How to Enjoy Poetry Every Week
Do you read poetry and share it with your children? I’d like to prescribe a dose of poetry every single day, but I know that might seem daunting. How about poetry every week instead? Start with simple poems, laying a solid foundation with Mother Goose rhymes and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and branch out from there.
Why read poetry every week?
- Poetry is beautiful.
- Poetry shows you how to see what is really there.
- Poetry can touch the heart and shape the soul.
- Poetry shows how to use language creatively.
- Poetry increases the ability to think metaphorically and analogically.
- Poetry can be fun, as demonstrated by former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins in the video below.
Poetry not only broadens the ability to understand and use language in beautiful ways, it can also deepen understanding of great ideas, sharpen appreciation of nature, and so much more. Best of all, it does what it does in a beautiful, organic way, not didactically, so it is more likely to stick.
Find a poet that speaks to your heart
One of the keys to enjoying poetry is to find a poem you love and read more by the same poet.There’s something special about a book of poetry that is all by one person — you know you will meet a familiar voice between its covers, and each time you open it, you discover new surprises.
I fell in love with the poetry of Emily Dickinson when I was in high school, and a slim volume of her poems was the first poetry book I bought for myself. She wrote so many poems that I’m still discovering new ones and delighting in her apt and vivid expression. Whenever I’m asked, “Who are you?” I can rarely resist responding, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” This response tends to sort new acquaintances into two categories — potential kindred spirits, and people who back away slowly and hope I’m not dangerous. Poetry is handy that way.
My second and most enduring love is the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, an ever unfolding source of meditation and delight. My most recent memory projects have been Hopkins’s verses — God’s Grandeur and As Kingfishers Catch Fire. His work is not the easiest to memorize, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way I’ll ever plumb its depths is to memorize as much as possible and contemplate it for the rest of my life.
Become a better communicator
As I’ve made an effort to read poetry every week, I’ve discovered that the poets help me put beauty, theology, and imagination into words. Sharing a few lines from Shakespeare, George Herbert, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Christina Rossetti, or Wendell Berry can be a thoughtful way of expressing a possibly controversial opinion in a way that others can hear it.
Emily Dickinson was spot on in her advice to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant —”. Like Aesop’s fables or Biblical teaching stories or parables, poetry speaks truth directly to the heart. A few words can conjure an entire scene, and in print media, they often do. How often have you read phrases such as “band of brothers,” “the centre cannot hold,” or “not all those who wander are lost” and understood far more than the words themselves actually say? I’ve found that the poets often say, briefly and beautifully, exactly what needs to be said.
Take time to savor each poem
When I find a poem I really like, I learn it by heart (an expression that seems to capture the purpose of memorization). I begin by reading it several times, both silently and aloud, paying attention to the sound, as well as the meaning of the words. If possible, I listen to several different readings of it at Poetry Foundation or on YouTube while copying it into my commonplace book. Finally, I make a first letter cue card, and start memorizing.
The best part about this process is that by the time I officially start to memorize the poem, I’ve already read it, heard it, and written it, so it’s already partially memorized. As each line is committed to memory, the meaning continues to unfold, and new subtleties of the poet’s craft are revealed. Like a living book or a great painting, the poem is not a static, lifeless thing. It grows as its reader grows. A mind well provisioned with beauty and delight will have a natural defense against the absurdity and despair of modernity.
Writing with beauty: poetry for copywork
For children, morning time is a good opportunity to establish a habit of copying one line of poetry every day. When children are very small and just learning letters, you can begin by writing the line in your clearest, neatest hand (either italic or cursive). Let the child trace over each letter, following the correct stroke direction and order of strokes. As the child becomes more familiar with letter formation, let him copy the line directly below the line you have written. Older children can transcribe directly from a book of poetry.
Ideally, poetry copywork should be done in a student’s best handwriting in a notebook kept just for poetry. I have found that just about anyone does more beautiful work in a nice notebook than on loose sheets of paper that will soon be thrown away. It’s also a delight for students to look back at poems they have enjoyed through the years. I began copying poetry as a teenager, with the work of Emily Dickinson, and I’m still at it.
Poets have forgotten that the first lesson of literature,
no less than of life, is the learning how to burn your own smoke;
that the way to be original is to be healthy; that the fresh color, so delightful in all good writing,
is won by escaping from the fixed air of self into the brisk atmosphere of universal sentiments;
and that to make the common marvellous, as if it were a revelation, is the test of genius.
James Russell Lowell
There’s an app for that
You don’t need an app for memorizing poetry — in fact, technology can get in the way of developing good study habits. I wrote about my personal Memory Project a couple of years ago, and offered a few suggestions for how to memorize effectively, so you’ll find plenty of tips there. But sometimes, there’s not a poetry book available, so an app might be better than nothing.
The Penguin “Poems by Heart” app is designed to help with memorization. It has a very limited number of poems, and it doesn’t seem to be frequently updated, but it’s fun to try and the method seems to work. There are initially four poems, then you can purchase other groups of poems for a reasonable price.
I tried memorizing the first poem, the four line “Eternity” by William Blake, and was able to fully memorize it in a single session, and remember it later. The method is simple and intuitive. You are presented with one line at a time, with a few words filled in. The other words are below, ready to be dragged into place. Subsequent levels fill in fewer and fewer words, so the amount you must remember steadily increases. At the end, you have the option of recording yourself reciting the poem, and you can do as many trial runs as you like. Overall, it’s fun and effective, but it needs more poems. You can read a bit more about it at the creator’s website.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
For a larger selection of poetry, the Poetry Foundation app is handy for quickly looking up a partially remembered poem or locating something new to add to a commonplace book. The broad selection of classic and modern poetry can be searched by poet, topic, or a remembered line, and the format is clean and easy to navigate. It’s not as enjoyable as a book, but it is good to have available in case of a poetry emergency (e.g., accidentally packing your poetry book in the checked luggage before an all-day flight).
Poetry is beautiful. Even if you haven’t read many poems, it’s not hard to do a bit of poetry every week. Read it, hear it, and enjoy it. I think you’ll be glad if you do.
Resources for poetry every week and more reasons to enjoy it
AmblesideOnline.org includes poetry suggestions for each year, and the 1857 McGuffey Readers offer many classic selections for recitation, especially in the upper grades. Our poetry devotional, Working it Out, uses 51 of George Herbert’s beautiful poems to teach a method of reading and understanding poetry that will work with other poems as well. Beyond those resources, there are many classic anthologies.
Why You Need Poetry by Dwight Longenecker at the Intercollegiate Review (ISI)
Why Teaching Poetry is So Important by Andrew Simmons in The Atlantic
This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You Read Poetry by Cody Delistraty at Science of Us
Why I Read Poetry by Lauren F. Winner in Books and Culture
Why Read Poetry? A book review by Amy Glynn in Paste Magazine
The emotional power of poetry: neural circuitry, psychophysiology and compositional principles by Wassiliwizky, Koelsch, Wagner, Jacobsen, and Menninghaus in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience