By two or three years of age though, and sometimes even sooner, it is perfectly appropriate to begin reading longer poems, playful poems, poems that tell a story. By this means poetry is understood, or really is felt, as a natural form of communication. I am afraid many children never get introduced to the forms and strictures of poetry till way too late - at which point, poetry is some sort of desiccated art form from which all life has been sucked. Something for the museum and not of the heart. It becomes an arcane exercise and they miss the pleasure and the comprehension that comes when your ear has been well tuned from the beginning.
Poetry is one of the oldest forms of literature because, before the advent of writing, if one were to record a story, it was done orally and had to come from memory. Consequently the bards used the full range of mnemonic devices - rhythm, rhyme, stock phrases and descriptions, sectioning into digestible chunks, i.e. verses, standard meters, etc.
There was no children's poetry per se, but one can picture everyone sitting around the fire listening to the bard recite stories from generations before, stories of Gilgamesh, of Beowulf and Grendel, of Osiris and Seti, of Adam and Eve, of Odysseus and Achilles, all the old epics which were poetry.
Even as I write this, as much poetry as I have read to the kids over the years, it occurs to me that I have never read any of these epics around a campfire in the dark. I need to give that a try at the next boy scout camp out. Beowulf would seem especially appropriate.
Because these early pre-literacy stories were so dependent on memory and the mnemonic tricks to facilitate recollection, poetry followed very defined patterns. That is part of the magic of poetry - you are forced into an unnatural level of creativity to stay within the boundaries of the form.
The evolution of "children's" poetry is a late development in our five thousand year stretch of literacy and is customarily deemed to have begun to emerge as a distinct genre with the non-sense poems Edward Lear and of Lewis Carroll. Wherever you draw the line for the beginning, it is all relatively recent.
There are probably three groups of poems that one can identify with children. The first we covered in the Pigeon Post essay of a couple of weeks ago - Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes. These of course reach back to the 1700's and are a magnificent warehouse of folk wisdom, but also of snippets of rhyme and rhythm - not all of which make any sense.
The second class of poems are those written explicitly with children in mind; Lear and Carroll both being early practitioners. Then there are the poems that are not written for children per se but have ended up being kidnapped by children. Kipling with If or Tennyson with Charge of the Light Brigade are examples as would be T.S. Eliot with his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and Edgar Allan Poe with his The Raven. The music of their rhythm and rhyme is too good for just parental ears and children adopt these poems for their own.
Poetry books can be divided simplistically into anthologies and single poet collections. I would strongly advocate that for the early years, you go with an anthology. Your child is changing fast as are the things they are interested in. You want to be able to fish around among a large variety of styles and forms of poetry at any given time. There is no avoiding a shot gun approach to find that which rings true with them at a particular moment. There are a couple of exceptions to this general rule. Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses is almost certainly a must have for any child's library of poetry.
By five or six, I would suggest making sure that whatever collection you are using includes poems that tell a story. Tales such as Longfellow's Paul Revere's Ride, Hiawatha, or The Wreck of the Hesperus, Alfred Noyes's The Highwayman, Walter Scott's Lochinvar, Edward Lear's Owl and the Pussycat or The Pobble Who Has No Toes, Louis Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter, etc. Many of these longer poems have been rendered as stand-alone books, often with wonderful illustrations.
At all the ages, but especially the younger years, it is valuable to have a well illustrated anthology. Long before they can read, children will love to sit in your lap and hear the poems and the stories but they especially love to let their eyes feast on some colorful and captivating picture while they hear the story. It is amazing to me how much sticks from these early years. Every now and then I will hear one of our kids, apropos something in the conversation, throw out a line of a poem that I know we read to them years ago. I know the line, but would never have remembered it - their young, plastic minds are far better at holding and retrieving than I think we give them credit for.
Robert Louis Stevenson has a lovely poem that encapsulates the ability of a story to become the whole world of a child's imagination.
The Land of Story Books
By Robert Louis Stevenson
At evening when the lamp is lit,
Around the fire my parents sit;
They sit at home and talk and sing,
And do not play at anything.
Now, with my little gun, I crawl
All in the dark along the wall,
And follow round the forest track
Away behind the sofa back.
There, in the night, where none can spy,
All in my hunter's camp I lie,
And play at books that I have read
Till it is time to go to bed.
These are the hills, these are the woods,
These are my starry solitudes;
And there the river by whose brink
The roaring lions come to drink.
I see the others far away
As if in firelit camp they lay,
And I, like to an Indian scout,
Around their party prowled about.
So, when my nurse comes in for me,
Home I return across the sea,
And go to bed with backward looks
At my dear land of Story-books.
I know I have been listing mostly only well-known classics here, but there are many wonderful contemporary or near contemporary authors as well. Of course Shel Silverstein but also Charles Causley, Ogden Nash, Jack Prelutsky and many others. Among poets writing principally for adults, W.H. Auden has a good number of poems well attuned to young ears as does Billy Collins, our former US Poet Laureate.
One of the difficult aspects of selecting any anthology is guarding against the expectation that a child will like all the poems. I think the very best we have ever done is one particular collection, A Children's Book of Verse illustrated by Eric Kinkaid and selected by Marjorie Rogers. It is a marvelous collection but even so, any one of our three children at most likes about half the poems. It is just the nature of the beast and my experience is that usually you are doing pretty well if you find you are reading a third of the poems in a collection.
