Sunday, January 12, 2014

Poetry for Homeschoolers, part 1

Besides being just plain fun, poetry introduces children to beautiful, complex patterns of language, and shows how words can both communicate thoughts and also move the emotions.”
–Linda Milliken, “Poetry for Busy Moms”

     I have been truly privileged to see my five children flower into enthusiastic but discerning readers under the loving and inspired tutelage of my wife Linda. The passage above (from an article she wrote for a homeschooling magazine called Mater et Magistra which, alas, is no longer published) is right on target; it also raises the question, “can any poetry accomplish this end, and if not what criteria do we use in choosing poetry for our children?”  I’ll offer some thoughts on this question over the next few posts.
     A good place to start any discussion of the arts is with St. Paul’s famous dictum:  “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8).  Not coincidentally, this is one of Linda’s favorite scripture quotes, and one she frequently reminds our children to use as their benchmark in evaluating any music, literature, movies, etc. that they come across.  In fact, while Keats may have been oversimplifying a little when he wrote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all”, it does seem that there is always something beautiful in truth, and that the (truly) beautiful must be an expression of the truth.

     You may be wondering how I intend to apply these abstract thoughts to the practical matter of choosing poetry for your children.  Well, to answer the first question I raise above, no, not all poetry is suitable, because not all poetry is an expression of what is true, honorable, and so on; much poetry, in other words, especially that written in the past century, introduces patterns of language that may be complex, but fail to be beautiful, and communicates thoughts, but fails to move the emotions (or when it does move them fails to move the emotions in the direction of the true and honorable, just, pure, gracious and excellent).  

Beautiful? I think not . . . 
     I’d like to offer a couple of examples.  Consider the following, “The Anecdote of the Jar”, written by Wallace Stevens:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee

The Wikipedia entry on this poem tells us: “This famous, much-anthologized poem succinctly accommodates a remarkable number of different and plausible interpretations”.  Indeed it does: when I first read this in a college-level literature course we had a very stimulating discussion in which not a few of that number of “plausible interpretations” were entertained.  More recently, when I introduced the poem to my junior high school and high school aged children they raised more fundamental questions, like “what was he thinking?”  followed by “what was he drinking?”  All kidding aside, my purpose is not to bad-mouth Wallace Stevens, who was a skilled poet, nor is it to suggest that the poem above is without merit.  I do contend, however, that while “The Anecdote of the Jar” does offer patterns of language that are complex and clever, few of us would call them beautiful.  I think it’s also fair to say that this poem does not engage most readers on an emotional level.  Whatever else one might say about it, I would not recommend using it in your homeschool curriculum.

     In my next post, we’ll look at a more or less randomly chosen example of a poem appropriate for young minds.