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The Charlotte Mason Approach to Poetry

By Karen Andreola
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #8, 1994.

The Charlotte Mason approach to poetry.
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Karen Andreola

What is the Charlotte Mason approach to the study of poetry? Our first step is to see that our children enjoy it. Much later they will probably take the second step for themselves, reading those poets whose work needs some preliminary study and background explanations in order to be appreciated.

In Our Present Society Poetry is Almost Invisible

These days poetry seems to have been boiled down to the popular "jingle" or an advertisement's "catchy phrase." Does poetry only belong to bygone days when the average person spent what little leisurely time he did have reading and reciting?

Consider the life of ancient Athens at its best-its peace and learned leisure and poetry. Compare this to the restless, artificial, luxurious existence of Rome. Like ancient Rome, today is a day of bigger and better things-interstate highways, 100-acre amusement parks, huge hotels, super supermarkets and bigger and bigger newspapers (so that whatever is hideous in life may reach our ears within a few hours of its happening).

Poetry is one of the things that can't be made bigger and better. It must remain quietly and unobtrusively and forever itself. Vulnerable, it may drop unnoticed out of the running, leaving us to our steel-girded world of material things without its pleasure. But despite its invisibility many people still read poetry for pleasure today. I'd like my children to be among them.

Poetry is Serious Business

Poetry is not just a school subject. It is the deepest expression of thought and feeling of which certain exceptional minds have been capable. It includes the full gamut of all human experiences, from war poems and epics, to psalms of worship, to love sonnets, to delightful nonsense verse that trips off the tongue, to nursery rhymes-anything people think about or sing about. We can read it as though we ourselves shared in those thoughts and those emotions.

Poetry has been helping men and women from all backgrounds and cultures share deep emotional experiences and insights throughout all recorded history. Hearing a translation of a remarkably beautiful poem written by King Tutankhamen to his wife, I was astounded! Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the author of Beowulf also wrote poetry that still speaks to us today on many different levels. They didn't write it for textbooks either. Early in this century Vermont farmers would read poetry beside their fires in winter. My husband Dean and I once knew a hefty Rolls-Royce auto mechanic who loved opera and poetry.

We would admit a child grows up lopsided if athletic prowess is his only ambition. Let's take this idea further and say he'd receive a lopsided education if he could "make the grade" without any love or respect for poetry.

With Tact and a Tiny Bit of Enthusiasm

How can we introduce our children to poetry? You can never make a girl or boy like a poem against his or her will. You can not bully them into it, or argue them into it. Convert them by indirect means. Infect them by your own interest and gentle enthusiasm. Pick out some poetry that appeals to you and simply read it aloud to your children. Eventually they may desire to start reading some on their own. Don't be surprised if their tastes are a bit different than yours!

If you do not like poetry there is an obvious remedy: introduce the child and the poem and leave them to make friends for themselves. They may, or they may not, but you can never make things better by your interference.

In introducing people it is generally a mistake to praise too much beforehand. You may only establish a distaste. In the same way it is a mistake to praise a poem too eloquently. After all, the child is entitled to form his own opinion. To drag a poem into the glare of publicity is to lose some of those very qualities which made it precious. When you share a poem you can simply say with tact "I like this poem, do you?"

In the case of younger children, try and create a mood of enjoyment, first by choosing the sort of poem they are likely to appreciate and then by throwing yourself into reading it aloud with gusto, or better still allowing them to throw themselves into it with zest. If you introduce them to really good poetry as Miss Mason advocated, suitable for their age, children will do the rest for themselves.

Ways to Take a Poetry Break

Seasonal Poetry

One way is to choose poems that celebrate the changing of a season. Look in the index of any large poetry anthology for anything that has to do with the particular time of year. The Book of 1,000 Poems lists poems by season in the subject index. There are over one dozen poems per season with more than two dozen for spring-a favorite subject with many poets. Whether it be winter, spring, summer, or fall, you are certain to find an array of poems. Read a few at a time to savor the season. In between new readings any previously read poems can be repeated as often as desired-a painless way to memorize poetry. Seasonal poems can be copied into greeting cards by the children or onto large paper surrounded by children's drawings.

By Subject

Perhaps a more "schoolish" way to incorporate poetry into the curriculum would be to ask what the poets have to say about anything with which you happen to be studying. Nature poetry abounds. I counted fifty short poems about birds in our poetry anthology! There are poems about the sea, trees, animals of various kinds, the wind, the moon. There are poems about the early morning, unusual people; there are patriotic poems and story poems. Poets write about honesty, fortitude, chivalry, decisiveness, loyalty, perseverance, hope, faith, and love. Their commentary on any subject as well as their subtle or profound sentiments are worthy to be woven into our homeschools.

One Poet at a Time

Still another way to acquire a taste for poetry is to become familiar with one poet at a time. Here are a few favorites for the elementary years: William Blake, Samuel Coleridge, Eleanor Farjeon, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walter de la Mare, Christina Rossetti, William Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lord Tennyson and John Greenleaf Whittier.

This time look in the index under an author's name. Read all of his or her poems you can put your index finger on in one week.

