For our children, summer means trips to the beach, barbeques, and long stretches of glorious boredom. School is out, the days are long, and the possibilities endless. For this poetry editor, summer vacation also serves as a break from publishing adults, focusing instead on children, as I work to compile the annual Rattle Young Poets Anthology. With the help of their parents and teachers, thousands of children age 15 and younger share work with us each year. Listening to their voices is as soothing as ice cream on a hot day.
When most people think of “children’s poetry,” they think of poems written by adults for kids—they think of Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. They don’t think of children themselves as poets, and it’s very difficult to find any anthologies of poems written in the other direction, by children for adults. That’s unfortunate, because, as I’ve quickly learned, children are absolutely brilliant wordsmiths.
This shouldn’t be so surprising. The early years of language development are magical. No other time in life is full of such wonder, such imagination, and such playfulness. Young poets don’t write out of habit; they haven’t yet learned how to be cliché. They write with a natural spontaneity that adults have to work hard to achieve. “The cents of a penny/ is less than your love,” writes Zoey Sheffield, age 6. Lines like these seem as effortless as they are abundant.
There’s more to young poets’ work than just the strange and beautiful ways that they construct language, though. Children are writing about most of the things that adults do, with a depth of understanding and attentiveness that deserves more respect than it’s usually given. Eight-year-olds are responding to climate change. Eleven-year-olds are trying to processes the graphic terrorism of ISIS. Four-year-olds are thinking about their parents’ struggles with anxiety and depression.
Until I started reading these poems, I never realized how rich and complex the interior lives of children really are. Consider this short poem by Briar Sprungin, age 8, and the level of emotion it captures:
I was racing down the stairs,
a woman of white caught my eye.
She had two braids down to her toes.
She was mumbling something.
I asked if I could help her
but she didn’t say a word.
Then she whispered in my ear,
“Survive,” and disappeared.
It turns out that children are also great teachers of poetry, of what poetry is, and what it can be. In compiling these anthologies, we ask the young poets why they love poetry, and their answers provide some of the best insights I’ve found.
“I think of poetry as an art to transfer our thoughts about the world or imagination that lives around us onto paper,” writes New Zealand’s E. Wen Wong, then age 11, “[O]ur minds are search engines constantly producing ideas to make an impact on the world, whether it is big or small.”
Madeline McEwen, also age 11, says that poetry “gives us beauty even when the world seems ugly.”
Meanwhile, 7-year-old Cody Dane likes “making new rhymes,” and has the profound realization that “you can learn more when you’re rhyming.” His contribution to the 2015 anthology is this three-word poem that would make any concrete minimalist proud, exploring the way perception becomes awareness (through rhyme):
Fur Purr Her
In a conversation with Rattle many years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winner Sharon Olds remarked that “There isn’t a bad poet in the 1st grade.” The most amazing thing that I’ve learned in editing this anthology is just how true that statement is. The thousands of poems that we receive for the anthology every year are but a tiny fraction of what is produced. Everywhere in the world, from the Inland Empire to Africa to Singapore, children are writing moving and memorable poetry—doodling with words for classes or for fun, but making so much more than refrigerator art.
These are small but powerful voices—we only have to listen and learn.