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Purposeful Poetry

“I need a poem to go with a unit on diseases.”
“I need a poem about respecting other people’s property.”
“I need a poem for a lesson I’m doing on invertebrates.”
“Where are your poetry books about personal hygiene?”

Upon hearing such requests posed by education students and teachers, a librarian’s first thought might be, Do these poems even exist? Of course, the next thought might be, Why in the world would someone think poetry books about personal hygiene should exist? Are hand-washing and nail-clipping the stuff of which poetry is made? And what does it teach students about poetry to give them a poem about, say, the flu?

Wonderful poetry can, of course, be written on almost any subject. This haiku from Jack Prelutsky’s If Not for the Cat (Greenwillow) would fit with a unit on invertebrates and is a genuinely evocative poem that in seventeen syllables captures the essence of jellyfish:

Boneless, translucent,
We undulate, undulate,

The problem comes in when poets begin writing poetry to fit a particular subject in order to satisfy curriculum needs. Then it becomes purposeful poetry, where the poet’s intention isn’t self-expression or revelation or even merely observation. Instead, the poet intends to teach children something finite and factual.

In some ways, poetry for children has always been a strange beast. Poetry, more than other forms of writing, tends to be an intensely personal expression. No characters spark a story to life, and generally no plot dictates the form of the work (putting aside the narrative poem or free-verse novel). Instead, poems spring from experience and the desire to put feelings or thoughts into words, using meter and rhythm to further evoke the experience. Adults writing poetry for children is almost incongruous — adult lives are not children’s lives, and children aren’t very interested in adult experience. They might be willing to read poetry about how cool it is to drive a car, or how it feels to have power to make choices with money beyond which video game to buy. But the themes are limited, and most adult feelings that could be expressed in poetry would be of very little interest to a child audience.

So adult poets writing for the child audience must take a different path. They can draw from memories of their own childhood, trying to recapture, say, the joy of riding a bike or the fear of dark places. They can look at the lives of children today and try to write poems about that, resulting in poems that often are more mundane or aiming for the funny rather than the experiential — the school poetry of Kalli Dakos in The Goof Who Invented Homework (Dial) is an example. Or adult poets can try to write about areas of common interest between children and adults, like animals (which Douglas Florian has done very successfully, beginning with beast feast [Harcourt]). They can write about things they observe in the world, which children can also observe with their keen insight if they take the time and wonder about, as the late Valerie Worth did so beautifully in her small poems (Farrar):

Marbles picked up
Heavy by the handful
And held, weighed,
Hard, glossy,
Glassy, cold,
Then poured clicking,
Water-smooth, back
To their bag, seem
Treasure: round jewels,
Slithering gold.

Out of these shared interests come poems where the adult experience and the child experience intersect. The shock of recognition can be felt on both sides of the age divide, as long as the reader has ever had the experience of holding a handful of marbles and pouring them out. The poem tells the truth but isn’t attempting to explain anything about the manufacturing process of marbles, or inform readers that gravity is responsible for making the marbles move down, or describe how marbles were used in ancient Egypt.

Increasingly, adult poets write poems that don’t come out of their own experience, either as an adult or a child, and that don’t come out of the experiences of modern-day children. They write poems that fill a niche, that serve a purpose — poems that will be useful, where children will learn something by reading them.

From the publishers’ perspective, this must seem like a good thing: it must be much easier to successfully market a book that serves a purpose. Humorous poetry has always been easier to sell, partly because teachers and other well-meaning adults believe children only like funny poems. Perhaps they have been turned off to poetry themselves by years of deconstruction in school, and by the feeling that understanding poetry is a lot of work with too many pitfalls. In any case, Shel Silverstein’s or Jack Prelutsky’s funny modern poems can be very profitable, inclining publishers toward publishing a book that aims for the funny bone. Experiential poetry — poetry written as pure art — can be a tough sell in this practical world. Poetry that extends a school curriculum is much easier to market because there is a built-in audience (teachers), and even public libraries will purchase such poetry on the theory that boys like information best.

Purposeful poetry edifies rather than illuminates, and sometimes makes no bones about doing so. Take Nancy Elizabeth Wallace’s picture book Leaves! Leaves! Leaves! (Marshall Cavendish), which includes this poem as part of the informational back matter:

Leaf, O Leaf,
you’re a food factory—
making food all day
for all parts of the tree.You use energy from the sun—
that’s light energy—
and a chemical called
it’s the green that we see.

