And hear the thrushes singing

Witch song

Why ride a broom with a long, hard handle?
I’ll ride the wind tonight.
As it rushes high and higher
I’ll rise in a lazy, hazy spire
like the smoke of a blown out candle.

If I want the feel of wood, I’ll light
in a living, breathing tree,
an April tree with buds still new
and seed pods streaming wet with dew,
and rock in the wind all night.

This came from my week’s reading: I came across several witch poems that seemed content to talk about gnarled old women on besoms, and after them, I wasn’t.

Clear, soft, supple lines. A beat, and a beat, and a beat again. Rhythm and rhyme so natural they look easy. They’re not easy. I’ve been reading children’s poetry, these last two weeks. The last hundred years have seen many good children’s poems. And I’ve been finding out how many of them are out of print.

Everything I know about poetry began with my giant Child’s Garden of Verses illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa. I still have it, taped together, with two book plates in the front and my name in crayon. The first poem I learned by heart came from it: In winter I get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight….

Stevenson’s poems sound as simple as talking. They have a child’s sense of time and space — the excitement of waiting for the lamp lighter, a city child’s dizzy, rare glimpse of the night sky. A dark hallway goes on forever. A toad stool holds off the rain. A city winds over the rug and jungles grow behind the sofa. These are poems of games and transformations, the feeling of more to find out, the slow time and endless curiosity of a child’s days.

They are simple, but they are not easy, and they tell stories. A good children’s poem reminds me how it feels to stand up to my ankles in mud, to hold a violet against my cheek, to see everything closely. A good children’s poem has other places and times and echoes in it. It knows change will come. It looks at crickets and neighbors and tigers with a sturdy equality.

A good children’s poem is one a child can read. It’s one a child can play with and hold onto and kick around like a tooth-marked rubber ball. That doesn’t mean it has to be nonsense, or plasticene, or tapioca. It can have meanings the child may not puzzle out for years. But it has to speak and let the child talk back.

A year ago, Sharon Ruth Gill wrote that children’s poetry collections now nearly always go back to the classics — How do I love thee and Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, illustrated in bright watercolors. Some scholars have actually argued that children should only encounter poems by “the masters”.

An illustrated book of sonnets can be beautiful, and if you want to paint one, I’d love to see it. But please, please, don’t try to teach children poetry by making them afraid of it. Don’t tell them only God-fearing geniuses are allowed to write it. Don’t shut it up in glass fronted bookcases behind wing chairs.

Give me instead the woman from NH who brings a program on children’s books into the schools and encourages children to write and illustrate their own. She talks with them about different stories and different words and pictures — what do you like about them, and what do they mean? She lets the kids play with them and flip them like pennies.

Gill has a list of poets she likes, poets who write for children. I’ve been going through it and looking through the local library for writers— Roger McGough, Aileen Fisher. X. J. Kennedy has a collection with some new voices: Talking Like the Rain. Isak Dinesen opens it, telling about an evening she began talking in Swahili verse in a muddy field. The people she spoke to loved the sound. “As they had become used to the idea of poetry,” she said, “they begged: ‘Speak again. Speak like the rain.'”

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6 Responses to “And hear the thrushes singing”

  1. Crafty Green Poet Says:

    I still cherish my first poetry book, given to me by my grandparents when i was around 9. I agree with what you say about children’s poetry.

  2. Linda Jacobs Says:

    I know it’s kind of late by the time they are in high school but I read a poem every day to my students. I make a copy of it so they can follow along. At first they’re not crazy about the idea but after a few weeks, they love it. If something happens and they have to skip a day, they get upset. and, I’m a woman from NH, too! (northern!)

    Love your witch poem! It has some great descriptions in it!

  3. mariacristina Says:

    I think your poem is great-the rhymes, the meter, the subject. A nice package!

    I still have my first books of poems too. My parents used to read them aloud to me when I was a child. My father’s favorite was Little Orphan Annie- I think he was trying to scare us in a fun way, but it never phased me! My own imagination was enough…. Great post.

  4. jillypoet Says:

    Great post! I agree wholeheartedly about children’s poetry. I used to teach poetry in the schools. Children do love rhyme. I wonder when we stop loving it?

    Your witch poem is so fanciful. I love the idea of the witch talking, doing something different. Nice!

  5. sister AE Says:

    The rhymes in this are interesting. And the whole thing is now (happily) stuck in my head.

  6. Dave Says:

    Louis Untermeyer’s Golden Treasury of Poetry for children still holds an honored place on my shelf. Not all the poems in it were written expressly for children, but nearly all of them appealed to a child’s sense of fun or love of a good story.

    I like your Witch Song!

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