MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Thu 03-Oct-13 14:55:06

"Poetry helps children make sense of their world" - do you agree?

From next year, all primary school children will be learning poetry by heart. To mark National Poetry Day, Allie Esiri - who recently launched The Love Book, an app which aims to introduce teens to love poems - explains why she thinks they need poetry in their lives.

Allie Esiri

Author, The Love Book app

Posted on: Thu 03-Oct-13 14:55:06


Lead photo

The Love Book app: "poetry helps to crystallise emotion"

Poetry has fallen out of favour. Children tend to come across it almost entirely through the dreaded comprehension homework - and I think too that some booksellers, teachers and librarians can be a little bit scared of it. But like superhero movies, it is coming back. Michael Gove (love him or hate him) is introducing more poetry into the curriculum.

I’d like to convince you that our children will gain from this. From next September all children in primary school will learn poems by heart. Having a store of poems, children will grow up with a little juke-box of wondrous words inside their head, which will be there to console them as they lurch into adolescence and all the strong emotions that the state can bring.

Tom Hiddleston, who reads on The Love Book app, puts it thus: “I think poetry as a form is about the that simplest literature can get… all of the trimmings have been stripped away, and really great poets have got to the heart of the matter by using very, very few, brilliant words, to make you feel something, which, for most people, is inexpressible. So the size of their love, the loudness of it, the intensity of it; most people feel it coursing through their body - but only a very few people have been able to set it down in verbal form, that somehow gets close to what it feels like.”

The idea for The Love Book app grew out of the slightly surprising success of the first app I co-created, iF Poems. iF Poems’ aim was to introduce children to the joys of poetry through an interactive app, with poems read by actors they might like, such as Helena Bonham Carter, whom they knew as Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter, or as the mad toddler-tantrum-throwing Red Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice; or Tom Hiddleston, who plays the scene-stealing anti-hero Loki in the The Avengers films.

The line ‘blood burnt around my heart' takes me right back to the confusion of my sixteen-year-old, overwhelmed self, which was reassured by the poet's genius with words - and by the universality of what I was feeling.

I decided this new app would be specifically about love - an app for adolescents, and adults too. There is a poem on it by John Clare called ‘First Love’ which beautifully expresses the feeling of falling in love for the first time. The line ‘blood burnt around my heart’ takes me right back to the confusion of my sixteen-year-old, overwhelmed self, which was reassured by the poet’s genius with words - and by the universality of what I was feeling. There is, I think, something about poetry which helps to crystallise emotion, and I found this terribly comforting as a teenager – it helped me to make sense of the flood of feelings I felt - perhaps, even, to contain them. I wanted today’s teens to have this option too.

Perhaps they might also draw from their stock of words a sticking plaster - another section of The Love Book app deals with when love is thwarted, or when it’s over. I imagine the user of the app stealing a line to help with these desperate moments – perhaps the two-line poem by George MacDonald, which says simply, “Come home.”

So far, things are going well. The YouTube video we posted of Tom Hiddleston reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?) has had 35,000 hits in a week, and seems to be reaching people who had previously written off Shakespeare as ‘that dull class at school’.

National Poetry Day’s director, Susannah Herbert says “It’s like having a little Cyrano de Bergerac on permanent standby in the palm of your hand.”

Try it! From John Fuller’s ‘Valentine’: “I’d like to find you in the shower/And chase the soap for half an hour” or “I’d like to find a good excuse/To call on you and find you in./I’d like to put my hand beneath your chin,/And see you grin.”

Think the anti-superhero Loki could even win over Bellatrix with that line.

Do you read poetry - either to your children, or by yourself? Is it a good thing for children to learn poetry 'by heart'? Tell us what you think on the thread.

By Allie Esiri

Twitter: AllieEsiri

PoopMaster Thu 03-Oct-13 17:00:21

I don't read poetry on a regular basis but did learn poems by heart as a child. While I think it's good for general knowledge/culture and for improving your memory, I think having to memorise a poem also forces you to consider it in its entirety. Some poetry really does help you to understand other people's particular situations/emotions better (for example the poets from WW1), or it can help you get in touch with your own emotions.

