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Fine Arts Friday: Poetry

Our culture has a tendency to shy away from poetry. We think it’s either too hard to understand or disdain it as something for intellectuals and angsty teen girls.  We no longer even use the word “poetry.” Now it’s “spoken word.” Pshaw. You’re a poet, and you know it. Poetry is really just storytelling. In fact, the oldest stories were told in poem form because it’s much easier to memorize the long tale of Odysseus if it has rhythm and rhyme. When I think of poetry, I think of bards at great feasting halls, telling great hero stories.

One of the things that appeals to me about Charlotte Mason and her educational philosophy is that books, art, nature, and poetry aren’t presented to children as some means to an end. Children don’t read or memorize poetry because it helps develop their mental facilities. They study poetry so that they have a storehouse of beautiful thoughts and images on which to meditate. “Children are born persons,” and persons need ideas that are good, beautiful, and true to feast upon.

However, since we tend to want our education to be “useful” (whatever that means), this is what Miss Mason wrote on the benefits and uses of poetry:

“Poetry is, perhaps, the most searching and intimate of our teachers. To know about such a poet and his works may be interesting, as it is to know about repousse work; but in the latter case we must know how to use the tools before we get joy and service out of the art. Poetry, too, supplies us with tools for the modelling of our lives, and the use of these we must get at for ourselves. The line that strikes us as we read, that recurs, that we murmur over at odd moments–this is the line that influences our living, if it speak only–

“Of old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.”

“A couplet such as this, though it appear to carry no moral weight, instructs our conscience more effectually than many wise saws. As we ‘inwardly digest,’ reverence comes to us unawares, gentleness, a wistful tenderness towards the past, a sense of continuance, and of a part to play that shall not be loud and discordant, but of a piece with the whole. This is one of the ‘lessons never learned in schools’ which comes to each of us only as we discover it for ourselves.

“Many have a favourite poet for a year or two, to be discarded for another and another. Some are happy enough to find the poet of their lifetime in Spenser, Wordsworth, Browning, for example; but, whether it be for a year or a life, let us mark as we read, let us learn and inwardly digest. Note how good this last word is. What we digest we assimilate, take into ourselves, so that it is part and parcel of us, and no longer separable.

“We probably read Shakespeare in the first place for his stories, afterwards for his characters, the multitude of delightful persons with whom he makes us so intimate that afterwards, in fiction or in fact, we say, ‘She is another Jessica,’ and ‘That dear girl is a Miranda’; ‘She is a Cordelia to her father,’ and, such a figure in history, ‘a base lago.’ To become intimate with Shakespeare in this way is a great enrichment of mind and instruction of conscience. Then, by degrees, as we go on reading this world-teacher, lines of insight and beauty take possession of us, and unconsciously mould our judgments of men and things and of the great issues of life.”

I’ll admit, poetry is one of those things that gets shunted to the side. I’m  not as deliberate at making time for it as I am other subjects and pursuits. But it is a necessary and much-neglected aspect of literary language and story that deserves more care and attention. I’ve found when I do make room for poetry, we all enjoy it.

What poetry study is not: tearing apart every poem for rhyme scheme and meter. It isn’t writing essays on the meaning of the poem, which, in my opinion, is seriously silly. Poetry study isn’t primarily analyzing or critiquing.

What is poetry study then? Brace yourself: it’s reading and enjoying poetry. Furthermore, poetry is aural — it must be heard to truly be appreciated.  If you or your child is just reading poetry silently, you’re missing much (most) of the meaning and emotion. So poetry study is reading poetry. That’s not hard.

It’s also completely acceptable to decide that a certain poet is just not your style and toss him to the side. In our family, however, much like tasting all our vegetables, we have to try a couple of bites from a poet before deciding it’s yucky. You may also find that your children have different opinions on a poet than you and love a guy you can’t stand, or vice-versa.

I think my early attempts at poetry study were off the mark because I associated that primarily with having my children memorize poetry. Of course, poetry memorization is a good thing, but it’s not the only thing — or even the primary thing. Primarily, you should be reading good poetry (not what Miss Mason called “twaddle.) And your child should memorize a few poems a year.

For my younger children, poetry memorization is part of First Language Lessons, the grammar program we use. Now that the girls are older, they choose their own poems to memorize.  I tend to be a little more lax in choosing our poets than is suggested by some Charlotte Mason advocates, and I should probably change that. We do like to pick poets that coincide with our history studies, so right now we’re looking at American poets. For example, my oldest chose to memorize “Paul Revere’s Ride” and my younger daughter then memorized “The Midnight Ride of William Dawes.”

Grant Wood’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Poor, neglected William Dawes.

Remember, we study poetry because it is good and beautiful and delightful. It may be difficult to get into because it’s unfamiliar to us, but once we do, we ought to be enjoying ourselves.

Poetry study resources and ideas:

I recommend having anthologies of poetry available for children to flip through and for you to access for you children. You can often pick these up at library sales, used book sales, and the discount sections of bookstores for very reasonable prices.

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2 responses to “Fine Arts Friday: Poetry”

  1. Nick Brown Avatar
    Nick Brown

    Well… I have some poetry that have become ear-worms.

    The first that I will always remember is an old Scottish prayer that was used by Raytheon Marine for their Mariner’s Pathfinder Radar:

    “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, … deliver us”

    Another that is in a humorous vein:

    “Roses are red, violets are blue.
    I’m schizophrenic … and so am I.”

    Not an ear-worm but John Gielgud has recorded many poetry readings (mainly Shakespearean sonnets) but he is not to well know for it. One night he appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and did a poetry reading. There was podium set in the center of the stage. John Gielgud walked out with the poem in hand, stepped to the podium and began to read:

    “There she was just a-walkin’ down the street, singin’ “Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do”

    Snappin’ her fingers and shufflin’ her feet, singin’ “Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do”

    She looked good (looked good), she looked fine (looked fine)

    She looked good, she looked fine and I nearly lost my mind”

    Yep. Mannfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy”. He read the entire lyrics to the song.

    I, Johnny, and the audience could not stop laughing!

  2. Nick Brown Avatar
    Nick Brown


    “not *too* well known for it.”


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