Discussing children’s poetry

Good Saturday everyone,

Two days ago a few of us started a discussion on the Adult Word of the Month Poems page that I decided was significant and interesting enough to bring to the “front page” as today’s blog. It started with this comment from Yousei Hime about a humorous poem of mine.

(Yousei) I used to take poetry so seriously. It never occurred to me until much later in life (I can be very slow) that Dr. Suess was a great poet. Fun, humorous poetry is the best. I love serious, dark, even sad. But at least right now, let’s have more sunshine and laughter. Thanks for your poems, David.

(David) Yousei, you raise a good point for discussion. The literary world typically considers writers of serious, big picture issues as “serious” writers. By implication, no one else is. Which includes most children’s writers. Children’s writers in general and poets in particular are considered by many to be less than equal members of the writing community. (I’ve added the following comment to what I originally stated: In his book, Can Poetry Matter? Dana Gioia refers to children’s poetry as “the critically disreputable demimonde of light verse and chidren’s poetry.”) Humor is also suspect. So where does that place the children’s poet of humorous poems? You guessed it. On the other hand, what sort of poetry do children love? Humor. So children’s poets sometimes feel as though they can write “seriously” to appeal to grown-ups or write funny poems that their readers like. Anyone want to comment on this?

And someone did. Here’s Gay Fawcett.

(Gay) David, interesting question! I taught primary children for years. It is true they love humorous poetry, but I also found young children can come to love serious poetry when teachers share it thoughtfully and with their own passion for good poetry of all kinds. In my earlier blog I made a plea to teachers not to limit their classroomn poetry to Silverstein and Prelutsky. Although I love them both I think we underestimate children when we restrict their poetry experiences.

(Yousei) I agree with Gay. There needs to be a balance, and not just for young readers. I’ve also taught, and one of my primary goals was to instill at least an awareness of, if not encourage a love of language. I think a study of poetry is one of the best ways of doing that. One can tell a decent story without agonizing over each word. Poetry demands precise words, wonderful words, the perfect word. Besides, it is so coooooooool when you get it right.

As you can see, the topic seemed too rich to remain off the beaten path so here it is for everyone to consider. My hope is that you will weigh in on this topic on the comments section below so we can gather in one place the good opinions of many readers. Some of you teach, some write, some do both, and some do neither. One thing I’ve learned is that we’re a chatty bunch willing to share thoughts and support and this is a fine place to do both.

Who will get us started?


70 comments on “Discussing children’s poetry

  1. Hello everyone,
    I can’t sleep so I guess I’ll post my comment about children’s poetry and humor. I think humorous poetry and especially rhyming humorous poetry is very undervalued in part because it is perceived as easy to write i.e. I’m a poet and didn’t know it. After all rhyming is a skill taught to first graders as part of the reading sequence. Most of us ,however, realize rhyme can be difficult to do well. I think people, especially children first think of poetry as rhyming and humorous poetry seems to lend itself more easily to rhyme in my opinion. As writers of poetry I think we should stay true to whatever it is we feel we must write and understand that light verse should not be taken lightly.

    • Ken,

      Well said. And thanks for getting this conversation off and running.

      I hope we’ll start seeing opinions and questions from others as the day rolls along.

      Who’s next?


  2. The world is full of poetry.
    Poetry is full with the world.
    (Good) humorous and whimsical
    poetry is indeed hard to write well,
    and should be read, enjoyed and
    valued every bit as much as poetry
    which is not. Humorous. Or whimsical.
    You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘serious.’
    Because the opposite of humorous
    is not always just serious. Serious
    poetry, poetry from and about the heart,
    is as necessary as breathing to the soul;
    child or adult. But there is also that
    in-between all-about-everything-anything-
    poetry. Moon, stars, butterflies, cupcakes,
    mice, snowmen, morning time, bedtime,
    make-believe time. It’s all wondrous.
    It’s just different, and any good poem
    in my book is any poem that touches
    a heart or funny bone or soul or memory
    or toe; at that time on that day in that


    • Rebecca,

      Thank you for your observations. One telling point you make is that any good poem takes time, thought, and skill to compose. Verse or free verse, humor or not, the only poems that survive are those that carry from the poet’s heart to the reader’s. Explaining how to do THAT is the subject of many a book.


  3. First, let me say that I like funny poetry. I even write it. And yes, the good stuff isn’t easy to write. However, one of the problems nowadays is that publishers are much more willing to publish the funny than the serious, which means that that is what children (librarians, teachers, and parents, too) get to read.

