Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Chapter 4: Poetry

If there is one element of Charlotte Mason's method that I need no convincing about it is the power of poetry.  A couple months ago, I read a fantastic snippet from a J. Bottom article, quoted at Common Room: "Another reason we read poetry to children has to do with what can only be called magic. Heavy meter and insistent rhyme are a kind of sorcery, through which words achieve unity not only with their meanings but with the things they represent. To put it another way, meter and rhyme confirm children’s deeply conservative desire that the world make sense in all its parts."  Oh, how true this is--there is magic in poetry, to be sure.  The beauty of good poetry lies in its tight connection between form and meaning and in its song, and although the former might be beyond the conscious notice of the young child, they explicitly delight in the latter.  

I grew up with very little exposure to poetry in school, but discovered the joy of reading and learning poetry in college, and I have read poetry to the children since they were very young and continue to do so daily.  Certain poems have already become part of our family culture, and we love quoting relevant lines.  For example, my daughter loves to sing, "How would you like to go up in the swing, up in the air so blue?" when we're at the park, and I often comment on the "bee-loud glade" under our backyard hibiscus tree.  I only have a very modest number memorized, but my children's capacity to absorb the poems so effortlessly has inspired me to try to memorize more--so handy to have a small anthology in my mind for the enjoyment of my children and myself at any time in any place!  I can genuinely say that the images, phrases, and rhythm we have internalized from our poetry readings have enriched all of us--even my toddler loves when I pull out an anthology and immediately shouts out his requests.  (His current favorite is Phyllis McGinley's "B's the Bus," which, as such, gets read nearly every morning.  William Blake's "The Lamb" is a close second.)

I contrast my own children's enthusiasm with my experience teaching college undergrads, who were--even as English majors!--interested in poetry but absolutely intimidated by it.  It was as if they felt that "sorcery," that lure, but did not know what to make of the poem and certainly did not know how to decode it.  Certainly, it is a beautiful thing to be able to take apart a poem, look at it closely, observe how it functions, and put it back together to re-experience its song in a new light.  My analytical side loves the feeling of really digging into a poem and reflecting on how the word choice, the meter, the rhyme scheme all come together to form the whole and make it "work."  But my less-analytical side just enjoys reading a good poem, or hearing one recited, or reciting one myself.  Acknowledging and appreciating the power of a poem doesn't rely on the student being able to tear it apart, like so many students have been taught.  

I think this is what Maryellen St. Cyr is referring to when she cautions: "This intimate and searching teacher, poetry, may only have its way if we bring it before the students void of preconceived notions that may interfere with the students' enjoyment and learning." (156)  Once again, we must be sure not to get in the way of the student in his meeting of the text/author.  This principle is so central to Charlotte Mason's philosophy and relates to every subject; the reminder in this chapter calls to my mind a passage regarding kindergarten from Miss Mason herself (and I just love her sense of humor here):
"There are still, probably, Kindergartens where a great deal of twaddle is talked in song and story, where the teacher conceives that to make poems for the children herself and to compose tunes for their singing and to draw pictures for their admiration, is to fulfill her function to the uttermost. The children might echo Wordsworth's complaint of 'the world,' and say, the teacher is too much with us, late and soon. Everything is directed, expected, suggested. No other personality out of book, picture, or song, no, not even that of Nature herself, can get at the children without the mediation of the teacher. No room is left for spontaneity or personal initiation on their part."  (Home Education, v. 1, p. 188, emphasis mine).
St. Cyr agrees: "Share the works of poets that afford the best thought of the best writers with your students.  There is so much noble poetry; the child should not be allowed to learn twaddle." (157)  It is a shame how many modern "children's anthologies" include only silly ditties when so much of even the greatest poetry is accessible to young ones, as the compilers of older anthologies--and the "children's poets" of the past themselves--knew quite well.  I do love a fun nonsense rhyme (a la Edward Lear or Mother Goose) or a sweet verse written especially for a child (a la Kate Greenaway or A.A. Milne)--it doesn't all need to be Shakespeare, Yeats, or Blake!  But the banal selections in so many modern anthologies leave me and my littles uninspired.

And one suggestion from this chapter that I'm hoping to implement with this year: "Train the students in the art of recitation, the fine art of beautiful and perfect speaking." (157)  I try to model good reading for the children and they do pick up on my phrasing, pausing, and whatnot just by listening.  But to work on this carefully as a service to both themselves and to others will be a great challenge for this year.  I'm also planning to incorporate some recitations for Daddy and the grandparents during our upcoming exam week and during Sunday teatimes in the winter.  If anyone has tips or suggestions on how to implement such a thing, I am all ears!  Thanks so much for indulging me in my little poetry diatribe today--it's one of my favorite subjects. :)


  1. I always comment on the bee-loud glade too:) I was always intimidated by poetry as a college student, and I was an English major!! But I loved it, regardless, and am so happy to have the chance to read it with the children. I think you are right...there's a certain magic that over-rides the slightly harder nature of poetry.

  2. Hoping to get a chance to read through more of your lovely blog. If you haven't already, you should let the ladies of 4real know about your little book study. I'm reading through When children love to learn right now, as well, after skimming in the past. So I may join in! :)

  3. Thanks, Amanda! I hope you will join in when you can. We're finding lots to chat about, as you can see! :)