Poetry encourages us to think in very unusual ways. That’s because poets typically use tight-knit structures to explore whatever topic, sensation, or idea they set out to fathom in their attempt to (re)awaken us, to make us see (more) deeply whatever topic, incident, emotion, or circumstance takes hold of their imaginations. In their explorations, poets more likely than not leave gaps for readers to fill in order to shape the poem’s meaning according to their own unique insights and wanderings. In Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, Laurence Perrine calls up poetry as “a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than ordinary language.” It’s the intensity of a good poem that captivates and even startles, but it’s the same intensity that also moves us to take up the hard but joyful labor of discerning meaning, which is to say, making sense, discovering, and uncovering some remarkable awareness about human experience in all its mundane, extraordinary, extreme, shocking, hopeful manifestation.
“It is difficult to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack of what is found there,” warns William Carlos Williams in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”
Poet Williams would surely agree that it’s important, no, crucial, for young adults to be led to poetry that speaks to their needs and concerns and interests, but that also challenges them to move beyond their boundaries and the safety of the familiar. Poems —well-crafted, resonant, suggestive—- have the power to transport us to other times and places, other cultures, and other spiritual and religious convictions. Good poems don’t teach as much as they lay out an experience, a feeling, a desire, a mood —whatever— inviting us, as U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky suggests, to coordinate “body and mind in the creation of meaning” (Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud).
Hearing of mind and body and reading aloud as links to making a poem mean brings me back to the advantages of experiencing poetry through recitation, choral interpretation, drama, and, why not, simple movement and intricate dance. What’s the reward of a mind/body/spirit move through a poem, or for that matter any work of literature? Verlyn Klinkenborg reminds us of what we might gain:
“Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body…. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading” )“Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud.” The New York Times, May 16, 2009).
Of course, it’s important to reserve time for our adolescents to get poems to make sense through private, silent reading. But, not always.
Of course, it’s important to reserve time to make our adolescents competent readers by teaching them the habits of “close reading,” that demanding skill of analysis and interpretation that leaves no word and all that lingers between each word unresolved. But, not always.
In truth, there are a few “tried-and-true” practices that will help make teens’ connections with poetry memorable auditory and physical experiences, such as:
*Enthused teachers who introduce a lot of poems that run the gamut of topic, theme, curricular connection, style, and form. Collaborating with their students, teachers can model good read aloud techniques and comprehension/interpretation moves.
*Availability. Working with a school or public librarian, teachers bring into their classrooms a grand supply of poetry books, which their students browse, choosing a few poems they like, and sharing these with peers in small-group reading circles.
*Choice and More Choice. Motivation comes though assignments in different subject areas —particularly, literature and social studies— which allow high school students to integrate poems into specific
assignment requirements. For examples of poetry collections that address topics and themes in the context of social studies, see Gail Bush and Randy Meyer’s Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice, Lori Marie Carlson and Oscar Hijuelos’s Burnt Sugar: Contemporary Cuban Poetry in English and Spanish, and Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond in the listing that follows.
Teachers and parents remember: “What we learn with pleasure, we never forget.” —Alfred Mercier
Adoff, Arnold. Roots and Blues: A Celebration. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Clarion, 2010. As rendered in Adoff’s characteristic “shaped speech” poems and poetic prose, blues music is traced to the brutalities inflicted by slavery, shackles, and chain gangs, and also to poignant memories preserved in shared stories of bondage, release, and freedom, to the unyielding movement of the Mississippi River, to the joy of gathering and making improvisational music with friends, and to the specter of irrepressible hope. Ultimately, the blues linger in lyrics and rhythms that harbor broken hearts, shattered dreams, and loneliness as much as they soothe, sympathize, and speak to survival. As Adoff reminds us in “Sit Up Straight And Sing,” it is the alchemy of the blues’ honesty and integrity that liberates. “Stand up./The blues are in your spine:/hard as shackle steel/ soft as fingers/picking l i n e s from steel strings./…. we sing each morning/sunrise s t r o n g e r than yesterday.” Complementing the exuberance of the poet’s respectful tribute are Christie’s soulful full-color acrylic paintings that, in turn, infuse topic and theme with moments of agony, jubilation, and reverence. A worthy companion is Walter Dean Myers’Blues Journey (Holiday House, 2003).