Clearly, this poem was written to teach children about photosynthesis, to be used as part of an overall lesson on trees in the fall. The author chose words to fit with the facts rather than carefully selecting the perfect words to capture the essence of leaves or a sense of wonder at the way nature fits together—the poem is strictly to help children understand that leaves turn the sun’s light into chlorophyll and that’s what makes the leaves green.

Teachers — or many of them, anyway — must be applauding the increase in poetry that teaches. With the emphasis today on cross-curricular teaching, a poem about volcanoes covers two subjects at once. So a series like Children’s Press’s Modern Rhymes about Ancient Times may appeal greatly to a teacher who is hard-pressed to find time to teach either social studies or poetry. And yet, one wonders how much of either subject a child learns from a verse like this from the volume on ancient Rome:

. . . In the Forum you could hear a lively speech.
All the senators were right within your reach.
You could hear the latest news,
Pay attention, or just snooze,
Or stand up and give the leaders your own views.

True, such poems may well help children retain the facts — they work quite well as memory devices. But bumpy, lurching meter and dubious rhymes fill the series, and the amount of information communicated is necessarily very limited. The Fresh Squeezed poetry series by Carol Diggory Shields also tries to teach facts through poetry, and these poems at least are frequently witty, incorporating imagery to convey the information and make better poetry, as this poem from BrainJuice: Science, Fresh Squeezed! (Handprint) shows:

Gravity’s the law,
And you may not adore it,
But I can tell you, buddy—
You’d better not ignore it.
Without our good friend gravity,
We’d be in big trouble,
Your bed, your house,
Your dog, your cat,
Would float around like bubbles. . . . .

nterestingly, science, with its leaps from what is easily understandable (flowers are plants) to what is unseen and hard to imagine (plants are made up of molecules), may make for better poetry because it forces the writer to put the almost unfathomable into words and therefore requires more imagination to articulate. In Myra Cohn Livingston’s poem “Comets,” from Space Songs(Holiday), she includes the science of comets but also expresses their wondrousness:

Long distance travelers
from the cold
of space,
tugged by a passing star,
journey to see the sun
whose searing burn
swells them with gas
as on they race
streaming their blowing, sunlit hair.
These are comets.
They come.
They go.
They will return.

Many teachers use poetry as a way to practice writing, and if they have a child write a poem on Martin Luther King Jr., say, that assignment covers several subjects simultaneously. But what is a child being taught when (true story) he is reprimanded for not including enough facts in his poem? Such pointed writing assignments drive parents into libraries looking for samples of poems to match the child’s homework, and so demand is being created on the library end for poetry for the child who has to write a “career poem” or the one who is assigned to write a sonnet about his favorite food for a nutrition unit.

Sensing the market, poets begin trying to come up with poetry because it will fit into lesson plans. Betsy Franco created a book ingeniously pairing math with poetry in her Mathematickles! (McElderry). In it, she uses mathematical concepts together with words in a way that makes the reader look at the world a little differently, makes the reader’s brain twist just a bit:

rocks x waves = sand Or nest
– bird

Unfortunately, she followed up this elegantly succinct foray into cross-curriculum activity with the sprawling Counting Our Way to the 100th Day! (McElderry), a book clearly targeting teachers looking for material to celebrate that new school holiday, the Hundredth Day. Franco hasn’t lost her talent, and some of her 100 poems about the number 100 delight:

With one hundred little letters
you can write a small-sized poem
about pets
or friends
or bumblebees
or rainy days at home!

But because it is purposeful poetry — poetry written to serve a purpose — Franco must strain to incorporate the number 100, and she must pad the book to reach the total of 100 poems:

Hey, look!
I figured out something neat today.
The words “one hundred” have ten letters—
and though it would be much, much better
if they had 100 letters,
there’s a way to show one hundred
in an extra-special way:
Write it 10 times in a row.
Just look below!
Now whatayasay?

All poetry is purposeful in some way. But true poetry’s purpose must always be art in order to be true poetry. There’s tremendous variety in the forms art can take, and poetry is no exception, but we cannot truly say children are being exposed to poetry when the poetry they are being taught was written to teach about something factual. It’s a step back into the schoolroom of Mr. Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’s scathing indictment of education, Hard Times. In the intervening 150 years since Dickens was writing, we surely have learned that children need more than “Facts, sir.” They need poetry.

From the May/June 2005 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Poets & Poetry.

Susan Dove Lempke About Susan Dove Lempke

Susan Dove Lempke is a Horn Book reviewer and director of the Niles Public Library District in Illinois.



