Sunday, March 2, 2014

What's in a Poem?

I held a poem in my hands today. His name is Jonah and he is the living and breathing, exquisite and precious firstborn son of my firstborn daughter.

He is a poem because he was formed in mystery and has appeared, living and breathing in time and space, at once a whole person to see and touch inn the flesh, and yet only a whisper, a hint of who he shall become, what manner of man in the spirit. Simultaneously he is, here in my hands, all he will ever be, while what he shall become remains shrouded from our knowing today.

His meaning is both apparent and unrevealed at this first holding. That is the way of a poem.

Poems are not an unknown experience in his brand new life. His parents have been reading aloud to one another since marriage, and consequently to him since his conception. Tones, cadences, inflections of speech are a familiar and welcome part of his life.

When Jonah was two days old, I asked his father if they had been reading any poetry to him yet and he said, "I was thinking of beginning with some Seamus Heaney this afternoon." Jonah will grow up with a story-rich and poem-laced life because that is the atmosphere of the home he has been given and he will hear and breathe it in naturally.

His home may be unusual in this, but the love of poetry is not unusual, perhaps just unpracticed. Let's face it, though it may be disheartening or even deplorable to admit, we do not live in a culture that makes much of poetry. The Greeks had their Homer, the English their Milton, but most Americans would be hard-pressed to name a poet, let alone to have read or memorized any poetry for their own personal pleasure. Poetry is not a dominant subject in our academic education, nor a common pastime in our family life. As a result, we feel uncomfortable with it, as if it were a foreign custom not applicable to our lifestyle, or a rare practice for some small group of elite, eccentric or highly intellectual oddballs. There is a perception that it is a feminine occupation, especially weird for boys to appreciate. Most people manage to get through life quite pleasantly without it.

But to miss the experience of poetry is to live without the warmth of sunshine, the fragrance of flowers, the touch of a friendly hand. Poetry speaks to the heart as no other literature can, ministers to our spirits. It brings understanding of our world, our fellow man, and ourselves uniquely because it speaks directly from heart to heart. Our children need to have poetry in their ears and thoughts to feed their souls. It is one of the special ways God speaks to us, as is apparent from the liberal supply of poetry in the Bible. After all, that mighty king of Israel, that brave shepherd boy who took down a giant with a sling, was the "sweet singer of Israel," and, "a man after God's own heart." All the other poets have left gifts for us as well.

But how do we confront this prejudice I mentioned earlier, that the appreciation of poetry is strange? How do we, who have possibly not been exposed to it, encourage our children to enjoy what we do not understand?

I think it is the "understanding" that is possibly our stumbling block. We live in such a materialistic, practical, and achievement focused culture that the simple value, let alone necessity for, truth,beauty, and goodness escapes us. We worship facts. We study to pass tests and acquire careers and think that is living. In the process, we forget to touch and taste and savor the very life we have been given, the glorious gifts that are lavished on us on every side. One of those gifts is poetry. We have not developed comfort with poetry because we haven't given it much of a chance.

There are so many kinds of poets and poetry expressing so many perceptions and experiences of life common to us all, that there is certainly some poem, if not thousands, out there that could touch our minds, our feelings, our thoughts if we would just open and read. Poetry is almost an indefinable art form and if you don't believe me, read the hundreds of essays poets have written as an attempt to define it. Still, somewhere out there, is some poet who will speak to you personally.

Since poetry was primarily an oral expression, it usually comes most alive for us when spoken aloud. The more often you just read it, the more likely the awkwardness of doing so will evaporate. The poem will begin to say aloud to you what its creator was seeking to express. There is no "right" way to read it. The poem itself will teach you, reach you, make its home in you.

The great advantage for us as parents in reading poetry to our children is that they do not know the "right" way anyhow. Sometimes it is worthwhile to listen to recorded poetry. Reading a great deal of poetry by the same author is also often a heart-opening path to comfort and familiarity. If that particular one does not awaken your sensibilities, another may, so don't give up trying new poets. In that case, perhaps an anthology of various poets and styles of poems will be the key to finding a particular poet who unlocks the door for you.

In many ways, growing to love poetry is like growing to love anything else. Though my little grandson may be just beginning to understand his new world, and will doubtless grow up with the pulse of poetry ringing in his ears and heart, it is never too late to begin to learn yourself. I definitely do not consider myself in the least a knowledgeable, let alone expert, person on poetry. I was raised with Mother Goose and a smattering of poems in my school readers yet have come to a deep love of poetry late in life. If you are reluctant or fearful, just begin reading one poem a day. You may discover that habit is not to be taken as a daily vitamin, not to be avoided as exclusive to certain gourmet appetites, but becomes food for your soul that nourishes you for life.

For the joy of reading,


You may also enjoy The Way to a Boy's Heart

A List of Poets/Poetry Books To Get You Started

For Your Littles:
A. A. Milne
Walter De La Mare
Robert Louis Stevenson
Christina Rossetti
James Whitcomb Riley
William Blake
Rudyard Kipling
And later on:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Robert Frost
Emily Dickinson
Alfred Lord Tennyson
William Wordsworth
John Keats

Sample Several Poets from an Anthology:
The Oxford Book of Children's Verse
Favorite Poems Old and New: Selected For Boys and Girls
Poems Children Love


  1. Wonderful post, Liz! We just spent a few months with James Whitcomb Riley and loved it. Marcus asked who I liked better, Riley or Robert Frost. He couldn't choose and neither could I. I regret I didn't spend more time in my youth reading poetry. My children are so much more immersed than I have been. Blessings on the precious new poem in you lives.

    1. Robin,
      I also love exploring and discovering how much bigger and more beautiful the world is with my children. I hope it's never too late to enjoy the richness of poetry, which is why I wrote this.

  2. This post warmed me to the very core. "I held a poem today." What a priceless image. Thank you for sharing the joy of new life with us in this way, Liz.

    1. He is getting to be more of a handful with every passing week, but the joy in getting to know him increases far more. He made his first visit to the library yesterday. I'm delighted some of our joy is contagious to you.

  3. Amen to all you said :)
    and keep enjoying that precious baby.

    1. Silvia,
      That baby is about to have his first birthday and is a delight every day. We hold our breath with anticipation for his next stanza.