For me, the heart of the nature poem has always been grounded in its need to pronounce—again and again—that the world is and for no reason. The journals of Lewis and Clark, replete with the struggle and urgency to find a language for the expanse and abundance of the world they were confronted by, added over 1,500 words to the American language. Or think of the child’s hunger for words—what’s this, the child asks, what’s this, what’s this. -Robert Cording, “To Discover an Order as of a Season”
Why teach children poetry? I ask myself this question every Friday when I try to squeeze all the other subjects we teach at CSA into next week’s lesson plan. Even as someone who loves reading and teaching poetry, having eight- and nine-year-olds hop around the classroom to the opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey (“Speak, Memory!) can seem excessive, or at least not the best possible use of their time.
What even is poetry? In my graduate creative writing program, us fiction writers liked to prank the poets by making them answer this simple question. We could, after all, say what fiction was: a story. But poetry? You’d get all kinds of answers, almost always preceded by a long and pronounced “um”. I have my personal favorite answers to this question: “the best words in the best order” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), “the chair and all the life lived in it” (Wallace Stevens).
How will CSA graduates answer this question by the time they reach graduate school? I have to imagine, I have to hope, their answers will fall somewhere along the lines of how contemporary poet, Robert Cording, (quoted above) likes to define poetry: a call to attention, attention which we pay (and thus owe) the world that “is and for no reason”. God creates our world ex nihilo, from nothing; though it might not have been, the world isbecause of God’s own goodness.
Louise Glück, another contemporary poet, speaks to how children are already poised to attend: “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” I may outlast my students when it comes to focusing on our math workbooks, but in day-to-day seeing, in actively noticing and considering all that changes in a given (given!) day—the tastes of Pizza Monday, the task of zipping up a coat—I know they have me beat.
So maybe this is why we teach children poetry, to give them better words and better orders for sights, sounds, tastes, etc., we adults only remember or struggle to see again.
Or maybe, as I draw my own attention back to class, back to the section of the Odyssey we’re working on this morning (“Is it pillaged orplundered Troy’s sacred heights?”), the answer is much simpler. Irene is swaying behind her desk again. Nathan is pumping his fists. Iris and Addison are glancing at each other, checking in. Adrianna is looking around the room, smiling at everyone. Jacob and Zach are intensely focused on the chalkboard. And Elijah is standing tall.
Why teach children poetry? Because they love it.