The Promises of Poetry

The Promises of Poetry

I consider myself an ardent follower of Charlotte Mason’s principles, and sheepishly, I confess that I have been known to audibly react as she reaches out through her volumes. Whether to give a sigh of relief at the grace imparted or a grunt of dismay at the conviction roiled up inside, I say what I have to say as if she were sitting on the oddly-placed blue chair near my fireplace.

I wish these “conversations” could be recorded because what strikes me as I recollect my comments to her over the years is the exceptional growth that has taken place in me and, therefore, my children. I have shifted from a defiant “prove it” attitude to a peaceful acceptance that Charlotte Mason is my person. And although I enjoy the calm rhythm of our relationship today, I find value in unpacking the temper tantrums I have thrown when she has pressed me to move beyond my comfort zone. There have been many triggers — oh, nature journal, I see you — but one of the biggest outbursts I have ever cast in her direction was over her insistence on poetry because I heartily failed to understand its true functions. And though I did not encounter M. H. Simpson’s “On the Teaching of Poetry to Children” until the tantrum had subsided, the author’s words continue to resonate with me:

To inspire us with a sense of something beyond our transitory aims and cares, to give us a glimpse of what is real and lasting, to hold up before us that mirror in which the true and the false assume their right shapes, and nature, art, life, are seen as God made them, and not as we have disfigured them—these are [poetry’s] true functions.

I believe most sincerely that the poets do this for us and that by our ignorance of what they have written we are depriving ourselves of a glorious heritage. It is a matter of which it is difficult to convince others, the fact being that it is only by the constant study of poetry that we come to a realisation of all it can do for us. Like all the arts it must be practised if it is to have any meaning for us. You do not expect to have a perfect appreciation of Beethoven without training.[1]

It was certainly my “ignorance of what they have written” that at one time threatened to deprive my children of a glorious heritage. And because I speak so frequently of my deep desire to connect my children with their cultural heritage, I find it ironic that I was nearly willing to deny them a link to their broader heritage — those things which bind all human hearts. And according to Mrs. J.G. Simpson in her article “The Teaching of Poetry to Children,” I was in the sad majority:

There are no doubt people whose poetic taste is so true and deep, that no amount of neglect in early life has been able to prevent its being the ruling passion of their lives, but it is nevertheless true, that in the majority of cases the real love of poetry may be traced to tastes implanted in childhood. Nor is it less true, that only a small number of parents seem to realise this. Either they have no real love of poetry themselves or they do not understand that beautiful words and sounds appeal to children to a remarkable degree. Every one knows how easily children learn by heart and that a verse of poetry repeated to them two or three times is fixed in their memories without further trouble, but why do people seem to imagine that they prefer doggrel, or that somehow or other doggrel is easier for them to learn than poems which clothe their ideas in beautiful language? [2]

Now it is not that I imagined my children to prefer “doggrel” or crude poetry but that I had no real love of poetry, so I could not understand its impact or appeal. Its tastes were not implanted in my childhood, and I did not at all feel that I had missed out. At times, it seems impossible to miss that which you have not experienced. My children who have never tasted meat are not lured by the smell of bacon frying in a pan while my older children who faintly recall the taste can be found hovering and reminiscing when faced with that old familiar friend.

However, despite having neither interest nor nostalgia to stand on, I committed to at least sampling every bit of the feast before determining that one part or another did not satisfy my tastes or my children’s palettes. And so, with quiet trepidation, I moved forward with a guarded, yet open, mind.

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

— “Bed in Summer” by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was the poem I read to my children on our first official day of school nearly six years ago. I remember feeling nervous because, aside from years of nursery rhymes, I had not read a poem that I actually understood since elementary school, and I was concerned that the children would ask me a question to which I had no teacher-worthy answer. Though I knew Charlotte Mason included poetry as something to simply be enjoyed — not picked apart limb by limb — the thought that I would read a poem aloud only for it to linger in space and meander through our minds was unsettling. It felt too easy.