Reading to DDs at the moment we tend to favour books which have rhyme/rhythm (and DD aged 2 is practically reciting her favourites already), so I'm hoping to turn them into poetry enthusiasts in time! FWIW I don't think I "got" poetry until I was 17 and had a brilliant English teacher, so for me that is an important route to really appreciating it.

JassyRadlett Thu 03-Oct-13 18:51:28

I think poetry - studying for understanding, learning by heart and reading for enjoyment - is such an important, and neglected, part of literature.

My grandfather, who grew up abroad with only his parents and his brother for company for weeks on end, knew so many poems by heart and, at 90, could still bring so many to mind. They brought him - and us - such joy. Asa result I grew up in a family that read poems to each other, recited them on car journeys, searched through poetry books to find the next forgotten line.

As well as love and war, which have been mentioned, poetry can be so helpful in understanding and dealing with grief. Rossetti's 'Remember' has floated back to me at many points during my life.

My son is small, just two, and his favourite books are essentially illustrated poems - he adores the metre and rhyme. I think this is the age to capture and build on their natural affinity for poetry, and there's so much great stuff out there for kids.

And yes, I think learning by heart is good. Kids should be exposed to and taught different methods of retaining information from a young age, and poetry is a great way to do it.

Snog Thu 03-Oct-13 20:34:21

think this is total tosh tbh
Poetry helps children understand their world? really?
As for learning by heart, I was completely unable to do this eg could never remember the Lords Prayer even though I said it at school every day for years.
Poetry is a minority interest and poor seller for a reason

LovesBeingOnHoliday Thu 03-Oct-13 20:51:15

Forcing anyone to repeat something by heart will not make them love it, just tge opposite

morethanpotatoprints Thu 03-Oct-13 22:05:08

Reading and learning poetry along with rote learning really helped me as a child.
I used to make rhythms for times tables and learning a poem helped my concontration and practising memory.
I am severley dyslexic and nothing else worked for me and my poor short term memory.
So maybe this is a good thing.
My dd is the same and also struggles as I did. She has lots of poetry book and her times tables were learned by rote.
It doesn't have to be boring and you can fit them to music, dance, mime whatever you like.

oohdaddypig Thu 03-Oct-13 22:33:12

I can still recall poems I learnt as a child. I also remember war poetry read as an early teenager having a big impact on me in terms of understanding the feelings that were experienced then, rather than just learning the facts.

I came back again to poetry in my twenties and do find it enormously comforting. Even for "normalising" huge events like death. For me, it's the understanding that a fellow human has felt just like me, and the condensing of that into sometimes only a few lines.

I was encouraged to read poetry as a child and I hope to do the same for my DCs.

I think this is a wonderful idea.


strruglingoldteach Fri 04-Oct-13 07:47:01

I think it's a fantastic idea for children to learn poetry. I've been teaching for 10 years, and I've never yet met a child who can't get excited by poetry- well-chosen poems, taught by a teacher who also loves reading. (And if you don't love literature you shouldn't be a teacher IMO- at least at primary level).

Some of my best teaching memories are of studying 'The Highwayman' with 10-11 year olds. They absolutely love it and I am certain that many of them will remember and enjoy the poem in years to come. We didn't/don't ask them to learn it by heart- but months afterwards, when we do mystery writing, I find their writing peppered with phrases like 'ribbon of moonlight','gusty trees' or 'hair like mouldy hay'. grin

On a more personal note, my own DDs are 2 and 5 and they are also fascinated by poetry. I read them hearing Robert Louis Stevenson poems the other night. Now I know that they didn't understand everything (or perhaps very much at all!) but they loved listening to it and the 5 year old asked for one poem to be repeated immediately 'because I didn't quite hear all the words the first time'. My children are in no way special- I do believe that all children enjoy and respond to poetry when given the chance.