    I too believe that kids like all kinds of poetry–but they have to be exposed to it. Adults have to make a greater effort to present a variety of poetry to them, and that takes greater effort on their part to publish, promote, and find it. How do we encourage them to do so?

    • Marilyn,

      How do we reach teachers, who have little background in poetry, to create the time it takes to become familiar with good poetry in all genres? I agree that we need to do it — or somebody does — but you and all others who teach or have taught know too well how little time is left for the classroom techer to learn on the job beyond working to stay abreast of the curricular requirements. I think that poets in the schools can do a lot but budget constraints have seriously reduced such visits and anyway there aren’t enough successful poets out there to make all the rounds.


  4. Laughter is a good thing. Humor is known to fight illness and depression. Why then, would anyone frown upon it?

    It’s unfortunate that some people in the literary world/academia frown upon children’s books and light, whimsical poetry (and chick lit for that matter). All writing is important. It’s an art form if done well. Children love rhymes. It’s easier for them to remember. They love chiming in to say the last word before the reader finishes. And, of course, kids love to laugh. Don’t we all?

    Finally, if children’s work, poetry, and yes, even chick lit reaches the intended audience, makes them read, think and feel emotions, then it’s all important in my humble opinion.

    • Beth,

      I think you express the feeling of a good many writers who are more focused on doing what it takes to reach young readers in meaningful ways than in instructing them or becoming overly involved in the dialogs of adult literary circles. At times there’s a real disconnect between those who write for adults only and those who write for children only. Throw in the academia folks and there can be a third force to reckon with.

      Thanks for speaking your mind on this issue.


  5. I agree with everything that Marilyn
    and Beth said. And Ken too.
    I’m not sure most people frown
    on humorous poetry — some in the
    literary world might, but for the most
    part I think most people just don’t like
    BAD funny/humorous poetry.
    For instance I love to laugh, but don’t laugh
    at a pie being thrown in a face. Yawn.
    So too think children should and can find
    belly-holding funny poetry that is GOOD
    and makes sense. But the tired burps
    and gas and nose picking, for the most
    part …. yawn.


    • Having a sense of humor is about the only way to get through some days. If you’re like me, you save the funnies for last when reading the paper, check the cartoons first time through the latest New Yorker, and pass along jokes and humorous quips to friends and colleagues. Children are no less in need of humor in their lives and they find it in all sorts of places. A good poem well written can supply a bit of humor without becoming slapstick or just plain corny.


  6. Hi, David. Hi, All.

    Comedy is looked down upon in many areas, not just in poetry for children. Plays. Books. Art, in general. A “serious” piece will often be considered more “weighty” and therefore more worthy than its comical counterpart. My theory is that anything that smacks of “fun” is undervalued in our society. Why are the arts the first to go when schools have to cut back their curricula — even though it’s been proven again and again that those very same art programs keep kids in school and keep them engaged and learning? The arts just don’t look like “work.” Those of us who make art know that, yes, it’s great fun, but it also involves a considerable amount of work. People who know children know that play IS their work. All kinds of play. It’s nature’s plan. The fun of it keeps them at it, and they take from it very serious skills and understandings. But back to poetry: While reading the comments here, it occurred to me that children, teenagers in particular, are given to writing very serious poetry about their own life experiences. Perhaps they have an innate understanding of, an instinct for, the way poetry can capture and examine intense moments, feelings, and ideas? Perhaps that, too, is part of nature’s plan? Seems to me that gives teachers a strong foundation on which to build a love of all kinds of poetry.

    • Nice to hear from you, too, Sandy. I’ll check out that site. You can view my blog at http://www.banterwithbeth.blogspot.com

      Two of my six-word memoirs were just published alongside celebrity authors such as the late Frank McCourt and Amy Tan in Smith’s newest book, IT ALL CHANGED IN AN INSTANT. They receive over 200,000 memoirs worldwide so I’m very pleased to have been selected. Just received my copy yesterday so I’m over the moon.

      I’m writing novels now (finished one this summer and am in editing mode which I loathe). Also wrote two children’s picture books but have not yet tried to publish them. Such fun.

      • Way to go, Beth. Congratulatios on your inclusion in IT ALL CHANGED IN AN INSTANT. You are in some pretty good company!


