National Poetry Month is upon us, and one way that former Children’s Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman would have us celebrate is by memorizing some poems. And I couldn’t agree more.
I may be in the minority here. Many teachers and school librarians feel swamped enough and may not feel they have the classroom time to devote to children memorizing and reciting poems, but it’s actually good for the cognitive development of young children. There’s also a particular kind of magic in giving oneself over to the rhythms and music of verse. I still remember with great clarity the poems I memorized in school as a child, as well as how much I enjoyed doing it.
Read the last Seven Impossible Things on 'Life in the Ocean' about ocean explorer Sylvia Earle.
In fact, during my freshman year of college, my then-roommate told me I sat up in my bed one night and started quoting Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” (Just a wee bit creepy for her, you think?) Fear not, no one died the next day. That poem just lingered in the corner of my mind, its musicality and effective spookiness never quite forgotten. I had memorized it in fifth grade after all.
In her newest picture book anthology, Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart, Hoberman teams up with illustrator Michael Emberley—they also joined forces for the successful You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You series—to suggest poems for memorization and recitation. There are more than 100 poems here, the anthology divided in over 10 sections (poems about happiness, the weather, longer poems, “strange and mysterious” treats, etc.).
“When you learn a poem by heart, it becomes a part of you,” Hoberman writes in the introduction. “You know it in your mind, in your mouth, in your ears, in your whole body. And best of all, you know it forever.” She goes on to make a great case for memorization. If you memorize, she writes, it’s like solving a puzzle, coming to an understanding of why the poet made the choices he or she did in crafting the poem. We also learn the particular rhythms of poems, and it’s no accident, she writes, that we speak in the language of learning poems “by heart.” “Like our hearts, most poems have a steady beat.”
Hoberman includes a wide range of poetry here, covering all kinds of moods (from light-hearted to cryptic) and many types of poetry (from limericks to free verse to haiku). From contemporary poets (Eloise Greenfield, Kristine O’Connell George, Lee Bennett Hopkins) to those who have passed on (Langston Hughes, Tolkien, Roald Dahl), there’s something for everyone. There’s a handy Index of First Lines at the book’s close right after a section with suggestions from Hoberman about memorizing poetry: “I like to think of the process of learning a poem by heart as a game, with the memorized poem as the prize. In any game, there are rules to follow, and you improve with practice.”
Emberley’s expressive and loose-lined watercolors are a good match for this anthology. He can hit just the right notes when it comes to atmosphere, seamlessly matching the spirit of these poems without overpowering the text. He also knows when to let spot illustrations be small and let white space speak instead, such as in the spread that includes Sara Teasdale’s poem about “[s]tars over snow,” the poem “Night.”
This is a wonderful anthology for classrooms, school and public libraries, and homes where eager children are game for exploring the musicality of poems.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.
Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart. Copyright 2012 by Mary Ann Hoberman. Illustrations copyright 2012 by Michael Emberley. Spread reproduced with permission of the publisher, Megan Tingley Books/Little, Brown and Co., New York.