Poetry--Let's Bring Back the Party Piece!

When my mother was a little girl, everyone had a “party piece.” This was pre-television, and at a large party everyone would take part in the entertainment by singing the crowd a song, reciting some poetry, doing a dance, or something else that they’d memorized to amuse a crowd. I say it’s time to bring this tradition back—who wouldn’t want to be in the audience when the next Bob Dylan sings “Accentuate the Positive?”

I love singing and dancing, but for this post I’m going to advocate choosing poetry for a party piece, mainly because I’ve had the good fortune to be wowed by my friend Bill Hughes’ dramatic reading of the Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” at his family’s holiday parties. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is a fairly long poem, but even short poems can be impressive. Consider this one that Junior memorized while potty training:

When sun goes home
behind the trees
and locks her shutters tight—

then stars come out
with silver keys
to open up the night.
— “Taking Turns,” by Norma Farber

Memorizing poetry has all kinds of benefits for literacy development—for starters, it helps develop rhythm and phonemic awareness. Memorizing poetry also gives a child a way to really get into a text and explore what happens to the meaning with different voices, volumes, inflections, pitches, pauses and speeds.

A spread from The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry, featuring "Something Told the Wild Geese," by Robert Frost. Illustration by Ashley Bryan.

A spread from The Bill Martin Jr. Big Book of Poetry, featuring "Something Told the Wild Geese," by Robert Frost. Illustration by Ashley Bryan.

Short poetry is also pretty easy to work into a child’s day. When Junior was potty training, he sat on the potty for extended periods of time—perfect conditions for learning a piece of poetry. We read poems from The Bill Martin Jr Big Book of Poetry, and when he kept returning to “Taking Turns,” I helped him memorize it.

So many editions! So many illustrators! The ones above are just the tip of the iceberg--which version of A Child's Garden of Verses will you choose?

So many editions! So many illustrators! The ones above are just the tip of the iceberg--which version of A Child's Garden of Verses will you choose?

The classic book of children’s poetry is A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Most of the compilations I’ve found include poems from that book. I really also like the Childcraft encyclopedia volume Poems and Rhymes, which has terrific illustrations from Virginia Lee Burton and Maurice Sendak along with short, approachable poems from Christina Rosetti, Edward Lear, and Langston Hughes—among many other poets. The Bill Martin Jr Big Book of Poetry also features wonderful illustrations on every page along with poetry from Judith Viorst, Jack Prelutsky, and even Mother Goose, among others.

Cover and page from the Poems and Rhymes volume of the Childcraft encyclopedia. I first ran across this series when I was behind a mother at a thrift store checkout who was enthusiastically buying the whole set for her elementary-age daughter, telling her "We had this when I was young!" Definitely worth checking out the series.

Cover and page from the Poems and Rhymes volume of the Childcraft encyclopedia. I first ran across this series when I was behind a mother at a thrift store checkout who was enthusiastically buying the whole set for her elementary-age daughter, telling her "We had this when I was young!" Definitely worth checking out the series.

Here are some more poetry recommendations from across the web.

I’ll look forward to seeing you at a party soon—when it comes to my turn, I’ll be reciting Robert Louis Stevenson’s “At the Seaside.”

When I was down beside the sea
A wooden spade they gave to me
To dig the sandy shore.
My holes were empty like a cup.
In every hole the sea came up
Till it could come no more.
— from "A Child's Garden of Verses."