  7. Great topic David.

    First of all I have to say that I agree with Yousei,
    I think Dr. Seuss is a GREAT poet!
    I was very disheartened to meet with a young editor recently who told me, “If Dr. Seuss was around today he wouldn’t get published.” That really got me especially since the story (notice I say story, but I have been toying with the idea that most of my children’s “stories” are actually poems—wonder where I could be getting the idea that I might be a poet?!) that she was critiquing was a very silly, rhyming ditty of mine entitled “The Alligator Waiter” which was definitely influenced by Dr. Seuss, as was my story/poem “The Crankamacalit”.

    I loved Dr. Seuss as a child. Now I have the chance to share the Dr. Seuss books with my son, and it’s a joy.

    That said, It’s really hard to make me laugh out loud. I think laugh out loud books, movies, comedy, etc. takes very unusual talent and may be the hardest art form to master.

    I’m tempted to post “The Alligator Waiter” here for fun, but it’s a long gator tale . . .

    Best to all,

    • Thanks, Mimi,

      I agree that being funny isn’t easy. Many of our greatest comics are working through serious issues of their own. Clowns can be very sad people and comedy is often at the expense of something or someone else, a tricky path to tred.

      Some of the best humor, a la British farce, begins with an innocent situation but builds tempo and complexity until we finally give in and laugh out loud at just about anything that happens next.

      Anyone who has never attempted to be funny in a couplet or four lines of iambic trimeter, has a lesson in store.


  8. Hi All
    Carolyn Leaf,Ph. D. has a Book:THE TRUE YOU, It gets into the area of how children learn. When a child is coming out with silly, funny words they make up, going on and on, making up sounds and voices–trying out different things-having fun-they get told to sit down and be quiet, because someone is busy and the childs chatter is anoying them. This whithers a brain stem and makes it look like a dead branch on a tree. For some that use this as their way of learning/the learning path is closed off and they can not understand what you are trying to teach them.
    Dr. Seuss allowed them to add their own ideas and variations. His stories always grew into more than what was enclosed in the books.
    Poetry gives a child, or adult a chance to explore what they like and do not like and put out what they think of as ideas they might not say to someone but writing it in a poem can let out the
    words they will not release any other way. Every age needs fun and laughter. It brightens our days.

  9. I hesitate to enter the ring on the subject of “humorous” verse for the word calls attention to itself like a demented cousin shouting in church. Stephen Fry has recently written that
    “surely there is no word in the language that causes the heart to sink like a stone so much as ‘humorous.’” What he means is that most verse that insists on calling itself such is
    a) distinctly lacking in wit, b) raucously ribald, or c) incapable of arousing even the hint of a smile. Funny poetry for children, which I have attempted to write on occasion, is not poetry. It is verse. There’s nothing wrong with writing verse, of course, some of which can be quite affecting for children and adults alike (for the latter, it’s referred to as “light verse”). But one must be
    aware, in my opinion, that doing so is akin to playing ball in the minor leagues, unless the lines have come from the pens of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc, W.S. Gilbert, the
    Carryls (Charles and Guy), some of Silverstein and Prelutsky, much of X.J. Kennedy—forgive me, I’m omitting some other fine toilers in the field. Otherwise, such “giggle poetry” is likely to have the half-shelf-life of sour cream.

    • Another strong voice heard from. Thanks, Pat, for reminding us that humor poorly done may fall somewhere short of the mark of poetry. That’s true of any other effort, too, of course. Be it verse or free verse (a distinction I make rather than poetry vs verse) I salute any and every attempt that makes it over the high bar of poetry in general.

      You are modest in referring to your own occasional forays into light verse. You do it splendidly and I’ve enjoyed your work in Light, A Quarterly of Light Verse.


  10. I love this discussion! I thought I’d throw one more thing into the stew. My memory stinks. I can’t even remember most of my own poems. However! I do remember most of “If” by Rudyard Kipling, which I had to memorize in 8th grade English; “Give Me Women, Wine, and Snuff” by John Keats (not sure if that’s the title), which I chose to memorize (not sure why); and bits of various Shakespeare plays and the intro to the Cantebury Tales, which I had to memorize for senior English. So why did I bring that up? Why did I . . . Oh! Because that is one way (to address Marilyn’s query) we can encourage kids (of all ages) to absorb the wonder that is poetry. My kids, now 16 and 13, have had to memorize exactly nothing in their school careers. HUGE LOSS. (ok. I’m done now.)

