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A review by Elizabeth Falcón
Elizabeth is the Poetry Center's Education Intern. She is also a poet, MFA student, teaching artist, and a mother of two.
I recently sat down with my kids (ages 2 and 4) to watch the HBO Classical Baby's The Poetry Show, not really knowing what to expect. What we found was a half-hour introduction to the essence of poetry, hosted by young children, who, in addition to introducing poems from William Shakespeare to Robert Frost, also explicate the poems with accessible, insightful observations.
The film begins with Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Imagine snow falling. A bear in a sleigh. Pines covered in blankets of white, no road to be seen. Susan Sarandon's gentle voice set against the soft tinkling of bells. It is through this type of cinematic experience that The Poetry Show manages to bring to life not only what makes a poem unique (rhythm, image, tone, feelings, etc.) but also the magic with which poems are written. My kids were spellbound (we had to watch it twice).
The effect of having children speak about what makes a poem a poem in this film is magnetic. In spite of being scripted, the children feel genuine; after watching Shakespeare's sonnet 18, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," one child discusses the poem and imagines what a first kiss would be like between two people who have just discovered they are in love. "You just have to say what you feel," she says of love poems.
"Sometimes you have to read a poem more than once...I like mysterious poems because they make me think--and I like thinking." In such a simple statement, another child takes the position of my graduate professor in a debate this year between him and several of his students: a good poem must challenge the reader beyond the comfort of every day life, beyond what the reader already understands. (Students have argued, "People want to read what's accessible, what makes them feel good, what they agree with and understand." But you've heard it now from the mouth of a child...lovers of poetry want to think and are willing to read a difficult poem again...and again.)
Another child says that poetry is "a pretty way of saying a rhythm without having music...There's music in your head." And indeed, experiencing Woody Guthrie's "Grassy Grass Grass" read aloud to a tapping rhythm exemplified this statement perfectly. A few other poems were actually set to music, which I didn't like quite as well (though my children weren't bothered in the least). "The Swing" by Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, was "sung" by animated cows swinging on a swing (perhaps it was the voices of the cows that bothered me more than actually setting the poem to music). Johnny Mercer's "Skylark" was set to soft jazz sung by a frog in a field of flowers (the music fit this poem much better than in "The Swing"). Though these were my least favorite parts of the show, I appreciate the choice to emphasize how easily a poem can become actual music (and indeed, that song lyrics are also poetry).
My daughter had one moment of dislike toward this film; she reacted to a boy who recites Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" and explains its rhythm. I think perhaps this was because he is the only one in the film who seems to be talking down to the viewer rather than being conversational. (The other animated poem of Williams', "This is Just to Say," was, however, fantastic; sneaky Pink Panther-like music plays as a child enters the kitchen, opens the fridge, stuffs all of the plums he finds into his mouth, writes an apology note, and then leaves the pits on the table on his way out.)
The Poetry Show is an engaging way to present poetry to children as well as to adults who have little or no background in poetry. As both an enjoyable and subtly instructive film, I would highly recommend it for any introductory-level poetry classroom environment (regardless of age), as well as for parents wanting to share good poetry (and how to read a poem) with their kids.