I did not encounter this Parents’ Review article until only recently, but it so beautifully encompasses what I, even in my naïve lack of interest in poetry, was curiously demanding to be convinced of: if we ask children to dissect a poem, to pull apart its innards, examine each organ, put it together again, and regard it as a treasure, then it spoils our intent:

The temple stands before us, ethereal, beautiful, reared—like Milton’s—to music; and, instead of entering and worshipping, we break down its walls and calcine its stones, and submit them to chemical analysis, and imagine we have discovered its secret. Or, to change the metaphor, we are asked for the essence of the flower, and we pull it to pieces, and examine its petals and its stamens, and pronounce triumphantly on its order and sub-order, its genus and its species; but the colour and the perfume that make up its life, where are they? The flower-spirit has shrouded himself in these, and when they died he unfolded his wings and fled, and what remains is no flower at all, only lifeless dust.[3]

Rooted in that single Stevenson poem, we journeyed from one volume to another, and I felt washed with confidence as my family comfortably grew to ‘inwardly digest’ verses of both the well-known and more obscure minds of today and yesteryear, while reverence crept in when least expected as Charlotte Mason so eloquently describes:

Poetry is, perhaps, the most searching and intimate of our teachers. To know about such a poet and his works may be interesting, as it is to know about repoussé work; but in the latter case we must know how to use the tools before we get joy and service out of the art. Poetry, too, supplies us with tools for the modelling of our lives, and the use of these we must get at for ourselves. The line that strikes us as we read, that recurs, that we murmur over at odd moments—this is the line that influences our living, if it speak only—

“Of old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.”

A couplet such as this, though it appear to carry no moral weight, instructs our conscience more effectually than many wise saws. As we ‘inwardly digest,’ reverence comes to us unawares, gentleness, a wistful tenderness towards the past, a sense of continuance, and of a part to play that shall not be loud and discordant, but of a piece with the whole. This is one of the ‘lessons never learned in schools’ which comes to each of us only as we discover it for ourselves.[4]

When I first introduced a poem, my children almost always seemed to sing it in a steady rhythm that I tried my best to rid them of. Over time, however, my children’s recitations progressed towards a more natural cadence. If only I had seen their initial reading as an instinct of young children that has no bearing on their ultimate relationship with poetry! I wanted right away for them to recite the poems with creative flair and verve, yet we are called upon to step aside and patiently allow growth.

When we set our children to play the melodies of a great composer, we do not ask for their own little fortes and pianos—their feeble attempts at a spurious “expression”: we bid them on all such points follow the direction of the composer, and so learn by degrees to feel, and if it may be to understand, the mind that has directed them. … No doubt, as they grow older, children will unconsciously give a somewhat different intonation to the things they love, as each leaf and each wave responds with a difference to the breeze that stirs it. But such difference, subordinated to a common impulse, produces not discord but harmony; and meanwhile I know of no better training, at once in a healthy self-forgetfulness and in the dramatic appreciation of a poem, than the common effort to reach the feeling that dominates it, and to reproduce its music.[5]

As we were discovering the sweetness of the poems most recommended in Charlotte Mason circles, we began to find tiny gifts tucked between the lines — gifts of hope, history, and uproarious imagery. In fact, the first time my daughter shared a poem from memory, it was something she picked up by-the-way as I prepared to recite the fun poem at a homeschool National Poetry Month event one April (yes, me!). The poem was long and required quite deliberate attention to enunciation for a young child, so to hear her exacting words as she raised her arms to cheer for the chocolate cat — her addition, not mine — was a memory that will be firmly lodged for my remaining years.

You say but the word to that gingerbread dog
And he barks with such terrible zest
That the chocolate cat is at once all agog,
As her swelling proportions attest.
And the chocolate cat goes cavorting around
From this leafy limb unto that,
And the sugar-plums tumble, of course, to the ground –
Hurrah for that chocolate cat!

— “The Sugarplum Tree” by Eugene Field (excerpt)

As time passed, we discovered a love for certain poets — this being one of the least expected progressions for my family because in my wildest dreams, I never imagined that we would come to know a body of work well enough for a child to state with confidence that thus and such is a favored poet.

