Haiku, Tanka, and Studying English

old pond / frog leaps in / water’s sound
 (Photo by Ghost Presenter on Unsplash)

So, yes, I’m not normally a big fan of poetry, either reading or writing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize their usefulness. While originally Japanese,  haiku and tanka have become something of a new tradition in English poetry and are nonetheless useful for learning English.

For a quick refresher: haiku are the short, three-line poems with a strict syllabic pattern (5-7-5). Tanka are a slightly longer form (5-7-5-7-7). There are other rules and traditions about “cutting words” and referring to the seasons, but that’s some next-level haiku-ing. In teaching, I focus exclusively on syllable count.

Forcing students to count syllables in words has a couple of effects. More than anything else, it makes them slow down, and as a result they pay closer attention to the word: how it’s spelled, how it’s pronounced, how it sounds. This can be especially useful with students who struggle with spelling; seeing how multiple letters can combine into just one sound can help cement some of the trickier English graphemes in their memory. It can also help build morpheme awareness, since students will be focusing on each individual part of the word.

Reading and writing haiku or tanka is also a great moment to talk about stress and emphasis. Even if stress isn’t important in haiku itself, a natural follow-up question to something like “How many syllables are in ‘refreshing’?” is “Where is the emphasis?”.

Moving to a higher level of language instruction, the short nature of haiku and tanka, and the puzzle-like aspect of fitting words together to fit the prescribed length, make them great writing exercises for students who are less inherently verbal or who normally struggle with what to say. If you go a step further towards a “genuine” haiku and require a student to use a term from the saijiki, the prescribed word list that references a particular time of year (link is an Archive.org link to an English translation), then you can even provide a jumping-off point to get them started. Not to mention using the saijiki is a creative way for novice students to reinforce new vocabulary related to the natural world: seasons, plants, animals, the weather, etc.

And no matter what the language level, the arbitrary syllable count restrictions force students to search for different words and different ways to express things than what just initially comes to mind. If they want a 5-syllable line to read “beautiful summer day,” that won’t work, but can they think of any synonyms for “beautiful” that are only two syllables long? If they really want to keep “beautiful,” then they’ll have to compromise on “summer”  or even “day,” depending on what the rest of the poem is. How can they do it?

Finally, because they’re so short, writing tanka and haiku is just fun. It’s rewarding to be able to sit down and, a few minutes later, have a complete poem! It’s the perfect activity for when students (and teachers 😉 ) need encouragement or a bit of instant gratification.

Memorizing

A Caucasian hand holding a small sheet of paper with a typewritten poem.
Photo by Sarah Brink on Unsplash

Much like meditation a few years ago, enough disparate pieces that I’ve read have talked about the benefits of memorizing poetry that I’ve decided to give it a shot. Because I don’t have enough to do in my life!

Most of my experience with memorization has been with music. I took piano lessons for ten years, and during those ten years I had a piano recital every six months where I’d be expected to perform at least one, and usually two or three, pieces from memory. I also did a three-year stint in marching band, which involved memorizing music alongside drills.

Memorizing poetry? Not so much. It was part of an assignment for freshman year poetry class, and I can’t remember any of the poems I chose to memorize and recite in front of the class. (Except the William Carlos Williams one about the red wheelbarrow and the chickens. Everyone padded out their line count with that poem. The professor was real sick of it by the end of the semester.) The only other time was when I had to recite a short extract from Eugene Onegin for an intercollegiate Russian competition. I did poorly in the competition, but it stuck a little longer with me than the freshman year poetry. Years after my working knowledge of Russian all but vanished, it was still satisfying to be able to repeat the first two lines to myself. Vesna, vesna, pora lyubvi…

As it turns out, memorizing anything is just good brain practice. There’s no doubt a value in it for EFL and foreign language students as well: new vocabulary, examples of complex or confusing grammar points you can call to mind immediately, and engagement with the language culture on a more meaningful level. Wolf also nods to slightly more drastic reasoning in Proust and The Squid: 

On almost any occasion, [my children’s eighty-six-year-old Jewish grandmother, Lotte Noam] can supply an appropriate three-stanza poem from Rilke, a passage from Goethe, or a bawdy limerick—to the infinite delight of her grandsons. Once, in a burst of envy, I asked Lotte how she could ever memorize so many poems and jokes. She answered simply, “I always wanted to have something no one could take away if I was ever put into a concentration camp.”

