Teaching Great Poetry to Children: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins is pretty much my favorite poet. That’s kind of a silly thing to say, since having a favorite poet is like having a favorite food, and how could I choose between ice-cream and fresh blueberries and the perfect hamburger and my boyfriend’s tom kha soup? Poetry is delicious in at least as many ways. But anyhow, I really, really like Gerard Manley Hopkins and I want to share him with my students.

Hopkins as a boy.

The thing is, his poems aren’t necessarily that easy for them — there is dense language, religious language, archaic language. However, there is also wonder and despair and an exulting love of nature, all of which children understand.  Also, there is so much word play and music, so that even if you don’t understand every word, it still sounds cool. Hopkins doesn’t hold back, and kids respect that.

Still, I’ve had hits and misses introducing his work to my class. The first time, I think I read too much of it, and their eyes glazed over. This year, it worked better. I began by telling them about Hopkin’s life — how he’d been a gifted poet as a young man at Oxford, how he loved another man and didn’t know what to do about because of the time when he lived, then had joined the Jesuit priesthood and burned his early poems, how he had been sent to Dublin, where he was sad and homesick, how he loved nature, how he died young of typhoid. They felt a lot of sympathy for him by then.

Then I read a couple of his poems, starting with “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” and suggested everyone just listen to the sounds. We’d already talked about alliteration and rhyme, and I told them he was a master at it. I pointed out some particularly musical phrases: wimple-water-dimpled; too too apt to, ah!, to fleet. The class particularly loved how many times he repeated the word “despair” in the lines Be beginning to despair, to despair/Despair, despair, despair, despair. You’ve got to hand it to the Victorians — they don’t beat around the melodramatic bush.

Then we moved on to the classic “Pied Beauty,” and we talked about how he joined words to make particular meanings: rose-moles, fresh-firecoal. We talked about how much he loved nature and how carefully he observed it, and how because of the way he was religious, just taking a walk outside was like having a vision. This is something that many of the children, of many religious backgrounds, seem to understand.

Then, because they were still listening and I couldn’t help myself, we read “God’s Grandeur,” which is one of the most deeply-felt poems I know about people messing up the earth and the earth’s continuing resiliency, which again is a beauty and pain that many of the kids feel deeply.

By then it was high time to write, so we wrote poems about lists of things we liked, the way Hopkins does in “Pied Beauty.” I encouraged specificity, music, particular and fresh words. They wrote some beautiful poems, and a long story about Thanksgiving. Several weeks later, when we were talking about what to make a crankie of, one of the Seattle students suggested Hopkin’s poems. We’re making a crankie of “Pied Beauty,” and it’s bursting with the same exuberant wonder for nature that the poem is. I’ll try to post it when it’s done.

By the way, to give credit where it’s due, I drew my Hopkin’s prompt from Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell’s excellent book SLEEPING ON THE WING, which is a great anthology for teaching poetry to kids, and which has all the Hopkins poems we read in it as well.

Want to hear more ideas about teaching poetry to children? Come to one of Becca’s upcoming free talks.