What would children make of the experimental American poet e e cummins (1894-1962)? Well, there’s only one way to find out! Cummins played about with poetic form and language, to such an extent that his poems do not really look like many other poems. He breaks all the rules – capital letters, punctuations, length of lines and so on. But it is because his poetry is so anarchic that he appeals to children. They enjoy making sense of his strange structures and they like the way he plays with words. Welcome to free verse!
A good poem for them to start with is In Just-spring, the apparently simple tale of a balloon man and some children playing. Here is how it begins (and note the layout):
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
I think this is one of the poems which you just have to put out there for children to look at.
1. Give them a copy between two or three. Ask them to read it through a few times to themselves and to each other.
2. Discuss: What is unusual? Who do you like? What do you not understand? How is it different from the way you usually write? Hopefully, they will note the strange spacing, the running together of eddie and bill, the lack of capital letters, the inclusion of seemingly made-up words such as “mud-luscious”.
3. Then work towards some kind of class performance of the poem, or it could be performed in groups. Leave it to the children where to put in any pauses. Perhaps remind them that the end of a line in a poem is not necessarily a reason to pause.
4. Leading into writing. Imagine a story about Eddie, Bill, Betty and Isbel. What have they been doing? Where have they come from? What do they say to the goat-footed balloon man?
Some other questions to discuss:
How does the poet feel about spring?
Why is it “Just” spring?
What is “mud-luscious”?
What is it like when it is “puddle-wonderful”?
Do poems have to rhyme? What is the effect of not having rhyme or set rhythm in a poem? Do you like this?
Here is a performance of the poem by e e cummins himself (in audio) with pictures:
Another thing children could do is find images online to accompany the poem – or they could produce artwork themselves about this strange Spring scene. Here is how one group of young people illustrated the poem.