So after reading about memorization, and specifically poetry memorization, I decided to make a point of committing a few poems to memory. Because I’m a classics nerd, I started with a handful of the Orphic Hymns. It went surprisingly well; the next challenge will probably be in a language besides English. Karin Boye? Goethe? Brushing up on my Pushkin?

Part of the trick is finding poetry I like, and that’s a pretty tall order.

National Poetry Month 2018: Nayyirah Waheed and Instapoetry

I actually stumbled across Waheed’s poetry last November, but since I’m always at a loss when it comes to recommending and enjoying poetry, I kept it under my hat until my annual National Poetry Month post.

As it turns out, poetry on Instagram–Instapoetry–is a thing. A popular thing. This is what I get for not being on Instagram, I guess? I first came across Waheed last November, when a member of my Facebook book club shared a link to the free Kindle downloads of Waheed’s collections, salt. and nejma. I didn’t realize that Waheed is part of a larger movement that includes New York Times bestsellers and international book tours and full-on celebrities.  As this take from the Guardian points out:

Despite their popular success, the Instapoets’ style of angsty heartbreak poetry and daily outpourings of emotion is not to everyone’s taste. Nor do they undergo the same rigorous revising processes of more conventional poets. Gregson has said he never edits his 17-syllable haiku – “because it felt like betraying the exact emotion of the time” – and Leav says anything she posts online should be considered a first draft.

And while Instapoetry may feel insipid and bland at times, does poetry need gatekeepers? If Instapoetry is the poetry of capitalism, is that such a bad thing? Surely Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, and Langston Hughes would have been sharing early drafts of facile, ambitiously vague poetry on Instagram if it had been around sixty years ago? Are we only sneering at Instapoetry because young women like it?

I don’t know. I can only know what I like.

As someone who’s had a life-long fascination with patterns and structure and rhythm, it’s not really surprising that when it comes to poetry I am naturally attracted to closed verse, with its underlying regularity in meter and rhyme. No surprise, then, that I tend to prefer my poetry in the form of song lyrics.

Waheed’s poetry, on the other hand, is thoroughly modern: free verse, fragmentary, and with an interesting relationship to punctuation. Unsurprisingly, I was not consistently blown away at every page, but there are some gems in both collections.

As Rishi Distidar says in that Guardian article:

What makes you a poet is learning the craft, spending time reading other poets and bringing writerly tools to the emotions you are trying to convey. I think it’s great if people are enjoying poetry through social media but the next step would be to read more poetry and understand what else is out there. Contemporary poets offline are incredibly vibrant – it’s just directing people into that world.

However! Such short little bursts of language are perfect for EFL students to work with, in the classroom and outside of it. You can order paperback copies of her work from Amazon if you want copies for students to browse in your classroom, or you can follow Waheed on Instagram for little bits of poetry in your Instagram feed.

Take This MOOC: Literature and Mental Health

Literature and Mental Health is actually a course I stumbled on thanks to Learning How to Learn (which I’ve previously reviewed here) and their weekly email newsletters. I was too late to sign up for it initially, but opened again in January and finished up the first week in March. (Don’t worry: these courses often repeat! Sign up now if you’re interested in taking the course in the future.)

Literature and Mental Health is another offering from FutureLearn, like Inside IELTS (see my review here, including some comments on FutureLearn). It’s presented by Jonathan Bate, Paula Byrne, and was developed by the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick. As the name would suggest, Literature and Mental Health looks at how literature, particularly poetry, might be beneficial in treating mental illness. The course focuses on six particular issues related to mental well-being:

  • Stress
  • Heartbreak
  • Bereavement
  • Trauma
  • Depression and Bipolar
  • Aging and Dementia

Literature and Mental Health, like Inside IELTS, is presented only in English. The literature in question is English, and the course draws particularly from the British literary traditions. Nonetheless, the course seems to have been enjoyed by learners all over the world, judging by the comments in the course discussion.. There are transcripts of every video, which EFL students will no doubt find helpful. (There is the occasional hiccup in the transcripts, but for the most part they’re quite good.)