    • Hi,
      I’m new to this discussion. I recently had my children’s poetry book published (http://www.eloquentbooks.com/MoonbeamDreams.html) and I’m working on another poetry book which is basically a compilation of funny and unusual stories from my life. (I’ve had some WEIRD experiences!) Anyway, when I read these to my husband, in an effort to get his opinion or praise or critique, or help, he invariably shuts me down, saying, “I’m just not “into” poetry”. He told me the other day, “WHY does it have to be in poetry format, why not just write your stories AS ordinary stories?” And he had me doubting the validity of my current project. So thank you Yousei and everyone else!! You’ve renewed my faith in my path with my current project. It’s IS more difficult to portray the scene with just a few words and even better when you get it right!! (I’ve been told by many people that my stories resemble Shel Silverstein stories..)

      • Thanks Yousei!
        Yeah, my husband’s a computer “guru”, engineer type, (as was my Dad!) and my hubby is emotionally handicapped as well, as was my Dad. BUT my Dad, (an aeronautical engineer for 40 years), was my biggest supporter and listened intently when I read poems to him and helped me with the “mechanics”, etc.
        I miss my Dad.
        I was thinking that poetry can be too “emotional”, thus making my hubby uncomfortable… and i THOUGHT that he was coming around……but I was wrong….oh well.
        David, I’m looking forward to your new poem. Does it show up on this thread?

      • Hi Gina, and welcome,

        Sometime I’d like to know how you got from Texas to Australia. It must be a good story.

        Don’t listen to anyone’s advice who isn’t “into” poetry. I started out as a scientist and it didn’t take me long to learn that people with no interest in science had a habit of making me feel as though what I was doing wasn’t very important. All work is important and has dignity. Congratulations on your first book of poetry. I hope it’s the first of dozens more!


    • Yousei,

      Thanks for bringing up the idea of memory work. I’d like to get other opinions on the pros and cons of that. I started memorizing fairly lengthy works before I started school and continued to memorize — poetry, book text, music, etc. — all the way through college.

      Have we discontinued asking kids to memorize? If so, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Teachers? Professors? Anyone?


  11. I love good poetry that makes me cry, laugh and wonder about the world. On a past blog of mine I posted about two children’s book of poetry that I brought home from the library. I loved them- some more than others. The Baxter County Library each year has a program, “The Poetry Thing,” where all age poets sign up for the “Oral Poetry Contest.” There are over 100 readers. Steve, who is the organizer present a program to the local schools to encourge children to read poetry and have a contest for the winners to perform at “The Poetry Thing.
    We didn’t have one in 09, for we have out grown our library. We hope to have one our new library this fall.
    Reading poetry is a good thing. Poetry 180, a poem a day for American high schools: How to Read a Poem out loud by Billy Collins at http://www.loe.gov/poetry/180/p180-howtoread.html

    • I liked Collins’s idea a lot. Knopf sends out a poem each day during national poetry month in April. I’m for anything that helps form a reading habit, of poetry or anything else.

      Thanks, Mary Nida.


  12. Thanks everyone and keep your comments coming. I expected a good discussion today and am delighted with what has developed so far.

    Clearly there are few absolute answers but everyone has an opinion and we all need to remember that important fact. By expressing our opinions and exchanging views, we take away from discussions like this a bit more insight into what is, at its simplest, a complex issue.


  13. Most everyone has spoken up, but, I think Sandy’s comments resonate the most with me.

    “People who know children know that play IS their work. All kinds of play.”

    And people who don’t know children think everything has to have educational value (i.e. put forth by an adult with “knowledge”).

    I don’t want to get off on a tangent, but…I have observed that, in this day and age, people still think that children have to be “instructed.” It’s a real pity. I wonder how many kids, who are shuffled from one adult-run activity to another, will ever have any good times to look back upon? Think back to your youth–don’t you love your memories of the activities you and your friends took part in. They may have been silly, they may have even been dangerous, but somehow they were memorable. And hopefully, you learned something on your own that no amount of adult instruction would have instilled in you.

    As far as poetry is concerned, give the kids a little bit of everything–the good, the bad, the indifferent–the serious, the absurd. Let them learn to be discriminating readers. They have more intelligence than we often give them credit for. A good lesson is often no lesson at all.

    • Hi Diane,

      Fear not, a good rant now and then is good for the soul. I agree that we often get carried away with the urge to make every reading experience for kids a teachable moment even though many of our personal best childhood memories are of those times when we were free to learn on our own and in our own ways.

