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    bright painting of butterflies

    Poetry at Home

    Your home is happier with poetry in it – and poetry is better for being there.

    By Jane Clark Scharl

    October 2, 2023
    • Gretchen Joanna

      I agree wholeheartedly with everything you've said here. Over the years of homeschooling five children, we memorized quite a few poems, as a family or individually. Twice, the extent of our "summer school" was memorizing a longer poem on long camping trips. It wasn't until my homeschooling days were almost over that I met Dana Gioia, and his poetry and enthusiasm have more than doubled the joy I had in those previous decades. Tomorrow I will attend a homeschooling moms' retreat, as a grandmother-encourager, and I've been musing about whether I have something specific to offer from my extensive experience. After reading this helpful essay, I am sure I will want to urge the younger mothers to explore the joys of poetry in their homes. Thank you!

    • Susan Delaney Spear

      Thank you for this thoughtful essay. As a teacher and a poet, I agree wholeheartedly.

    I don’t think there is any type of artist quite so prone to self-doubt as the poet; poets are always writing elaborate apologies for their art. As far back as 1580 or thereabouts, Sir Philip Sidney wrote The Defence of Poesy, arguing against critics who saw poetry as corrupting, deceitful, and a waste of time. In 1991, Dana Gioia penned a contemporary defense of verse-making called “Can Poetry Matter?,” addressing many of the same concerns as Sidney.

    Gioia, and Sidney before him, have done their work well; I’m not going to try to match them by offering some sweeping defense of poetry as a discipline. What I’d like to discuss is not that poetry should exist, but where it should exist. Poetry’s proper place is not, first and foremost, in academia, but in our homes. Poetry should be nourished beside the hearth, not in the lecture hall. When we invite poetry into our homes, we make our family life more abundant, but we also help poetry itself grow richer and more beautiful.

    Verse: The First Language

    The first thing spoken by the first human being is in verse. Adam says, when he meets Eve, “This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” This is poetry. It is figurative language – literally, as in it’s using a figure of speech: repetition of a single word, separated by a few other words. The Greeks named this figure of speech diacope, and Shakespeare loved it. Adam’s speech here is technical, elegant, and memorable. It’s poetry. Obviously it’s poetry in translation; in the Hebrew verse we find assonance, or repeated sounds, instead of the repeated words we see in the English.

    Poetry marked the moment human families began. That tells us something about ourselves, our families, and how verse helps us express the emotions that make up human relationships.

    Verse is, essentially, language tied to some kind of rhythm. Rhyme, though we think of it as central to poetry, is a bit of a late addition; Milton, in his introduction to Paradise Lost, wrote that rhyme is “no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse … but the invention of a barbarous age.” In the four hundred years since Milton wrote those words, rhyme itself has become a convention of European poetry, but the point stands that the essence of poetry is rhythm. Many poems become songs, tying the rhythms of language to rhythms of music.

    That, I believe, comes from our physical existence, which is a rhythmic existence. Human beings are defined by rhythms: from the beating of our hearts to the pulsing of our central nervous systems, from the lunar cycle (which can radically affect our sleep and our emotions) to the seasons of the year. We’re always receiving these rhythms. So, when we take our language and incorporate those rhythms into it, we’re offering up the heartbeat of creation to the God who made it. We’re joining the music of the universe.

    Making a Place for Poetry

    What does this mean in everyday life, in our families and homes? How can we bring poetry into our relationships and allow its rhythms to shape our own?

    The most important thing is simply to read poetry – whether together or separately, aloud or silently, we can incorporate poetry into our family life. This may seem intimidating, but it is easier than it sounds, especially for families with small children, who, in my experience, love poetry.

    My own children, aged five and three, love little songs with clear rhythms and stark rhymes. They both “discovered” rhymes fairly early, and my son (the older of the two) quickly made up lots of little games involving rhymes. He has carefully taught his sister about rhymes, and I will often hear them exchanging rhymes back and forth, one or the other occasionally rejecting a rhyme for being “not so good.” I love overhearing these games because they are experiencing language in one of its most basic ways: as play.

    The first thing parents can do to bring poetry into their home is to recognize that it’s already there. Our role is to simply allow it to flourish.

    My son has recently begun experimenting with rhythms too, and with composing his own little “poem songs” using tunes he has heard before. Once he learns a song, he’ll often begin changing out the words, fitting other words into the music’s rhythms. And he’s surprisingly good at it; he can tell when he’s messed up the rhythm, and he’ll smile and say a little sheepishly, “No, no, that doesn’t fit.”

    This isn’t unusual at all. Children have an innate need for, and love of, structure. We see this in the way a child orders his day from a very young age; with some support from parents or caregivers, children usually quickly fall into a regular rhythm of napping, eating, and playing. Children delight in routine; they love to know what is coming next, and almost all children struggle with unexpected deviations from their usual habits. For some, a break in the rhythm of the day can be catastrophic. So it shouldn’t surprise us that children revel in the rhythms of poetry.

    The first thing parents can do to bring poetry into their home is to recognize that it’s already there. Our role is to simply allow it to flourish. We can encourage little rhyming games at the dinner table, or make wordplay a part of our family dialect. Richard Wilbur, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet who served as the second Poet Laureate of the United States, invented a poetry game he played with his children around the table: someone would pick a thing, and the rest of the family had to find an unexpected, funny, or surprising opposite. Wilbur and his family enjoyed the game so much that he ended up publishing a book of the resulting poems, called Opposites. Here’s one of my favorites:

    The opposite of doughnut? Wait
    A minute while I meditate.

    This isn’t easy. Ah, I’ve found it!
    A cookie with a hole around it.

    Silly, yes, but fun, and a wonderful lesson in rhyme. The book is a great way for families with slightly older children – elementary school age or so – to enjoy some clever poems and practice wordplay (younger children might enjoy it or might not; my son loves it, my daughter likes the pictures).

    The second thing we can do to bring poetry into our homes is read it aloud. There are many excellent collections of poetry specifically for children; recently we’ve been enjoying The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, a mix of children’s poems (“The Jabberwock” and “The Tale of Custard the Dragon”) and poems with cross-generational appeal (from Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” to Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage”). Julian Peters’s Poems to See By is a gorgeous comic-book-style rendering of classic poems, though parents should enjoy this book with their children rather than just handing it to them to read on their own – some of the poems deal with mature subjects, like war and death.

    The third thing we can do to bring poetry into our homes is to memorize it. This may seem like a tall order; memorization is less and less common in our digitized world, where everything is available at our fingertips, and for many of us, memory is a muscle that has atrophied. But an atrophied muscle can be retrained.

    For most of history, poetry was an oral tradition. Someone – a scop, a troubadour, a bard – composed and recited a poem, either improvising on the spot or recounting an older tale. Poems in the latter category sometimes ran for thousands of lines, stowed away in the hearts and minds of poet and audience alike.

    Few of us will memorize thousands of lines of poetry in our lives. But having even a few lines of poetry in your mind is like having a little secret place inside yourself where no one can trouble you; if your phone is lost, or you are away from your computer, or you are sitting on a delayed airplane with two screaming toddlers, those lines of poetry will rise up in your mind and nourish you, give you a place of beauty to inhabit for a little while.

    I began memorizing poetry after reading about how, in the gulags of the Soviet Union, people who had memorized poetry were able to offer that poetry as a lifeline for those around them. Even a single poem, whispered in a prisoners’ barracks after dark, could become a touchstone for all that is good and beautiful. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, famed author of The Gulag Archipelago, recalled how during days of grueling labor he would internally “write” passages of his books, then scribble them down at night. His powers of memory, honed through memorizing poetry as a young person, allowed him to compose his own writing while enduring great suffering.

    We needn’t memorize poetry solely with such desperate situations in mind, of course. But Solzhenitsyn’s experiences – and those of other camp inmates – emphasize that poetry is an essential aspect of our inheritance as human beings. We would do well to treasure that inheritance in our hearts, and not rely on technology to keep it for us.

    bright painting of a girl and butterflies

    Vanni Pule, Butterfly Dreams. Used by permission.

    Once you memorize a poem, it becomes yours, in a unique way. It does not live on the page anymore, but in your daily life; it accumulates around it a frame of all the times in your own life that you thought of the words while going about your day. Its meter appears under your feet as you walk to the coffee shop with your children; its rhymes appear as you notice identical buildings lining the highway. Its music moves the sponge as you scrub dishes. In all different times and places, I find myself whispering, “The world is too much with us; late and soon” or “Night shall be thrice night o’er you / and heaven an iron cope; / have ye joy without a cause, / yea, faith without a hope?” or “Therefore, since the world has still / much good, but much less good than ill” or “A thing of beauty is a joy forever; / its loveliness increases, it will never / pass into nothingness.” These words are a part of my life.

    And, because I have them memorized, they are becoming a part of my children’s lives. Every evening while she cleaned the house, Dana Gioia’s mother used to recite poetry, fiercely and powerfully, and the Gioia children learned it from listening to her. My children have nearly all of A. E. Housman’s “Terence this is stupid stuff” memorized. They know “Ozymandias,” and “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” and they can correct me when I recite the first two sections of “Lepanto” (we’re all still working together on the rest of the poem). I’m not Dana Gioia’s mother; I only have a handful of poems memorized. But I’m trying, and the effort is making my soul, my life, and my home more beautiful.

    Having these shared poems gives richness and beauty to our family life. We say them together when we’re driving around on errands; we make little tunes and sing them; we talk about what they mean. They brighten our family culture. They belong here, in our home, and we are glad to have them.

    Poetry’s Place

    That is the final thing I’d like to say about having poetry in the home: it’s not just good for us, it’s good for poetry. Poetry was never meant to live in academia or to survive in poetry journals that only poets read. It was created as a spontaneously spoken thing, the uncontrived response of one human being to another. Bringing poetry back into our homes and our daily lives – through reading it, memorizing it, playing with it, singing it – is what gives poetry itself life.

    Dana Gioia, who grew up in a home full of poetry, composes some of the most accessible, musical verse being written right now. It is not an exaggeration to say that Gioia has been at the forefront of a small sea change in American poetry. His deeply felt verses, with their origins in a place where poetry is alive and spoken, have contributed, with others, to a revival of metrical verse in this country. Those passionate, sometimes anguished recitations of his mother while scrubbing her small kitchen have transformed the culture of American verse.

    Poetry’s place is in our homes and on our tongues. Welcoming it there makes our lives more joyful, and makes poetry itself stronger, more agile, and more beautiful.

    Contributed By JaneClarkScharl Jane Clark Scharl

    Jane Clark Scharl is a poet and critic. Her poetry has appeared in many American and European outlets, including the BBC, the Hopkins Review, the New Ohio Review, the American Journal of Poetry, the Lamp, Measure Review, and others.

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