A Passion for Poetry

by Jill Eggleton

I am passionate about poetry. 

I am passionate because of its influence on my personal life and how it has sparked the imagination and enriched the language skills of the children I have taught.

The seeds of this passion for poetry were sown by my father and paternal grandmother. I was brought up in a home without television and certainly no devices of any sort. These were gadgets only in the imaginations of science-fiction writers. After dinner, my father would recite poetry that he had memorized from his own school days. Poems like “Leisure” by W.H. Davies . . . 

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare. 

Or “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes . . . 

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas . . .

As a young child, I had no idea what a ghostly galleon was, but I loved the sound of it. I loved the rhythm, the rich language, and the pictures the words painted in my head. I was obliviously catching the rhythm of language and the power of words.

My grandmother had a vast repertoire of poems, and she was persistent in reciting these whenever we visited her. Mostly her poems gave lighthearted and humorous moralistic messages, but these messages of selflessness, caring, not giving up, were hugely effective reminders through childhood of what was acceptable behavior — today it would be recognized as social and emotional learning. Such was the power of my grandmother’s poems, that when she was 90 years old, we recorded her reciting them. How special it is to still have her voice engaging future generations with her passion for poetry.

Poetry magic

The love of poetry never left me through my school days. I began to write my own, reaching out to it because I discovered it was a vehicle for expressing my thoughts in times of traumatic change. In my teenage years, the enormity of the loss of my mother and maternal grandmother in a car accident when I was five began to engulf me, and poetry became an outlet to express these bubbling emotions that had become so overwhelming. 

In his book Poetry as Insurgent Art, Lawrence Ferlinghetti uses poetic language to express his thoughts on what poetry is. 

It is the humming of moths as they circle the flame. 

It is the moon weeping because it must fade away in the day. . . .

A poem is a window through which everything that passes can be seen anew. 

He also tells what poetry can do. 

Poems fulfill longings and put lives back together again. . . .

Poems are lifesavers when your boat capsizes. 

Over the years my boat capsized on several occasions, but I doubt whether any of us go through life without a storm or two. However, writing my own or reading and reflecting on the poems of others has been a wonderful comfort in the stormy days.

Poetry can be light and breezy as well, and I have used it during many family functions to help create a joyful occasion. 

I discovered that poetry, if we truly allow our senses to take flight, is everywhere around us. This thought inspired me to write the poem “Poetry Magic.”

Poetry magic is in the song
the sparrow sings.
It’s in the night owl’s mournful cry
and the beating of an eagle’s wings.
It’s in the moon and in the stars
and the wild wind that blows.
It’s in the burbling, babbling brook
that to the ocean flows.
It’s in the taste of crunchy crisps
or chocolate velvet sweet.
It’s in the smell of grass and flower
or flames of fiery heat.
It’s in the froth and in the foam
of rolling waves on sand.
It’s in a creased and crinkled face
and clasp of friendly hand.
It’s in a smile, it’s in a tear.
It’s floating in the air.
Its magic, like the moistly mist,
surrounds us everywhere.

–Jill Eggleton

Nurturing the flame

As a parent, I was determined to ignite this passion of poetry for my own children — and I know that I did this because today they are both poetry writers. In fact, my son sprinkled his Ph.D. thesis with poetic reflections that transcended mundane explanations, the norm for academic writing.

However, keeping his poetry passion alive was a tenuous task. 

One day I was preparing a poetry presentation for teachers in the U.S. My son was in high school at the time, and I wanted to gain some insight into what he thought about poetry now. So I asked him if he still enjoyed it. His response shocked me. 

“No!” he replied vehemently. “I hate it!” He then proceeded to explain how at high school, he was made to dissect poetry, analyze it, pull it to bits until there was nothing left to enjoy. Sadly, I believe that over the years, this is exactly what has happened to many students. Some of those students have become teachers, repeating what happened to them — and in so doing unwittingly creating negative feelings about poetry. 

It is my hope that all teachers, of every grade level, will light the fire of a love of poetry with their students and that they cause this love to burn so brightly it would take a tsunami to extinguish the flame.

The over-analyzing of a poem is a sure way to discourage a passion. A poem should speak for itself — sometimes nothing more is needed.

In his book Embracing Poetry, Donald Graves explains that when teachers read poetry aloud, they model phrasing, rhythm, and nuance, as well as demonstrating for students that print holds a richness of meaning. 

