The Power of Poetry

Where Poetry Hides

“Poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

They are sleeping. They are the shadows

Drifting across our ceilings the moment

Before we wake up . . . “

~Naomi Shihab Nye~

Here at Heritage Christian Academy kindergarteners twirl and dance as they memorize and recite winter’s call to the autumn leaves, second graders pen acrostic praises to autumn, and fifth graders practice metaphoric comparisons in their lighthouse poems. Poetry is an important part of the HCA school experience.

“Play is what we want to do. Work is what we have to do,” said W. H. Auden. Poetry is both of those things. Robert Frost, in fact, defined poetry as “serious play.” Poetry is the liveliest use of language, and nobody knows more instinctively how to take delight in that playfulness than children. Surely no parent or educator feels that children must be force-fed Dr. Seuss or Shel Shilverstein, or Mother Goose for that matter; children love rhymes, word games and the aesthetic effects of verse. At the same time, children are equally delighted by more sophisticated poetry when it is presented in meaningful,  creative ways and authentic contexts. God created us with a love for beautiful language. The trick is how to translate this natural affinity, once aroused and captured, into the desire to read poetry seriously, to do the intellectual work necessary to gain a basic mastery of the literary art, just as one does with math, biology, or Latin. There are several crucial components which apply to this important field of knowledge: family, school, and community.

It is a simple fact that some students are more drawn to words and literature than others. Sometimes all it takes is the influence of the right person or book at the right moment, to tap something that is set to blossom inside—a love of language, of the sound or meaning of words, or their look on the page. But it is critically important for all children that the right opportunities, the right people, be there when the moment is at hand.

Often the first of these opportunities is the influence of family. How many of us can’t remember a song that our parents sung, a book or poem that was read to us countless time, or a favorite bedtime story? At that intersection of love and language is poetry. Naomi Shihab Nye urges us to “remember the dignity of daily affirmation, whatever one does—the mother speaking to the child is also a poem.”

After the home comes the classroom, a frequent stumbling block for poetry. Any subject—even school itself –can be characterized as “liver and onions” by a student who doesn’t experience the excitement of learning. Teachers must push back against the notion that poetry is an obscure, inaccessible, and unpalatable art and guide students to understand and appreciate its value.

Finally, the culture around us influences our poetic tastes. Poetry reflects our values, beliefs, and experiences. It is especially important that Christians cultivate a love for poetry and acquire understanding of the art, so that they can use this art form to share their values, beliefs, and experiences.  It’s hard to overestimate the importance of community to poetry. We need to have the opportunity to read and share and respond to poetry in new ways.

As you enhance your child’s poetic experiences,

  1. Choose poems to read that are immediately accessible, nonthreatening, and relevant to students’ lives.
  2. Help students respond to poems by helping them connect their lived and literary experiences to poetry.
  3. Guide students toward analyzing the craft of a poem, figuring out how a poem is built, interpreting what a poem means, or unlocking puzzles of difficult poetry.
  4. And remember, “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”
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