One of the challenges as a parent in finding good poetry books is that poetry is perhaps the most delicate flower in the literary garden. There is no field more overpopulated with literary weeds. Everyone and their brother considers themselves to be a poet and there are far more poems to be read than there are readers of poetry. Thomas Macaulay had a particularly jaundiced view - "As civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines."
Another challenge is that even more than children's literature itself, poetry collections seem to attract well-meaning attempts to make the collection "topical" or "relevant". In an already rarified genre, you have specialized collections about particular animals or regions or themes or ethnicities. Well meaning but, apart from some animal collections, I have never seen any of these taken to heart by a child. They serve more the moral or pedagogical interests of the adult than the reading interests of the child.
Yet a further challenge is that, as the market for children's poetry is pretty small, anthologies come and go out of print very rapidly. You can find a wonderful anthology today and five years from now you are scavenging the dusty bookshelves in the basement of a used bookstore to try and find a copy. Louis Untermeyer's The Golden Treasury of Poetry and the aforementioned A Children's Book of Verse illustrated by Eric Kinkaid both come to mind. Building a section of poetry in your child's collection, therefore, needs to be driven by the old adage, carpe diem.
But it is not all barriers. Lovers of poetry are among the most enthusiastic of readers and passionate of advocates. Miraculously there are, every year, further collections offered up to the reading public by anthologists and publishers despite the economics. I picture a cabal of anthologists and secretive editors throwing themselves once more into the breach. I am sure they carry before them
A banner with the strange device,
I could go on and on but instead will give the last word to Robert Louis Stevenson. This is the dedicatory poem to his A Child's Garden of Verses:
To Any Reader
by Robert Louis Stevenson
As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear, he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.
Below are a series of recommendations, primarily of anthologies but with some particularly stellar single poet collections as well. We have also included a handful of narrative poems in book form. Enjoy and let us know or any collections you might recommend.
Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Felicia Bond Highly Recommended
Johnny Appleseed by Reeve Lindbergh Highly Recommended
Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Ted Rand and illustrated by Ted Rand Highly Recommended
All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Mike Wimmer Highly Recommended
The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe and illustrated by Ryan Price Highly Recommended
A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended
The Ballad of the Pirate Queens by Jane Yolen and illustrated by David Shannon Highly Recommended
Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet Ahlberg and illustrated by Allan Ahlberg Recommended
Cautionary Tales for Children by Hilaire Belloc and illustrated by Edward Gorey Recommended
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by Stephane Jorisch Recommended
Wynken, Blynken, and illustrated by Nod by Eugene Field and illustrated by Johanna Westerman Recommended
In the Small, Small Pond by Denise Fleming Recommended
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost and illustrated by Susan Jeffers Recommended
Hush! by Minfong Ho and illustrated by Holly Meade Recommended
A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear Recommended
The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear and illustrated by Jan Brett Recommended
Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard Recommended
When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard Recommended
The Adventures of Isabel by Ogden Nash and illustrated by Bridget Starr Taylor Recommended
The Tale of Custard the Dragon by Ogden Nash and illustrated by Lynn Munsinger Recommended
My Very First Mother Goose by Iona Archibald Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells Recommended
The Random House Book of Poetry for Children by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Arnold Lobel Recommended
Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Marc Tolon Brown Recommended
The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley by James Whitcomb Riley Recommended
Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak Recommended
Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer and illustrated by Christopher H. Bing Recommended
The Edmund Fitzgerald by Kathy-Jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert Van Frankenhuyzen Recommended
Flower Fairies of the Spring by Cicely Mary Barker Suggested
Nonsense Verse by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by Lorna Hussey Suggested
Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Eric Beddows Suggested
This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie and illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen Suggested
Family of Poems by Caroline Kennedy and illustrated by Jon J. Muth Suggested
Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Susan Jeffers Suggested
A Pizza the Size of the Sun by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by James Stevenson Suggested
For Laughing Out Loud by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman Suggested
Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart by Vera B. Williams Suggested
Poems and Other Writings by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by J. D. McClatchy Highly Recommended
Silver Pennies by Blanche Jennings Thompson Highly Recommended
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse Recommended
A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein Recommended
Falling Up by Shel Silverstein Recommended
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake Suggested
Rhymes and Verses by Walter De LA Mare and illustrated by Elinore Blaisdell Suggested
The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems by Donald Hall Suggested
Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O'Neill and illustrated by John Wallner Suggested
I Saw Esau by Iona Archibald Opie and Peter Opie and illustrated by Maurice Sendak Suggested
Goblin Market and Other Poems by Christina Georgina Rossetti Suggested
As I Walked Out One Evening by W. H. Auden and illustrated by Edward Mendelson Recommended
Beowulf by Seamus Heaney Recommended
Collected Poems of A. E. Housman by A. E. Housman Recommended
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Omar Khayyam and Edward Fitzgerald and illustrated by Edmund J. Sullivan Recommended
Rudyard Kipling Complete Verse by Rudyard Kipling Recommended
The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Tennyson and illustrated by Genevieve Cote Recommended
Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake Suggested
Nine Horses by Billy Collins Suggested
Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins Suggested