Teachers – Poetry For Children – Characteristics and Examples

I believe that one of the most important concepts about poetry is that, “Like a song, poetry is meant to be heard” (Larrick, 1987, p. 20). While good prose can either be read aloud or silently, poetry nearly always needs to be read aloud. That poetry needs to be heard can be attributed to the characteristics of poetry that distinguish poetry from prose, I.e., rhythm, sound patterns, figurativeness, compactness, and emotional intensity (Lukens, 1990). I will explore each of these in more depth, below:

An example that I often use when I am first teaching the attribute of rhythm to students is Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Was Ever a Dream A Drum?” [Be sure to read this aloud!]

Was ever a dream a drum

or a drum a dream?

Can a drummer drum a dream

or a dreamer dream a drum?

The drum in a dream

pounds loud to the dreamer.

Now the moon tonight over Indiana

is a fire-drum of a phantom dreamer.

Carl Sandburg in Hopkins, 1982

While reading it aloud, I bang on a desk or the book or my lap to make the sound of a drum beat that goes along with what I am reading. Then I read it again, only this time, the students pound out the rhythm on their own laps or desks.

“Was Ever a Dream a Drum” also can be used to demonstrate how poetry uses sound patterns, that is, words as sound. However, my favorite poem to use is “The Man in the Marmalade Hat Arrives,” from the Newbery Award-winning book by Nancy Willard, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers. Just the first stanza (read aloud, of course) gives you an idea of how Willard used sound patterns in this poem:

The man in the marmalade hat

arrived in the middle of March,

equipped with a bottle of starch

to straighten the bends in the road, he said.

He carried a bucket and mop.

A most incommodious load, he said,

and he asked for a room at the top.

Children ask to hear that poem over and over–so that they can play with the language of the poem. Just savor saying “a most incommodious load” several times–and you, too, will be hooked!

A third characteristic of poetry is the author’s use of words as meaning, I.e., figurativeness. Worth’s All the Small Poems book is filled with examples you can use for this characteristic. A wonderful specimen is her poem entitled “Safety Pin.” [You may want to have a safety pin to look at while you read and enjoy this poem!]

Closed, it sleeps

On its side


The silver


Of some

Small fish;

Opened, it snaps

Its tail out

Like a thin

Shrimp, and looks

At the sharp

Point with a

Surprised eye.

So much image… so few words!

… Which leads to the next characteristic that children need to know about poetry–its compactness. I once heard Virginia Hamilton, the author of young adult novels, exchanging views with her husband, poet Arnold Adoff, about which one of them had to work harder. The issue was whether it was more difficult to say what you want to say in 15,000 words… or in 15 words. The issue was not resolved, and probably never will be, but students can learn to appreciate the care with which a poet’s words are chosen. Lukens (1990) says,

The principal difference between prose and poetry is compactness. A single word in poetry says far more than a single word in prose; the connotations and images hint at, imply, and suggest other meanings. (p. 187).

Because poetry is so parsimonious with its words, each one carries a great deal of weight. With no pun intended, look at (and read aloud) part of the poem “ELEPHANT” by Barbara Juster Esbensen:

The word is too heavy

to lift…


He must have invented it

himself. This is a lumbering

gray word the ears of it

are huge and flap like loose

wings a word with

wrinkled knees and toes

like boxing gloves…

A poem that I often read to upper elementary and middle school students is from Arnold Adoff’s book Sports Pages. It illustrates the last characteristic of poetry that I will be discussing here: emotional intensity. One poem in this book tells about a boy who twisted his knee in a football game. The next poem begins this way:

My Knee Is Only Sprained,

is only swollen, and

the doctor says I will be

fine. I’ll play again.

He says this as he

sits on his padded

leather chair that

can swivel 360 de



why can’t knees?

Once children know about these characteristics of poetry (I.e., rhythm, sound patterns, figurativeness, compactness, and emotional intensity), they will enjoy the challenge of finding poems that exemplify one or more of the characteristics. Their appreciation of poetry is enhanced through their additional knowledge. They are ready to experience poetry more fully.

Leave a Reply