and Longfellow, without fully understanding what these poems were about. I think I did it just for the pleasure of saying them out loud. And memorising them was fun; I could repeat these words over and over whenever I felt like it.
Looking back, it’s clear that the sheer joy of playing with language, exciting muscular and visionary language that sounded great, was as natural to me and indeed all children, as breathing. I heard the sounds. I pictured the words. Imagination was the currency for this language play.
Now imagine a primitive culture. Native Americans, for example, had only oral language for most of their history and lived in direct and intimate contact with nature. They were part of a society where plants, trees, animals, water, rocks and cosmic entities were daily companions. It would have been natural to reach out, talk to, placate, celebrate and relate to those forces in a personal way.
Now imagine someone from the tribe walking on the savannah. She looks at the grasses blowing lightly in the distance. She turns to her partner: ‘Look. The feather grass is brushing the sky.’ Has she written the world’s first poem? Has she created the world’s first metaphor? Perhaps the partner turns back and replies: ‘No, the spear grass is slapping the sky.’
I think the primary way we see the world is poetic. We are born alone into a vast profusion of life, a world rich in colour, shape, music and sound whose patterns are always changing. A world at first incomprehensible.
We strive our whole lives to make sense of that world. I believe that the principle path taken, the way we try to learn about everything around us, from the first days when hominoids walked the planet, has been one of assimilation and pattern processing. This route, making imaginative and creative order out of chaos, with play at its core, is an intrinsically artistic process.
So when our Native American sees the grass and compares it to a feather brushing the sky, she makes a poetic leap. By doing so, she is asserting her creativity and individuality. Her friend, who compares the grass to a spear which is slapping the sky, engages in the same process. In the end, it’s never just a question of WHAT the world is out there, but WHO AM I in relation to the world out there.
These Native Americans have synthesised their understandings of two elements, grass and sky, and have created two different interpretations, both based on familiar elements and both re-ordered to different effects. She and her partner have dipped their toes into the creative process and, in so doing, hitched their wagons to the stars.
Unfortunately this different way of seeing things, this synthesis of ideas (a and b equals not c but say…x, w or z) is one which diminishes and fades as we grow up in contemporary society. Not only are we not in a close relationship to nature, but education directs us towards empirical learning and to structures where creativity, imagination and artistic synthesis play an often reduced role.
But the artist, like the child, cannot help but respond to a different set of imperatives. Her impulse is to make things up, create illusions, offer alternatives. A child gathers in the world through the senses. And when these senses are fed and developed, the child naturally exhibits far greater acuity, understanding, perception, and appreciation of the world she finds herself in. As a result, problem solving becomes a whole lot easier. In every field. For the child is poised at the beginning of a long quest for definition and self identity. Such is the value of an arts education; one where story and poetry fit naturally onto the first team.
Our relationship with the world around us, the natural world, has become a lonely distant cousin compared to the energy and sense of companionship with nature our species must have felt thousands of years ago. But what redeems humanity is that every child plays and therefore has within them the ability to synthesise and make things up. No matter what the era, the circumstances or place. Imagination is our birthright; our natural human need to learn and create new kinds of meaning for ourselves and others.
Someone who was eloquent on the subject of children and imagination was the recently deceased American novelist, children’s author, essayist and poet, Ursula K Le Guin. It was her view that children are born with imagination, just as they are born with a body, intellect and the capacity for language; these are all essential to their humanity, things that they need to learn to use well. For this reason the teaching, training and practice of imagination needs to begin early, just as children are taught other life skills. In her view, the best way of doing this is through listening to stories; because stories are central to the literature of any society, wherever we might be born. Stories are the way information is shared and passed down through generations.This interaction with story is vital for exercising the imagination. For when we hear a story, we visualise it…feel it…and even become it a little.
Key to all of this are words. We are a wordy species, indeed words are the wings that imagination and intellect fly on. Music, dance, the visual arts and crafts are important as well. But to train the mind to really take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and power, nothing equals a poem or a story.
It is through Story that a culture defines itself. Every culture teaches its young how to grow up and how to be members of the society. For a child, this process is at the centre of it’s world, for stories teach you how to behave in the world and what’s expected of you. How to be the best you… you can be. Where you learn what’s what and who’s who’s and who’s on first; a place where you get it. Where you know how things are done. And this centre, Ursula K le Guin calls HOME. Not just your home with your Mum and Dad but your imaginary home. The place where you are safe to be you. But you can’t get to it unless the people who inspire you show you how to imagine it. These people might not be your parents or teachers. They might not even speak your language. They might even have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words on paper. Ghosts of voices. Shadows of minds. For it is the stories which guide you home to your human community.
