Making poetry accessible


Sally SmallIn this recent Poetry Friday post, award-winning Australian author Sally Murphy urges teachers to share and enjoy classic and contemporary poetry with kids.

Poetry Friday: Tyger Tyger and the Importance of Pleasure


I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately writing and speaking about children’s poetry and the challenges of getting poetry in front of children, especially in Australia where very little children’s poetry is published. One of the things I keep saying is that kids need accessible poetry, and that we must be sure to include contemporary poetry in our offerings.

BUT, that doesn’t mean that I think we should only offer contemporary poetry, just as it isn’t necessary to only offer contemporary fiction. It’s just that when we offer classic poetry, we need to be sure that it is accessible to readers. One of the problems is that too often we offer poetry with difficult language and then too quickly ask what the poem means. My strong feeling is that, modern or classic, our first point of discussion for any poem should be about how it makes the reader feel, rather than about what it means.  The pleasure, the physical response, the emotions aroused, the confusion are all so much for important than knowing exactly what it’s about (and a good poem should not be about just one thing anyway).

So, take for example this old favourite of mine:

Tyger Tyger

by William Blake

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand, dare seize the fire?

(you can read the rest of the poem here)

Woah. There are some big words (immortal symmetry?). There are some very old words (thine, thy?). There is a word with funny spelling (tyger). And there are some words which don’t rhyme as we pronounce them today (eye/symmetry). And yet when I read it, I can imagine a beautiful, big, fearsome looking tiger, and can tingle with pleasure at the rhythm and flow of the lines. And, if I read it aloud to (or even better with) children, I give them the chance to share that pleasure. If instead, I print it out, give to to kids and ask them what it means, many eyes would glaze over, and hearts sink at the difficult language and the quest for a right answer.

My point? If you’re a teacher – don’t be scared to share poetry with kids. Share classics like this one. Share contemporary poetry too. But share it. Enjoy it. Savour it. If you must take it apart to look at meanings or poetic devices, do that AFTER you have had time to enjoy the poem. The child who has enjoyed the poem will find the seeking of meaning a whole lot easier.

(Original post re-blogged with permission)

3 thoughts on “Making poetry accessible

  1. A terrific post – a matter I think about a lot. It’s so important to hear poetry before reading it. After all, you experience hearing for years before you even know about reading, and if those wonderful sound and rhythm patterns are already familiar then you know how to hear as you read, and the poem on the page is not such a strange thing.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, Sally. I feel that my own passion for poetry developed in spite of – rather than because of – my exposure to poetry at school. The class room focus – certainly for primary schools – should be on enjoyment of poetry rather than analysis. When it comes to writing in the classroom, it should be about exploration and experimentation, not the following of didactic rules – or so I believe.

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