Friday, January 25, 2013

Soaking in the Soothing Pools of Poetry (or something like that)

 by Megan Hoyt

 "Poetry is, perhaps, the most searching and intimate of our teachers." Charlotte Mason

"It is, however, true that a poem, to be real poetry, must express passion, or, at least, emotion; and another definition, which is perhaps nearer, is that poetry is 'man's thoughts tinged by his emotions.' Even this, however, does not distinguish poetry from eloquence." from What is Poetry by H. A. Nesbitt, (Parent's Review, vol 14, pp33-42)

I still remember the sighs and audible groans of my classmates (and I must include myself if I'm honest) whenever the teacher announced it was time to do a unit on poetry -- even in my high school honors courses. The words used to swim on the page as I dozed through lesson upon lesson. Then I decided to major in English in college. And guess what? Every single course I took included at least one or two poets. It was also a requirement that we memorize several lengthy poems each term. AND analyze them. My head spinning, I managed to do the memory work required but always (at least I was consistent) got low scores on poetry analysis. I had NO IDEA what most of these poems were about. None whatsoever. I know I should have "gotten" at least one or two of them, but from Endymion to Ode on a Grecian Urn, it was ALL Greek to me. If poetry is supposed to be the most searching and intimate of our teachers, I must have been doing something very wrong.  

Here's what I think was happening -- I had no clothesline in my inner brain closet on which to hang the understanding of any type of poetry. So when faced with ballads, elegies, sonnets, and idylls, I was utterly and completely lost.

Here's what I see as our goal as Charlotte Mason educators, right from the very start: 

Hang a sturdy rod in our students' brain closets and then show them how to hang the great poets on it. 

That's it. Simple, right? Or is it? Let's brainstorm together for a minute. What would this sturdy rod look like? When would we begin? How would we accomplish this task? 

Well, if I could put a name to it, the rod would be called context. In order to create context, we need to offer them access to the personhood of the poet by sharing a bit about his or her life. We can give them visual manna, auditory manna, and prepare them for the feast of ideas they are about to receive with a few simple instructions before they dig into the poems. And there are other ways to prepare them, besides just reminding them to access the habits of attention and concentration. We can dim the lights and turn on soft music to set the tone for the lesson. We can have the students close their eyes and focus on what the poem is saying to them. They can write down their responses or narrate orally or to a certain extent just sit and soak. In fact, that is what Miss Mason would prefer they do -- experience the poet for themselves without our constant interference. 

But not until we have provided that all-important context on which to hang what they are about to receive can they really access poetry. And don't forget that concrete learners are going to have a rougher time of it. Have patience with their starts and stops. They are not so fortunate as their more philosophical peers. It will take some exercising to build up their "deep feeler" muscles. But everyone can enjoy poetry. I know because I finally learned how. (Yea!)

It happened when I least expected it. I was reading through The Oxford Book of English Verse, and this poem leaped off the page at me. It's called A White Rose, by John Boyle O'Reilly, 1844-1890: 

The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love; 
O the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.

But I send you a cream-white rosebud
With a flush on its petal tips;
For the love that is purest and sweetest
Has a kiss of desire on the lips.

These metaphors made sense, unlike the more difficult poems I had been asked to analyze at college. Slowly and meticulously, I began to create some context and background for myself. And bit by bit, I began to understand even the longer poems. It worked!


" is the part of parents to bring the minds of their children under the influence of the highest, purest poetic thought we have."

"...some one poet should have at least a year to himself, that he may have time to do what is in him towards cultivating the seeing eye, the hearing ear, the generous heart."

"Yet be it confessed, that in the matter of reading, this sort of spoon-feeding is not the best thing, after all. Far better would it be that the young people should seek out their own pastures, the parents doing no more than keep a judicious eye upon their rovings. But the fact is, young people are so taken up with living, that, as a rule, they do not read nowadays; and it is possible that a course of spoon-meat may help them over an era of feeble digestive power, and put them in the way of finding their proper intellectual nourishment." (vol 5, p 224)

What? Spoon-feeding is sometimes necessary? According to Charlotte Mason herself? To help them over an era of feeble digestive power? What a relief! With that in mind, I'll share a few of the highlights of our poetry studies.