As we all well know, it is vital to teach children to listen. Listening is an act of community which takes space, time and silence. Reading is a means of listening. It’s an act. You do it. Moreover, you do it at your own pace and speed. You can take in what you want. Reading a story you are told something. And even though you’re alone, you are in communion with another mind. You have joined an act of communal imagination.
Children must learn how to invent their lives. Make them up. Imagine them. Without imagination, our lives get made up by other people.
Now let’s go back to poetry. To that glimpse of this or that which takes our hearts and makes us feel a little different about the world.
There are four ways in which I think poetry and children walk side by side.
Firstly. Children, like poetry, think about and refer to the big picture. Why is the sky blue? Where does my dog go when it dies? How come I look like I do? A child’s approach to this life they find themselves in is unashamedly philosophical. Kids question. Everything. The impulse is an honest and necessary one. And poetry, in it’s simplest apparition, takes the form of questioning the existence of whatever reality we come across.
Questions and Answers
Q: What’s inside the sun?
Q: What’s inside the earth?
A: Colours before they get their names.
Q: Who made the first circle?
A: Someone who got very dizzy.
Q: What draws the bee to the honeysuckle?
A: Ten million summers.
Q: What roars inside a seashell?
A: Beach lions.
Q: What roars inside you?
A: My blood
Q: How does one tie a rainbow?
A: The first thing is to find the ends.
Q: If it’s noon here, what time is it on Mars?
A: A billion years before noon.
Q: How long does it take to move a mountain?
A: Depends on the number of ants available.
Q: At what speed does a moth move to a lamp?
A: At light speed.
Q: Why is the letter I dotted?
A: To have a good time.
Secondly. Children, like the poet, perceive and experience the world with a closeness, excitement and clarity of vision adults often lack or have forgotten. The child will not just point to a worm wiggling in the ground. He reaches down to get closer. To see it. Maybe pick it up. The world outside stirs us on the inside in ways we don’t always grasp. A whipped up ocean might trigger the possibility for unfettered ideas, a beautiful meadow or sparkling stream may offer a chance to dream big, a dead cat on the road or strange sounds at night may unleash thoughts that lurk somewhere distant within. Nature looms large with both children and poetry. The feeling of biting cold wind, or gentle snow falling, or a hot sun; these things we feel on the outside, can shape inner experience to a high degree for a child. And for a poet. Focusing on landscapes; things both large and small, particular and general are a ritual in the child’s everyday. And all of these contribute to a vast palette of inner life; of memory, emotion, intelligence, common sense, imagination. It is precisely these heightened perceptions that put both the child and poetry in touch with the universals. Concepts that offer us new ways to see the world..new eyes. We in turn perceive things according to the stored experiences we already know.
How to Get an Idea
Dig into Mud
Open up a new box of crayons
Run your finger through a bag of marbles
Skip a stone across water
Ask a cat to lend you one
Stand quietly under a dictionary
Stick out your tongue and say, “Ah!”
Put an empty picture frame on the wall and wait
Thirdly. Children like poets, anthropomorphise the world. I believe our first view of the world, once we acquire language, is an imaginative and poetic one. What we don’t understand, we endow with understandable human attributes; animals say all kinds of things, shadows need to be tamed, stars answer our wishes. The anthropomorphising of the universe is part of growing up. To understand the world, we recreate it in our own recognisable image. When a child stops for a long time to stare at a wonderfully shaped or bizarre stone, that stone may take on new dimensions. For if we look at something long enough and hard enough, the object in view can take on a new identity. Rocks become figures, clouds take on shapes, sounds begin to say something. And more. This personalisation of the environment, is the beginning of metaphor. The first sparks of poetry. How does the fog come? It comes on little cat feet. This is problem solving of the highest and most imaginative order.
last evening you
rolled so loud and silver
past my window
that the shadows
woke and wove their dark
over my bed
in the criss-cross of
I knew what to do
and fold into a
Fourthly. Children, like good poetry, are in perpetual motion. They run. Bound. Hop. Skip. They surprise us with their rhythmic sleight of hand, confound us with symmetry, lull us with melody. For children and poetry share the internal beat of new life. It surges throughout bodies and poetic lines. Children are far more expressive than we are as adults. Because our movements tend to become unexpressive and restrictive as we get older, we tend to lose the bond we once had to the physical environment. But for children playing and moving freely, a certain vibrant memory is developed. A sense memory. A child can freely call on this store of memories as he listens to a story or poem. For poetry relies on the senses; on words that not only have muscle and rhythm, but which you can practically see or taste or feel or smell. These words are exciting. They stir something in you. Creativity depends on this sense memory, on the child’s ability to recreate from his store of remembered motor, auditory and visual experiences. These things are at the core of the creative act.
