I remember one day long ago my son came home from school and proudly recited a poem. His preschool teacher shared this poem in particular often — it was a class favorite — so often that my son committed it to memory. It was long and I remember my surprise the first time I heard him.
The poem was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “My Shadow” which begins: “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me/And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.” “My Shadow” is included in a recent edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses (HarperCollins) illustrated by Barbara McClintock.
The Stevenson poem was the first of many; poetry was shared every day in Nick’s preschool. And lots of words stuck. Poetry can do that, help words stick even if the way they are put together doesn’t make apparent sense. Sometimes it’s just the sound of the words that delight. (Think of young children listening to Mother Goose rhymes; I bet few know, much less care, what Miss Muffett’s “tuffet” is or the “curds and whey” she was eating when disturbed by a spider.)
Poetry might appeal even more — perhaps stick better — when it’s shared with a child by a caring adult. In an introduction to a new collection entitled Poems to Learn by Heart (Hyperion), Caroline Kennedy writes that a poem learned by heart “… is ours forever — and better still, we can share it with others, yet not have to give it away.” She suggests, too, that from poetry, we “gain understanding that no one can take away.”
Kennedy’s work with young people in New York City schools strengthened her conviction of the power in poetry. In fact, some of these students helped select poems included in this handsome and diverse collection ranging from contemporary to traditional with poets spanning generations and time, from Rita Dove and Gertrude Stein to Geoffrey Chaucer and Henry Longfellow.