Sunday, February 2, 2014

Exposed To Poetry

Last night, as I was sitting in bed reading, Cava came in. He got up on our bed and snuggled up, right next to me.  I looked up from my book and he smiled at me. When I asked him what he wanted, he replied, "I just want to be with you." It is always wonderful to hear either of my boys give me this answer and not be after something. "Do you want to read with me?" I asked him.

"Sure," he replied and went to get himself a book. Once more, he got up on the bed next to me and began to read. Now, Cava does not read silently and I found that I was paying less attention  to my book than to him reading his, especially when he would stop frequently to ask me what a certain word in his book was and I would read the word and then explain what the word meant.

One of the most frequent questions we get from people is, "How is his English?"

Progressing. Basically, he has had to learn English because that is all he hears. Sink or swim is the fastest way to learn a new language. 

So, while his communicative language has gotten better, I am also working on his cognitive language. Cognitive language, as Dr. Boris Gindis, writes "refers to language as a tool of reasoning, a means of literacy, and a medium for academic learning. This language function emerges and becomes distinctive with formal schooling and developing literacy skills." 

One of the ways I am trying to encourage and strengthen his use of the English language is through poetry. So, after he'd finished reading his story, I went and got my copy of Poems to Read to the Very Young. It has numerous poems by different poets that are all written for children.

Cava snuggled up next to me and looked closely at the illustrations (sometimes so closely that his head was in the way of my being able to actually read the words of the poems). 

When we think of poets, we tend to think of tortured souls dressed in black reading depressing poetry in coffee shops. Or we think of poems with difficult language. Or we think of the trite poems with flowery sentiment one finds in greeting cards. If you ask most people if they like poetry, overwhelmingly the answer will be a resounding, "NO!" When I used to work in bookstores, the poetry section was one of the least shopped areas of the store.  Why is this?

I have my theories. I tend to put it down to bad English teachers with the erroneous notion that there is only one meaning to a poem and don't get that poetry is about language and feeling.  

As kids, we tend to like poetry because it is silly and fun, but as we get older, we tend to lose that love of poems until they become like a detested vegetable that we know is good for us but that we could easily do without in our diet.

I've tried to instill a love of reading, books, and, of poetry in Benjamin. Admittedly, to mixed results. Now I'm trying again with Cava. 

One of the first books I ever read to him when he got here was Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. Kids love Dr. Seuss. Back when I taught adult literacy, whenever the person I was working with became frustrated by the books we were supposed to be covering, I would pull out Dr. Seuss. It's amazing how these grown-ups would respond to his nonsensical world and words. They delighted in his silly poetry and made-words. It was fun for them. And it was the same for Cava, even when he didn't understand English.

Another nonsensical poet, whom Benjamin loved when I used to read his work to him, was Edward Lear. Lear is best known for his poem "The Owl and The Pussycat," but he wrote some of the funniest and most enjoyable poems. Benjamin and I would sit there in his bed and laugh at the poems and Lear's simple but funny illustrations.

When I was a little boy, one of my all-time favorite and go-to books was Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. I had been given this book by a great-aunt when I was a young boy and cherished Stevenson's poems.  This was another one that I enjoyed reading to Benjamin.

While he patiently listened to them, his favorites were any by Shel Silverstein. Like the books of Roald Dahl, Silverstein's are irreverent. As a boy, I used to sneak out of Sunday School and, upon discovering that our church had a small library of books, encountered Shel Silverstein on them. I would sit quietly in this small room, trying to restrain myself from giggling too loudly and, thereby, being caught. It seems apropo that I would sneak from Sunday school class to read poems like "After You, Dear," "Something Missing," or "The Boa Constrictor." Now that I'm a parent and a Sunday school teacher, I'm horrified that I could so easily sneak out and not be missed. But I do cherish the memories of reading these to Benjamin and the two of us laughing at the words and illustrations.

Also, as a parent, I now have a greater appreciation for his The Giving Tree

One of my favorite poets is T.S. Eliot and, while I don't recommend reading "The Waste Land" to your child, I have enjoyed reading his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Most know these poems from the Andrew Llloyd Webber musical Cats

As a teenager, one of my favorite groups was 10,000 Maniacs, fronted by Natalie Merchant. When she left the band, I followed her solo work. Her last album was a collection of poems that she put to music entitled Leave Your Sleep
It is a mixture of musical styles (jazz, blue grass, world) and poets (including Stevenson and Lear). I also love that the deluxe edition looks like books:

Cava's favorite is entitled "Calico Pie," while Benjamin enjoys "The Blind Men and the Elephant." What I like is that it exposes them to different forms of poetry and music at the same time. 

By exposing them both to different kinds of poetry, I hope to encourage and nurture a love of language and of poetry that they carry with them all their lives. Something I often tell them is, "A closed mind shows open ignorance." Poetry opens up their world, as does any good book, and it helps to reaffirm that they are not alone and hopefully they will find a connection in the voice of a poet or writer and, who knows, attempt a verse or two of their own.

Just as an addendum, I included this because I found it amusing:

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