April Is National Poetry Month—It’s Time to Take It Back!
Okay, so April is National Poetry Month. For most people that statement realistically is going to be met with a suppressed yawn, and in many cases, not suppressed. Does it matter and should it?
The answer, based on scientific inquiry, is an emphatic yes! I will now tell you why.
A buzzword out there in scientific circles is something called . . . wait for it . . . “neuroplasticity.” Sort of rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It’s not the title of a New Age poem. But it most certainly does relate to poetry in a curious way. Why should children be sampling poetry from a young age, whether it’s the simple rhyming Mother Goose a la “Jack and Jill” or Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” and memorizing said verse? This rote learning, characterized by memorization, hardwires the brain in certain predictable ways—a brain previously thought unchangeable. Much of this thinking comes from recent scientific inquiry. Many parents and grandparents must remember being exposed to scads of poetry in anthologies as part of their grammar-school curricula way back in Dinosaur Land. It extended to, and firmly included, the memorization of large portions of poetry, some of which I can still recite today, which pleases me immensely! As an aside, I recall a brilliant, committed former math teacher at our local high school, winner of a prestigious math prize given by Princeton University. He recalled noticing, in his early teaching career at a grammar school, the discipline of memorization for its own sake was deemed important and a sort of cross-pollination occurred in strengthening other areas of learning. The skill was transferable to other subject matter, he observed. He seriously touted its value.
Up to the 1960s, schools were teaching curricula, including poetry, in a certain way, with lots of rote, drill, and memorization. As “relevant” learning began to hold sway post-1960s, methodologies changed, and so did the strategies by which many of our parents and grandparents learned, with memorization of large portions of poetry being all but eliminated. That change, over time, has led to a supposed rewiring of how children learn. And from the much-written-about failure of many of our schools to teach the basics, this change has not been for the better.
Pay particular attention, parents who want their offspring to actually enjoy a leg up educationally. We’re not talking Princeton Review, Kaplan, or anything of that magnitude; just a simple introduction to the particular mechanism and pattern of poetry added into a child’s reading experience.
What does all this have to do with the celebration of the lyricism and artistry of poetry? Children also have an innate kinship to the sense of rhythm and cadence of poetry. Whether it’s silly, serious, simple or seasonal, kids love rhyme! But poetry, as opposed to prose, has fallen out of fashion and its memorization is kaput. Schools, busy with “teaching to the test,” don’t seem to emphasize it as in years past, or its memorization. But you parents can and should! Most kids love an audience to watch them perform. How many kids say to their parents, “Watch me” or “Listen to this” as they read? Why not initiate a Poetry Night in April, where the kids and you each pick out your favorites and perform? Poetry, to be fully flavored, is meant to be read, recited, reacted to and savored. I made a rhyme! Poetry can encourage an appreciation of the immense beauty of the English language and the rhythmic variety and intricacies of word couplings and cadence.
The general experience of the poet refines a way to catapult a child to his own personalized reference to that experience. Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson sat amidst his rumpled coverlet and created a private world in his childhood bed in “The Land of Counterpane,” children have singsonged their way through “Little Bo-Peep” and “Hickory Dickory Dock.” Children have an affinity toward poetry whether they call it by name or not. April, celebrating poetry, is the time, the “teachable moment,” to serve it up. Now, how did Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus” go? I memorized it eons ago just because I wanted to, with its multiple stanzas.
It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bear him company.
It’s still there, deep in the synapses, intact as great memories always remain!
Over the coming weeks, I’ll post about a sampling of poetry books I feel should appeal to a variety of tastes. There is something for everyone, to be sure. Soooo . . . Please pick one, get the comforter and “huggle” (a derivative of “snuggle,” as my girls say) for a series of great experiences you will remember, and most importantly, so will they. Do it.