Alexander, Elizabeth, and Nelson, Marilyn. Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Wordsong, 2007. Miss Crandall, a Quaker by faith and education and thus an abolitionist, kept her school open from 1833-34 in Canterbury, Connecticut, until the townspeople, motivated by racism, ransacked the building and set it on fire. The two dozen heartfelt sonnets give voice to Miss Crandall’s students who describe their love of learning, backgrounds, discoveries, and responses to the townspeople’s disapproval. Brought to vivid reality in these poems is the courage to live by the power of trust and a belief in the cause of social justice. An introduction describes the history of the school and Miss Crandall’s commitment, and in appended notes, the authors describe their collaborative writing process.
Angelou, Maya. The Complete Poetry. Random House, 2015. With teens, stop, linger, and wonder at the sheer brilliance of the range of Angelou’s voice, temperament, concern, cause, and ability to shock, startle, and awaken her readers. It’s all here. The exuberance that heightens her celebrations of African American womanhood, the anger and disappointment that give rise to her rumination on racism and the hardships endured by her people, the respect sustained by her reflections on endurance, survival, and redemption, and the hope that gives her the very reason for carryin’ on, persisting, longing for change in the form of equity. With your teens, leave this rich and varied journey cleansed by the power of the Word, of language beautiful, profound, and remarkably accessible. So be it!
Anglesey, Zoë (Ed.). Listen Up!: Spoken Word Poetry. One World/Ballantine, 1999. Into the center of the performance poetry craze, come nine young poets from among the best known and hippest stars of the trade, most of them award-winning slam competitors. What they dish up is soulfully personal (Jessica Care Moore’s “I Am a Work in Progress”), fiercely political (Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s “Evolution”), intensely honest (Willie Perdomo’s “no more/123rd St./where I sold dope/for breakfast”), curiously sensual (Suheir Hammad’s “Angels Get No Maps”), and cautiously optimistic (Carl Hancock Rux’s “all the light there is,/and hands and hands and hands, delving.”). Performance generated and performance bound, many of these poems –with their jazz-like riffs, bold cadences, and rap-like movements –are cued to the development of readers theater presentations. The book includes poet biographies and a notes/glossary section keyed to obscure references and foreign word and terms in the poems.
Blum, Joshua, Holman, Bob, and Pellington, Mark (Eds.). The United States of Poetry. Abrams, 1996. Based on the premise that poetry reflects the culture of a nation, the 80 poems in this collection include the works of American Nobel Laureates, rock n’ rollers, Beats, cowboy poets, rappers, and even former presidents. The poems have been organized to explore cultural diversity through such topics as “The Land and the People,” “Day in the Life,” “The American Dream,” “Love and Sex,” “The Word,” and “Portraits.” These are honest, mournful, dark, playful, and often raw poems.
Bryant, Jen. Ringside 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial. New York: Knopf, 2008. MS-HS~
The famous Scopes trial of 1925 comes to life through a chorus of well developed fictional characters as they narrate, in a series of linked free verse poems, the mounting tension and fierce controversy that made the trial a national phenomenon. A high school science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, J. T. Scopes was arrested for having taught Darwin’s theory of evolution in his classroom. Bryant creates a compelling drama from a raging debate among locals including a minister, business proprietors, a law enforcement agent, a religious fanatic, and students. A readers theater in the making.
Bush, Gail and Meyer, Randy (Eds.). Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice. Norwood House, 2013. Because “[a] poem has the ability… to widen the angle through which we view society,” posit the editors, what better way to explore the conditions of social justice in America than through the voices of fifty 20th century poets that capture with fierce honesty the failures and triumphs of the struggle to achieve equity, inclusion, and agency. Conceived of as a journey, the anthology sets off with poems that observe the phenomenon of social justice from a distance (Coleman’s “the ISM,” Rexroth’s “Discrimination,” Shakur’s “Liberty Needs Glasses”). Then, in the second stretch of the journey, the poets offer views and critiques of communities both familiar and unfamiliar to readers (Reed’s “Points of View,” Mora’s “Bilingual Christmas, “Do you hear what I hear?,” Divakaruni’s “Indian Movie, New Jersey,” Mueller’s “Invisibility Poem: Lesbian”). The poems in “Giving Secrets Away,” the third turn in the journey, invite us to fathom the lives of people deeply transformed by exclusion, discrimination, and fear (Okita’s “In Response to Executive Order 9066: All Americans of Japanese Descent Must Report to Relocation Centers,” Angelou’s “Harlem Hopscotch,”). Shared experience is the theme that links the poems in “The Signals We Give,” the journey’s fourth movement (Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” Soto’s “Failing in the Presence of Ants,” Oliver’s “Sunrise”). In “The Next Thing to Happen,” we reach the final destination or, rather, a revival of commitment with poems that celebrate human resilience (Rodriguez’s “Piece by Piece”), resistance (Baraka’s “The Last Word”), and the ultimate triumph of the human struggle to achieve mutual respect (Stafford’s “Being a Person”).
