By Brooke Thompson
A few months ago, I was surfing the web when I came across a Reddit post that stated that poetry should not be considered literature. The post’s author explained that all poetry was written by pretentious people who were not skilled enough to write a book, so they wrote poems instead.
Now, I am not a huge fan of poetry, but I do appreciate its existence and what the medium has done to develop culture and literature throughout the millennia. My issue with the Reddit post is that failure to understand why poetry is part of literature discredits what it has done for the medium itself.
Without poetry, people would have never had an interest in reading or even the arts since an appreciation for poetry begins when we are young. In fact, without poetry, many wonderful children’s stories, nursery rhymes, and poetry books would probably never be written.
Therefore, it is important to understand why poetry is important and how it is influenced children’s literature for thousands of years.
Here is how poetry has shaped children’s literature.
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Ways Poetry Has Shaped Children’s Literature
Thomas C. Foster once wrote that all writing is a reference to other writing. I wholeheartedly agree with that statement because of how poetry has inspired so many writers. For example, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet based on an Italian sonnet. Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games based on the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.
Poetry takes on many forms, such as free verse, ballads, sonnets, epics, etc. Since poetry has such a broad spectrum, the genre has helped develop civilization and culture. We see this especially in both children’s literature and young adult fiction.
Here are three ways poetry has shaped children’s literature.
1. Nursery Rhymes Are Our First Introduction to Poetry
Nursery Rhymes are essentially a child’s first introduction to poetry. With their short verses and fun rhyme schemes, they tell stories, teach different aspects about life, and even encourage socialization.
For instance, many nursery rhymes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Humpty Dumpty,” “Ring-Around-the-Rosey,” or “London Bridge is Falling Down” are about different historical events.
“Ring-Around-The-Rosey” is about the Black Plague that swept through Europe during the 16th century. As a kid, we’d hold hands and run in a circle while singing this song, unaware of its dark origins.
Or how “London Bridge is Falling Down” is about how during the 17th century, the London Bridge was damaged. Like “Ring-Around-The-Rosey,” many children on the playground would sing this song and play a game with it.
“Mary Had a Little Lamb” tells a story about a girl who had a lamb that followed her around like a lost puppy. The poem’s author Sarah Josepha Hale based the poem on a childhood memory. “Humpty Dumpty” was intended to be a riddle but some literary scholars argue that it’s about King Richard III being defeated in battle.
Despite some of these nursery rhymes’ dark origins, they are fun poems to read or sing to children. Introducing children to nursery rhymes could potentially give them a love for poetry and reading in general. Without saying that nursery rhymes may help shape your children’s development.
2. Many Popular Children’s Titles Are Based on Poetry
Whenever I think of children’s poetry outside of nursery rhymes, I think of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. Both are brilliant poets whose writing not only tells whimsical stories but also teaches important lessons.
Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends is a collection of poems containing fun, humorous poems that cover a variety of topics. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, there is a poem “Lazy Jane” that’s about a lazy girl named Jane. When she was thirsty, she laid out in a field and opened her mouth for rain rather than making herself a glass of water. Or, in a different poem “Jimmy Jet and His TV Set”, he talks about how a child was so practically glued to the tv that he eventually became one.
Despite their outlandish nature, both of these poems aim to encourage kids to be productive and fend for themselves or to take a break from the television once in a while.
Dr. Seuss’s poetry is longer and forms a story. Like Silverstein’s, many of his books focus on teaching kids important life lessons like accepting others, being humble, and taking responsibility for yourself.
We see this through his story of “Yertle the Turtle” who was the king of the pond. He let his greed get in his way and required his turtle subjects to stack themselves so he could see better and expand his kingdom.
However, he did not care at all about his subjects as their backs started to hurt and they began to starve. When the turtle at the very bottom of the stack moved, Yertle fell off his turtle throne and was later known as king of the mud.
Seuss used this story as an example to teach the lesson that “pride goes after a fall” or how greed can wreck your life.
3. Epic Poetry Has Shaped Children’s and YA Literature.
Many civilizations’ mythologies, such as Greek Mythology or Sumerian Mythology began as songs. They were later recorded into the well-known epics, which are very long poems that recount the actions and adventures of heroes. Some well-known examples are Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Sin-Lin-Quin’s Epic of Gilgamesh.
Not only have they survived for thousands of years, but these Greek Mythology epics have also inspired many people throughout the ages, even up to the modern era. For example, The Iliad and The Odyssey spawned numerous re-interpretations of these epics.
Some modern examples include Rick Riordan’s children’s series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, or Kate O’Hearn’s Pegasus series.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians is essentially a kid-friendly retelling of Greek mythology, with Riordan’s version taking place in modern New York. Rick Riordan masterfully blends the stories with humor and drama and handles the darker side of the myths with respect to both his audience and the source.
The Hunger Games is loosely based on the story of Theseus and the labyrinth. In the original myth, King Minos required both male and female tributes every year to be fed to the Minotaur that resided in the labyrinth. Suzanne Collins changed the story by having male and female tributes come from the nation’s 12 districts to fight to the death in an arena as a means of entertainment and reparations for rebelling against the Capitol.
The Pegasus series takes elements of Greek and Roman mythology and uses them to form an original story. Like the Percy Jackson series, it also takes place in modern New York and it is about a young girl finding a Pegasus.
Without poetry, these wonderful stories would never have existed.
Why Poetry Is An Important Genre
Regardless of how you feel about poetry, it should be held on the same plane as novels. Just like novels take a lot of thought and time to write, so do poems.
Poems have many layers to them, which include but are definitely not limited to: what they are about on the surface, what message the author is trying to convey, and sometimes what context it plays in history.
In the aforementioned “Yertle the Turtle” example, that poem is a story about a turtle that wanted to expand his kingdom. Upon a closer inspection, the poem is about how pride and how greed can make you lose your loved ones as well as your possessions.
Though poetry may not be everyone’s cup of tea, hopefully, this article helped you rethink your stance on your perception of it.