When my older daughter announced in the spring that I would be “doing English” remotely with my grandchildren every weekday, I thought she was joking. It wasn’t that I minimized her problem: schools had closed in the U.K. at the end of March, and she and her husband had to work from home in a London apartment they share with their three children. Minded by a part-time babysitter, the children had to be kept occupied, reasonably happy and quiet in the close quarters. Then I learned that my ex-husband would be tutoring the nine-year-old boy in physics. He had already set the first problem: How does a cat, thrown out of a window with its feet above its body, always land on its feet? A later tutorial would be devoted to the physics of swinging (as in a playground). How could I compete with that? Obviously, I would have to try.
Robert, my grandson, has seven-year-old twin sisters. For the girls, I would just choose a good book and read a chapter or two every day — a FaceTime story hour. Easy. I asked Robert what he would like to do, and he said he wanted to learn how to write poetry. I wasn’t expecting that.
I reviewed my credentials for this mission. When my daughters were about eleven, I had gone into their class once a week and taught a poem, a John Donne sonnet or a lyric by e. e. cummings. But that was about reading poetry, not writing it. Then I remembered that during a brief stint teaching writing at a high school, I had cribbed shamelessly from a book by the American poet Kenneth Koch called Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry — an ingenious, freewheeling, and very 1970s compendium of prompts and examples that produced some interesting poems. I found it on my shelves, broken-backed with its pages aged to the colour of weak tea. I was sure that leaning on it and its successor, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, would solve my problem. I emailed Robert a William Carlos Williams poem, “This Is Just to Say,” where he apologizes for stealing someone’s breakfast plums out of the icebox: “Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold.” Robert’s assignment was to draft an apology of his own, in which the speaker was not completely contrite.
Although the resulting poem was fine, the poet was not happy. He didn’t know the term “free verse,” but he didn’t want to write it: he wanted to rhyme. I wasn’t expecting that, either. True to his era, Koch thought rhyme and meter would confine kids’ imaginations, and his examples were all free verse. But Robert is a bit of a numbers guy, and the puzzle involved in fitting a story or an idea into a particular rhyme scheme and beat appealed to him. Plus, “I like the sound.”
Back to the drawing board, beginning with a poem by Marianne Moore, “The Wood-Weasel,” as a model. The assignment was to write about an animal that no one liked, roughly following Moore’s rhyme scheme and meter. Robert seemed to like her poem, but his own never surfaced. Maybe Robert Herrick’s praise of untidiness, “Delight in Disorder,” would succeed where Moore had failed. Herrick’s erotic hints of “wantonness” in clothes would escape my grandson, but the assignment — write about something messy that you enjoy — might appeal to him. I explained the seventeenth-century terms, since to a nine-year-old in 2020, a “petticoat” is as unfamiliar as a “crimson stomacher.” But no poem resulted.
Finally, I found a kindred spirit for Robert: the nineteenth-century nonsense poet Edward Lear. Imitating the rhyme, meter, and mocking spirit of “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear,” he produced a portrait of a lazy, bad-tempered old woman: “Her eyes are as big as tea saucers, / Her nose as long as two sticks. / Her brown teeth in need of some flossers, / And her tongue gives the wettest of licks.”
I’m not claiming that Robert has precocious lyrical gifts, just that it’s been diverting and challenging trying to marry his liking for rhyme to the right subject and sensibility. Once he was familiar with iambic meter, the most commonly used in English poetry, where an accented syllable follows an unaccented one (“my love is like a red, red rose”), the math guy wanted to learn more obscure rhythms. Not having travelled to the wilder shores of meter since graduate school, I put together a simplified guide. I did worry that I would have to dissuade him from trying to write a poem entirely in anapests (two unaccented beats followed by an accented one), but luckily he knows his limits. More important, watching him play around with rhythm has reminded me how important music is in verse.
Robert prefers to compose without pencil or paper or computer, just talking it out. He’s a throwback to the oral tradition that way. And that put me in mind of Scots ballads, so we read the tragic stories of “Lord Randall” (death by poisoning) and “Bonny George Campbell” (“Saddled and bridled / And gallant rode he,” but he never returned). In Robert’s hands, the ballads’ weight of laconic sorrow took on a youthful insouciance. In his homage to “Bonny George Campbell,” titled “Torquil of Cowstock,” a young boy goes missing: “They looked and they looked, / but find him they couldn’t. / And maybe poor Torquil / would find home or wouldn’t.”
Don’t be deceived by this light touch: poor Torquil’s fate involves wolves, ghouls, and rotting flesh. Before we ended our lessons, when the school term closed at the end of July, Robert had written a Jabberwocky-style adventure poem and some clerihews (short, satirical poems rhyming the names of famous persons), but none have lived up to Lear. Yet this boy, adept at FaceTime, split screens, and googling, has the soul of a comic Victorian poet. Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” with its internal rhymes, inspired “The Blue Baboon”:
The blue baboon sat by the water,
Eating a hazelnut.
He had fur a bright blue, that had a deep hue,
And also a great big butt.
The palm trees swayed in the heat of the day,
And the buffoon just carried on;
Walking and talking, while the parrots were squawking,
Playing an accordion.
As we approached our final lesson, I felt somewhat guilty that I had abandoned Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, and I tried again to introduce a note of modernity into Robert’s repertoire. One of Koch’s simplest and most successful ideas was to ask children to write a poem in which each line begins with “I wish,” and I suggested that Robert use that as a model. He duly turned in a poem in which every line began that way, but he had written four-line stanzas that rhymed ABCB in a mostly iambic meter with a light sprinkling of anapests. There was no stopping the incorrigible rhymester.
One of his wishes was that “the weekend was always nigh,” to rhyme with “fly.” I asked, “How do you even know that word?” The answer was matter-of-fact: “It’s in ‘Away in a Manger.’ ” Of course — I should have known that. Why had he diverted from the free verse in Koch’s example? “If I have a choice, I’ll rhyme.” In case I was missing the point about the deficiencies of free verse, he picked up a random book from his shelf, read a few lines of prose, and said sarcastically, “There. That’s a poem.”
I said I was pretty sure that in a few years he would discover some poems in free verse that were as skillful, original, and wonderful as any that had rhyme and meter. He looked skeptical but theoretically willing to be proved wrong — just not any time soon. We probably won’t resume our tutorials when Robert returns to school this fall, but I have ordered The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear for his birthday.