Carlson, Lori Marie and Hijuelos, Oscar (Eds.). Burnt Sugar: Contemporary Cuban Poetry in English and Spanish. Free Press, 2006. So write the editors: “In creating this book of twentieth-century poetry written by Cubans of four generations, we hope to convey to an American audience something of the very particular life experiences of those who share Cuban heritage.” The collection is filled with seduction as well as prayer, death plus joy, beauty, and pain; and these extremes on the scale of life experiences are perfectly balanced and often expressed in transcendently lyrical language.
Chang, Tina, Handal, Nathalie, and Shankar, Ravi (Eds.). Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. Norton, 2008. The editors of this massive anthology set out to explore a response to the 9/11 debacle that would demonstrate the power of language, specifically, the language of poetry, to shape a vision of a contemporary world view in contrast to a vision shaped by the specter of further violence and a clash of cultures. The result of their search is an unprecedented gathering of poems that awaken the heart and mind to a shared world-wide political and personal consciousness as well as to culturally specific aspirations, beliefs, and dogmas. The volume resonates with the artistic, cultural, and political voices of more than 400 mostly Asian poets representing East, South, and Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the United States. The editors have gathered the poets’ reflections on the human condition around nine intriguing themes described in section introductions: “In the Grasp of Childhood Fields,” “Parsed into Colors,” “Slips and Atmospherics,” “Earth of Drowned Gods,” “Buffaloes Under Dark Water,” “Apostrophe in the Scripture,” “This House, My Bones,” “Bowl of Air and Shivers,” and “The Quivering World.” Among the features with which the anthology concludes are a country index and a language list. What a fantastic and timely contribution to our understanding of Eastern peoples and their cultures and contemporary literature!
Collins, Billy (Ed.) 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day. Random House, 2005. Product Description: Inspired by Billy Collins’s poem-a-day program for American high schools that he began through the Library of Congress, the original Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry is a gathering of clear, contemporary poems aimed at a wide audience. In 180 More, Collins continues his ambitious mission of exposing readers of all ages to the best of today’s poetry. Here are another 180 hospitable, engaging, reader-friendly poems, offering surprise and delight in a wide range of literary voices–comic, melancholy, reflective, irreverent. If poetry is the original travel literature, this anthology contains 180 vehicles ready to carry you away to unexpected places.
Espada, Martin (Ed.). El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry. U of Massachusetts, 1997. Former farm workers and gang members, a physician, an ex-tenant lawyer, a professional chef, a Vietnam war veteran, and many others, both well-established (Gary Soto, Pat Mora, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Sandra Cisneros) and lesser-known younger poets, contribute to this temperamental and sometimes raucous tribute to Latino/a experiences. Their voices resonate anger, pride, the indignity of racism, protest, and the desire for cultural preservation and integration in sonnets, ballads, prose poems, free verse, and other expressive forms. Together they illustrate a culturally-conscious poetry, both complex and diverse, sensuous and lyrical, evocative and profound. Think chorus, think readers theater.
Franco, Betsy, (Ed.). You Hear Me? Poems and Writings by Teenage Boys. Photographs by Nina Nickles. Candlewick, 2001. In mostly free-verse poems and brief narratives, teens from diverse cultures and backgrounds speak frankly and from the heart, often with raw imagery and provocative voices, about the perils of navigating the frequently harsh challenges that make adolescence such a precarious human condition. Not surprisingly, the concerns these young men lay bare center on identity, relationships, sex, drugs, AIDS, family, rejection, loss, and survival. There’s a surprising and welcomed vulnerability to their honest revelations, an urgency to their hopes and dreams, and a vibrancy to their desire for a fulfilling life.
