This blog post started out as something for our younger readers and writers. But then I had a conversation with my “DS” (darling son), while we were sitting at the kitchen table having a snack.
Me [ina]: I’m kind of freaking out trying to write a blog post for the kids who read In Our Books. I don’t remember what it’s like to be a kid. I don’t even remember how I learned about poetry. I don’t remember anything these days! I hate getting old! Argh!
DS [looking toward ceiling]: Hm. You don’t remember what it’s like.
Me: I don’t. And I don’t even know how to introduce people to poetry. I mean, what is a poem? Argh!
DS : You want to be helpful. [closes eyes and hums thoughtfully for several moments] Kids like what grown ups like [wanders to the sink to get a glass of water]. By the way, Mommy, a poem is just music made of words.
So now, this is not a post for kids. This is a post for everyone.
Every place and culture has music. Different people like different kinds of music; some people make music, others listen to it. Like poems – they are everywhere, and each of us hears them differently.
Some poems, like some music, have constant, repeated “meter” and “rhyme.” The meter is the rhythm of the poetry; rhymes are words that sound the same. Many poems in English have a repeated, steady rhythm:
de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM//
de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM
These poems sometimes have end-rhymes at the end of lines. End-rhymes are when later parts of the words sound the same. Those same-sounding words come at the ends of lines. For example:
The cow is of the bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other, milk.
[by Ogden Nash, “The Cow,” Free Wheeling, 1931]
If this is a kind of poetry you like, there are many poets who wrote poems like this:
- Jack Prelutsky (he writes lots of books of poems, but one of my favorites is My Dog May Be A Genius)
- Shel Silverstein (many people love Where The Sidewalk Ends)
- For more old-fashioned poems (though with a lower silliness quotient), the author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote the first set of poems I happened to memorize as a child myself, A Child’s Garden of Verses
My DS’s favorite book of poems is by a poet who wrote almost nothing for children. TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is so well-loved that it has been made into a musical play called “Cats.” One of my favorite poems is about a cat named Bustopher Jones, mostly because we have a cat just like him
There are other poets who wrote rhymed and metered poems for kids but who are loved by people of all ages; look for Dr. Seuss, Charlotte Zolotow, Spike Milligan, Roald Dahl, Rudyard Kipling.
Some poems are more “free-form” – people call this “less structured.” Many poems “for adults” and many poems written by poets who usually write for adults are poems that just need a listening ear – whether that ear is young or old, big or small, for the flow of the song to become obvious.
Some places to start might be:
- The great American poet William Carlos Williams, who was also a doctor and wrote many of his best poems on the pads in which he could give medicine prescriptions for his patients. A favorite: The Red Wheelbarrow. When you read this, how does it sound? What does it remind you of? How does it make you feel inside?
- Valerie Worth’s Animal Poems are for everyone. She writes about little things like crickets in a way that makes us understand how big those little things are
- Ted Hughes was known as a poet for adults, but he did write many poems for children which have been made into a book, Collected Poems for Children
Here’s another lovely poem by Hughes:
If you’d like to try reading several different poets, to find out what sorts of poems you like, there are some wonderful English-language collections to try:
Why am I spending so much time talking about poems to read? Perhaps it is because I learned to write – to find my own songs – by reading the songs of others. But I will stop here, and I hope that all our fellow writers, young and old, will tell us : what poems would you want to share with other writers? which poets would you recommend for people starting out their poem-ing life?