Tomorrow I will be teaching some Harlem Renaissance poets in my American Literature class, so this reflection on the function of poetry is welcome and timely.
Poems are first and foremost to be experienced—sensually, imaginatively. Of course, learning more about form and structure, the words and historical contexts of a poem may make that experience richer. But explanation of a poem can never replace a poem itself, least of all at bedtime.
Children know this much better than adults do. They catch whatever music and imagery words send their way and may love a poem before “understanding” it. When their curiosity kicks in about specific words and phrases, they ask about them, and they are then ready to make good use of the answers.
Julia loved Emily Dickinson’s verse, “There is no frigate like a book.” The first time I spoke the poem, she asked, “What’s a frigate?” But it was only one by one through dozens of times hearing the poem that she asked the meanings of a few more words. Then one night, at the end of the poem, she remarked, “Wow. That one little poem has four great words: ‘frugal,’ ‘chariot,’ ‘coursers,’ and ‘prancing.'” —Elizabeth Harris Sagasser, Chronicle