December 14, 2006

Robert Frost for Four-Year-Olds

When Nathaniel had just turned four, I introduced him to poetry. A great listener, he had already sat rapt through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I started with a handful of Shel Silverstein's lyrics for kids, then one day pulled Robert Frost from the shelf.

First I read Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, maybe Frost's most accessible poem. Its bouncy, rhyming, iambic tetrameter might occur in Dr. Seuss. It is short. It paints a clear picture.

Of course it touches on dark things, and its storyline is unexciting: A man is going home with his horse when he stops and thinks. Then he continues going home.

The next night, Nathaniel surprised me by requesting more Frost. He may have been just delaying his bedtime, but he could as easily have pointed me toward the Silverstein book that still lay open. I read At Woodward's Gardens and tried to explain why a boy would taunt a caged monkey with a magnifying glass. He wanted more.

On a whim I read one of my favorites: Wild Grapes.

I should confess that I don't understand Wild Grapes. It describes a girl's moment of terror when she finds herself hanging from a high branch of a tree, unable to cling forever but afraid to let go. Her brother bends the tree and helps her down. She draws conclusions from the incident.

Wild Grapes doesn't rhyme and is longer and is quite abstract: a harder poem altogether.

But it hints at wonders: fear and revelation, the afterlife and forgiveness.

How do you read it to a boy of four? I decided just to plow through, reading aloud to myself, letting it wash over him. I hoped for a non-musical version of The Mozart Effect.

To my amazement, he scrutinized it carefully. “What's an ornament of grapes?” he interrupted. “What does that mean: 'stated in lengths of him'?” “What are banjo strings?”

He was grappling with it, but what could he possibly understand of this poem? A rush of images, perhaps. An occasional abstract noun. The rhythm of the words. His father's voice. The serenity of bedtime.

Now that he's eight, I'm afraid Nathaniel would have less patience with Wild Grapes.

Is a child who still reads picture books more content to view a disjointed stream of images? Is a toddler, still learning to speak, more attuned to, more satisfied by, the mere rhythm of words? Is a boy more open to mystery when the routine things of his everyday world—breakfast and furniture, fingers and shadows—still offer untold surprises?

He asked for another poem, but it was bedtime. “One more,” I said and turned to Frost's shortest lyric.

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle, and knows.

He looked at me expectantly, so I added “The End.”

His eyes went up skeptically. “But that was no poem at all!”

Already a critic.

(This blog got a nice mention in a recent Carnival of Kid Comedy.)

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