I think one of the most important concepts about poetry is that “like a song, poetry is meant to be heard” (Larrick, 1987, p. 20). While good prose can be read aloud or silently, poetry should almost always be read aloud. That poetry needs to be heard can be attributed to the characteristics of poetry that distinguish poetry from prose, that is, rhythm, sound patterns, figurativeness, compactness, and emotional intensity (Lukens, 1990). I’ll explore each of these in more depth, below:

An example that I use often when I first teach the attribute of rhythm to students is Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Was a Drum Ever a Dream?” [Be sure to read this aloud!]

Was a drum ever a dream?

or a drum a dream?

Can a drummer play a dream?

Or does a dreamer dream of a drum?

The drum in a dream

hits hard for the dreamer.

Now the moon tonight over Indiana

It is a fiery drum of a phantom dreamer.

Carl Sandburg in Hopkins, 1982

As I read it aloud, I tap on a desk, a book, or my lap to make the sound of a drum that accompanies what I am reading. Then I read it again, only this time, the students were beating the beat on their own laps or desks.

“Was Ever a Dream a Drum” can also be used to demonstrate how poetry uses sound patterns, that is, words as sound. However, my favorite poem is “The Man with the Jam Hat Comes” from Nancy Willard’s Newbery Award-winning book, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Seasoned Travelers. Only the first stanza (read aloud, of course) gives you an idea of ​​how Willard used sound patterns in this poem:

The man in the jam hat

arrived in the middle of March,

equipped with a bottle of starch

to straighten the curves of the road, he said.

He was carrying a bucket and a mop.

An extremely inconvenient burden, he said,

and asked for a room at the top.

The children ask to listen to that poem over and over again, so that they can play with the language of the poem. Just enjoy saying “most inconvenient load” multiple times, and you’ll be hooked too!

A third characteristic of poetry is the author’s use of words as meaning, that is, figurativeness. It’s worth it All the little poems The book is full of examples that you can use for this feature. A wonderful example is his poem entitled “Safety Pin.” [You may want to have a safety pin to look at while you read and enjoy this poem!]

Closed, sleep

On your side


La Plata


Of some

Small fish;

Open, it breaks

His tail out

Like a slim

Shrimp and looks

In the sharp

Aim with a

Surprised eye.

So much image … so few words!

… Which leads to the next thing kids should know about poetry: its compactness. I once heard Virginia Hamilton, author of young adult novels, exchange views with her husband, the poet Arnold Adoff, on which of them had to try harder. The question was whether it was more difficult to say what you want to say in 15,000 words … or in 15 words. The problem was not solved, and probably never will be, but students can learn to appreciate the care with which a poet’s words are chosen. Lukens (1990) says:

The main difference between prose and poetry is compactness. A single word in poetry says much more than a single word in prose; connotations and images hint, imply, and suggest other meanings. (p. 187).

Because poetry is so parsimonious with its words, each one carries a lot of weight. No pun intended, watch (and read aloud) part of the poem “ELEPHANT” by Barbara Juster Esbensen:

The word is too heavy

lift up …


Must have made it up

the same. This is a clumsy

gray word your ears

They are huge and flap like loose

wings a word with

wrinkled knees and toes

like boxing gloves …

A poem that I read often to elementary and high school students is from Arnold Adoff’s book Sports Pages. It illustrates the last characteristic of poetry that I will discuss here: emotional intensity. A poem in this book tells of a boy who sprained his knee at a soccer game. The following poem begins like this:

My knee is just crooked

it’s just swollen, and

the doctor says i will be

penalty fee. I will play again.

Says this while

sits on your padding

leather chair that

can rotate 360 ​​by



Why can’t the knees?

Once children are familiar with these characteristics of poetry (ie, rhythm, sound patterns, figurativeness, compactness, and emotional intensity), they will enjoy the challenge of finding poems that exemplify one or more of the characteristics. His appreciation of poetry is reinforced by his additional knowledge. They are ready to experience poetry more fully.

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