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Poetry's schoolyard beginnings

Each April, National Poetry Month celebrates some of the most lyrical written words. It's valuable to take a recess to consider the humble origins of a child's understanding of poetry.

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    From left, Clarisa Cyprien, Alexis Norman and Santana Garcia jump rope at Bassetti Elementary School in the Jump Rope for Heart event Friday, Feb. 13, 2015 in Abilene, Texas.
    Nellie Doneva/The Abilene Reporter-News/AP
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In a school, poetry abounds as spontaneous expression. One of my favorite poems echoing around school recently was not something the kids learned in class, the school play, or hip-hop songs (though we do hear plenty of those). It was a poem about math and counting, in a cadence just right for jumping rope:

Cinderella, dressed in yella

Went downstairs to kiss a fella.

By mistake, she kissed a snake!

How many doctors did it take?

One, two, three, four ...

Simple, poetic, memorable language persists because it connects us to something vital: information, emotions, surprise. Billy Collins, former poet laureate, said that poetry, “...is the history of the human heart. Without poetry, we would be deprived of the emotional companionship of our ancestors.”

Perhaps even simple “Cinderella” spans a few generations of hearts playing in the schoolyard, connecting us to the playful companionship of our grandmothers: an heirloom poem, discovered at recess. And how many of us still need the alphabet song to remember the order of the 26 letters? Or the little ditty about the months to remember which ones have 30 days and which have 31? Or the rhyme that anchors the spelling rule: “i before e except after c?”

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We walk in iambic pentameter. We are bipeds, built for 4/4 time. Since we are hardwired for cadence, we can't help being poets. I know a gaggle of fifth graders who write poems simply because they are the right way to express an idea or feeling. I, too, see the possibilities. 

Who will write a poem about the loneliness of the jump rope after recess? Or about rolling up the ice rink and storing it away until next winter? Or about those exuberant daffodils, dressed in yella, outside the kindergarten classroom? I’m thinking about that torn elm branch lying in a yard on School Lane, and the annual rings we counted on the stump of a tree cut down in October. 

April isn’t only “the cruelest month”; it’s also National Poetry Month. And at school, I know I can count on someone to be waiting with words that will make coincidence, whimsy, and even debris cohere as rhyme, meter, and the human heart. 

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