When I became a teacher, I took my passion for poetry with me into the classroom. I was determined to help my students catch the rhythm of language and the power of words through daily exposure and saturation in poetry.

I chose a poem for the week, and in the ten-minute daily lesson, we used the poem as practice in a variety of literacy skills — critical and creative thinking, enriching vocabulary, reading with fluency, alphabetic code knowledge, and creative responses. 

DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II

This poem then became a familiar poem, and as we progressed through the weeks, we built up a huge repertoire of familiar poems, which we read over and over again. Every day we read familiar poems first, before focusing on the poem of the week. This simple repeated reading of a familiar text had enormous value — strengthening reading skills and building fluency. Students began to recognize words that were far beyond their instructional level of reading, but more important was the simple enjoyment of words and language.

I would conclude my ten-minute poetry time by simply reading a poem aloud. This was not a time to question or teach — this was just to leave a poem in their heads and on their hearts, something to hopefully think about in their own place or space. 

Nothing brought home the richness of language and the power of poetry more than listening to Amanda Gorman’s recitation of “The Hill We Climb” during the 2021 presidential inauguration. This touched the souls of many and relit an enthusiastic worldwide interest in poetry.

What I learned 

Like a spider uses threads of silk to entice an unsuspecting fly into the heart of a web, I used the threads of poetry to entice my students into the very heart of language without their really knowing how much their literacy skills were developing. 

Through this process I learned a great deal about what was important in engaging my students in poetry and passing on to them this passion that I had inherited.

I learned that the choice of the poem was vital.

It didn’t work to choose a poem simply because it fit the theme. The emphasis in using poetry was not on giving knowledge, but rather giving a love of language. Making the theme central to the poem gave the poem secondary importance and sometimes resulted in a contrived rhyme. 

The wrong choice of poem could interfere with a student’s literary appreciation and a severing of that fragile thread. A poem, I discovered, should be chosen because I knew my students would love it and be engaged by it. Creating a love of poetry needed to be the focus, and I was determined to only use poems that touched the heart of the child. 

I learned that struggling readers responded to poetry because of its brevity compared to prose.

Those white spaces on the page made them sigh with relief. The repeated reading of the poems helped them with fluency, allowing them to recognize and read words they never believed they could. 

Bill Martin, Jr., an American writer who wrote more than 300 books for children, was a struggling reader until finally at high school a teacher exposed him to the power of poetry, and a passion was born. He improved his literacy skills by memorizing poems, and this helped him pick out the words on the page. In his words, “Children will only learn to read when they have language inside of themselves.”

This is also my belief. The daily exposure to the richness of poetry is a simple, effective way to fill a child’s mind with language.

I learned that the poetry session needed to be short, sharp, fun, and pacey.

It wasn’t a teaching time, but a time for enjoying language and incidentally practicing skills. It wasn’t a time for lengthy discussions or in-depth questioning, but a time to motivate and encourage thinking to go beyond the poetry session. A time to just let a poem be, for a poem can weave its own magic.

I learned that all the students I taught, regardless of age, culture, or socio-economic background, non-English speakers and students with special needs alike — all loved poetry and by careful choice and careful teaching could be easily caught in its magical web.

As Walter McVitty says in the book Word Magic: Poetry as Shared Adventure,

One of the most pleasurable and long-lasting gifts any adult can give to a child is the love of poetry — a love which comes through the joyful sharing of the rich experience which poetry can offer.

So, while I motivated my students with wonderful poems crafted by poets like Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, Roald Dahl, and many others, I was inspired myself to write poetry for students.

It has been discovered that in order to engage students, especially younger ones, a poem needs to have three elements — brevity, rhyme, and humor or surprise. These were the elements I endeavored to capture in the poems I wrote for young readers.

Poetry for life

Our past experiences with poetry could have been poor and empty or, like mine was privileged to be, rich and full. Whatever it was for you, I hope that if you are parents, grandparents, or teachers you will be encouraged to build a poetry future with the children in your lives. And that you will empower them to embrace this special art form, for it is one of the richest sources of language and one of the greatest gifts you can give them. 

Whether you have children in your lives or not, however, I would encourage you to reach out to poetry, for in this journey of life it helps us develop new insights and new ways of understanding ourselves and our world — and it can be a comforting solace in times of overwhelming emotion. As May Hill Arbuthnot said, “Like music, poetry comes with healing in its wings; it carries its own therapy.”

Personally, I am eternally grateful for my early exposure to the magic of poetry and that its power created a lasting passion.

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