As I mentioned earlier, the course focuses almost exclusively on poetry. I am notoriously indifferent about poetry, and so I would have appreciated equal attention paid to prose throughout the course. Nonetheless, I appreciate that Literature and Mental Health drew from a broad scope of English literature, from the 1600s until today. The poems selected represent a lovely cross-section of the English language and how it’s developed over the last 350 years. EFL students might find some of those older poems intimidating, but you might be surprised at how how much you can take away from a poem, especially if you read contemporary discussion and analysis alongside of it.

There are no quizzes or other recall assignments involved. Instead, there are periodic, optional “activities” connected to literature-adjacent research: can reading poetry improve mood? what makes poetry easy or difficult to memorize? Students who find themselves stressed over MOOCs because of assessments or grades would do well to start with this one, as it’s incredibly low stakes.

Finally, the course draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Every unit includes interviews with other writers, poets, or British cultural luminaries. Additionally, a medical professional always anchors the initial discussion on the week’s focus, so that the discussion of the literature is always grounded in what the medical world knows about that particular condition. Even if you don’t get anything out of the poetry, you might learn something new about mental health!

Friday 5: October 6 Through 10

The first week of October is National Customer Service Week in the United States and Kenya. Where have you received especially good customer service?

Flying Scandinavian Air Services (or whatever SAS actually stands for) is always a treat. But that said, I value price over comfort in air travel, and Norwegian wins on that front. And they’re pretty good for a budget airline. Skimpy meal service (but I hate eating on planes anyway—the food is okay but it’s just so cramped), but the planes are new and comfortable.

People having a really good time at a noraebang in South Korea.
Noraebang! // PBS News Hour

Noraebangs (karaoke boxes) in Korea also are really good at customer service. One more than one occasion my friends and I received “service” items from the noraebang we were partying it up at: free beer, ice cream, or an extra half-hour of room rental.

 

The second Saturday in October was National Tree-Planting Day in Mongolia. When did you last do anything resembling tree-planting?

When you’re a teacher, every lesson is like planting a tree!


October 4 was World Animal Day (the feast day of Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals). What’s an obscure animal you know a thing or two about?

Okapi2

Okapis are related to giraffes and, just like giraffes, have blue-black tongues. They’re also endangered, so maybe consider supporting okapi preservation as a holiday gift to yourself or others?

October 6 was National Poetry Day in Ireland and the United Kingdom. What’s a line of poetry that springs to mind now that you’re thinking about poetry?

I’ve been thinking about Karin Boye recently, so here:

Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister.
Varför skulle annars våren tveka?
Varför skulle all vår heta längtan  
bindas i det frusna bitterbleka?
Höljet var ju knoppen hela vintern.
Vad är det för nytt, som tär och spränger?
Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister,
ont för det som växer
                              och det som stänger.

Ja nog är det svårt när droppar faller.
Skälvande av ängslan tungt de hänger,
klamrar sig vid kvisten, sväller, glider  -
tyngden drar dem neråt, hur de klänger.
Svårt att vara oviss, rädd och delad,
svårt att känna djupet dra och kalla,
ändå sitta kvar och bara darra  -
svårt att vilja stanna
                              och vilja falla.

Då, när det är värst och inget hjälper,
Brister som i jubel trädets knoppar.
Då, när ingen rädsla längre håller,
faller i ett glitter kvistens droppar
glömmer att de skrämdes av det nya
glömmer att de ängslades för färden  -
känner en sekund sin största trygghet,
vilar i den tillit
                              som skapar världen.

What’s in your pocket?

Nothing, because my pajamas don’t have pockets!

