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Marilyn Singer on finding the musicality and emotion in poetry

Author Marilyn Singer suggests going easy on close text analysis and instead give kids lots of opportunities to really listen to poetry (make sure it’s the good stuff) and feel the emotion that’s in the text.

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Marilyn Singer

Poetry, Nonfiction

Marilyn Singer

Marilyn Singer has published over eighty books for children and young adults. Her genres are many and varied, including realistic novels, fantasies, non-fiction, fairy tales, picture books, mysteries, and poetry.


How can we stop beating poetry to death? This is related to knocking it off the pedestal, I think. I think a while ago … I don’t think it’s so much an issue now. I think it actually … it’s changed a lot. That people used to overanalyze everything. It wasn’t his poetry. It was, you know … I was an English teacher. We had to like, “What does the scarlet letter actually mean,” you know? And if … and you would … people would evaluate you and if you did not do this kind of analysis you could get a bad evaluation. I don’t think that’s the case now, fortunately. A lot of educators now recommend just … just simply reading the poem. The teacher reading the poem and kids can talk about what it means to them. How they relate to it without a lot of … a lot of analysis. I think .. is good, especially, you know, with the … the younger kids. Hearing the musicality of poetry is very important. I remember Monica Gunning, when I interviewed her, said people have to hear that how it sings and develop a certain kind of sense of the music of it. So that involves listening to it a lot again. And I think I … I always struggle with this myself because I don’t think somebody should let just anything go. I mean, in terms of this … this poem is about a horse when there’s clearly nothing having to do with horses in this poem. But I think what you can do if a kid says this poem is about horses to say, “why do you think that? Why are you relating this to a horse? How does it … you know, why is this inspiring “horse”? And you might get some very interesting and surprising answers, in which case you can say “oh, that’s really interesting!” So even though the poet didn’t specify a horse or talk about horses, you’re taking it to another dimension in your head and that, I think, creates a kind of freedom. You can go back in a very gentle way then and say, “I like … I like where you took this but what let’s talk about the poet little. What do you think was going on in the poet’s head?” without this over analysis. You can start opening the door to looking at other kinds of poetry. It’s like well, if you like that, take a look at this. And if someone says, “well, I don’t like that,” it’s like well that’s interesting too. Why don’t you like it? What’s … what’s bugging you about this? And you might get some very interesting answers and sometimes, if something really bugs somebody, it’s because they’re trying to process it and they haven’t quite processed it yet, so … and that’s a process in itself. So you could … you could talk about that. Like, what’s bothering you about this? Why do you like rhyme more than this? Or why do you like free verse? You know, more than … more than you like rhyme. I think that that would also be helpful. The other thing is, please, don’t share bad poems with people. That sounds terrible and … and simple but there’s a lot of great poetry out there and there’s some stuff that’s, maybe, not so good. So I think it’s good to, like, really show that the best stuff because I think that’s inspirational to people. And they may still hate some of that and that’s okay, you know. Why do you not like that? Another thing that I think is really important, I used to … as I said, taught … teach high school and I get kind of emotional over certain poems. And if you truly love something, it goes a long way with students. And if you get emotional over it, it really goes a long way. One of my favorite poems is “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas, which is a very sad poem. It’s touching. It’s about getting older and what that means. Even now I’m like, “oh my god!” and I would start crying. I’d say … before I … I’d say to class “I’m going to read you this poem and I’m going to cry. I’m sorry. That’s what happens. I cry.” Oh my god. The … first of all, I think everybody wanted to just pat me or hug me or do something does … “the teacher is crying!” You know, “oh my god! The teacher’s crying!” But I think that, you know … and then there’d be poems I’d be laughing, you know, at. I think that’s … that’s really important to people, you know. You’re showing naked emotion. You’re having a response to something. How can somebody negate that or find this a dead thing anymore if somebody’s really having a response. They’re not just standing there going, “and what does he mean ‘when I was young and easy under the apple boughs’?” you know. It’s like, you know, no, I mean, this is about, you know. And who cares if they were 16 years old. They still understood what it would mean. That eventually you’re not going to. You’re going to be older, you know. And I think that … that is really, really important to … to pick things that … that you relate to, that you have an emotional response to, and that will carry over a lot.