March 30, 2006

Poetry as broccoli, and a wrap-up for National Poetry Month

With apologies to Joyce Kilmer (poems are made by fools like me):

I think that I shall never see,
A poem lovely as a tree,
Unless it is my broccoli.

A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
Nearby a child with mouth, too, pressed,
'Gainst vegetable with ranch sauce dressed...

In her Young Readers column last week, the Washington Post's Elizabeth Ward (tip to Kelly at Big A little a) took National Poetry Month to task for rendering the subject thoroughly unappetizing to kids:
The American Academy of Poets obviously didn't consult children when it decided in 1996 that poetry deserved the kiss of death as much as black history or crime prevention and gave it its own official month. The result has been a decade of Aprils reinforcing the idea of poetry as broccoli: You'd like it if you'd only try it, kids, and besides, it's good for you!
Erm, maybe yes, maybe no. I can see Ward's point, which is much the same as my father's curmudgeonly take years ago upon discovering National Children's Day -- "What on earth do they mean? Every day is children's day!" But for the kids who aren't going to have any broccoli or poetry at all unless someone reminds the adults in their lives once a year, a national month isn't such a wretched idea. And you can't really blame the Academy for trying to fill the breach -- as we've seen, schools are busy redesigning and/or gutting curriculum (poetry got the old heave-ho a long time ago); compared to iPods, poems are hopelessly old-fashioned, compared to X-Box hopelessly boring; and, I could be wrong about this, but I have the feeling that not too many parents read poetry to or with their kids. Not to mention the fact that poetry can often take some time and effort, and the former at least seems to be in very short supply these days. So what's an Academy to do, short of sneaking into kids' rooms at bedtime?

Of course, I come at thoughts on the subject from a decidedly peculiar vantage point; I have kids who enjoy both broccoli and poetry, and sometimes, over lunch, even at the same time. And it didn't happen by accident, though it didn't require a lot of work either. In fact, I suspect that my kids like both broccoli and poetry, for many of the same reasons:
  • Broccoli and poetry have each been a fixture and a staple of our daily diets, so the kids have just grown accustomed to the fact that they're around, in the air, in the fridge, on the table, on the shelf. It just wasn't an option, as far as my husband and I were concerned, not to offer our kids the same tasty treats we enjoy (this is part of that old chicken nugget theory, by the way). I'm also a big fan of poetry for every occasion. If you have Favorite Poems Old and New selected by Helen Ferris on the shelf, you can find poems for and about the seasons, holidays, historical figures, not to mention cleaning the house and getting the mumps.
  • I try to serve up each tastefully. Raw broccoli can look like trees, or trees with snow (dip or ranch dressing), or keep other brightly colored vegetables company on a pretty plate. When I cook it, I try not to overdo it into grayness and mush (this is also useful to remember when helping your kids learn something by heart, too). For very special heart attack occasions I'll even make Blender Hollandaise for drizzling. When it comes to poetry, especially for young children, illustrated books, spoken poetry, well-written poems, on subjects that are particularly appealing (though not necessarily gag "relevant") can make all the difference. Poetry Speaks to Children (book and cd), Caroline Kennedy's new A Family of Poems, and My Kingdom for a Horse are all marvelous examples of poetry that can appeal to children on many different levels, certainly not just as printed words on the page.
  • The kids have a say and a hand in what and how much poetry and broccoli they consume. Daniel prefers his broccoli raw, and his poetry fairly muscular; Davy enjoys his broccoli both raw and cooked, and prefers poetry more moving and pastoral (erm, about transportation and farming); Laura is stretching her wings to include such things as hollandaise sauce and Shakespeare, though she's always happy with something about horses and fairies.
Here are some recent Farm School posts on the poems and poetry books our family has enjoyed lately:

*Something different, the list from at right of What We're Reading, Watching, Listening To & Playing With: The Poetry Month Edition

*Adding even more poetry to your life, just in time for National Poetry Month

*Poetry Is Life

*Poetry sings

*Poetry festival selections I

*Poetry festival selections II

*Poetry festival selections III

*Irving Layton, 1912-2006

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