Bonsoir Fri 04-Oct-13 08:49:04

My DD goes to school in France and has been learning a poem a week (alternately in French and English - it's a bilingual school) since the beginning of Y2 (CP, the first year of French primary school) - ie three years. She has also learned a large number of songs, mostly in English, by heart.

She finds them easy to learn. And easy to forget...

Trills Fri 04-Oct-13 10:27:11

No, not really.

Poetry's nice and all, but I don't think it helps you to make sense of the world.

Merrylegs Fri 04-Oct-13 11:26:36

I think poetry asks more questions than it answers.

Did Emmeline really go and see the Queen? Why was King John not a good man? Where did James James Morrison Morrison's mother disappear to? And what actually is the matter with Mary Jane?

It gets kids asking questions, kickstarts imagination and opens up new vocabulary. 'Counterpane', for eg became a magical word (As a child I was often sick and lay abed).

I used to fight horribly with my sister when we were younger but the end of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market would reduce me to guilty tears 'For there is no friend like a sister/In calm or stormy weather:/To cheer one on the tedious way/ To fetch one if one goes astray/To lift one if one totters down/To strengthen whilst one stands.

(If you read the whole poem you will see why that is such a blub fest).

nobutreally Fri 04-Oct-13 12:22:13

I love poetry, and my dcs do too - so many (little) children's books are poems really (the fabulous 'Pants' as an example that is lying on my floor as I type. DS was lucky enough to have a teacher who introduced them to Beowulf (in the context of Sutton Hoo) in Y4, and we read some of the Seamus Heaney translation together - he adored it, and occassionally wanders around muttering "off on the whale-road" or similar.

I'm not sure about making sense of the world, but I do think it can give them a joy in language, the playfulness you can get from words, the beauty of a well-chosen phrase.

I don't care one way or another about them actually learning poems by rote (ds can do a very good "Jolly Hunter ;-) - but I do wish there was more good poetry as part of reading schemes - my two are now 7 & 9 and despite weekly school library visits and regular school reading book swops, I think we've had 2 books of poems come home. And both were, frankly, rubbish poems. There are so many wonderful, funny, SHORT poems that beat Biff and Chip and the flipping magic key into a cocked hat.

I'll look out for IF though - not sure my two would want a love poetry app yet...

SolomanDaisy Fri 04-Oct-13 12:45:45

Of course poetry helps you to make sense of the world. But you remember the powerful or magical stuff yourself, not because people force you to. My 2 year old can recite large parts of Hairy Mclairy and likes to shout the rhymes,but that's because it's fun. He wouldn't enjoy being forced to learn anything, obviously. More exposure to poetry is good, but forced recitation is bad.

strruglingoldteach Fri 04-Oct-13 14:17:49

Ah, but SolomanDaisy there are ways of presenting the learning.

Compare: 'Ok, class, here is a poem. We will learn it by heart because the government says we should. I will test you in 2 days and I expect you to be word perfect.'


'Here is a poem. It's one of my favourites; the line xyz gets me every time and makes me shiver because. Which words do you really like?' Followed at the end of the lesson by: 'I have a range of poetry books here, I'd like you to borrow one/look on the internet/bring in one of your own that you could share with the class- be prepared to tell us your favourite line.'

(Next lesson) 'Now we've really enjoyed listening to each other's chosen poems. It would be really great if we could share them with Class B, let's make it into a performance. We could even use some musical instrument to add atmosphere. How about learning the poems by heart? That way we could make better eye contact with the audience.'

Ok, I'm going on a bit but you know what mean!

PeterParkerSays Fri 04-Oct-13 15:15:25

I think that it helps children to deal with feelings more than "their world" per se. Even stories with rhymes, such as "No matter what", can lead to discussions about unknowns - death, the dark etc.

plummyjam Fri 04-Oct-13 15:26:47

No not in the same way that musical lyrics do. Poetry with a good tune behind it is infinitely more powerful.