National Poetry Month 2017: Allen Ginsberg

Finding a poet or poem to celebrate for National Poetry Month today was difficult for me. Like I said last year, I’m not really a fan of poetry.

The rare exception is Beat poets. I was born perpetually looking backwards, always joking I’d been born thirty years too late. (And then the universe saw fit to grant me that poorly-expressed wish on November 9 last year.) From a young age I was fixated on hippie counterculture, as well as its predecessor: The Beats. One of my self-directed research projects at school was on Allen Ginsberg. I don’t remember where or when I first read “Howl“, but there was something so new and so weird and so arresting about it that I wanted more. Tragically, I’m separated from my Ginsberg collection—Planet News, Collected Poems, and his journals—but I can direct you to some of my favorites.

I think my all-time favorite is actually “Sunflower Sutra“:

We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.

America” feels apropos, even today.

If you have the time, you can also listen to him read “Kaddish.”

Elizabeth Bishop and Ernest Hemingway: A NaNoWriMo Pep Talk

Full disclosure: this blog post originally appeared, essentially in its entirety, on the Stockholm WriMos Blog. I’m reproducing it here because 1) I wrote it and 2) I still think it’s helpful.

I took a lot of writing workshops in college—par for the course when you’re a Creative Writing major. They were a tough slog, but everything was worth it for this one valuable insight:

First drafts are not the final product.

It sounds so banal, doesn’t it? So self-evident, so obvious. But the difference between what you scribble in that so-late-it’s-early madness and what gets finished (maybe even published!) isn’t just cosmetic. It is huge. Substantive. Significant. If you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, you might recall that King touches on this. If you’re an aspiring writer and you haven’t read On Writing, you should, but for this blog post I’ve dug up something even better than King’s example. It illustrates the reality of this little truism better than I ever could.

Elizabeth Bishop and “One Art”

Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet during the middle of the last century. A few of her poems are bound to come up in the study of English writing and American poetry, in particular, her villanelle “One Art.” reproduced below:

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Pretty stunning little poem, isn’t it? Every time I revisit it, it gets me.

How many drafts do you think it took Bishop to pen this? Certainly a few. But could you quantify it? I’ll let you take a moment to guess.

Ready?

She wrote 16 drafts of this poem.

The truly fantastic thing is that, because she was so contemporary, we have a pretty good record of her stuff, including those drafts. All 16 are still around today (and are, I’m sure, part of some university’s fancy literary collection).

My writing professor photocopied selections from those drafts (images of the original, handwritten drafts!) and handed them out to us as part of her lesson on the importance of revisions. I forget whatever it was she said that day (sorry, professor!) but just seeing those changes and that personal struggle on the way to a finished product was lesson enough. Unfortunately, I failed to keep that handout. But the Internet has preserved their content, if not their original form. Go read them now. Even if you’re not a poet (I’m not). Even if you didn’t like the above poem. My point is not only to illustrate the difference in quality (that is, at the end of the day, subjective) but also the difference in form, in content, in voice.

If you don’t have time to read all of them, then at least read this first draft.

The Art of Losing Things

The thing to do is to begin by “mislaying”.
Mostly, one begins by “mislaying”:
keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens
– these are almost too easy to be mentioned,
and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up
in the most obvious place, although when one
is making progress, the places grow more unlikely
– This is by way of introduction.
I really want to introduce myself – I am such a
fantastic lly good at losing things
I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.

You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost
I mean lost, and forever two whole houses,
one a very big one. A third house, also big, is
at present, I think, “mislaid” – but
Maybe it’s lost too. I won’t know for sure for some time.
I have lost one long (crossed out) peninsula and one island.
I have lost – it can never be has never been found –
a small-sized town on that same island.
I’ve lost smaller bits of geography, like
a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay.
Two whole cities, two of the
world’s biggest cities (two of the most beautiful
although that’s beside the point)
A piece of one continent –
and one entire continent. All gone, gone forever and ever.

