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April 30, 2013

Poetry Offers Insight Into Children's Lives

by Adam Phillips

Poetry is often associated with difficult to understand literature. To counter that perception, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs launched Poem in Your Pocket Day as a way to introduce the joys of reading and writing poetry to everyday people.

Dozens of children gathered at Poets House, a 50,000-volume poetry library and resource center in downtown Manhattan, to read their poems aloud, all at the same time.

The exercise is meant to help the kids work off some of their nervous energy, as they await their turn at the microphone in front of the room.

They've spent many months in classroom workshops, learning to appreciate reading and writing poetry.
Poetry Offers Insight Into Children's Lives

Answer My Questions is read by its author, an 8-year-old student named John.

“Do you know why worms have to get back to the dirt to survive?
Why does the Sun have to rise and then fall?
Why can’t male animals have babies?
Why can't magic become real so we can do anything we want?
Does a peacock know how to dance?
Have you ever seen a mermaid play soccer without feet?”


Poets House Director Lee Briscetti says that kids’ active imaginations and endless curiosity make them natural poets.   

“Seeing children as they are going through language acquisition is experiencing the joy and plasticity of language,” she said.

Take for example the quirky, if technically correct, title of fourth grader Kadijatou Darboc’s poem Elatedness is Everywhere.

“On the street of elatedness
a cowboy catches a pig and slaps his
leg and says, “Yee-haw.”
On the street of elatedness
a girl gets a horse painted with splats of red, white and blue with 50 stars on its face. On the street of elatedness 
gooses talk to humans and aliens 
are a girl’s best friend.”

 
Kadijatou also likes to hear other people's poems. 

"Because you get to know how people's experiences are like and their feelings and how they can express themselves in different ways," she said. "It can make me see who they really are and what kind of person they are. 
 
The children's poetry can offer insight into their lives. Third grader Mia LaBianca wrote about her community in On the Colorless Street

"On the colorless street
a man walks in gray
with no expression.
Like an ant, no expression.
On the colorless street,
a woman dresses in white,
like a ghost.
On the colorless street a boy wears black,
as if he is a shadow.
On this street,
no one cares for
color, NO ONE cares.”


A poem can give expression to emotional subject matter that might be difficult to broach directly in a conversation. Here is an excerpt from I Wonder, by Ava Gardner, age 9.

“I Wonder
I wonder, does the Earth sing to the Moon when it’s tired?
Does snow yell to grass when snow is melting?
… When plates are struck, are they moaning and groaning? When people yell, do your ears burst?"


Poet Dave Johnson, who led the school workshops for Poets House, says poetry can help build a sense of community. He admits it can be scary to read a poem you've written out loud, to open yourself up to criticism. But taking that risk, he says, can promote trust and inspire empathy from listeners.       

“We had a reading this morning where one lady was petrified of getting up in front of this huge room of people…and when she finally got the courage to read, she was crying a little. They all rushed up and hugged her," Johnson said. "And I thought ‘You know, it’s poetry.' But it’s more than that. It’s coming together, this communal act of saying ‘It’s OK. We’re together and we’re listening to you.’”

Poets House recently published A Neighborhood of Poems, an anthology of the work created during this year’s project in the New York City schools.