My first blush of poetry happened because when I was a child I believed that the sun rose the instant I opened my eyes in the morning. I remember lying in bed and opening one eye at a time, seeing if I could fool the sun. But the sun was always there. Loyal to me. And I realised I was queen of the sun. These pre-school fantasies we all have are personal myths. I collected many such myths from friends and family, and they formed the basis of my first book of poems, published by Orchard Books and Houghton Mifflin in 1989 and entitled; ‘Mud, Moon and Me’.
So. Reading, listening, re-acting to the world, these are the things which make us human. What is it that makes us the kings and queens of our world? That offers us the possibility to shape our world? What is it that gives us the vision to express or understand the heady sentiments and urges that rest deep within us; the misty moonlit non thoughts? Those profound things that make us each different and special? That special view of the world when it is turned upside down and covered in falling snow? It is poetry, words raised to the highest level of expression.
Not only does poetry allow us to be who we are, but it gives us the opportunity to be many of the things that we cannot imagine ourselves to be. Listening to a poem, hearing the sway and swing of the words, feeling them grip us even if we don’t understand them all is part of a magical process. Poetic language is living, full of sudden leaps and shadows and endless nuance. These things never truly follow a straight path. Poetry is like that. Daytime logic is cast aside for night time dreams. For poetic language lives on rhythmic cloud and speaks oh so loud to a listening mind. As poets, artists, teachers, librarians, parents, our charge is to keep young minds listening.
Ted Hughes, in a wonderful series created in the 60’s for BBC Schools Broadcasting Department called, ‘Listening and Writing,’ described this responsibility perfectly: ‘I assume that the latent talent for self-expression in any child is immeasurable.’ Words to cherish. He goes on to say that in teaching writing, it’s not for we teachers to say, ‘How to Write,’ but rather ‘How to say what you really mean.’
And what do we mean? For the most part, I must admit that I often don’t quite know what I mean. And worse, I don’t know that I don’t know it. But something is gnawing away at me. The way things do when you dream. Here is where I am in luck. I have a notebook and pencil. I start to write down things I notice. I could notice a lot of things, but my brain selects things for me. It takes me some time to work out. Writing is for me, a kind of teasing out process. I bring this up, not to talk necessarily about me, but simply to point out how much there is in each of us waiting to jump out. Like a bunch of little white rabbits ready and eager to hop out of a hat. Here is an adult poem I wrote exactly about this process.
BAREFOOT ON THE BEACH
scanning the offerings of last nights tide
gulls – shadowless still – flock before us
their sharp cries crack
barefoot on the beach
we follow those match-stick prints
it’s a gumdrop canvas already
bathers towels parasols
we stroll along light as froth
stepping over seashore secrets
snug in wet sand
laughter threads round us
swirls like candy floss
a pale shell catches my eye
it is spiralled orange and white
wind polished to a gleam
a miniature house of some long lost creature
a baby sea horse in my story
the empty shell so delicate
one of millions of sundry small things
washed in by chance
the scent of salt captures me
I float featureless
empty as a puff
the fullness of things blue
a puzzle swells
splits open like a clam sunning
how strange it is to spot this shell
not any other
to draw it and it alone into my universe
and what other things are there to catch my eye
flutter down my spine
dragged in by some restless
tide of my own
and might things random
be not random at all
that what I choose to scan rests
in some shadowy pool
some lost landscape of buried secrets
wedged tight behind my reflection
only to wash up
in the great fullness or emptiness
of some moment or other
A poem poses another way of looking at things. When a child hears or reads a poem, she knows and feels from the tip of her nose to the tips of her toes, that there IS another world out there. A special world. A wild world. A free world. A world where we can catch a shadow or ride a dragon or talk to a daffodil. And it is our job, as adults in this arena, to make sure our children are well looked after. That they are allowed and encouraged to dream. That they have an active and vibrant relationship to poetry.
For those of you who are lucky enough to be involved with children and poetry writing, I take my hat off to you. This is one of the finest human experiences we can offer our kids.
So to end, I hope my little snail has made it someplace wonderful by now. That he is dreaming his little snail dreams and drinking all the rain juice he can hold.
I would like to leave you with verse from Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Weave a circle around him thrice
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed
and drunk the milk of Paradise
The milk of paradise is none other than the wondrous self we can discover, not in some far away Xanadu, but inside ourselves. Inside the heart of every child. And that is why we must take care of the storyteller, the poet and the child. Why we weave a circle around him thrice.