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If your experience with poetry during your own school years was anything like my experience, you’re going to find Charlotte Mason’s approach to be a breath of fresh air. Let’s walk through how to do poet study. It’s going to be easier, and probably more enjoyable, than you might expect.
What You Will Need
Just as Charlotte encouraged us to focus on one composer or one artist at a time, she also encouraged us to focus on one poet and really get to know him or her. So you will need to select a poet and grab a collection of his or her poems.
You are going to stick with this poet for a full school year. Once a week, read a poem by your selected poet and simply enjoy how he or she used words.
That’s it. That’s the basic version of this method. Read a poem once a week. Not too hard. But think about it: over the course of a year, you and your child could hear 25, 30, or more of that person’s poems and get a good feel for his style.
And you can vary it a little from week to week if you want to. Sometimes you might give the title of the poem and then read it; other times you might read the poem first and then ask the child what she thinks the title might be or what she would title it. If you know the background to a poem, go ahead and share that story before you read. And some weeks, rather than reading a new poem, go back and revisit some of your child’s favorites so far.
The key is to make your child feel at home in the world of poetry, and specifically, in the world of that poet’s poetry. You might have your child illustrate the poem or act it out, if the poem lends itself to that.
So let’s do a poet study lesson and I’ll share a secret to reading poetry well. Let’s say our selected poet this year is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Today we’re going to be reading “The Children’s Hour.”
In this poem, Longfellow mentioned “the Bishop of Bingen in his Mouse Tower on the Rhine.” You know what the Rhine is. A river, that’s right. But we haven’t read the legend of The Mouse Tower. That is a story in which a greedy and cruel bishop is pursued by mice and tries to hide in a stone tower on a small island in the Rhine River. So keep that legend in mind when you get to that part of the poem.
Now, Longfellow had three daughters—Anne Allegra, Edith, and Alice— whom he loved to play with. Sadly, their mother died when they were 6, 8, and 11 years old. This poem was written just a few years later. Read slowly and picture the poem in your imagination as you read it.
The Children’s Hour
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.
I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.
From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall-stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.
A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.
A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!
They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse Tower on the Rhine!
Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old moustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!
I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!
You can simply leave it there, or you can invite a narration and a discussion if you would like to. We’ll talk about that in a moment. First, I want to mention that secret to reading poetry aloud. Here it is: pause at the punctuation, not at the line breaks. Read just as you would read any series of sentences in a book. Convey the meaning, not the line breaks.
The series called Enjoy the Poems is so helpful! It gives background information and explanations of things that are mentioned in the poems that might be unfamiliar, such as the Bishop of Bingen and the Mouse Tower story. I got that from here.
And I love that it has pages for illustrations in the back, as well as a suggested schedule that keeps a nice balance between reading new poems and reviewing favorites in various ways.
Level Up or Down
Now, let’s talk about how to level up or level down a poet study. You can’t really get much simpler than reading one poem each week. But you can level your poet study down by selecting shorter poems or by selecting easier poets. Be careful you don’t run to the extreme of using twaddle. It should still be good poetry that conveys uplifting and noble and beautiful ideas. Sure, a few silly poems are fun sometimes, but don’t get stuck there. Don’t underestimate what your child can comprehend.
And when you’re ready for more, you can level up by choosing more complex poets and longer poems. Yes, you could read more than one poem a week, but be careful that you give your child time to live with the ideas in each poem. It’s better to have a deep relationship with fewer poems than to be inundated with a boatload of words that go in one ear and out the other.
Another way to level up is to ask for a narration of the poem. For example, after reading “The Children’s Hour,” I could have asked you to, “Describe to me the children’s hour. What is it? What does it look like?” And we could have discussed some of our favorite word choices in that poem. For instance, I really like how Longfellow describes himself as “such an old moustache as I am”!
You can also assign poems to be memorized and recited. It’s easy to start with one per term, so the children will have 12 weeks to memorize and practice reciting one poem. You can have them all do the same poem, or assign a different poem to each child (shorter ones for younger children and longer ones for older children), or sometimes you might let each person choose a favorite to memorize.
And then, just as we do with Picture Study and Music Study, sometime during those weeks read a living biography about your selected poet and enter him into your Book of Centuries. Reading the biography gives you a relation with the person who is sharing his ideas in the poems, and entering him into your Book of Centuries helps you and your children solidify his place in history and make those important connections: “Oh! Longfellow lived at the same time as Charles Dickens and Franz Liszt!”
The Enjoy the Poems series has short, living biographies, Book of Centuries dates, and portraits of the poets too.
It’s so easy to enjoy poetry together, and that’s the key. Don’t worry about dissecting it or analyzing it to bits; enjoy it. Select one poet and read one of his poems each week. You can do that. If you’re not sure where to start, try Robert Louis Stevenson. You’ll enjoy his poems.