"Let us learn and inwardly digest..." Charlotte Mason

The first year I taught poetry appreciation to 8-10-year-olds we started with Eugene Field (click on his name for a full, free audiobook of his work), who I believe is a great poet for beginners. We watched a short film clip that included photos of the house where he grew up and other sights that gave the students something to work with visually. They listened to an audio storybook dramatization of his life to put his work in context. They learned that he lost a child tragically and grieved alongside him while listening intently to the story. When we read Field's Little Boy Blue, the audible sniffles from the children broke their tender silence. It was hard not to cry. Here's the poem:

Little Boy Blue
by Eugene Field (1850-1895)

The little toy dog is covered with dust,
   But sturdy and stanch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
   And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
   And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
   Kissed them and put them there.
"Now, don't you go till I come," he said,
   "And don't you make any noise!"
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed,
   He dreamt of the pretty toys; 

And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
   Awakened our Little Boy Blue--- 

Oh! the years are many, the years are long, 

  But the little toy friends are true!
Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
   Each in the same old place---
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
   The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
   In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
   Since he kissed them and put them there.

They were hooked. The rod was hung, and it was time to sit back and watch them hang the poems on it!

And the answer to the "where" question? If at all possible, visit the very places where the poet wrote. But if not possible, you can visit through photos and youtube videos (Click for a lovely, lingering look at Field's boyhood home).

"Think of how the better half of English literature has a local colouring; think of the thousand spots round which there lingers an aroma of poetry and of character which seems to get into your brain somehow, and leave there an image of the man, feeling of his work, which you cannot arrive at elsewhere. The Quantocks, Grasmere, Haworth Moors, the Selborne 'Hanger,' the Lincolnshire levels––it is needless to multiply examples of spots where you may see the raw material of poetry, and compare it with the finished work." (vol 5, p. 128)

The next week we watched a cartoon version of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod to lighten the mood. (They loved that, although to me it wasn't educational so much as a fun way to help them form an even stronger relationship with Eugene Field, the poet.) Then I offered them choices. Kids love choices! I showed them several different poems by Eugene Field and asked them each to choose one to memorize.

The next week was a shocker. Instead of memorizing the first stanzas like I had asked, several of my students had memorized their entire poem. Not only that, they were excited about the man who wrote the words. They wanted to learn even more about him. A couple of them researched him on the internet. Each week, I brought a couple of photos of him.

At this point, I became even more secure in the idea that children of all ages CAN access poetry. And boy, can their little minds memorize! Emboldened, we began allowing even younger children to enjoy poetry along with their older siblings. Here's the result.


I worked with a class of 6-8 year olds one year -- charming, precocious children with eager hearts but younger than the first group I taught. We were studying William Blake, and I knew these kids would not know anything about the time period in which he lived. So we talked about printing presses and how paper was made. We looked at some of Blake's art. We learned about his life, how from an early age he told his parents he could see angels (they thought that was pretty cool). They narrated back as much as they remembered, which was, well, everything.

But our most successful day together involved something a little more hands-on. We were reading The Lamb and talking about its meaning. Then I decided to have them all get on their hands and knees and act like lambs while I read the poem. Oh, how their attitudes and demeanors changed! It became sheer joy. They lapped it up like panting dogs at their water bowls after a hot summer romp. Success. Delight. Wonder. And bliss. 

Armed with such success, I did what any respectable teacher of William Blake would do. I read The Tyger to them. Of course, they paraded around the room as tigers while they listened. But the important thing is that they connected with the poem, the poet, the somewhat lofty ideas, and the English language. Before we began, I pulled out a few vocabulary words that I knew they wouldn't understand. I explained what an anvil was and we listened to The Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. I can't help but throw in a little composer study whenever I can. (That link is for your benefit, not the children in your life. They, er, might get ideas -- and not the good kind!)

From The Tyger:

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 
Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 

With this initial whetting of their poetic appetites, we moved on to the memory work. I decided for the first project to have each of them memorize two lines only. I left class unsure of what to expect when I returned the next week, but these young children came back to class with their lines memorized! And they were beaming with pride in their accomplishments. They couldn't wait to recite them for the older kids during assembly time. Here's the poem we chose (We had moved on to Wordsworth):

"Think clear, feel deep, bear fruit well." Matthew Arnold
Okay, all these beautiful poems, filled with artistic supremacy and loftiness evoke an emotional response even in the youngest of children -- just as the doctor ordered (the doctor being Miss Mason). Why can't I leave well enough alone?

