Teachers – Poetry For Children – Characteristics and Examples
I think one of the most important concepts about poetry is that, “Like a song, poetry is meant to be heard” (Larrick, 1987, p. 20). While good prose can be read aloud or silently, poetry should almost always be read aloud. That poetry needs to be heard can be attributed to the characteristics of poetry that distinguish poetry from prose, namely rhythm, sound patterns, figuration, compactness, and emotional intensity (Lukens, 1990). I’ll explore each of these in more depth, below:
An example that I often use when first teaching the attribute of rhythm to students is Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Was a Dream Ever a Drum?” [Be sure to read this aloud!]
Was a drum ever a dream?
or a drum a dream?
Can a drummer play a dream?
or a dreamer dreams a drum?
The drum in a dream
noisily pound the dreamer.
Now the moon tonight over Indiana
it’s a phantom dreamer’s fire drum.
Carl Sandburg at Hopkins, 1982
As I read it out loud, I tap on a desk, the book, or my lap to make a drum sound that accompanies what I’m reading. Then I read it again, only this time, the students beat the beat on their own laps or desks.
“Was Ever a Dream a Drum” can also be used to demonstrate how poetry uses sound patterns, that is, words as sound. However, my favorite poem to use is “Comes the Man with the Jam Hat,” from the Newbery Award-winning book by Nancy Willard, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Seasoned Travelers. Only the first stanza (read aloud, of course) gives you an idea of how Willard used sound patterns in this poem:
The Man in the Jam Hat
Arrived in mid-March
equipped with a bottle of starch
to straighten the curves in the road, he said.
He was carrying a bucket and a mop.
A most inconvenient burden, he said,
and asked for a room at the top.
The children ask to hear that poem over and over again so they can play with the language of the poem. Just savor saying “a very inconvenient load” several times, and you’ll be hooked too!
A third characteristic of poetry is the author’s use of words as meaning, that is, figurativeness. Worth it all the little poems The book is full of examples that you can use for this feature. A wonderful specimen is his poem entitled “Safety Pin”. [You may want to have a safety pin to look at while you read and enjoy this poem!]
on your side
Open, it breaks
his tail out
like a skinny
Shrimp, and looks
in the sharp
point with a
So many images… so few words!
…Which leads to the next characteristic children need to know about poetry: its compactness. I once heard Virginia Hamilton, an author of young adult novels, exchange views with her husband, the poet Arnold Adoff, about which of them needed to work more. The question was whether it was more difficult to say what you want to say in 15,000 words… or in 15 words. The problem has not been solved, and probably never will be solved, but students can learn to appreciate the care with which a poet’s words are chosen. Lukens (1990) says,
The main difference between prose and poetry is compactness. A single word in poetry says much more than a single word in prose; connotations and images hint, imply and suggest other meanings. (p. 187).
Because poetry is so parsimonious with its words, each one carries great weight. No pun intended, watch (and read aloud) part of the poem “ELEPHANT” by Barbara Juster Esbensen:
The word is too heavy.
must have invented it
the same. this is a piece of wood
gray word her ears
they are huge and flap like loose
wings a word with
wrinkled knees and toes
like boxing gloves…
A poem that I often read to elementary and high school students is from Arnold Adoff’s book. sports pages. It illustrates the last characteristic of poetry that I will discuss here: emotional intensity. A poem in this book tells of a boy who sprained his knee in a soccer game. The following poem begins thus:
My knee is just sprained
it’s just swollen and
the doctor says i’ll be
penalty fee. I will play again.
He says this as he
sits on his padding
leather chair that
can rotate 360
Why not the knees?
Once children know these characteristics of poetry (ie, rhythm, sound patterns, figurativeness, compactness, and emotional intensity), they will enjoy the challenge of finding poems that exemplify one or more of the characteristics. Your appreciation of poetry is enhanced through your additional knowledge. They are ready to experience poetry more fully.