Thursday, May 10, 2012

Poetry Pushback: Jolting Older Children Out of Their Apathy

Photo credit: Casey David
 In my previous installment of this poetry series, Poetry Pushback: Bridging the Disconnect with Older Children, I made the argument that poetry study is a critical component of a liberal (wide) education. A nodding acquaintance with the "major" poets (you know the ones) goes a long way toward college prep. Even more importantly, poetry adds grace notes to life. (More on this topic later.)

So read and discuss with your older children Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Dante. Introduce them to Browning, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Byron. Mull over Dickinson's pithy lines, Eliot's symbolism, and Donne's "Batter my heart, three-personed God." Light the fire of your children's imaginations.

 And if the fire is weak, throw on the gasoline.

Adolescents can be maddeningly apathetic about many things (chores, for instance, or polynomial equations -- frankly, I can relate) and then vividly passionate about others. These can be tumultuous years. Teens are busy individuating, shaping their specific dreams, formulating plans, studying the world. They often see things differently from adults.

True, all this can make teens and pre-teens difficult to live with (I know I was); but you can use it to your advantage when it comes to poetry. Tap into their energy, whether they are quiet percolators or swirling vortices. Give them a jolt.

Consider this, by Gwendolyn Brooks:

We Real Cool

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Did you flinch? Are you affronted? What's poetic about this? you may think. Didn't you just quote Philippians 4:8 in an earlier post?

 I did, and I began quoting at ". . . whatever is true. . . ." This poem is an example of an all-too-real truth in our culture. And not just American culture, either, but world culture, merely played out differently depending on the country.

 Read this poem with your older children. Listen to Gwendolyn Brooks read this poem* and consider her thoughts on it. Read this short interview with Brooks about the poem. And then talk about it with your teens.
  • Who are these kids?
  • Can you picture them?
  • How is their world different from yours?
  • What choices have they made?
  • Why might they have made these choices?
  • When Jesus spoke of the "least of these," do you think He meant these guys?
  • The predicted outcome is both bleak and realistic. Can anything be done to help?

That last question is intended as a call to action, to service. Now, I'm not suggesting you go hang out in pool halls, although people do that. But if your teen shows interest, talk about service options. Just off the top of my head, I can think of several actions my daughters and I could take:
  • Make sandwiches for a local homeless outreach program.
  • Serve breakfast to the homeless once a month with a church group.
  • Read to or tutor young at-risk children.
  • Donate books, games, whatever to youth outreach programs.
All because of a poem.

Poetry can also inspire young hearts and minds, even if those minds tend to cynicism. I admire this poem by Langston Hughes:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Its brevity may tempt you to zip through it; resist the temptation. Delve a little deeper. Spark some conversation.
  • Have you seen an injured bird that can't fly? How did it act?
  • Compare a bird when it's first injured to a bird that's adapted to its condition (at a nature center, perhaps).
  • Picture a "barren field frozen with snow." What does it look like? What's there?
  • How are dead dreams like injured birds or a snow-enveloped field?
  • Where do our dreams come from?
  • If we allow that God is the source of dreams/aspirations, what does it mean, then, when we let a dream die?
  • How can we determine if a dream is one of our own selfish desires or, conversely, part of God's plan for our lives?
  • Are we sometimes meant to let go of certain dreams and go in another direction?
  • If so, how can we keep from living like an injured bird?
  • On the flip side, what might happen if we reject God's dreams and follow paths of our own design?
You can hear Hughes read this poem here. He begins with his poem "The Dream Keeper" and flows into "Dreams."

Expose your child to a wide variety of poetic styles and expression. The Who's Who in Poetry list is important, but don't neglect the 20th century and later poets, either. If you need some help, I plan to list a bevy of resources in a later post. I'm gathering information now.

 A word of warning: Don't turn your child loose! Poetry can be as dangerous as any other literary form. And it's not just the contemporary poets, either. Some of the Earl of Rochester's poems (1647-1680), for instance, freely celebrate his dissolute and libertine lifestyle. Another word of warning: please resist throwing water on the fire by too much talk about symbolism and the like. The poet Jean Little says it better than I do in "After English Class":

I used to like "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."
I liked the coming darkness,
The jingle of harness bells, breaking--and adding to
--the stillness,
The gentle drift of snow. . . .

But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for.
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep--
They all have "hidden meanings."

It's grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don't think I'll bother to stop.

I recall discussing a short story (I've forgotten which one) in Advanced Junior English in high school. The teacher pointed out all the green in the story (basically the trees and plants in the woods). "Why do you think the author used all that green?" she asked. The class wisely chose not to respond aloud, but we were all thinking, Because a lot of the action takes place in the woods? The teacher smiled teasingly and drew out the word: "Money!"

Oh. Suuuuure. And since we were teenagers, I'm sure there was a fair amount of eye-rolling, even if we waited until after class to do it.

* Brooks mentions in this recording that this particular poem has sometimes been banned for the term "jazz," since it can have sexual overtones. Listen to the recording yourself to decide if you'd like your children to hear it. You can always have your children tune in after Brooks's intro.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous tips. "Throw on the gasoline!" Pinning your series for reference. Thank you!


I love reading comments! And I appreciate the time you take to leave them. Thanks!