Strangely, or so I thought, a poet we simply could not get enough of one year would step aside to allow for the preeminence of another the following term. Though none of the poets were fully abandoned, we would regularly shelve them for a time, and I worried that perhaps this cycle was part of an undesirable rhyme churn. But soon enough, I stumbled upon Charlotte Mason normalizing what came naturally to my family the way she so often does:

Many have a favourite poet for a year or two, to be discarded for another and another. Some are happy enough to find the poet of their lifetime in Spenser, Wordsworth, Browning, for example; but, whether it be for a year or a life, let us mark as we read, let us learn and inwardly digest. Note how good this last word is. What we digest we assimilate, take into ourselves, so that it is part and parcel of us, and no longer separable.[6]

While I accepted the delight experienced during our moments of daily poetry as souvenir enough, I began noticing that the language of great poets was becoming intertwined with our family lexicon in a way that cannot be predicted nor planned. For instance, when my most loquacious child forgets her words, she often rolls her eyes, smirks, and simply states that the thought has “ravelled out of reach” after which we all give an understanding nod.

I felt a cleaving in my mind

As if my brain had split;

I tried to match it, seam by seam,

But could not make them fit.

The thought behind I strove to join

Unto the thought before,

But sequence ravelled out of reach

Like balls upon a floor.

— “The Lost Thought” by Emily Dickinson

Verse also began to give voice when my pen remained idle on unforgiving blank paper. When friends experience unimaginable loss, I always labor to find words. Poetry solves that problem time and again, and I have taught my older children to look to the volumes on our shelves as they pen thank you cards or share notes of encouragement with a young friend. When a neighbor recently lost her father, I included a notecard that my rugged laser printer somehow rendered beautiful with a single stanza from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Songs for the People”:

Our world, so worn and weary,

Needs music, pure and strong,

To hush the jangle and discords

Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

She later shared that she was moved to look up the entire poem and felt encouraged by the hope and comfort it held. And for this, I am thankful but could take no credit for it was Charlotte Mason who encouraged me not to withhold from the company of others that which moves me.

If music, poetry, art, give us joy, let us not hesitate to present these joys to others; for, indeed, those others are all made in all points like as we are, though with a different experience.[7]

My neighbor’s sentiments reminded me that in the past I have also shared Bible verses as comfort, and as I thought of the verses I am most likely to quote, I experienced a magical moment of clarity. The Word of God, which I have always held dearly, is bursting full of… poetry. Oh, how glorious was that connection! I gained confidence in the recognition that my exploration of verse and experience with poetic language were not absent, only incomplete.

I have spoken of poetry as the language of feeling, as in turn the expression and suggestion of varied human emotion. But I cannot forget that it has expressed other things than these; that it has embodied, not grief and fear and love alone, but the aspiration, the devotion, the self-consecration that make up religion. It is good that our children should be stirred, even dimly, by emotions such as these, and learn to love and to echo the melodies that enshrine them. But I fear that the poetry of our Bibles, the fine prose-poems of our English paraphrase, have fared little better at our hands than other poetry. Here, too, “we murder to dissect.” We overlay them with comment and criticism and weary explanation, till the music and the passion die out of them, and nothing remains but barren prose—true , perhaps, for the intellect, but with no hold on the memory, no message to the heart. Would it not be well if—for the little ones, at least—we sometimes let Psalm, and Parable, and Song shine by their own light, and fulfil their own sweet office? The lessons thus taught are of the kind that strike home earliest and linger longest; they do what argument cannot do, and appeal to faculties more worth reaching than any that it can reach. For intuition is greater than reason, and love than knowledge.[8]

I feel so moved by that final sentiment — “For intuition is greater than reason, and love than knowledge.” I find it to be something that I want to hold onto.

And though I do not demand a moral nor choose to use it as a rod, poems have naturally lent themselves as moral guides requiring no help from my lips. Whether making an example of the time wasted on sibling squabbles (“The Quarrel” by Eleanor Farjeon) or the folly of acting out in anger (“She Was a Pretty Little Girl” by Ramon Perez de Ayala), our poetry time offers an opportunity for gentle introspection and self-correction. To me, this feels like the whipped cream on top of my child’s favorite frozen treat — never missed but always welcomed. M.A.W. had much to say of this in The Parents’ Review:

Why do we teach poetry? Some will say, “Because of the moral lessons inculcated by means of it.” Others, “Because it strengthens the memory, and—if only hard enough—the reasoning powers.” Others, “Because it illustrates history, or grammar, or etymology,” or “Because it affords useful practice in analysis or composition.” Now, I want to-day to plead for the teaching of poetry for its own sake, as one of the fine arts, ranking with music and painting and the drama, and having similar aims and uses. We do not, if we are wise, demand a moral, in the ordinary sense of the word, in the pictures we show our children, and the music we play to them. We demand that the artist should be inspired, that he should be a true artist, touched with the fire of genius, and then—let it be a comedy of Shakespeare’s, or a landscape of Turner’s, or even a dance tune of Chopin’s—we use it fearlessly.[9]