One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one averaged-sized not especially——— exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
(except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally beautiful and
But it doesn’t seem to have, at all … the hands looked intelligent)
the fine hands,

a good piece of one continent
and another continent – the whole damned thing!
He who loseth his life, etc… – but he who
loses his love – never, no never never never again –

The difference between the two is something to be marveled at. Not only for the difference between the first and final drafts, but also for the fact that Bishop had the dedication to work these scant few lines over 16 times until she found what she was looking for.

What’s Ernest Hemingway got to do with it?

This quote gets around a lot, especially during NaNoWriMo, but it bears repeating:

The first draft of anything is shit.

This doesn’t mean that all first drafts (including this one) are automatically mind-breakingly awful. (I would not deign to call a Poet Laureate’s first draft “shit”; that smacks of hubris.) Some certainly are mind-breakingly awful; some are quite good. Chances are yours will fall somewhere in between. But, with rare exception, you will think what you have written is shit. And it is your own judgment call on your work that matters the most, at the end of the day. If you are perfectly content with the first thing that comes out when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you are a sparkling rare unicorn but also probably have no need for motivation or inspiration or pep to sit down and write. Why are you even reading this?

Image courtesy Dodgerton Skillhause at MorgueFile.com.
Image courtesy Dodgerton Skillhause at MorgueFile.com.

But if you are not that sparkling rare unicorn who loves everything they write on the first go, then you need to embrace the possibility of your first draft being shit, because at least some of it will be. It is not a pretty truth and it can absolutely get overlooked in all the hype and run-up to NaNo. “Nothing is perfect in a first draft,” they say. True. But that’s a euphemistic spin on this cold, hard truth:

Some, if not all, of your first draft will definitely be terrible.

Not just “not perfect.” Not just “not that good.” Some of it will be awful.

Say it a few times until it sinks in. Look in a mirror if you have to. Channel your inner Elsa and let it go.

You need to have that Zen experience of realizing that you will write shit, the first draft of anything can and probably will be shit, otherwise your dreaded Inner Editor will come out and stop you from adding new words to the paper. If you cannot make peace with that fact, you are going to have a tough time—not only with NaNo, but with writing anything. Ever. For some reason, people seem to be able to apply this lesson to any other skill (drawing, learning a musical instrument, building things) but when it comes to writing people refuse to believe it. Maybe it’s because writing is a skill we study more in school than art or singing or carpentry?

Now, this got pretty bleak, and the point of this was to be a pep talk, wasn’t it? Here is the silver lining of this “it’s all going to be awful” philosophy:

It is one of the most potent cures for Writer’s Block known to WriMos.

Having that Zen moment and giving yourself permission to write shit, through some weird alchemy, turns into giving yourself permission to write. For real. Even if you just do NaNo for fun and have no aspirations to publish or revise or edit or even read what you wrote ever again. Permission to write shit is the big gun you need when a deadline isn’t enough. (For many people, a deadline becomes that path to Zen mastery, but sometimes it’s the other way around.)

It is also an essential part of the revisions process, but more on that in another post.

My first draft? Is definitely going to be terrible. It is going to be cringe-worthy and awkward and there will be moments when I will want to delete the whole thing out of shame. It’s in those moments when I recall Elizabeth Bishop and Ernest Hemingway and press on. I am, after all, in good company.

And so are you.

Here’s to writing shit! We will all do it, and we will all be better for it.

To fifty thousand!

Bob Dylan Wins the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature

First of all, I’m always amazed that Bob Dylan isn’t dead yet. I think this is because I’ve always been under the impression that he was well in his 20s or even 30s by the time he appeared on the music scene. The truth is that he was closer to 18, so I suppose it’s actually not surprising at all that he hasn’t shuffled off this mortal coil.

I’ve already talked about my favorite lyricists back in April, to celebrate National Poetry Month. You might notice that Bob Dylan isn’t on the list. To be perfectly honest, he’s never been one of my favorite musicians or lyricists. Funnily enough, the night before Dylan’s win was announced, he was a topic of conversation among myself and a few of my friends, specifically related to protest and political music. I brought up Edwin Starr’s “War” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (but then promptly forgot the lyrics, oops!). One friend countered with:

“Okay, but like, Dylan. Ugh, I hate Dylan. I like The Band so much better.”

