Children's poet Mary Ann Hoberman offers kids tips on exploring poetry

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; C10

A baby leaf still curled up tight
That's pushing upward toward the light.
What will it be? A tree? A weed?
Each one is started from a seed.

To read a poem by Mary Ann Hoberman, such as this one, is to see that there is poetry in everyday things. Hoberman fell in love with poetry as a child and has spent her life writing fun, funny and observant verses for children about the simplest of subjects, such as a squirrel searching for nuts, annoying siblings, snow and birthdays.

Now 79 and the mother of four grown children, Hoberman is serving a two-year term as the Poetry Foundation's national poet laureate for children. That basically means she is the nation's ambassador for children's poetry, so she spends a lot of time encouraging young people to explore poetry without letting it become a chore.

"It isn't so much even thinking about poetry," she said. "Think about language, about words. What words do you like?"

April is National Poetry Month, so it's a good time to share a few of Hoberman's simple tips for getting the most out of poetry.

-- Go with what you like. If you like poems that rhyme, that's what you should focus on. You don't need to force yourself to read poetry that doesn't appeal to you. Hoberman likes poems that rhyme, and almost all her work is written this way. "I always come back to that very bouncy kind of work," she said.

-- Start small. Poems can be short and still be wonderful. But you might also find that you like just a piece of a poem, maybe even just a few words or a couple of lines. Sometimes if you think about just that part, and let it sink in, you'll find you actually like more of the poem than you thought. "It's like a door into a poem," Hoberman said.

-- Play with other people's language. There is a kind of poetry that Hoberman thinks is not appreciated enough: It's called found poetry. Typically, it's a short verse using, or largely based on, someone else's work: writing, a picture, a piece of art. "Read your newspaper today and see if there's something in that newspaper, maybe an image, or something that's not even poetic, that you like," she said. Of course you want to give credit to the original author!

-- Memorize poetry. This may seem old-fashioned, but Hoberman can go on and on about the benefits of children memorizing a poem or a bunch of poems. Often, she said, poems come alive if you know them by heart; they may pop into your head when you don't expect it and become more meaningful, or just more enjoyable. "I wish my head were far more full of things I memorized when I was a child," Hoberman said. "Those are things you never lose."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company