"If poetry come not as naturally as leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all."John Keats: Letters
"Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds . . . It is at once the centre and the circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science and that to which all science must be referred . . . . it is the perfect bloom of all things . . . as the odour and the colour of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, the form and splendour of unfaded beauty."Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Defence of Poetry
"Tain't in poetry, is it?" interposed his father. "No, no," replied Sam.
"Wery glad to hear it," said Mr. Weller.
"Poetry's unnat'ral; no man ever talked poetry 'cept a beadle on boxin'-day, or Warren's blackin', or Rowland's oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. Begin again, Sammy."(When Sam Weiler composed a Valentine) Charles Dickens: Pickwick Papers
"We learn what poetry is—if we ever learn—by reading it."T. S. Eliot: The Sacred Wood
So much has been written about poetry; so many have put forward their fervent apologias for it. Keats saw poetry as a "natural" phenomenon. Tony Weller, with limited taste and knowledge of poetry, thought it "unnatural," belonging more to the world of advertising and "them low fellows" than to literature. Shelley saw it in Apollolike terms, considering that it also embraced science; he was acutely aware of its "invisible influence." T. S. Eliot, as practical in his way as Tony Weller, believed that the only way to learn what poetry is, is by reading it.
What is certain, however, is that what is true for poetry and adults, is also true for poetry and children. There is really no demarcation line, provided that the poetry for the young takes into account their age, generation and immediate interests. As far as children are concerned, it is largely a matter of what poems are chosen, and for what purpose, and the manner in which these poems are presented to them.
Literature lies at the heart of all English studies; poetry lies at the core of that heart. We dare not ignore poetry because it is there in all its richness, strength and variety. It is one the world's resources, like gold, silver and uranium, and, therefore we should not waste it. What is more, it is undisputed that because of the nature of the English language, it has produced the largest number of genuine poets of any culture. The Latin and Greek poets, for all their eminence and influence, did not leave behind them such a massive body of outstanding poetry. Nor the Chinese, who in the earlier periods of their history could claim that Peking itself had three hundred practicing poets. This claim is also apparent when we study French, German, Italian and Russian literature in some detail. Yes, all these languages have had their great names and their magnificent poems, but they have not had so many, and of such high standard, as those which have used, and are still using, the English tongue, wherever it is spoken and written. There are [End Page 10] several fascinating technical reasons why this is so, and why the English language is so suitable a vehicle for poetry. But it has also something to do with temperament, weather and history. In the case of Great Britain, isolation from European culture for so many years has been one of the factors.
For poetry, if it is to be poetry at all, is language at its best. It is precise, and it involves the poetry of words as well as the poetry of content. Words, and especially for children, have their special beauty, appeal and power. Where thinking comes first, associated with feeling, the words generally become prose; where feeling comes first, associated with thinking, the words normally become poetry. And it is because of this unique quality of the language of poetry that it helps to use, nurture and develop the innocent eyes...