As we have approached poetry “for its own sake,” poems shared around our dining table often offer so familiar a scene that my children cannot help but to erupt in smiles. My always-hungry-for-a-snack children have a childless aunt who guards her pantry during visits with the conviction of a mother bear protecting her cub:

She locks the pantry door quite tight
Whenever she gets through.
But jolly little cupboard smells
Keep stealing out to you,
As though they said, “Come call some day
When that good aunt has gone away.
What need to put preserves in here,
Jellies and jams, from year to year?
To hide good things no child can touch.
I wish your aunt would lose the key
That’s separating you from me.”

— “The Pantry’s View” by Effie Lee Newsome

In another Parents’ Review article on poetry, Mrs. J.G. Simpson writes,

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.[10]

And in the end, as I have watched my children eagerly rally around poets and poems both simple and deep-rooted, I realize that it is not that I failed to comprehend poetry prior to being acquainted with Charlotte Mason; it is that I failed to care.

Thankfully, second chances abound.

Amber Johnston lives in Georgia nestled among pine trees, hammocks and ziplines with her husband and their four children. Her happy place is the back porch on a rainy day, preferably with a giant mug of hot tea and a good book. And although she was raised in the air conditioning, somehow the woods is where she feels most at home these days. When they have the chance, her family enjoys extended international trips to immerse themselves in other cultures. Amber blogs about Charlotte Mason homeschooling, adding multicultural mirrors and windows to family bookshelves, and worldschooling at HeritageMom.com.

©2020 Amber Johnston

Endnotes

[1] The Parents’ Review, vol. 19, p. 104.
[2] The Parents’ Review, vol. 12, p. 879.
[3] The Parents’ Review, vol. 30, pp. 14–15.
[4] Ourselves, Book 2, pp. 71-72.
[5] The Parents’ Review, vol. 30, p. 17.
[6] Ourselves, Book 2, p. 72.
[7] Ourselves, Book 1, p. 96.
[8] The Parents’ Review, vol. 30, p. 18.
[9] The Parents’ Review, vol. 30, p. 13.
[10] The Parents’ Review, vol. 12, pp. 883.

7 Replies to “The Promises of Poetry”

  1. My experience with poetry is similar. However, I loved poetry as a child, but as I entered my teen years, dissected poetry in English class, and read modern poets, I decided that poetry was pretentious, except for children’s poetry, which was for children. And I didn’t come back to it until I started to give my oldest a Charlotte Mason Education. And now I can see how wrong I was, and I really enjoy poetry now. I would love to know some of Amber’s favorite poets and poetry anthologies!

  2. Your path is an interesting one, Elizabeth! It’s funny how our love for something can be muted when we pick it apart in an attempt to appreciate it. I’m thankful that we both have these years to grow and appreciate that which we pursued solely “for the children’s sake.” Here are some of my favorites: Gladiola Garden by Effie Lee Newsome (out of print, but you can read it on my blog if you do a search for the title); A Child’s Book of Poems (Gyo Fujikawa, illustrator); Golden Slippers (compiled by Arna Bontemps); and A Child’s Garden of Verses (Robert Louis Stevenson). The latter is a favorite because it is the volume that brought me in touch with the sweetness of reading poetry to my children. I haven’t shared it with my children, but I’m currently reading “Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry,” and it’s different than anything I’ve read before. Some of my other favorites are Emily Dickinson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Wendell Berry, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’m still an infant in my exposure, but these are the poets I’ve returned to time and again. I hope you find a treasure!

  3. Ah! I am excited to read the books that are new to me! Thank you! I agree that Robert Louis Stevenson is delightful. Like Mozart, it is tragic he died so young.

  4. I understand the attitude you had before you learned from Charlotte Mason. As a young mom, I felt very much the same way. As a result my children missed the beauty, emotion, and other values of embracing poetry. Can you ever forgive me? 👩‍🦱🙂 You have certainly enlightened me. One is never too old to learn.

    1. I’m certain that your children will find it within their hearts to forgive you, sweet Mother {wink}. You blessed your family in innumerable ways. A bit of missing poetry will certainly not be held against you. xoxo

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