Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Poems for Kids to Recite for Fun

My last blog post was a rant about forcing children to recite poetry, especially in the light of the recent Gove edict which will see poetry recitation as a compulsory element of the school curriculum in England and Wales.

To redress things, I want to make it abundantly clear that I think children reciting poems is a wonderful, admirable and fun thing for them to do, so long they're doing it of there own free will. There are opportunities galore for children to recite poems outside of the school environment for their own amusement and the enjoyment of others. It pains me to say it, but the Americans do it better than the English, with their tradition for poetry slams, a companion to the ultra-competitive spelling bees.

Indeed, it was the desire of my nephew and niece, then aged 8 and 5, to put on a Christmas Concert for family and pets that encouraged me to dip my first tentative toe into writing poems for children. The resultant poems, A Marriage Made in Heaven, Of Sound Mind and Dogged Determination, have stood the test of time and were at least moderately well received by the audience (anything is better than recorder recitals!). It was the reaction of my niece on hearing A Marriage Made in Heaven, asking very seriously 'Did you do that on purpose?' that convinced me that  you could write intelligently for pre-school and school aged children.

The Constraints of Poetry Recitation in School 

I've suggested previously that many teachers will retreat into making their pupils recite classic poems at school. Even those teachers who have grasped that modern poetry, even funny poetry, can provide a valuable educational experience tend to become overly prescriptive when setting poetry recitation exercises for their classes. A particular bugbear of mine is teachers who specify that children must choose to recite a poem with a specified number of lines. The length or complexity of a poem is not measured  in lines - my poem Library Rules is 24 lines, but is a much shorter and simpler than Max's 10 line poem, The Food Chain. If, as a teacher, your want to prevent your pupils choosing poems that are very short or easy to recite, by all means specify a minimum number of lines - six would be perfect, although many would argue for four and haiku lovers would no doubt hold out for three! Similarly, if you want to specify a subject for the chosen poem, make it reasonably broad, such as animals, the seasons, famous people.  There aren't too many 13 line poems about a dysfunctional family celebrating Christmas in Ulan Bator and although Google will no doubt find them for your pupils, there not bound to be great to recite. 

Apart from the Christmas Concert poems, the only other children's poems that I have written specifically to be recited were in response to a cri de coeur from my niece. At the behest of her teacher, she needed a 16 line poem to recite at school the following week. I wrote Eat, Drink and Be Messy, which has a deliberately fairy tale opening, a rather odd 6-4-6 line verse formation and a gratuitously gory ending. My niece decided the poem was too difficult and asked me to write another one. The second attempt was Aunts, which isn't obviously any simpler linguistically or easier to recite, although it does conform to a more conventional 4-4-4-4 formation. At that point I decided I wasn't going to write any more recitation poems to order, whether for my niece or ultimately her very picky poetry teacher. I also put out a general edict that kids could cut lines of my poems in half, or combine them, if they found a poem they particularly wanted to recite and needed to fiddle the number of lines to comply with their school teacher's demands. 

Funny Poems for Kids to Recite for Fun

Now for the fun bit. I write lots of funny poems for kids, some of which happen to be great to recite, others are moderately successful  and a few are nearly impossible.

Lets deal with the impossible ones first. Shape poems rely on the visual arrangement of the words on the page for their effect, which means they lose the element that makes them a poem when you recite them. A shape poem like The Poeteer is poetic as well as shapely, so you could recite it, but it wouldn't be all there,  like a limbless soldier or a pizza with a missing slice (brief interlude for some strange similes!). Another poem which I initially decided would be impossible to recite is Max's onomatopoeia poem The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, which consists of just 13 words and 16 exclamation marks! I've changed my mind and now think it might be rather brilliant to recite, accompanied by suitably expressive Ows! Yows! and Wows! Indeed, as it's a great example of a particular style of poetry, it would be a good crossover poem from fun to classroom  and back again.

Poems which are only quite good to recite for fun are those that are difficult to understand, or to recite, or both. I've just tried out a new poem, The Sting, on my test audience. At the end, I was asked to read it again, after which (and a bit of thought) they got it. If you're going to recite a funny poem, you need to be sure that at least half of the audience will get it immediately and laugh uproariously. A lull while everyone thinks about the poem and decides if it's funny will kill your performance. Quite a few of Paul's humorous poems, such as The Buddhist At The Dentist and Literary Doctorate fall into the too clever to recite category. It's not that they're not hilariously funny, it's just that the humour is quite sophisticated and you might have to think long and hard to fully appreciate the poems.

So what makes a great funny poem to recite. Firstly, it should be well within your capabilities to recite - everyone gets a bit nervous when they stand up in front of a group of people and you don't want to be stumbling over difficult words and fluffing your lines. Secondly, the humour needs to be pretty obvious and suitable for your audience. Reciting poems is a bit like telling jokes; you want your audience to laugh uproariously, or at the very least smile warmly rather than inanely. Thirdly, chose poems which have good rhythm and rhymes, as this makes the poem easier to recite and simpler for the audience to follow. Finally, practising reciting the poem like mad, so you know it back to front and inside out and can recite standing on your head. When you give your performance you'll be supremely confident and, if you decide to perform it standing on your head, your audience will be doubly amazed. 

Choosing A Funny Poems to Recite
It's over to you now and the world really is your Internet. Read some poems until you find some you find funny. Then read them aloud rather than  in your head, as some poems don't recite well. Reassure yourself that there suitable for your audience, whether it's classmates, friends, family or church congregation. Not too rude? Not too cheesy? Not too obvious? Not to complicated? Well done Goldilocks, you've selected your poem(s) and to complete your mission you've got to master the memorising and give the performance of your life. Have fun and good luck!