  1. Anna Weerasinghe says:

    This is such a tough subject and close to my heart – my mother is herself a poet, and I grew up surrounded by poems. Part of me wants to agree with Lempke, that purposeful poetry is not true poetry in some essential way (I definitely gave a sympathetic wince at some of the clunky rhymes above). At the same time, another part of me rebels. I’m not sure we’re right to restrict the purpose of poetry to a particular thing (art). For one thing, what is “art” anyway? Who decides that “art” can’t teach us something, that it must be set above mere functionality? For another, the moment a poem or any piece of writing goes out into the world, it is free to fulfill purposes the author might never have dreamed of. Could Shakespeare know his sonnets would become the interpretive playground of millions of future English majors? I think not. Maybe a more useful question to ask would be: can we have good purposeful poetry? In other words, does the goal of creating a poem to fulfill a specific curricular need necessarily mean sacrificing beauty, form, meaning, feeling, metaphor, imagery…all the things that make poetry great? Again, I believe the answer here is no. It certainly makes writing such poetry harder, but among the examples above there are some truly fun, inspired works (I was delighted by Livingston’s “Comets” and “Roots” from Douglas Florian’s Poetrees). These poems actually recommend purposeful poetry to me: if not for the purpose of educating on a particular subject, we might never have gotten such innovative poems about space, math and trees. True, we’ll have to suffer through some doggerel to get to the good stuff. But there is also plenty of “true poetry” (according Lempke’s definition) out there that is really terrible. So bring on the poems about tractors and dinosaurs – I’m ready to read.

  2. Christina Grayson says:

    While I wholeheartedly agree with Anna’s comment above–poetry as art and poetry free to be used as the artist intends it–the practitioner in me bristles a bit thinking about the current confines of the curriculum, which has always struggled to find a place for expression and creativity. Lempke’s statement below really spoke to me:

    “Many teachers use poetry as a way to practice writing, and if they have a child write a poem on Martin Luther King Jr., say, that assignment covers several subjects simultaneously. But what is a child being taught when (true story) he is reprimanded for not including enough facts in his poem?”

    I’ve seen this happen in classrooms with excellent teachers. I’ve also seen the opposite, in which further content and skill learning is consistently sacrificed with the intention of not wanting to box children into anything whatsoever, regardless of whether students are learning poetry or not. In short, the curriculum is entirely exploration of feelings, all year long, with no teaching of skills that would actually enhance a student’s ability to express his or her feelings in multiple modalities. In this era of accountability, with the potential to start valuing process alongside product (don’t let us down, CCSS), poetry as Lempke portrays it may be potentially potent. I say, bring it on in the classroom. If the kid incorporates a fact here and there by virtue of his or her own voice, about which they are aware and feel empowered, fantastic. If not, there are other avenues through which to reach content. Purposeful poetry is about voice, and so long as it’s there, it serves its purpose.

  3. Jessica Jones says:

    Both Anna and Christina bring up valid points about purposeful poetry. Lempke’s statement that “wonderful poetry can, of course, be written on almost any subject” represents to me a bridge between the two points about purposeful poetry. Like Anna said, yes not all “true poetry” is fantastic but then again purposeful poetry can be taken too far when it boxes the students in and limits their creativity for the sake of holding the students accountable to some standards. I do think poetry can include informational facts but we, as practitioners, must make sure we aren’t limiting what students can and want to do when making their poems. If we do, what does that say to students about what is valued in the classroom?

  4. Ben Johnson says:

    I loved getting a chance to read the comments from members of last year’s class and I believe both Christina and Anna bring up powerful points. While reading this article, I personally felt frustrated. I think it is easy for poems created to fill a specific niche (i.e. some curricular need) to be vilified as some type of bastardization of the poetic form. However, I find the argument the author makes far too simplistic. After all, many studies of creativity have shown that constraints often lead to creative problem-solving. For example, it was the constraints of iambic pentameter that led to some of Shakespeare’s most powerful verses. Therefore, adding constraints regarding content could facilitate powerful writing. However, for this to happen, it is essential that the teacher or poet holds themselves to not only convey content, but also convey complex emotion.

  5. Gabrielle Abramow says:

    I found this article extremely interesting because I never knew the focus of poetry from a poet’s perspective. I now have a different view of poetry with a deeper respect for it. I never knew that “poets intend to teach children something finite and factual” in which “children will learn something by reading them”. It is fascinating that poet’s write about what the readers need to learn rather than what the poets want to write about. Furthermore, I like how poets “intersect” their adult experience with a child’s experience in which both can relate to. I now look forward to implementing reading more poetry with my students and diving deeper into the moral of poems.

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