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I have sons. My sons love poetry.
While I recognized that this was an anomaly among public schoolers, I had no idea it was unusual even amongst our homeschooling brethren. Poetry, it seems, isn’t considered relevant in these days of textese and emojis; it defies the practicality test, too. Why spend time rolling a string of pretty words in your mouth when everyone else is racing to get as few characters as possible onto a screen? Why engage a page of text that doesn’t get right to the point when there are eight billion other academic subjects vying for your attention? Why force your teenage son to read poetry when frankly, he hates it?
First of all, let me be clear: I don’t recommend forcing anyone— least of all a teenage boy convinced that he’s about to be bored to death— to read poetry. Instead, I urge you to reframe the conversation:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless–of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here–that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” —Dead Poets Society
Put like that, how can you not ladle as many helpings of poetry as possible onto the plate of the young man developing before you? There’s a reason that some of the most powerful books in the Bible (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Songs of Solomon) are poetic; they speak to us of experience and passion in a way that we hear not just in our head, but in our heart, as well.
But how do you set the stage? How do you encourage your son— the one more interested in quarks than consonance, the one more concerned with Halo than with heroic couplets— to develop a taste for something beautiful?
As the mother of teenage sons who can recite Jabberwocky in its entirety and debate whether Frost was at his peak before or after WWI, I offer these three tips to get you going:
Start early. O.k., the truth is, this won’t help your teenage son. But if you’ve got a few years ahead of you before you’re teaching high school, there is no time like the present. Pick up an anthology (The Treasury of Poetry for Young People and A Child’s Anthology of Poetry are excellent starting points) and simply start reading. A single poem a day, or several selections from a particular poet… there’s no right or wrong way to “do” poetry. Your goal is to develop a familiarity with the form, an ear for rhythm, an interest in structure, and a curiosity about the various ways in which the English language can be knit together to say even the most mundane things. Starting early improves your odds of having a teenage son who enjoys Robert Browning.
Choose curriculum that has poetry scheduled. I’m not a fan of year- or semester-long poetry courses for the sake of checking off a box. Those curricula that dissect ever inch of meter leave me yawning— and I love poetry! Instead, a gentle approach that seamlessly includes the reading of a variety of styles and poets each week allows exploration and not overkill. Jack, 15, is currently studying Church History with Sonlight 200. He has daily poetry selections scheduled; a welcome departure from the early church fathers and various heresies. Who doesn’t want to break away from the Mongols warring against Christians in the East to spend a few moments with Emily Dickinson? Each year of Sonlight’s instruction features poetry woven in to the week, at the younger levels as well as through high school. It’s no-brainer poetry immersion!
Try a Poetry Tea Time. But don’t call it Tea Time if that’s off putting to your son. I know that the masses say this is the time to pull out your pretty china and make nice, but if your 16 year-old glazes over at the thought, skip it. Trust me, he’s going to be game if you mention that there will be coffee/tea/cocoa and something dessert-ish involved— or a bag of Doritos and a glass of Dr. Pepper, if that’s his thing. There are no Tea Time Police who will be knocking on your door making sure that you’ve got cloth napkins, and you might just get him into ee cummings or W. H. Auden. Gather your snacks, sit down, and read. Let him read, if he’s willing. If not, take center stage. Make this a relational moment, and you’ll be on your way to building a passion for poetry.
The biggest takeaway here? Just do it. No matter your son’s interests, no matter how busy your life is, just do it. Crack a book and start the journey. Help your son understand that the play before him is waiting for his verse… and prepare him to write it!