Stupid’, ‘a waste of time’, ‘too hard’, ‘gobbledy gook’ – just some of the ways kids have described poetry as they roll their eyes and sigh. Boring! But is it? Young toddlers – babies even – adore rhyme, rhythm and repetition, yet by the time they’ve reached school age, many balk at trying something more taxing. Is poetry really that dull? Or do we all just need a bit more good old-fashioned determination?
Teachers and writers alike will tell you that poetry is great for improving language skills. When done skillfully, it can convey a detailed idea in just a few words, which in these days of instant gratification, is surely a plus point. To be able to both write poetry and analyse the words you’re reading is also a great discipline, plus, unlike long passages from novels, the poems kids learn are likely to stay with them forever. ‘Poetry is great for installing the importance of rhyme and rhythm in your mind, and it stays with you for the rest of your life,’ says Yvette Judge, librarian at JESS (Jumeirah English Speaking School) Arabian Ranches. ‘If you learn a poem as a child, it often comes back to you word for word as an adult. Prose doesn’t have that effect.’
True, Robbie Burns’ ‘wee, sleekit, cowrin’ tim’rous beastie’ never failed to make me giggle when my Scottish grandmother launched into her ‘To A Mouse’ recital, even though I hadn’t the foggiest what she was talking about. But it’s a fact that while toddlers and primary school children may eagerly plough through poetry and revel in the rhythm and sound of the words, once they reach secondary level, enthusiasm can wane. ‘There’s a big difference between poetry through choice and poetry through studying,’ admits Judge.
Like everything that requires a modicum of effort, there’s a huge sense of satisfaction when you finally do get it. It’s just that it takes a skilled teacher or parent, or a determined child, to keep at it when the going gets tough.
Former Children’s Laureate Anne Fine, who has put together three poetry collections for kids, is a firm believer in poetry’s continuing relevance to children’s lives. She tells me the story of a class of Irish schoolchildren in Dublin being taught to understand ‘On Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth (no lightweight). Their teacher asked them to translate it into ‘Two Drunks on a Bridge Chatting’ to explain the meaning. The kids took the first three lines: ‘Earth hath not anything to show more fair / Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / A sight so touching in its majesty’, and translated them as: ‘Eh up! Champion, in’t it, that view? / You’d have to be a stone to walk past that.’
‘Even the most recalcitrant child was able to see what the poet’s art had done,’ she says. ‘Like anything else in the world, the more you read poetry, the better you get at it.’
The key to unpicking and taking pleasure from poetry is to relax. ‘Don’t think of it as being something different, it’s just another form of literature,’ says Judge. ‘If you enjoy it, fine, if you don’t want to look for the deeper meaning, then don’t bother.’ Put aside any feelings of embarrassment and read poems with real expression – the voices and all. Let rip in front of a mirror, says Fine, and you’ll soon reveal a poet’s skill. ‘I think some poems, and certainly lots of old poems, are hard to get,’ admits Anne. ‘But one thing I know is that the more you read a poem aloud, paying attention to the actual punctuation on the page, not the line breaks, the easier it is to unpick it to see what it means.’
Start with some easier options, but don’t cheapen the art. The Dubai kids we spoke to loved the funny stuff, and some of the girls were moved by romantic poetry, but avoid, as Fine calls it, the ‘doggerel’. ‘We didn’t have any of the easy-peasy stuff, all about potties and bogies and people thumping one another. If the poet didn’t go to any trouble to write it, why should you go to the trouble to read it?’
Here’s what Dubai’s young intellectuals had to say about poetry:
Gareth, 10, Al Sufouh: ‘I adore poems because they’ve got a rhythm and they’re funny. I also like poems because some are from shows that I like, like Horrid Henry. Some are funny but I hate all the love and gross stuff.’
Cameron, 9, Emirates Hills: ‘I love poetry because I like the rhythm and the bits that are funny. I like the flow and how smoothly it goes, and I think it’s fun to read, but sometimes it’s boring and too long.’
Jarod, 9, Al Sufouh: ‘I like poetry because the rhythm flows with the poem, but I don’t like poetry because it can go on and on. It can be boring and all romance and kissing.’
Georgia, 9, Al Barsha: ‘What I like about poetry is everything, but what I hate about poetry is that if you have to study it then it can get quite hard.’