“Well, I’ll give you that. Dylan writes great songs for other people to cover, but I can’t stand his voice.”

When the Swedish Academy announced Dylan’s win the very next day, I was almost tempted to email an article about it to said friend. (I didn’t.) I still felt a little like a kingmaker, though. My trash obviously makes people Nobel Prize winners. If you have a favorite author who you believe has been snubbed for a Nobel Prize, get in touch with me and I’ll do my best to tip the scales in their favor for 2017. 😉

All jokes aside, though: even though I don’t particularly care for Bob Dylan, I’m not particularly upset over his win—not on the grounds of him not being a “proper” writer, anyway. There is something to be said about the moral obligation of literary prizes to award deserving but unknown writers, and Dylan’s celebrity, as well as his artistic chops, have been well-established by this point. This is the same awkwardness that underlies Neil Gaiman’s 2016 Hugo for best “Best Graphic Story”: Neil Gaiman has garnered enough acclaim by now to comfortably coast on it for the rest of his life. (That’s another post, though. Some extenuating circumstances make Gaiman’s win a bit different.)

Perhaps the sad truth simply is that more people deserve a Nobel Prize than can possibly win one.

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” Wins the Man Brooker Prize; I Daydream About Korean Translations

Han Kang speaking at an event in 2014.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and user Ccmontgom

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has been making the rounds on the book blog corners of the Internet for a while now, so I’m not that surprised to see it win the prestigious Man Brooker Prize. What is more surprising is the story of the English translator:

The book was translated by Deborah Smith, who only started teaching herself Korean in 2010.

She said she initially tried to translate the book for a publisher after only learning Korean for two years, but the translation was “awful”.

However, after publisher Portobello Books asked her if she had a Korean book that would be “right for their list”, she had another go at translating a year later.

Translating can be a tricky business. Even in neighboring languages there are discrepancies—when does “jag orkar inte” mean “I don’t want to,” and when does it mean “I don’t feel like it,” and when does it mean “I can’t be bothered”?—with languages from two different language families, the gulf will only widen. An artful translation that maintains all of the nuances of the original is a difficult task, and it seems like Smith succeeded. (“Seems like,” I say: I leave it to the bilingual readers to determine if she actually succeeded.)

I’ll admit, for a few years now it’s been my pipe dream to foster more translations of Korean literature into English. Smith’s success has rekindled the hopes I have for that pipe dream (there are Korean courses at Stockholms universitet! was my first thought on reading the news) and I find myself daydreaming a little. But maybe the daydream is more about attaining enough Korean fluency to enjoy a whole new realm of literature, and less about actually translating anything.

At any rate, there is certainly plenty of work to be done when it comes to Swedish literature in translation. There is far more in the Swedish literary tradition than Astrid Lindgren and gritty crime novels, after all. It’s a sad state of affairs when Pär Lagerkvist, one of the foremost Swedish authors of the last century and a Nobel prize winner, is still incompletely translated into English. I would love to bring his work, or help somebody else bring his work, to a larger international audience.

Pär Lagerkvist
Justice for Pär!

Again, congratulations to Han and Smith. I look forward to devouring (hah, hah) The Vegetarian in the near future, and I wish them much success, literary and otherwise.

National Poetry Month 2016: Great Lyricists

Musician On Stage
Music is a great way to enjoy poetry. // Image courtesy insouciance on Flickr.

In the US, April is designated as National Poetry Month (among many other things). And while I’m an English teacher, I admit that I actually don’t care much for poetry. Heresy! But put that poetry to music and suddenly it becomes something magical. I’ll let other writers and teachers tackle the poets; this poetry month I want to talk about songwriters and lyricists. Music is often touted as a great way to learn a language, and I believe that wholeheartedly, but I think the quality of the lyrics makes a huge difference in how effectively you can learn from a song.