      I preach much the same advice in my chapter, “Yes, Poetry Can!” in a recent IRA book. Part of the fun of being a kid (and if we can’t have fun as a kid, when will we ever?) is in dreaming and acting out our dreams. Books, of course, are a primary source for those dreams and each new generation deserves and needs a fresh supply of dream material.


  14. Rebecca had a very good point about the in between type of poetry. Not side splitting laughter or deep introspection but the kind that might bring a smile and get the reader to look at the world in a new and different way. Perhaps that’s the key in introducing poetry to children? Or perhaps introduce the really fun, humorous poetry early on and the positive feelings and experiences that go with it may pave the way for appreciating both ends of the spectrum later. Also some very interesting (and informative) comments from Pat. I think the distinction between humorous poetry and children’s verse would be that humorous poetry has a more natural connection to the actual humor and children’s verse is often bad and written with the humor or attempted humor as the driving force because I can think of some poetry by Douglas Florian as well as Pat that use humor to address the topic but I would not call those children’s verse as Pat defines it but rather poetry with humor or just good stuff.

    • Ken,

      Thanks for helping us consider how approaches might differ in some examples of humorous poetry for adults and attempts at humor in some children’s poems. Maybe bottom line is that we have to make sure that we understand our young readers and write with respect for them.

  15. I think that one of the reasons people get turned off to poetry has to do with over-analysis, which relates to Diane’s point about the constant need for adults to instruct kids. However, I don’t agree that we as kids automatically become discerning just by virtue of hearing “the good, the bad, the indifferent.” I think that the trick is to present good stuff without over-analyzing it.

    Having said that, I also believe that’s it’s fun to figure out the puzzles that poems often are. Skilled adults can lead discussions about poems that are not just exercises in pedagogy. One thing that helps is if those adults truly love the poems they are presenting, if they radiate enthusiasm and not pedantry.

    • Absolutely. One teacher I know likes to clip poems from her paper to discuss with her elementary students. She says she is frequently surprised at how well her kids get the basic intent of adult poetry and make logical comments about them. This, in turn, gives her students more confidence in writing their own poetry and deciding what poetry they like and dislike.

      Several of us have commented in the past about a Billy Collins poem in which he laments how too many people beat a poem half to death trying to force it to confess its meaning instead of holding the poem to the light to enjoy its colors. (Something like that.)

  16. “Disreputable demimonde”…That’s some serious name calling – and with a poetic ring to it! The more I think about it the more I want to laugh. Should I paint my writing room red? Thank you, Mr. Gioia, for giving me something to chuckle about the next time I’m staring at my walls searching for a word. I will not forget this. And so I begin my response to the humorous/serious poetry debate.
    I have never met a humorous person who I didn’t know to be very serious at his core. I find the work of many humorous children’s poets to be very serious too. The funny ones, be they friends or comedians, essay writers or poets know about the stuff of life that gives us pause. Listen closely and you will hear echoes of death and pain and suffering. You will be told about the double binds, the contradictions, the prejudice, intolerance, and all the ugly rest, but in a way that sides with hope – in spite of all that is. “Disreputable”? Never!
    I will agree that not all children’s poetry exists in the place where the sidewalk ends and I suppose this could be upsetting to Mr. Gioia. There is a lot of “silly” on the library shelves and a lack of language that sings great songs for the ages. If pressed, I would refer to such texts as “verse” instead of “poetry”, but I would not consider them to be ethically questionable. They are, like playgrounds, a little messy, in places dangerous, but overall a lot of fun. They are also places where a lot of learning can happen. Not the “universal truth” kind of learning, but I count learning to read and developing one’s imagination and sense of self as “universally wonderful and something of a miracle”. That’s not a bad runner-up.
    It is true that in children’s literature, humorous poetry and silly verse outnumber poetic works of linguistic beauty and whose messages resonate in the very depths of the human soul. This is in part because such artistic masterpieces are rare in any literature. It is also because our culture, overall, doesn’t yearn for the company of such words as some other cultures may. We aren’t the most poetic of folks. A Thai friend of mine said this best the day she raised her voice in total exasperation and said to me, “You are so American! Life is NOT a superhighway. It goes it twists and turns!” We travel quickly and poetry calls us to slow down. Can such a reality be changed? Not in my lifetime. But such a reality can be addressed by a poet in the classroom. Children know love when they see it and they respond to it. My fourth grade teacher said she loved the Alps. On that day I decided I would go there. It took twelve years and a year’s worth of saving from my first real job, but I saw them. That first glimpse made me cry. What if my fourth grade teacher had told me of her love for poetry? I would have read and written far more poems. Some might have made me cry. But life goes in twists and turns….

