Slam Poetry and Cultural Experience for Children

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Introduction

Poetry is entwined with the lives of children from infancy--lullabies and nursery rhymes at birth; street rhymes, incantations, and the traditional forms of poetry at school-age. Drawn to limericks, nursery and street rhymes, children have used poetry for play and language expression--roll the sounds in their mouths and jauntily spit them out. School age experiences with poetry turn to recitation and memorization of poetry. These experiences are focused on poetry as a genre, the structure of poetry, or the study of traditional Western poets where exposure to the emotional and observational experiences of others is the lesson's center. Adults distort the poet's work into a meaningless, detached bundle of words by using structured models to write poetry (haiku, rhyming schemes, acrostics, etc.) and forced memorization of "classic" poems to chant poetry, The introduction of slam performance of poetry into children's lives can salvage a relationship with poetry.

Brief History of Children's Poetry

There was no poetry written expressly for children before 1804 (Darton 1982, 182). Early verse that was considered suitable for the younger audience was just that, verse. The Puritan period provided verse to save the soul; the Georgian, to create good character (Segel 1986, 167). Didactic or moralistic, the verse provided to children's ears was not really about their world. It was not written for them, but to satisfy the ideas that adults held about what children should be interested in. Real childhood experiences were simplified or codified to represent the moral values of the time period. In the early nineteenth century, poetry and poets emerged that provided a better relationship to real childhood experiences. William Blake's Songs of Innocence was child oriented. The Misses Taylor wrote for children as did Mary and Charles Lamb. However, critical opinion does not regard these as superlative poetry for children (Darton 1982, 251); rather these poets continue the tradition of providing what they think children should experience, not what children actually experience. Darton (1982) states, "ninety per cent of all verse written for children before the last quarter of the nineteenth century was poetry-substitute, manufactured in good faith, but in a deliberate purposeful way. It was not perceived that children were their own spontaneous poets--the makers of their own world of imagination."

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continued to provide the same types of poetry to children's ears. A few collections truly reflected childhood gaiety and experience. Lewis Carroll, Laura Richards, Edward Lear, A.A. Milne and R.L. Stevenson explored childhood pleasures and fears in their poetry. The post World War II era adult attitude about childhood shifted to a child-centered concentration. Recognizing the power of the market for child-focused materials, publishers provided true children's poetry. Poets such as Shel Silverstein, David McCord, Eloise Greenfield, and Jack Prelutsky (to mention only my favorites, there are many, many more) provided anthologies that grace the shelves of libraries and are included in personal collections. As children's poets of other cultures and ethnicities (1) gained a foothold in the school library, there are now many anthologies of quality readily available. The emotions of poetry now reflect diverse group experiences. The drudgery of poetry was no more! Adults can now provide poetry to attract, engage, and embellish the life of a child.

Why Poetry?

The content of poetry is emotion--emotion expressed in strong compact language. The connection with the world is the goal of poetry and poetry can diminish borders of prejudice, isolation, stereotypes, and Robert Frost calls poetry "a performance of words" (Lukens 1986). McVeigh-Schulz & Ellis (1997, xi) calls attention to the "poem as container for feelings". Articulated with just a few well-chosen words, poetry is the story of experience. …