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English Grammar Lesson: Poetry May 31st, 2016

“The ham’s on your pillow,

The egg’s in your sheet,

The bran muffin’s rollin’

Down under your feet,

There’s milk in the mattress,

And juice on the spread–

Well, you said that you wanted

Your breakfast in bed.”

This is a poem called “Sorry I Spilled It” by Shel Silverstein. Do you know what I’m sorry for? Forgetting that last month was National Poetry Month! Poetry is a great way to learn English. There are so many different forms and types that you’re sure to find something that both entertains and educates you. Let’s take a look at some of them!

The most basic types of poem are the ones that follow simple rhyming schemes. Some rhyming poems follow an AA/BB pattern, meaning that the last word of each odd-numbered and even-numbered line rhyme. Here’s part of a poem by Hughes Mearns as an example, with the rhyming words in bold:

“Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today,

I wish, I wish he’d go away…”

Another simple type of rhyme is the ABAB pattern, where the first and third lines of a stanza (that’s like a section of a poem) rhyme and so do the second and fourth lines. Another word for this pattern is an alternate rhyme scheme. Here’s part of a poem by famed New England poet Robert Frost as an example. I’ve bolded the rhyming words in the A lines and italicized the ones in the B lines:

“The people along the sand

All turn and look one way.

They turn their back on the land.

They look at the sea all day.”

Robert Frost has any number of wonderful poems with different rhyming schemes. “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” follows an AABA rhyming scheme:

“Whose woods these are I think I know

His house is in the village though.

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.”

It’s also possible to rhyme only the second lines, as Shel Silverstein does in “Sorry I Spilled It” or in “How Many, How Much”:

“How many slams in an old screen door?

Depends how loud you shut it.

How many slices in a bread?

Depends how thin you cut it.

How much good inside a day?

Depends how good you live ‘em.

How much love inside a friend?

Depends how much you give ‘em.”

How can reading and writing these types of poems help you with your English? Well, they are especially good at helping you with pronunciation. If you know what the rhyme scheme of a poem is, it can help you learn how to pronounce new vocabulary. Let’s say you knew that Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” used the AABA rhyme scheme. And let’s say you already knew how to pronounce the words “snow” and “know.” But maybe you were confused by the word “though!” After all, the -ough suffix makes many different sounds: the long u sound of through, the short choppy sound of thought, the f sound of tough and enough. Because you know how to pronounce snow and know and you already know the rhyme scheme of the poem, you know exactly how to pronounce though!

Poems are also great for practicing rhythm. The way that you speak when you say a sentence goes a long way towards convincing someone of your fluency. If you stop at all the wrong places, even if you are pronouncing words correctly, that is a sign that English isn’t your first language. But because poems have specific rhythms to them and specific numbers of syllables per line, reading them out loud and hearing them read to you are great ways to work on your overall fluency. The Library of Congress has audio files of poets reading their own work, so you can hear just how each poem is meant to be read: https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/poetryaudio/

Who is your favorite poet in your own native language? Have you ever tried to translate their poems into English? Do they still sound like poems once their translated? Could you translate “Sorry I Spilled It” into your native language and still get the joke at the end?

Shel Silverstein