Heidi Simmons: Is poetry dead? Does anyone care?


A decade ago Newsweek Magazine published an article with the provocative headline: "Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?" The author concluded that while "poetry is the highest form of writing," it takes "work" and that our culture was becoming "intensely prosaic."

All true. But back then poetry was still alive. Sadly I believe that the answer today would be different because poetry has been dropped from the  Connecticut state "Common Core" writing standards for the curriculum for kindergarten through Grade 5.

As a result,  overburdened elementary school teachers have little incentive to give it much time. Today the writing focus is on opinion, explanatory texts and narratives.

But if elementary-school students never have the opportunity to explore their natural inclination for poetic expression, imagination, and word use, they will not fully develop their literary skills. Just as an artisan cannot become competent in his skill without understanding his tools, writers must become comfortable with their verbal tools. Writing poetry inspires and refines a child's use of words as tools. A fifth-grade student struggling with self-expression wrote a poem wherein he described his thoughts as a "jumbled mess of words" that were "fighting to get out by rearing, writhing, whipping, lashing, striking, and beating at his head until finally they seeped onto the paper."

The struggle of expressing an idea and the welcome relief when it is finally spread out on a page are clear in this student's poem. Words become friends and writing becomes fun. Poetry is a child's natal language, a voice with which children are born. Their engagement in the poetic elements of language begins in utero with the rhythm of the first heartbeats. The infant's poetic voice evolves into a delight of manipulating sounds. This is precursor to a child's delight in the rhythms and intonations of nursery rhymes.

A second-grade student of mine found rhythmic joy in her description of a thunderstorm. The "blunder slunder" of the storm blew hard through the trees and the "slunder dunder" of the storm rolled past her eyes as the trees were "flit blit" shaking and throwing their leaves.

Another gift of youth so apparent in elementary school is imagination. One of my fourth-grade students imagined sneakers to be alive as they reclined in the closet after a long run, "tired with their tongues hanging out" and their "shoelaces drooping" just before their "eyelets fluttered" to sleep.

Poetic imagination helps children to bridge the familiar concrete world with the strange and abstract world of adults. Children experience their physical world with a sensual scrutiny. They can see, hear, taste, and touch what has become banal and insignificant to adults. They can use the imaginative poetic tools of comparison to communicate and understand intangible concepts.

One young student of mine, in an effort to share her concept of poetry, imaginatively compared it to all the five senses. Poetry felt like a "corduroy jacket," sounded like a "whispering moon," looked like "her chubby orange crayon, dull at the tip," tasted like "summer honey," and smelled like "a lavender wand." In this way she traveled to a place where prose does not go.

These are examples of elementary school children who have had their natal gift of poetry nurtured in a K-5 literacy environment before "Common Core" standards entered the classroom. Before students address the rugged tasks directed by "Common Core" of writing something "supporting a point of view with evidence" or "examining an idea and conveying information clearly," it would seem important to sharpen their imagination and love of words through poetic wordplay.

Students who have experienced poetry writing show greater fluency and sensitivity to language in all their writing. Poetry helps writing to be fun. Surely this is good for our children's intellectual well-being. Is poetry dead? Let's hope not. Does anybody really care? We all should.

Heidi Simmons was the K-5 literacy coach at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London, Conn., for 15 years before retiring this spring. She lives in Stonington. This first ran in the Journal Inquirer, of Manchester, Conn.