I was now smitten by poetry, and my adoration was proving contagious. So I had to dig deeper and learn more. 


You are either going to love this part or hate it -- depending on how you feel about free verse. I was once not as great a fan as I am now, I'll admit. I love the rhyme, rhythm, and predictability of Emily Dickinson and the natural flow and beauty of Wordsworth and Blake. And I'm convinced Miss Mason would agree with me:

"We must read our poets and learn them by heart till our minds are full of the best thoughts and the loveliest expressions that the world has yet uttered; and be sure that as we read and learn, our own appreciation will grow, and we shall begin to understand more fully why we must teach our little ones only what is good, and why we are doing them a real wrong if we let their minds be filled with what is poor and trivial, while all the world's richest treasures are lying ready for them to take and use as their own possessions."  from The Teaching of Poetry to Children by Mrs. J. G. Simpson (Parent's Review, Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 879-883)

But in order to open ourselves to a wide banquet of living ideas, a feast for the senses to broaden the mind, I think we have to look at ALL types of poetry and at the continuum of poetry throughout history. Some time early in the twentieth century, poets began bucking the system much like the Impressionists bucked it fifty years earlier. And the results weren't half bad. Here's what poet Marianne Moore said:

 "I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. 
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, 
a place for the genuine." from Poetry by Marianne Moore 

But she also said: "...not till the poets among us can be literalists of the imagination, above insolence and triviality and can present for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them,' shall we have it." from Poetry by Marianne Moore

Imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Hmmm. Lots to ruminate on here. Her poetry is rich, yet funny. Charming, yet full. I've come a long way from those early college days. I am actually enjoying free verse! Who knew this was even possible? Oh wait, Charlotte Mason said that if we applied her principles, great connections would be made, strong relationships formed, and life well-lived. She knew!

Yesterday, I found myself drawn to a couple of poems by Marianne Moore. I chuckled at first as I read Poetry. But as I reread it, I saw such strong imagery, such mastery of words, that I found myself envying her skill. I dug a little deeper. I read about her life, her affinities, read her Arctic Ox. Again, I laughed. Actually, I listened to her read it here. While it was interesting to hear her voice, I much prefer a lilting British accent. But I digress.

I'm sharing Marianne Moore's work with you today because, as Charlotte Mason said, "Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another..." So you see, I am compelled by Miss Mason to convey these ideas to you! 

Here are a few snippets from Poetry that snagged my attention. (Do click on the link, though, because it has an audio recording of her reading her poem.)

Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise if it must, these things are important not because a high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are useful. 

...we do not admire what we cannot understand: the bat holding on upside down or in quest of something to eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the baseball fan, the statistician...

The imagery here is fantastic. In one brief sentence, we are surrounded by vivid glimpses of animals (and human beings) in action. I love that. I'll explain why she loves to write about animals a little later.

Here's a short poem Ms. Moore wrote about dragons:

If I, like Solomon, could have my wish- 
O, to be a dragon, a symbol of the power of Heaven-
of silkworm size or immense; at times invisible. 
Felicitous phenomenon!  

Ms. Moore studied Biology at Bryn Mawr College. She loved animals and even kept nature notebooks. She was a very Charlotte Mason type poet, eh? Here's a sample page:

Since Marianne Moore loved animals so much, it's not surprising that she wrote many poems about them. Here she is discussing Arctic Ox in an interview and reading from it. It's well-written and yet silly. You can get that sense of passion and emotion and high-mindedness even while enjoying this free-flowing verse. And her interest in nature shines through, offering the student a glimpse into the natural world along the way. Brilliant! 


And now for the really juicy bits. After studying various poets, older children, ages 12 and up, can begin writing in the style of their favorites. This is where you can tell what they've learned, whether they have absorbed the depth and breadth of each poet. This is where it gets exciting. The proof is in the telling back and how wonderful that they can tell back in the style of a poet by the time they reach high school age. Check out the end of Volume 6 for some samples from Miss Mason's day. But try not to be discouraged. It takes the slow progress of careful and continual practice to be able to do this. 

And you never know where a high school student will go, how deeply he will mine the depths of poetry, how high she will rise as she learns and grows in her ability to craft her own verse. (Check out Bryana Johnson's Having Decided to Stay.)

And that brings us to Shakespearean sonnets. I can't not share this version of Sonnet 73. It's Dallas Bill, ya'll! He gives brief explanations of each stanza, which I wouldn't advise unless you have a student who is lost as I was and in need of a "guide" to rescue her after an "era of feeble digestive powers." It happens.

We asked our older students to write a Shakespearean sonnet. They needed a little instruction first in form so that they would know HOW to do it. You can learn that here. The results were amazing. I wish I had one of them to share with you. If I can get my hands on one, I will update this post. They also memorized Sonnet 73. But not as quickly as the younger children memorized their poems! 

While we're on the subject of sonnets, and lest we choose to believe that all noble poets of long ago existed on a higher plane than the rest of us, I want to share two sonnets by John Donne. The first exemplifies all that is great and noble and carries within it beauty, honor, and religious fervor. If this was all we ever read of John Donne, our hearts would be singed, our emotions enraptured by his eloquence, our souls lifted to the mountaintops, the winding ascent seemingly complete.  

Sonnet XIV

Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

"A few months before his death, Donne commissioned this portrait of himself as he expected to appear when he rose from the grave at the Apocalypse. He hung the portrait on his wall as a reminder of the transience of life." (Lapham, The End of the World, p. 98.)

But here is where we can all identify with Donne -- from those less apt to read poetry to those magnanimous souls whose lives are poems in and of themselves. Alas, poor Johnny. He would most assuredly rather I not share this one. But here it is. It's titled The Flea.

 Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two;
    And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

I'll end with a list of poets from Ambleside Online that Miss Mason believed were not to be missed. May your journey into the world of emotionally evocative poetry lead you toward magnanimity, noble thinking, and great joy. I hope your aha moments will be many and that your heart may be full.

Poetry aids in the planting of soul-touching ideas. And Who is the author of those?

"We may be poor things, but we are ready to break forth into singing should the chance open to us of a full life of passionate devotion. Now, all our exigent demands are met by words written in a Book, and by the manifestations of a Person; and we are waiting for a Christianity such as the world has not yet known. Hitherto, Christ has existed for our uses; but what if a time were coming when we, also, should taste the "orientall fragrancie" of, "My Master!" So it shall be when the shout of a King is among us, and are there not premonitions?" (vol 6 pg 337)



  1. Thank you for reminding me to do poetry with my children more often! I am a concrete learner. Although I enjoyed poetry in junior high and high school, I was not good at analyzing it. It wasn't until college that I had a wonderful professor that helped me develop that skill. He ended up becoming my advisor and I ended up with a concentration in Poetry as part of my Literature degree! Fancy that! Hmm, I need to read poetry more often.

  2. Well, that explains why your kids came back with their entire poems completely memorized! Must be in the genes! I was so shocked when Maddie recited The Duel all the way through.

  3. i definitely would NOT have guessed you had ever struggled with poetry from the sounds of this post... you certainly have come a long way, baby! ;)

  4. You reminded me of something similar that I need to blog on Plutarch.

    It took us a long time to get into poetry, too. Pamela loves it, even when we attempt a challenging poem.

  5. Aw, thanks, Amy! I still struggle with long works by Keats and Tennyson. Okay, maybe not Tennyson. And Don Juan by Byron. Ugh. The longer poetry is just plain hard to "get."

  6. We did enjoy Longfellow's longer poetry because it told a story. Pamela and I read Evangeline for our hat tip to Canadian history one year. When we lived in Minnesota, we read The Song of Hiawatha.

  7. I have to tell you -- my honey gave me cream white rosebuds for Valentine's Day. He knows me! :D

    The red rose whispers of passion,
    And the white rose breathes of love;
    O the red rose is a falcon,
    And the white rose is a dove.

    But I send you a cream-white rosebud
    With a flush on its petal tips;
    For the love that is purest and sweetest
    Has a kiss of desire on the lips.