    • Dear Liz,

      What a thoughtful contribution. You touch on many good points. I just read this a second time and appreciated your remarks again.

      Dana Gioia, well known and respected poet, critic, and essayist, made his bones with an essay called “Can Poetry Matter?” in which he takes academia to task for teaching a kind of poetry that doesn’t get read by general audiences and has resulted in a loss of interest in poetry by the masses. Gioia, former chairman of National Endowment for the Arts, posits that numbers can be misleading and while there is a growing number of poetry readings in America, the vast majority of them take place on college campuses and most poetry today (for adults) is written by students to please their professors. You can guess the flap Dana caused with his essay. In that same book he also sniffs at poetry for children with a token nod to a handful of writers (Updike, Kennedy) who occasionally “turn their genius” to poetry for children.

      If we hold ourselves to the standards for poetry set by Mr. Gioia and echoed by Pat Lewis, they certainly apply to humorous poetry as well as any other but humor can be difficult to assess. What seems brilliant to one adult reader my seem inconsequential to another. Discussions like this underscore the areas where poets agree, disagree, and agree to disagree.

      • Hi. I thought you quoted Gioia just to hit a nerve and to get us going, but since your response to my comments included so many “Gioia titles” I googled the essay and read it. I am in awe of the man’s intellect and I respect what I can only sense to be his commitment to and understanding of poetry. He sees things I will never see and lives in a world I will never know. There are conductors of great orchestras and there are people who can’t read music but who still like to sing. Music lives the hearts of both groups. To sing off-key with joy is still to sing, I think. It’s a matter of loving the moment more than the sound. Perhaps children’s poetry is like this…(Is that at mixed metaphor!?)

      • Liz,

        I’m glad you went to the trouble of reading Gioia’s essay. His wit and wisdom do inspire respect, even if one might find himself on the other side of an issue from him. It seems to me that poets for any audience need to be aware of these intellectual discourses, debates, and occasional hostilities that are always at play among those who would teach or at least attempt to understand poetry and engage each new generation of writers.


      • Something to think about in regard to this issue: I went to my local library to find a collection of poetry published in a certain year–let’s just say several years ago. There was a decent collection, but the majority of it was children’s poetry (nothing wrong with that, just not what I was looking for). There were less than 10 volumes of contemporary adult poetry. I went online to request a loan from another branch. Our library systems are not stocking contemporary adult poetry, and they included very little modern at that. Hmmmm.

  17. Great conversation so far, and so many good points! I have to say I don’t think there’s any “best” kind of poetry. There are just all kinds of poetry done in varying degrees of quality. I think there’s just as much room in a child for serious poetry as there is for funny or in-between or gross or sad poetry. Room on a publisher’s list is a different story! But I don’t think any kind of poetry is intrinsically better than another kind.

    I think funny poetry (or light verse, or whatever you want to call it) is very accessible to both kids and teachers. There’s less feeling of “Am I getting this right?” so there’s less stress, no risk of confusion. So it sells better and publishers publish more of it. Makes perfect business sense, even though I don’t think it’s the best setup for kids.

    I will admit that in my school visits, I share my funny/rhyming poems mostly. They go over better in big crowds, and the rhythm makes them great for group- and partner-reading. It’s easier to get into more serious poems in much smaller groups–something many teachers don’t have the luxury of.

    • I agree, Laura,

      When you are standing before a large group of youngsters in various grades, the most universal language seems to be humor, or at least it appears that way. When you read something more thoughtful to 200 3rd and 4th graders sitting on the floor, their faces may not change much and it’s hard to tell if they didn’t get it or just didn’t like it. Many teachers will say later that their students appreciate serious/thoughtful poems but it may take them more time to absorb them and decide how they feel about them.

      We all seem to be agreeing on the need for beautiful writing, no matter what the genre.


  18. I’m really not amazed that humorous poetry is so popular in the schools. So much of the educational day is big time serious. Humorous poetry provides an acceptable outlet for kids who are high energy and a little offbeat. I love Douglas Florian but so far my son leaves his books on my desk while David’s disappear into his room.


    • Sue, your son has great taste. Please tell him I said so!