Poetry is strewn with ideas-saturate yourself in these words that can have an intoxicating effect on the intellect. Ideas to the mind are what nutritious food is to the stomach. Remember, Charlotte Mason encourages us to give children contact with the minds of thinkers. Education is mind to mind, thought to thought, person to person. Notes, commentaries, lectures, long lists of questions, and other middlemen are not needed. Let the poets speak and the children do the thinking.

Biographical backgrounds on the poets serve to widen a child's curriculum and add to his cultural heritage.

For a lighter dose, or to tempt a child who doesn't think he will like poetry, try the nonsense poetry of Lewis G. Carroll or Edward Lear. Slightly older children won't be able to resist the humor of Ogden Nash. While "nonsense" poetry is not full of great insights, it does train the ear to delicious sounds and rhythms. What fun just to repeat, "Jabberwocky" or "The Owl and the Pussycat!" Humorous poetry can be just as much fun to repeat ("Telephony" by Ogden Nash is a good example), and has a sharper tang, great for developing those critical thinking skills!

Develop Your Inner Ear

A calm stately voice echoes from the past, "Take your time." Poetry will speak wonderful things to those who give it time and attentiveness. As reading requires an inward eye, poetry requires an inward ear. Unencumbered by modern media, our great-great-grandparents had both. They read poetry for pleasure and made a regular meal of their favorites.

A really good poem can be read many times over. Your readings increase in pleasure over the years. This is an old-time method of "studying" poetry that deserves mentioning.

From Shorter to Longer Works

In the days before workbooks, young children in Miss Mason's schools had copy books. Children were to choose some favorite verse and copy it neatly into these personal books. Thus the study of poetry also yielded better penmanship, spelling, and vocabulary.

After years of a relationship with poetry, built on the shorter poems, children will be capable of enjoying and comprehending longer and more abstract works. High school students can become familiar with the longer works of traditional classic poetry just by checking out books of poetry from the adult section of a public library. This is where some background explanation, in the form of critical commentaries or even the ever-handy Cliff Notes, may be helpful.

Along with Beowulf, the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare are commonly studied in high school. They contain more adult themes, so use your discretion. These were included with emphasis in a Charlotte Mason style of education. I am unfamiliar with more modern poetry, but the usual warnings apply.

Poetry For an Uncertain World

It has been said by an educator following Charlotte Mason's philosophy, "Literature is the sum total of the courage and home, the faith, delight, and despair of the past, and if we deny youth this, and give them instead a little pale skepticism of our own, a conscientious distrust of the ideals with have sustained other generations and other ages, a belief that the world began yesterday and if we are not careful will end tomorrow, because our own idealism is unequal to the problems it has to face, then we do them a poor service. All our aspirations for the young are likely to be defeated unless we hand them on a certain moral stability, a belief in beauty, truth and goodness for their own sake; whereas if we give them these-and in giving them these poetry will surely be included-we have at least the assurance that we have done our best to equip them adequately for the certain difficulties of this uncertain world."

Resources For the Young

  • Lavender's Blue is a book of nursery rhymes compiled by Kathleen Lines with pictures in soft pastel colors by Harold Jones. It's published by Oxford University Press.

  • We wore out a copy of The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (selected by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Arnold Lobel) in our home. It provides a cute and funny commentary on life. I suggested it as a "first" poetry book for kindergarten through second grade. You may need to remove the few Halloween pages.

  • A copy of A Child's Garden of Verse by Robert Louis Stevenson should be available in every public library. We have a copy illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith.

  • A poetry book with gorgeous full color paintings is A Child's Treasury of Poems edited by Mark Daniel. It is coffee-table quality.

  • Favorite Poems Old and New selected by Helen Ferris is a handy anthology that has been around since 1957 and is for sale in many homeschool catalogs. I checked this book out of a library so many times that I was happy to see it available at a curriculum fair and bought a copy.

  • The Book of 1,000 Poems is an inexpensive hardcover "no-frills" anthology of over 600 pages which we use a lot, too.

For Older Students

  • Treasury of Best Loved Poems, illustrated by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, is a good introduction to reading weightier works. I have used it to acquaint myself with poems by John Donne, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and others.

  • An old book still in print is One Hundred and One Famous Poems, compiled by Roy J. Cook. It has a black and white photograph or portrait of each poet. The poems do not seem to match the staunch Victorian faces, which leads me to believe that in some cases it may be better to read the poem without seeing the face. I guess we're more accustomed to the modern "cover girl/cover guy" look. Charlotte Mason would deem the poems in this book required reading for every high school student.

For the Serious Reader of Poetry

  • Five Hundred Years of English Poetry (edited by Barbara Lloyd-Evans) will satisfy any serious reader. It has 1200 pages of meaty longer (British) poetry beginning with word-for-word Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) and ending with Matthew Arnold (1822-88). It omits Shakespeare, as the editor assumes you already own his works and she felt that including works from him would inconveniently lengthen the already over-sized book (high school/college level).

Biographical Stories for the Young

  • I have included several biographical stories of famous poets in issues of my Parents' Review, a newsletter for home training and culture. A free description of back issues is available from Charlotte Mason Research & Supply Company.
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