Poetry for the (Younger) Ages

PS 89 students read their poems all at once, a cacophony of verse. Photo by Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Apr. 30, 2013

Like so many poets before them, they spoke of love and hate, war and peace and the inevitable passage of time. And despite their tender ages—5 to 8 years old—their lives were already filled with unanswerable questions.

“If I went on a journey but got lost in the woods, would you help?” Terrence Li asked in his poem, “Questions of the Living World.”

“Why do trees rustle their leaves?” Kaia Mateo wondered in “Dreams.”

“When people yell, do your ears burst?” Ava Gardner mused in “I Won­der.”

This year, it was young poets who took center stage at the Poets House annual Poem in Your Pocket Day. Throughout the day, students from three Downtown schools­—PS 89 third graders, PS 276 second graders and PS 1 fourth gra­ders—­read their work to their classmates and parents. 

Also looking on with obvious pride were their mentors, Dave Johnson, a poet and teacher, and Mike Romanos, director of the Children’s Room at Poets House. They began working with the children in February, which explains why many of the poems mention bad weather. Dur­ing three work­shops, they introduced the students to such poets as Carl Sandburg, Pablo Neruda and Lang­­ston Hughes, then asked the children to write poems inspired by the masters.

“Even though we have all these technologies,” Johnson said, “poetry is just as powerful now as it ever was. The video games, the TV, the Internet is being thrown at kids and they are receiving it, but a poem is from them. Creating it comes from the soul, the spirit, from somewhere deep inside of them. When they realize it, they gravitate towards it.”

Poets House executive director Lee Briccetti agreed. The excitement for children, she said, comes from both the discovery of “the music of language” and the realization that they too can be poets.

“Poetry is a way they can play with language, meanings, similes, rhythm, music,” Briccetti said. “After a while,  they realize that they have this creative tool that they carry inside them all the time. That’s the goal.”

For Johnson, who says he wrote his first poem at age seven or eight, some of the moments he has experienced as a teacher are at once magical and bittersweet.
“Sometimes a little kid writes something and you say, ‘I wish I had thought of that line!’”