Being :: The Power of Poetry

September 6, 2012

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Being: Conscious, mortal existence; life.

Every month we welcome two families, two people, two voices to share their stories in whatever way they chose. We hope that you find joy in their daily lives, and their simple habit of just being.


When my first son was two years old, he brought me one of our poetry books and took me by the hand and led me outside. It was a beautiful fall morning. He sat me down on the edge of the porch and flipped through the book to the page with his favorite poem, identifying it by its illustration. He patted it to let me know he wanted me to read it aloud, then he walked out into the yard. Mystified, I began to read.

I am running, running, running. I am running just for fun…

As I read his favorite poem aloud, he took off and raced around the front yard running as hard as he could with a fierce grin on his face, almost bursting with excitement.

From that time on, if at all possible, he liked to run when I read the running poem.

Poetry is something best introduced to children when they are small and can appreciate it for what it is — a tiny story, often sounding like spoken music, often containing humor or a riddle or just a beautiful image that stays with you.

If you wait too long to introduce children to poetry, they can come to it with a bad attitude picked up somehow from the schoolyard ether. Poetry? Ugh. What’s that? Like, love poems? Barf.

But if you catch them early, they’ll always love poetry. The first book my son ever read to himself was the same book of poems that contained the running poem, and my heart caught in my throat when I saw him stretched out on the couch in the sunshine reading it to himself.

My recommendation for a basic children’s poetry library is simple — only three books:

The 20th Century Children’s Poetry Treasury

The Anthology of Children’s Literature, edited by Edna Johnson et al. (I have the 5th edition)

The Complete Tales & Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh

As a bonus, both the anthology and the Pooh collection are also chock-full of great stories to read aloud.

The anthology is out of print (the edition I am recommending, anyway) but can be found cheaply on Amazon and elsewhere. I paid 75 cents for my original copy at the thrift store, and less than five dollars each for my other two copies. (I don’t want the boys taking my copy when they grow up and have their own children, and they both count the anthology as one of their most beloved books of childhood.) It contains fables, myths, fairy tales, poems, songs, stories, and even selections from great children’s chapter books. It’s a winner. It weighs about ten pounds.

For years, our bedtime read-aloud routine (long past when the boys learned to read themselves) was a chapter of fiction, a chapter of nonfiction, then three poems. We each got to choose a poem. The fiction book would be something like Treasure Island, the nonfiction book for a very long time was Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (sometimes edited on the fly if the selection wasn’t G-rated), and the three poems were chosen from among all our books but almost invariably could be found in one of these three.

Of course, you can build up a much larger poetry library. There’s Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl and Ogden Nash and Mother Goose. Anthologies are best, I think, because they offer poems of every type and style. I would also share poems meant for adults if they were child-friendly — like Billy Collins’ poem about the mouse running through his walls with a matchstick in its mouth. Once a person loves poetry — even a small person — he’s always on the lookout for a new favorite.

There’s some concern among educators that our society’s children are growing less capable — and much less interested — in tackling harder works of literature. They would rather read something that goes down easier, something that isn’t such an athletic challenge for the mind. Poems are a wonderful way to get your child used to unusual words and tricky sentences. Sometimes you have to read a poem three times to understand it — even a children’s poem. When they get the trick, their faces shine with delight. They learn to love the sport of mastering words and images.

Both of my children tackled Shakespeare early, on their own, pulling the books down from the bookshelves and taking them away to curl up in a chair. I remember when my older son was nine and insisted that his brother, age six, read Hamlet. He crackled with excitement. “You have to read this.” I protested a bit, but he shook me off and took his brother away and began reading it aloud to him. Who was I to deny a six-year-old some Shakespeare?

Maybe an early poetry habit has the power to nudge children toward a little Shakespeare or Donne. Their brains have been wired for poetry and thus wired for language — even at its most difficult and most beautiful.

Running Song

I am running,

running, running.

I am running

just for fun.

Through the grass

and through the gravel

running faster

see me travel

past the people

staring, staring.

