Speaking in Poetry: One Family's Evolving Celebration of Rhythm and Words

It all started with Dr. Seuss.  His rhyming stories of imagination and made-up
words beckoned my children to explore the poetry and rhythm of language.  Sure, the rhyming did make my eyes cross and
sometimes my ears bleed, but I do begrudgingly admit that it added an extra
dose of whimsy as I read the stories with my children. 

In fact, I give partial credit to Dr. Seuss and his series
of books for inspiring my oldest, Cassie, to read at age three.  Those books were lures to my precocious
toddler.  The illustrations and melodic
stanzas captured her attention, and she wanted to spend hours visiting those
magical lands.

Her younger brother's
arrival, shortly after Cassie's third birthday, greatly disrupted the hours
that I could spend curled up with her and a book.  Cass had no desire to share that special time
with her baby brother, especially after I accidentally leaked breast milk all
over one of her books while I was reading to her and nursing Phillip -- clearly,
I am not that coordinated and so should not multi-task while breastfeeding!  She begged me to teach her how to read by
herself.

As I had no experience at all
with this landmark step, I just spelled it out, "All letters have sounds.  Just put the sounds together to form words -
like putting together pieces to form a puzzle." 
As she already knew all of her letter sounds, the rest was easy for
her.  It just clicked for her -- she
started reading.

I laugh at my own ridiculousness now.  I was so smug and cocky.  Cassie was soon reading anything and
everything, and I took full credit for teaching her.  (Dear friends of past tense me:  I apologize for my obnoxiousness.)  Don't fret - I quickly got a swift kick in
the ass when my darling, Phillip, refused to even work on his letters with
me. 

Oh, the hours I spent crying and
repeating over and over, "It's like a puzzle, Phillip.  It's like a puzzle..."   That approach and explanation failed
miserably with both of my boys, Phillip and Brooks.  Thankfully, my boys were blessed with
excellent certified teachers, and I
can proudly report that all of my children are avid readers. 

I may have been woefully inadequate in the literacy teaching
department; however, I did read a great piece of advice when Cassie was an
infant.  A magazine article recommended
that parents should encourage their children to rhyme and play rhyming games
with them.  Thanks to that darn Dr. Seuss
and his incessant rhyming, I already knew how much Cassie appreciated the
cadence of a good rhyme.  We were rhyming
fools in those early years, and the tradition grew to include the boys, too.  Any mundane task was made poetic with the
addition of a couple of rhyming words at the end of phrases: 

"We are
going to take a bath!  Oh, so much better
with math!   Let's count the
bubbles!  We'll have no troubles!"  

"Let's tie
our shoes, and don't drink booze.  When
you're twenty-one, life will be lots of fun." 

 

(I didn't say that my rhymes
were always appropriate.  You probably
should create your own.) 

Rhyming was something that we could do as a family.  When one of us got stuck on a word, like
orange, we would try to supply either a slant rhyme, such as porridge (which
inevitably would force my husband or I to retort, "Way to go, Emily Dickinson!")
or we would make up our own Seussical new word such as blorange - a game where
you blow oranges with a straw across the floor (everyone knows that one,
right?). 

It challenged us to work
together, to learn new words, to take those words and use them in new
ways.  And it just made life more fun,
especially on long car trips to Grandma and Grandpa A's in Michigan. 

This fascination and experimentation with words quickly
formed new games.  We would live for 24
hours in opposite world, in which I dropped off my daughter to preschool and
said "Hello.  I won't pick you up later."  (Other parents tended just to ignore me, as
most of them had heard my previous rhyme about booze.  They were always so sweet with their pitying
glances as they offered to drive Cass both ways to a birthday party, so I didn't
have to drive anyone -- ever.) 

In my quest to enrich their vocabulary, primarily through
the cadence of poetry, I would read Shakespeare in very dramatic fashion with
an atrocious British accent.  I would also
read my favorite Shel Silverstein poems. 
 In fact, our copies of
Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends
and A Light in the Attic are so
well-loved that the covers have long been torn off and discarded, pages bent
and smudged with mysterious sticky-finger-stains and decorated with post-it
notes.     I, personally, would love to
have his poem "Invitation" inscribed on the door to my mausoleum: 

"If you are
a dreamer, come in, 

If you are a
dreamer, a wisher, a liar,

 A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer. . .