OddSockMonster Fri 04-Oct-13 16:18:40

I hated having to learn poetry at school. Only a small few of my class enjoyed it. And I'm fairly sure I made sense of the world by simply talking to people.

I can fully imagine it will be just the same for my son's generation.

zippey Fri 04-Oct-13 17:15:32

I think poetry is what you make of it. My child is 2 and she loves the Julia Donaldson rhyming stories as well as nursery rhymes etc.

As she gets older she will probably love other aspects of poetry.

I think poetry and story telling can really fuel imagination.

KatieScarlett2833 Fri 04-Oct-13 18:02:31

No, sorry.
Poetry is what it is. Often tedious, occasionally interesting, never a blueprint for life.

ErrolTheDragon Fri 04-Oct-13 18:26:20

Forcing children to learn poetry is a bad idea - could turn them right off. Encouraging them to read it, and learn if they want, is a great thing.

My DD enjoys poetry, and learning some - mostly comic.

I'm not sure to what extent it helps children make sense of their world - I've found that more as an adult.

weblette Fri 04-Oct-13 20:25:26

I love poetry, I hated studying at uni. I know that if I'm upset there are familiar words and images that are such a comfort.
So for my 4dcs I always wanted to make it just part of their lives, not something to be analysed to death.
They've had the 'Poem A Day' anthology read to them from v little, we play with words, they know how much a part poetry has played in life for dh and I in various times in our lives.
Poetry does have a different voice. My dcs love comedic verse, they also love the wonder of Brian Patten's Dragon, the joy of Jabberwocky, the rhythm of Auden's Night Mail.
For all of you who sniff at the idea, think about the lyrics to your favourite songs. Majority would stand just fine as 'poetry'.

OTheHugeManatee Fri 04-Oct-13 21:14:28

Rote learning poems is good, but not because poems help children make sense of the world. That's a bit simplistic. Learning poems helps children expand their horizons; the obsession with making learning 'relevant' is a euphemism for a condescending attempt to predigest the world to fit horizons narrowed by youth and/or ignorance. Instead the aim should be to expand children's sense of what the world can offer, and the unfamiliar sentiments and stories in good poetry can help do that. Rote learning them means that they stick long enough that the bits that don't make sense the first year are still around when you have the frame of reference to make sense of them.

Enb76 Sat 05-Oct-13 08:05:51

I love and I hate and if you ask me why,
I do not know, I only feel it
And I am torn in two

The above is my translation of a bit of Latin poetry (Catullus) from when I was 12 or 13. It's never left me. I think some poetry is amazing and know loads off by heart and it peppers my language. I think if children aren't enjoying poetry then it's down to the teaching not the poetry. Carol Ann Duffy has written some great children's stuff.

HalfSpamHalfBrisket Sat 05-Oct-13 12:29:55

I'm all for poetry appreciation - either by learning by heart (I do Pie Corbett's storytelling which means my YR children learn whole stories by heart so why not poetry?) or just listening to glorious poems.

But I am currently having a rolling argument with a Y1 teacher about making the children write poetry in Y1. I think that we should be helping the children to learn to write prose, lists, letters etc. but not poetry as it is usually <ehem> cliched doggerel at this stage. We can still teach the importance of choosing the right words, alliteration, assonance, mood etc when writing prose, and by discussing 'good' poetry.

Rockinhippy Sun 06-Oct-13 00:22:50

In answer to the title question - absolute tosh, of course it doesn't help kids make sense of the world, what an absolutely ridiculous statement confused

That said poetry is too often a neglected & very enjoyable art, be that reading it, or writing it, it's something that my grandmother enjoyed & she passed that love down to me my DD love to both read & write poetry too, it's something of a family tradition, but not for the reasons you suggest by far - it can be thought provoking & enjoyable to read, cathartic & enjoyable to write - that's it

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