Last night I helped to judge the annual Genesee Valley Peace Poetry Contest. Children from elementary and middle schools in the area wrote poems on the topic of peace in their English classes, and Geneseo students determined which poets would be awarded the honor of reading their poem in Wadsworth Auditorium on Mothers’ Day. When I arrived to judge the contest, I was instructed to judge the poems on the basis of “literary merit.”
When I googled “children and poetry,” the first link was to an essay on poets.org, which began with the quote from W.H. Auden, “Play is what we want to do. Work is what we have to do.” The essay went on to argue that the childhood propensity for play makes children receptive to poetry. As I read the poems for the contest, many of the poems seemed trudged through; they were the product of work. These poems sat directly upon their teacher’s instructions, so that I could have told you how those teachers defined poetry from the content of the poems. There were lists of what peace meant, and acrostic poems, and lists of synonyms for peace that I assume were drawn directly from a thesaurus. The ones that caught my eye were the poems that carried the spirit of play: one boy’s poem was the story of convincing his father not to shoot a deer, another about peace as emanating from pork chops, another a list of onomatopoeias, one in which the words for different parts of a wrestling arena outlined the shape of that arena. These children had evidently committed to play, rather than to the drudgery of another assignment, rather than to some college student’s definition of literary merit, to create their poems.
I imagine that the children who wrote those playful, compelling poems were not the ones who, like I did at their age, agonized over following the rules perfectly. Those divergent poems reminded me that poetry’s strength appears when it is defiant, and self-possessed, and when its construction is enjoyed.