      You make a telling point about the need for something to laugh at now and then. If you read something humorous to a bunch of kindergarten kids, once they start laughing they don’t want to stop. Their laughter gets louder with each new stanza. They WANT to laugh and no one wants to be left out. At some point older kids learn to control that urge but the need itself, I think, remains. There may not be a similar universall need to remark on the quietude of a garden.

  19. Hi again,

    I don’t think we’ve finished with this subject. Tomorrow my poem of the week goes up but I’d like to see the comments keep coming in on this blog. A lot of people won’t even know about today’s conversation until the first of the week so don’t hesitate to post your comments after tonight!

    Thanks for a rousing good time today.


  20. Interesting dialogue here! I am a fan of humorous poetry and verse and share it often with kids in schools and libraries. As Laura says, it’s a good way to go with big groups, or new groups, or performing poetry with kids. It can be a great way to break the ice and even reduce stress and anxiety. Plus, humor can come in all kinds of forms– subject matter, word play, puns, etc. And kids get that.

    But we should never underestimate kids either. They like serious poetry, too, especially if shared with openness and sensitivity. I’m glad to say there’s room for all kinds of poetry for kids, thank goodness! Poets should write from the heart, the gut, and not worry about any formula for “what kids like.” That’s the BEST poetry!

    • Thank you, Sylvia,

      It seems to me that humor is often spontaneous (you either “get it” or you don’t) and is therefore more accessible to young people (and adults) than more thoughtful poems, which may, in some cases, need a bit of explaining. That’s where mom or dad or big brother or teacher comes in. As you and several others have pointed out, an adult reading and sharing with passion can make all the difference in the world to the level of understanding and appreciation young readers will develop for poetry of every kind.

  21. These responses have made me stop and reconsider how I go about using poetry with my students.
    Humor appeals to all grade levels and most poetry books checked out in my library are those with more humor than serious. My teachers check out the serious poetry books to use in the classroom but their students come looking for something more fun.

    • Hi Mikie,

      It’s good to hear from you. As a school librarian you have a point of view that needs to be shared as we consider ways and means to the poetic souls of young people. Maybe it’s like the old bait and switch method of selling products. We catch them with a little humor to get their interest up in poetry, then expose them to the broader spectrum of poetic expression.

  22. I’m a big fan of funny, clever, and even silly poetry, but I love it more when it has that extra oomph – a twist, a fresh point of view, wordplay or something other than the typical pie-in-the-face. I agree with so many of the points made above, including Pat Lewis’ thoughts about hte word “humorous” being problematic. But I do find myself in tiny disagreement (for once!) with Pat, though only over terminology – verse (light or otherwise) IS poetry. Sure, there’s bad verse, weak verse, and pointless verse just like those adjectives can describe samples of of every other ilk of poetry. But I think separating verse out and saying it isn’t poetry merely points out that there is no way to come to agreement on exactly what poetry is.

    I agree, too, with Sylvia that we shouldn’t underestimate kids. In my volunteer librarian hat I read aloud a range of poetry and in every class, different poems resonate with different kids. I think so often a child’s view of poetry in general has to do with the way it’s presented… the enthusiasm (or not), the context, the forced analysis (or not). But I’ll also say that when I find a good poem that makes kids laugh, it gets the most overall enthusiasm, whatever reason we choose to give… and whether or not it’s the disregarded, diminished step-child of the field or not.

    • Greg, good points all. Making people laugh must be a huge rush for a professional comedian. Professional writers, be they poets or otherwise, share some of that satisfaction when their readers respond they way they are meant to. And, to some extent, anyone who reads to an audience experiences a feeling of success and pleasure when an audience laughs at the right things and in the right places.

      So it’s little wonder (to me) that people read aloud what gets the best observable reactions from their audience, which often involves humor. What after dinner speaker hasn’t started with a joke or two?

      But not everyone can tell a joke and not everyone can write or read a humorous poem. I used to wince when Jack Prelutsky would bring out his ukulele (or was it a guitar?) and sing-song voice to wow young audiences with his poems. Was he being silly? Sure. Was he “selling” his wares? Absolutely. Did it make a difference? You betcha’. Millions of Prelutsky fans will tell you that his poems make them smile or laugh out loud. I suspect that many of those fans read all sorts of other poetry too but it sometimes takes a passionate leader to get it all started.

  23. Hi everyone,

    Last Thursday I received the layout for a new book with a plea from my editor to review and make changes by today. Never mind what I muttered at the time, but that’s why I’ve been so silent and must remain silent until I get this layout off my desk and back onto his.

