Friday, February 19, 2010

Can Children’s Poetry Matter?

Can Children’s Poetry Matter?
by J. Patrick Lewis

from the venerable Vermont College of Fine Arts' Journal Hunger Mountain

Our children are lucky to have poets like J. Patrick Lewis writing and, thank goodness, publishing poetry. Children's poetry DOES matter. As Lewis says:

Poetry is the tunnel at the end of the light; prose, bent out of shape; the idiom of djinns; the sound of silence…amplified. Poetry predates books, predates the alphabet, and once we graduated from humming, it was the first vehicle to bring music to our ears. What are nursery rhymes if not the irresistible echoes of the siren songs of ancient whimsy?
Few if any adults are capable of convincing a ten-year old that poetry can be as much fun as volleyball or video games. Nor should we try. Entertainments are not a zero-sum game. Why should my increasing love of soccer diminish by an equal amount my affection for verse? Both can intensify our feelings for the world and an appreciation of our places in it.
...The answer to the question posed in the title of this piece may not be immediately obvious but consider this: decades hence some erstwhile youth, faced like so many of us with incalculable stress or sorrow, might just be able to pull from that inconspicuous hideaway, the heart, a few remembered and redeeming lines of verse.
Perhaps that is when children’s poetry can matter most.
Children rarely gravitate to poetry on their own. It’s an acquired taste. They must be introduced to it early and often by their teachers and parents, the critical influences in their lives. And not in the way Billy Collins has memorably described—and vilified—by tying poems to chairs and beating them senseless until they finally give up their meaning. We do not look to poetry to find answers or absolutes. Nor do we investigate verse with calipers and a light meter, though at least one benighted school of thought has tried.

For those who don't know, Pat is not only a prolific poet but he is one of the most sought after classroom guests. He has made over 400 school visits, with a busy schedule already booking up for 2010. On his website he writes, "Getting children excited about the wonders of poetry--experiencing literature--is the reason I visit schools in the first place. I can't think of anything more fun than sharing poetry with kids and talking about reading, writing, rewriting(!) and making books. "

And I am so glad I have a place to post a note he wrote on facebook, that many of probably did not get the chance to see....

J. Patrick made a comment about your note "SCHOOL VISITS--WHAT THE HECK DO I SAY?!?":

"Jill, I don't envy the author/illustrator breaking into school visits for the first time. Everyone stumbles until they realize what works and what doesn't. For me the key is to spend a lot of time on interactive material. Kids want to participate, they don't want to be lectured to. So I read a lot of riddles, math poems, science poems and tell picture book stories that allow me to emote much like an actor or storyteller. For the wee ones I have them up and bouncing to jump rope rhymes. After you have done it as many times in as many schools (400) as I have, you know your audience. School visits then become second nature. I don't mean in any way that they become boring because every school is different. I LOVE K-5 kids! And I like to think, at the end of the day, that the feeling is more or less mutual. That is almost sure to happen if you convince your young audience that there is no other place on earth you would rather be than hanging out with them. So break a leg! Pat"

And now, for your reading pleasure.....


Mrs. Mantis catches bugs,
Squashes them with mighty hugs,
Squeezes spiders even tighter,
Mixes them all up inside her.

Sad to say she isn’t through—
She swallows Mr. Mantis too!
After that she sits and stares,
Folds her hands and says her prayers.

You wear them briefly,
And in short,
You wear them chiefly
For support.
Whoever met you
Without a pair
Would not forget you-
You'd be bare! 

And from Pat's newest poetry book SPOT THE PLOT: A RIDDLE BOOK OF BOOK RIDDLES, Chronicle Books, Lynn Munsinger, ill. The riddles in it all concern famous children's books.

Dear Mr. Farmer,

The letter we’re typing
goes under GRIPING!
This barn is too cold,
not climate-controlled.
If we have to shiver,
we don’t deliver.
No bedding, no butter.
No blankets, no udder.

Stop the madness.
End the battle.

Sincerely yours,
The Cattle
by J. Patrick Lewis

and finally:)

The Difference
Academic exegeses
Labor over which is which.
Simple. Verse is quick and easy.
Poetry's a bitch.
by J.Patrick Lewis

J. Patrick Lewis has published 65 children’s poetry and picture books to date with Knopf, Atheneum, Dial, Harcourt, DK, Ink, Little, Brown, National Geographic, Chronicle Books, Scholastic, Candlewick and others. His poems have also appeared in Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Dalhousie Review, New Letters, Kansas Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Santa Barbara Review, Fine Madness, Sycamore Review, Light, and many others. His first book of adult poems, Gulls Hold Up the Sky, is forthcoming from Laughing Fire Press.


  1. Keep sounding that poetry bell. It matters more and more!

  2. I love this article by J. Patrick Lewis. Thanks!

  3. LOVE this article, love his poetry and riddles! I have one of his books sitting atop the coffee table to my left as I type this!

  4. Goodness, but I love Pat. And children's poetry. And Pat's poetry, whether for children or not. In my opinion, he ought to be Children's Poet Laureate - not that anyone asked me, of course!

  5. Great article I love this one =]



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