If you're a
pretender, come sit by my fire

For we have
some flax-golden tales to spin. 

Come
in! 

Come in!"      --
Shel Silverstein

 

Along the way, I would peruse book stores scouting for new
ways to bring the playfulness of language into our lives.  And hidden in the stacks of a bookstore, I
discovered Haiku!  Gesundheit: 
an illustrated collection of ridiculous haiku poetry
by Ross Venokur
and illustrated by Kenny Scharf.  It is a
delightful books of silly haikus for children. 
Haikus?  I hadn't thought to introduce
my children to the ancient form of  Japanese poetry.  And, yet, I had found a children's book of
haikus!  The timing couldn't have been
more perfect, as our family really needed a new form of verbal expression.

The Haiku, so deceptively simple in form consists of only
three lines.  The first and third lines
of a Haiku have five syllables and the middle line has seven syllables.   Haikus are usually written about one simple
thing or season.  They can be riddles or
just tributes to life's ordinary moments. 
We started slowly with our Haiku experimentation.  Cassie was in Kindergarten and had already
learned how to divide words into syllables, so we spent time teaching preschool-aged
Phillip how to do the same.  Baby Brooks was
still not an active participant at this point, as all he did was eat and sleep.  The first haikus we created as a family were
riddles about our pets and family members.    

Here is an example of an Animal Haiku that I made with my
children about our cats:

"Playfully,
I pounce

On anything
you dangle

My long
whiskers twitch."

By the time
that Phillip was required to break words into syllables with his Kindergarten
classmates, he was an expert!  And we
were all focused on teaching Brooks about the magic of Haikus.  About this time, the excellent and much more
popular picture book of animal haiku riddles If Not For The Cat written by Jack Prelutsky with paintings by Ted
Rand was published.  Oh, the dinners that
we had constructing our Haikus together were such bliss!     

 

And now years later, we occasionally still spend mealtimes
speaking in rhymes and/or haikus when the typical dinner conversation halts or
awkward silences ensue.   It always
lightens the atmosphere when I stab a fork-ful of broccoli and ruminate: 

"More green
on my plate? 

Mother
doesn't understand.

Broccoli
gags me!"

 

Are our dinners always so idyllic? No.  As a matter of fact, we spent lunchtime on
Saturday speaking in haikus in preparation for this blog post.  My husband and I appropriately contributed to
the conversation with haikus such as:

"White and
creamy milk,

 Quenching my thirst once again,

Thank you to
the cow!" 

 

However, it
was our youngest, Brooks, who began the deterioration of our proper lunch with
his haiku:

 

"Don't touch
my weiner!

It is
awesome and it pees

Into the
toilet."

 

He may look exactly like my husband, but it is moments like
those that I am reminded he is mine, too!

April is poetry month. 
I encourage you and your family to explore the magic of the written word,
whether it be reading a Dr. Seuss book or another of the poetry books mentioned
in my post, spending a trip to run errands speaking only in rhymes, or creating
haikus with your family!  A great website
to help get you started is www.kidzone.ws/poetry.  They have excellent printable worksheets,
poetry projects, explanations and examples. 

As for my family's challenge?  We will be working on nonsensical Limericks
for the remainder of this month.  I have
a feeling that it will probably go downhill rather quickly, but at least we
will all laugh together.  And really, I
couldn't ask for anything more!

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  • I can't wait to start rhyming games at our house! Thanks for the fun ideas!

  • Too cute -- Too funny, Crystal! My biggest chuckle came from Brooks' haiku...! I will definitely pass this on to our poet, Jennifer. She will love this!! =)

  • We are trying to start rhyming over here, but we embrace storytelling with gusto! I need to start writing down their stories. This is one of my favorite posts, Crystal!

  • Thanks for the kind comments. Good luck as you begin your journeys into the world of rhyming and discovering the pure joy and wonder of words. Childhood is magical, and I heartily encourage challenging the kids to use their incredible imaginations, especially because it so inspires ours!

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