Rose, Where Do You Get that Red? by Kenneth Koch

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Rose, Where Do You Get that Red? by Kenneth Koch is written for educators, and yet it is accessible to others. Reading it as a mother shows me that reading classic poetry to my young child can be inspiring in not just their own understandings of poetry but also in their own writing. There is no need to limit children to “age-appropriate” poetry, which often is cliché and boring; children can handle the “real” stuff, like Shakespeare, Donne, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens.

In a detailed introduction, Koch describes how he teaches children from third grade to sixth grade how to write poetry using classic poems as examples and frames. Then, in ten chapters, he details ten writing prompts using ten different poems (by William Blake, John Donne, Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and others) and then provides examples of student poetry. He concludes with an extensive 150-page anthology of other poems that may work in elementary and middle school classes, with one line explanations as to how to teach them.

As a mother, a reader, and a want-to-be writer, I found Rose, Where Do You Get That Read? to be highly interesting . It emphasized to me that children are intelligent, that good classic poetry can be read and understood even at a young age, and that I can learn from poetry much as children can. It reminded me that just as the teacher didn’t expect the students to understand every part of a poem, I don’t have to understand every part of a poem to enjoy it and apply it to myself. Just as the teacher encouraged students to think about their own dreams, I can apply poems to my own imaginary worlds.

I admit that I skimmed some of the children’s poetry sections; while they were amazingly good for third and fourth graders, for example, they still were children’s poems, full of awkwardness. Because I skimmed some of those sections, this 300-page book was a quick read.

What I was most interested in was the selections of poems Koch suggested for children. All of his suggested poems were complicated and deep (“A Valedicition: Forbidding Mourning ” by John Donne, for example, has so many layers it’s mind-boggling), and yet his suggestions for teaching them to children were fascinating.

On the Donne example, he says:

The appeal of this poem for children is that it offers them new things to write about (science and math) and shows them how they can use these things to talk about tender and passionate feelings in an indirect way, without being embarrassed.  (page 50)

And then here is one of the student examples, this from a sixth grader (Stephen Sebbane):

Our Feeling

Our love is like two waves dashing together
No one can separate us, not even the shore
My hatred for your ex-boyfriend is like the way oil and vinegar repel.

Wow. Now, I won’t argue that that is a great poem. (Koch himself observes that he does not address revision at all in this book). However, I think it’s awesome that a young kid can apply his own feelings in a metaphor much as Donne did (Donne using the image of a compass). A child could still get something out of Donne’s poem, complicated as it is.

I knew that William Blake wrote “The Tyger” for children, so including that was expected for me. Even that, however, is difficult for children in this day and age. And yet, Koch points out that

Restricting children to poems supposed to be on their age- or grade-level deprives them of too many good things. They get more out of genuinely good poems than out of mediocre ones, even if the better poems are difficult in some ways. (page 179).

I’m convinced! Now I hope that my little son doesn’t mind if I read him poetry regularly through his life. I like it.

I highly recommend Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? if you are an educator. But even if you are not, it’s inspiring to see how good poetry can be applied to you yourself, and it may give you inspiration for your own poems.

Do you read poetry to your children?

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Read with Kids Challenge

Speaking of reading with your children, USAirways has partnered with Reading is Fundamental to sponsor the Reading with Kids Challenge from April 1 until June 30, 2009. They are hoping to log 5 million minutes of parents reading to kids. There are prizes too, but I’ve joined simply because I love the challenge to read with my son more. My goal is to read 2,500 minutes with him from April 15 (when I started counting) until June 30.

I try to read to him from a chapter book for about 20 minutes each morning. He plays with his toys and otherwise enjoys being awake while I read. I know he doesn’t necessarily understand what I’m reading, and he probably doesn’t care if I’m reading or not, but I like the time I spend reading with him. I also read him picture books before bedtime. He is getting better at sitting still and participating in the reading!

My goal of 2,500 minutes comes to about 35 minutes a day. Since I currently aim for at least 20 minutes a day, I think that is reasonable.

How much do you read to your kids every day? Why don’t you join this challenge to read to them more in the coming months?

Reviewed on April 17, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Rebecca, thank you thank you thank you for posting about Rose, Where Did You Get that Red?! I had forgotten the title and author of this book and I had been looking for it for years. I used to have this many many years ago when I was a teenager but got lost and I wanted it now that I have kids but could never remember the title until you I saw it here. *hugs hugs hugs*

    And the Reading with Kids Challenge is wonderful. I read with my kids everyday and they love poetry too, especially Shel Silverstein. I’ll check this out after the read-thon. 😀

  • This sounds so interesting!! One of my babysitters got me a Children’s Anthology of Poetry when I was younger, and I love it. 😀 She also got me The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, which I didn’t appreciate until I was much older.

  • claire, I am so glad I could help you find what you were looking for! My mom is an educator, so that’s how I knew about it — she had it on her shelf. And I thought the Reading with Kids challenge was great idea pre-read-a-thon for whoever is doing it as a family. At any rate, enjoy reading!

    Eva, yes I can understand appreciating Emily Dickinson later! I like how in this he encouraged using all kinds of poetry for children and yet talking about it together. I think that’s part of the key because like you said, you didn’t appreciate it as a kid… Koch’s book is the encouragement.

  • […] A Lotus from Poetry by Lotus inspired me to try my hand at a “Thirteen Ways” poem, in the mode of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Imitating this poem was also mentioned as a poetry writing prompt in Rose, Where Do You Get That Red?, which I read and reviewed on Rebecca Reads last week. […]

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