There are too many that I could possibly list, but no matter what I would have to start with Tom Chapin, the poet and bard of my childhood. He’s always my first suggestion when parents want English children’s music. His songs use simple language and a wry sense of humor, and many of them promote positive lessons on topics like tolerance in “Family Tree”:

The folks in Madagascar
aren’t the same as in Alaska.
They got different foods, different moods
and different colored skin.
You may have a different name,
but underneath we’re much the same.
You’re probably my cousin and the whole world is our kin.

or environmental stewardship in “Someone’s Gonna Use It”:

When you stand at the sink did you ever think
about the water running down the drain?
That it used to be in the deep blue sea
and before that it was rain?
Then it turned to snow for an Eskimo
to use in a snowball fight.
Then it floated south ’til it reached your mouth
to help you brush your teeth tonight.

Someone’s gonna use it after you.
Someone needs that water
when you’re through.
‘Cause the water, land and air,
these are things we’ve got to share.
Someone’s gonna use it after you.

Twenty-odd years later and I still know entire albums by heart. They are catchy tunes.

It’s worth mentioning the late Harry Chapin, Tom’s older brother and a giant in the American singer-songwriter/folk scene. Tom’s music for families and children is great, but sometimes you want something a little more mature. Harry had a knack for weaving stories, often bittersweet or outright sad, into his music. “Cat’s Cradle” is basically the story of parenthood:

My child arrived just the other day.
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay;
he learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
he’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad.
You know I’m gonna be like you.”

I’ve long since retired; my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu.
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad.
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me,
he’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

And “Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas” tells the actual true story of an out-of-control tractor trailer full of bananas in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

He was a young driver,
just out on his second job.
And he was carrying the next day’s pasty fruits
for everyone in that coal-scarred city,
where children play without despair
in backyard slag-piles and folks manage to eat each day
about thirty thousand pounds of bananas.

If you’re not a fan of folk music, then allow me to shift gears into popular music for a second. The genre has a bad reputation for being shallow, but there are great writers in the genre. My long-time favorite is Ben Folds, who (like Harry Chapin) is a fantastic storyteller, though with an electric guitars-and-keyboard pop style instead of a solo acoustic guitar. He also has some great character studies:

Your Uncle Walter’s going on and on
’bout everything he’s seen and done.
The voice of 50 years experience,
he’s drunk, watching the television.

You know he’s been around the world.
Last night he flew to Baghdad
in his magical armchair.
Cigarettes and a six pack, he just got back.
The spit’s flying everywhere.

(“Uncle Walter”)

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark.
There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall.
He has cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes;
things that remind him: “Life has been good.”

Twenty-five years,
he’s worked at the paper.
A man’s here to take him downstairs.
“And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones.
It’s time.”

(“Fred Jones Part 2)

Be warned that Ben Folds doesn’t shy away from using strong language, so this isn’t one for your younger children (maybe). But for those of you who don’t mind salty language, “Army” and “Song For the Dumped” are two of my favorite of his story songs.

Finally, if you prefer something a little more offbeat, you can’t go wrong with They Might be Giants. While some of the lyrics border on absurd or nonsensical (like “Dead”), and others on standard pop music’s repetition of just phrases and rhymes for rhyme’s sake (“Cyclops Rock”), there are lots of more linear, story-like songs.

I never knew what everybody meant
by endless, hopeless, bleak despair,
until one day when I found out.
The first time I ever left my house
it saw me and followed me home,
and stayed with me for my whole life.

For years and years I wandered the earth,
condemned to a life of bleak despair.
Then, one day, I looked around
and found it had disappeared.

(“Hopeless Bleak Despair”)

How can I sing like a girl
and not be stigmatized
by the rest of the world?
Tell me, how can I sing like a girl
and not be objectified
as if I were a girl?

I want to raise my freak flag
higher and higher, and
I want to raise my freak flag
and never be alone.
Never be alone.

(“How Can I Sing Like a Girl?”)

They also have a couple albums of educational albums out: one for letters, one for numbers, and one for science.

I could go on, but I’ll stop myself here. That’s plenty of new music to explore, isn’t it?

Who are your favorite songwriters? Is there anyone I should know about? Comment or Tweet at me!