Robert Pinsky on Difficult Poetry

I grew up among intellectuals, admit to being one, and like to teach kids the joys of intellectual activity as well.

Now I read many sorts of things in many ways. To my mind there are many ways to read with pleasure. Roger Sutton suggests a high school course in reading (“… designed to demonstrate the breadth and methods of reading in one’s life quite apart from the pursuit of educational degrees.”) that does sound fun. Ironically, I have always known how to read for pleasure the sort of genre literature Roger is proposing be central to his course; what I never have gotten enough of is reading the difficult stuff with great teachers. In fact, what I wish I’d had in high school wasn’t a course of the sort Roger proposes, but teachers who taught the books we did read with passion. I didn’t particularly like some of the classics I read, but I bet that I would have found the experience much more interesting and rewarding if those teachers teaching those books had done something to get me to look at them in a way that was exiting and stimulating.

Which is sort of what Robert Pinsky is all about. As it is National Poetry Month and tomorrow is Poetry Friday (when I will be slogging through pouring rain with my 4th graders at Plimoth Plantation). I draw your attention to his article “In Praise of Difficult Poetry: the Much Maligned Art.” He’s discussing poetry for adults, but I think it applies to poetry for kids just as much. I mean, there is an awful lot of lightweight poetry for kids too. Fortunately there is lots of great poetry that they can dig their teeth into as well, in just the way that Pinsky suggests.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Robert Pinsky on Difficult Poetry

  1. Thanks for the tip on that article, Monica; I’m going to go read it. I wouldn’t give anything for my college Southern Lit professor’s leading us through The Sound and the Fury. We couldn’t wait to get to class every day.

    Have fun at the Plimoth Plantation. I was there years ago.

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  2. Monica–do you think there is “hard” poetry for kids? Contemporary, I guess I would qualify. There’s Marilyn Nelson’s Carver, I know, but I wonder if we have the complex poetry running alongside Prelutsky, for example the way we offer kids both immediate fare along with more difficult fiction.

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  3. In the “hard” poetry for kids catagory, one could have Ted Hughes…I myself am becoming increasingly crankier about the banality of many (but not all!) recent poetry collections writen for chldren. Just because they are for children shouldn’t mean that rhyme trumps sense, which seems to happen a lot.

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  4. This pulls me in a number of directions. On the one hand, yes, there is a lot of lightweight poetry out there for kids, and some of it truly offensive to the name poetry. But I will give a pass to clever, humorous poetry because I’d rather see kids read that than no poetry at all.

    Which brings me to the other hand, which is that most adults grow out of poetry themselves and find tough (or even just serious) poems intimidating. Teachers may find the more challenging poems difficult to present as a result and that lack of exposure to the students keeps them from delving further into poetry. Without adults guiding them kids are on their own in the poetry department and so will fall into what comforts them.

    I don’t know wish I’d had more of when I was a teen: lessons in poetry or philosophy.

    I, too, am looking forward to the Pinskey article. I guess my one lingering question is: where is the current Children’s Poet Laureate’s voice in bringing out poetry to children?

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  5. Some of the best “hard” poetry for kids is the stuff originally written for adults, then artfully selected and compiled into anthologies. I’m always impressed with Liz Rosenberg and Naomi Shihab Nye’s ability to find contemporary, non-celebrity poetry that is sophisticated and that can speak to a wide range of ages.

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  6. I rounded you up for Friday Poetry at awrung sponge.

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  7. When I’m talking poetry with young kids, I often start with humour — it’s a wide open window. Poetry has much been maligned for so many years, I hate to start kids off with the notion that, “yep, it’s hard and nope, I don’t like it.” I’ve got nothing against difficult poetry — or prose — but I don’t see anything the matter with developing a sophisticated palate over time. And going back to the whimsy whenever you’re so inclined.

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  8. Susan — It was wet, but we had fun! Kids were wonderful.

    Roger, good question. Absolutely Nelson. I agree with Charlotte about Hughes. Need to think about this one (and take a look at my collection of poetry for children which is at school).

    Nina, I completely agree with you about anthologies. I liked Caroline Kennedy’s A Family of Poems from a couple of years back.

    David, I have often flogged the work of Kieran Egan on child_lit. He has an interesting theory of child development in which metaphor is something kids do naturally when very young and much less so as they get older. I think one of the hardest things is that hard poetry is really really hard to teach. You’ve got to really like it yourself and a lot of teachers don’t (having not been taught themselves by a teacher who liked it….so it goes,a vicious circle).

    cloudscome, thanks!

    Liz, kids definitely appreciate humor! I would consider works by Lewis Carroll as being both funny and challenging for many kids today. Most of Shel Silverstein’s works are pretty accessible, but Runny Babbit does take a bit of work (if is not exactly what Pinsky had in mind, I don’t think). Or even Jon Scieszka’s Science Verse of a few years back which required some context to best appreciate.

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