They are thinking

something’s wrong.

I’m not looking.

I’m not caring.

I’m just running

hard and long.

Now my feet are

pounding pavement.

Now my heart is

pounding, too.

I can feel the sidewalk searing

through the bottom of my shoe.

How the wind is

whipping past me.

How the trees are

whizzing by.

Rushing rivers

run forever.

Maybe I can

if I try.

 — Marci Ridlon, from The 20th Century Children’s Poetry Treasury, ed. Jack Prelutsky, Knopf 1999

We are so happy to welcome Lori Pickert as a guest to our Being series this month.  Lori is an educator, writer, and mother of two, as well as the author of Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners.  Lori’s popular blog has become a go-to resource for many, many families interested in finding ways to encourage their children to become passionate and creative thinkers.  


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Annette September 6, 2012 at 8:25 am

We love to add poetry to our day. We often start the day with a poem. Right now, my favorite resource is an oldish book called “Favorite Poems Old and New”.

patricia September 6, 2012 at 8:32 am

I love the idea of having each person choose a poem during bedtime reading, Lori! Why have I never thought of that?

Another wonderful anthology, for older kids who become avid readers and writers of poetry, is Seeing the Blue Between, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko. It’s a collection of poems by fabulous poets, and each comes with a letter by that poet, addressed to the young poet reader. It’s lovely.

Angela September 6, 2012 at 9:31 am

This is a lovely, lovely post. Thank you for sharing your experiences and ideas.

Lori September 6, 2012 at 12:11 pm

thank you, angela! :)

sarah September 6, 2012 at 11:22 am

i wonder what would happen if i memorized the the running song and repeated it over and over while running. i think i know, i think i would fly.

thank you for this lori & roth. off to grab our poetry books and get them back center stage (the coffee table).

Lori September 6, 2012 at 12:09 pm

sarah, that’s how i feel about that poem. :)

lots and lots of great suggestions of poems and poets and poetry books for kids on my twitter feed today .. when it comes to a close, i’ll move them to a comment over here. lots of suggestions for kids (i’m not going to say boys — i’m not sexist like that) who like vile and disgusting and/or dire and frightening thing.

KC September 6, 2012 at 4:11 pm

OH my gosh! This was so well timed. I’ve been looking to start poetry with my oldest. She’s almost three but italian families everything is learned orally and then recited at the dinner table. My husband especially want our girls to learn poems, he’s always spouting out italian poems. So having some interesting children’s poems will be great!

Lori September 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm

yay! :)

Lise September 6, 2012 at 6:47 pm

I love this post, Lori. (And love seeing you in this space!) We’ve read so many poems in my 3-year-old’s life that when we read a picture book that is really an illustrated poem, Lucy always identifies it as such: “that is a great poem!” (I love that!) I found a vintage “Big Golden Book of Poetry” when Lucy was one, and for some reason, started reading “Raffydiddle” nightly. I ended up memorizing it, and it’s now a mandatory pre-bed recitation. Off to check out your recommendations (as if my poetry shelf weren’t groaning already!)

Lori September 6, 2012 at 8:02 pm

thank you, lise :)

i love that she sees a poem in a picture book. <3

those big golden books are *amazing*. i want the poetry one!!!

Lise September 7, 2012 at 11:32 am

Ooh–I just got the anthology of children’s lit from Paperbackswap. Can’t wait to see it!

And I forgot to say–yes, yes, yes, to Pooh in your top three! We’ve read Pooh so many times, and all the poems until they’re always right at the tip of our tongues. We do “Hoppity” much like you did the running poem.

cordelia September 14, 2012 at 12:59 pm

ooh. Just had a sniffly, sentimental moment seeing that book and remembering how my son used to answer “Treasury” when we asked what he wanted to hear at bedtime… Maybe I need an extra copy, too.

Colleen September 14, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Great idea for adding poetry into a family’s week.

Thanks for the inspiration!
Also fun to look for the golden ticket here!

Have a happy weekend!
Love your blog!

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