The HOW and WHY of Poetry

by Christine Perrin


Poetry is our human inheritance. Children deeply know this and learn it avidly and with great pleasure. I have experienced this firsthand in my own children's lives and in the classical school environment. I have taught what I have done and seen, and why it matters. I began doing this as a college student in the late 1980’s. 

We call this the poll parrot stage because students love to imitate, sing, chant and feel their bodies when they learn.  I don’t think this really ever ends—though as in the extension of language and delight in words we learn to hold more and more capacity.  Many children love words—laugh at words even before they themselves have language. 

Helen Keller famously learned the sign word for water as she was feeling water.  Thus her elemental and physical experience of water was simultaneous with the word.  While she said the word ‘water’ she felt the cool, refreshing, lifegiving liquid on her skin.  This is what Emerson means when he says, “Every word was once a poem,” or what Tolkien means, more or less, when he says that “we are sub-creators.”  After God, we assemble worlds with words.  Your own children learned a word like “hot” while touching your white wedding china with their index finger as you drank your morning cup of chai and repeated the word hot. They said “Hot” or “T” or “Ta” as they felt the warm china, and the feeling of heat was imbedded deep in the word and in the relationship of morning and being in your arms. 

In biblical revelation, word is always power and life.  God created the world with his word.  He called himself word.  Deeply embedded in the fiber of our making is language and everything it means.  Children know this and are living testaments to this. 

I will very soon take you to the practical aspect of this lesson.  It is ridiculously simple and all of you can do it.  But I want to tell you a little story.  I have a friend who grew up with my son in his class. I started teaching them poetry in class once or twice a month when they were in kindergarten.  I started with Robert Frost— “Dust of Snow,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “The Road Not Taken.”  We always began with memorizing the poem with hand motions and defining the words in the poem so that they could have a little bit of the Helen Keller experience.  Then I would ask them questions about it and they would talk.  My friend, known to me now 19 of her 24 years, told me that she still remembers those poems and those poetry times we had together—recently she was speaking of the Road Not Taken as we were walking in the green summer woods.  When I told my son that she remembered this, he said, “Of course she does, how could anyone forget that?”  Do you see what is natural for these grown men and women who were nourished on words that honored to the highest degree our language capacity, the musicality of language, and the poetry of experience?  It is as natural as walking in the woods and so deeply imprinted that they could remember it after 20 years—an hour in a classroom at age 5.  It is also a bond we share, and those students share with each other.  And when I say to those people who share this most accurate and beautiful and human speech and understanding with me phrases that we learned together—“way leads unto way,” or “I have promises to keep,” or “has given my heart a change of mood” we are merry and near to each other.  It also has given them a language adequate to experience and hours of pleasure. 


As I said, this is the ridiculously simple part.  Choose some good poems that can touch the reality I am speaking of (not Jack Prelutsky—let the kids enjoy that on their own!).  They should be simpler, not simple.  Here are some that I have loved:

Frost:  Dust of Snow, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, The Road Not Taken, Fireflies in the Garden
Dickinson: Fame is a Bee
Whitman: A Noiseless Patient spider, The runner, When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

Additional Resources

Prayers from the Ark
Talking like the Rain
Poetry for Young People
A Children’s Anthology of Poetry, Elizabeth Sword
Who has Seen the Wind, Illustrated Collection , Museum of Fine Arts, Boston



  • Read Aloud and ask them to say back words, lines, images (without discussion)
  • Memorize with hand motions and a little definition
  • Discuss—slowly begin to connect content and form if you can
  • Allow students to draw a picture and explain it to the class
  • Recite regularly
  • Recite together as a treat
  • Use language of the poem as a shared classroom language—a code for what you know together
  • Read them poems that put their finger precisely on what you are talking about

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