    It won’t take much longer and then I look forward to getting back on task with a good many belated thank-you notes and comments of my own.

    In the meantime, don’t stop with your own comments and questions. I love them and am grateful for your thoughtful and thought provoking contributions.


  24. When I was still teaching as an artist-in-residence, I was often asked to teach poetry as many teachers seem more afraid of poetry units than their students do. I don’t think any young children are averse to poetry, humorous or otherwise. I do think it’s important, however, to teach more than just humorous verse to elementary schoolchildren, or by the time they reach high school, they still believe that poetry HAS TO BE rhyme-and-meter.

    Novels-in-verse have helped teen readers understand that poetry comes in many forms, including narrative verse, which they truly love. It is accessible, and they find that story doesn’t get lost within an overabundance of verbiage. My own verse novels, while containing much dark humor which often goes unrecognized) explore difficult subject matter, and the white space, carefully chosen words, and even the unusual formatting, allow readers allow the reader room to breathe, visual interest and the draw of beautiful language.

    That said, not every writer should attempt verse novels or rhyme-and-meter picture books without truly understanding poetry. What it is. What it can accomplish. And what it can’t do.

    • Thanks for yet another excellent reminder, Ellen. Not every writer should attempt verse novels or rhyme-and-meter picture books or anything else without a basic understanding of poetry. Poets should practice writing poetry in the same sense that lawyers practice law and doctors practice medicine. No one can practice anything until they go to school on their subject, attain a working relationship with the tools of their trade, and hold themselves to a high standard every time.

      Many aspiring writers for children fall into the same mind-set as Dana Gioia by convincing themselves that writing for children is easier than other fields and can be accomplished with a minimum of skill, forethought, and endurance. Some of the resulting manuscripts demonstrate authors’ lack of understanding of their responsibilities to the craft.

  25. Remember I warned you that I was slow. I just remembered (How many days after we started this subject?) some of my favorite poems as a child came from a Mother Goose book of nursery rhymes. I remember the rhyming and some of the characters and the crazy things the seemed to do–jumping over candlesticks, kissing girls (yuck), living in a shoe, and so on. I didn’t understand many of them, but the beautiful pictures and the way my mother read them to me made me laugh and sparked my imagination.

    Years later I read the same poems to my boys (from the same beat up book). As an adult, I knew there were much darker stories connected to those poems. For me, that knowledge added to their richness. I still loved the poems. I read and shared them with my children without any unsolicited explanations, letting them create their own understandings. To me what the listener/reader brings to a writing and what the writing itself offers blends together to create something totally unique from any other experience. That is what makes reading so special. That is what makes poetry even more special, because with fewer words in the writing, we as readers bring more of ourselves to the creation.

    Those nursery rhymes are my earliest memories of reading, and those earliest memories are of poetry. I am very glad they are.

  26. Sorry to be so late to the party.

    I first read the Gioia piece as an article in (I think) The Atlantic. It annoyed me then (I wrote a whole speech on poetry about it in response) and it still annoys me. Yes,he’s brilliant. And brilliantly wrong.

    “Disreputable demimonde” indeed. And can’t you see it. The darkened street lit by one flickering light. A woman in a tight skirt and jersey, beret on her head, “Lili Marlene” whispering softly in the background, accosting a man who is walking along. She calls out to him in a deep, tremulous, whiskey-laden voice, “Hi, sailor, want to hear a children’s poem?”

    Pfiffle. As poets like David McCord and Mary Ann Hoberman and Doug Florian and S. N. Bodecker among others have shown us, one can write humor with deadly serious intent. And you, too, my darling Pat Lewis.


    • Jane Yolen,
      What a great visual on that seductive creature! I suspect she is a poetry spy, whose cover is peddling nursery rhymes, rhymes coded with the secrets of the universe. On a more embarrassing silly-fan type note, I adore your writing and am thrilled you’re a part of this discussion. Ok, I’m done gushing. 😉

    • Good morning, Jane,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. I doubt that Mr. Gioia knows we’re tossing his name around but his position (granted, nearly twenty years since stated) on children’s poetry has certainly added juice to the chat.

      Your wicked personification of the genre leaves me eager to hear more good poetry for children and reminds us that there are indeed poets among us who write brilliantly and humorously for young readers.


  27. Pingback: April Halprin Wayland today « Children's Author David L. Harrison's Blog

  28. Pingback: April Halprin Wayland today « Children's Author David L. Harrison's Blog

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