Franco, Betsy, (Ed.). Things I Have to Tell You: Poems and Writings by Teenage Girls. Photographs by Nina Nickles. Candlewick, 2001. A revealing mix of poetry and prose offers a deeply poignant interpretation of lives lived with a keen sense of the vigilance needed to survive adolescent angst. Empowered with the sheer energy of their convictions, the young women assembled here explore their fears, disappointments, relationships won and lost, dreams, aspirations, longings, and, ultimately, the integrity and self-respect that help them to stay the course as they remain true to their belief in human decency. Gritty language enhances the realism and honesty of their discoveries.
Greenberg, Jan, (Ed.). Side by Side: New Poems Inspired by Art from Around the World. Abrams, 2008. Here we have a kaleidoscope of poetic voices from thirty-three countries and six continents inspired by classical, modern, and contemporary art. The poems, which were written or translated especially for this anthology, are gathered into four thematic sections based upon the type of response the art evokes in the poet. In “Stories,” the poet discovers a storyline in the art. In “Voices,” the poet writes from the perspective of a character seen in the art. In “Expressions,” the poems reveal the intensity of the poets’ interaction with the art objects. In “Impressions,” the poets focus on the art itself by attending to the artists’ elements of composition. Superbly designed, the book includes brief biographies of the poets, translators, and artists, and a full-page colorful map of the world that shows where the poets, translators, and artists live or lived.
Hopkins, Lee Bennett, (Ed.). America at War. Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. Margaret K. McElderry, 2008. In this carefully crafted anthology, raw sentiments are brought to life in more than fifty poems and a host of haunting watercolors that span the devastating power of eight wars, from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War. Esteemed poets such as Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and e. e. cummings express their vision alongside newer poets such as Sara Holbrook, J. Patrick Lewis, and Rebecca Kai Dotlich.
Janeczko, Paul B. Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto. Candlewick, 2011. MS – HS+~ Publisher description:
Paul B. Janeczko’s stirring new collection of poems goes inside the walls of the notorious camp to portray the indomitable spirit of those incarcerated there.
Hitler hailed Terezín (Theresienstadt) as a haven for artistic Jews, when in reality the Czech concentration camp was little more than a way station to the gas chambers. In his second book inspired by devastating history, acclaimed poet Paul B. Janeczko gives voice to this heartrending creative community: its dignity, resilience, and commitment to art and music in the face of great brutality. The many memorable characters he conjures include a child who performs in the camp’s now famed production of Brundibár, a man who lectures on bedbugs, and a boy known as “Professor,” who keeps a notebook hidden in his shoe. Accented with dramatic illustrations by prisoners, found after WW II, Janeczko’s spare and powerful poems convey Terezín’s tragic legacy on an intimate, profoundly moving scale. (Tony Manna adds: There is a captivating picture book version of the opera Brundibár retold by Tony Kushner and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, Michael Di Capua/Hyperion, 2003, titled Brundibar.)
Lewis, J. Patrick. Freedom Like Sunlight: Praisesongs for Black Americans. Illustrated by John Thompson. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions, 2000. In these compact, image-rich, rhyming poems accompanied by Thompson’s radiant artwork, Lewis celebrates thirteen African Americans who remain legends because of their unique contributions in making the world a better place. Lewis and Thompson honor entertainers such as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (“…sang my songs like sand on gravel…”), Marian Anderson (“In colors/Beautiful/And strong,/She brushed/The air…/And painted song.”), and Billie Holiday (“Her bittersweet songs told Heartbreak,/Meet your sister Pain,/But Lady melted yesterdays/Into beautiful rain.”). They sing and paint the praises of sports superstars such as Jesse Owens (“The Fuhrer looked away without seeing/the man jump over Germany,/jump beyond hope and gravity,…farther than any other human being would jump/for the next twenty-five years.”), Leroy “Satchel” Paige (“Out of a windmill windup,/the whipcord arm grooves a dartball/on a sting past the hopeful, waiting/at the plate for a miracle….”), and Wilma Rudolph (“And there are those who saw her run/Who still remember well:/In Paris, France,/She was Black Pearl,/In Rome, the Black Gazelle.”). Their roster of renowned individuals who challenged established social norms include Sojourner Truth (“I go on preaching freedom’s fire,/Children, hear my cry./It ain’t for sale and it ain’t for hire,/Children, hear my cry….”), Martin Luther King, Jr. (“I hear the shot,/I feel the pain…./Who bravely fought/Must fight again.”), and Malcolm X (“Today the day holds on against the night,/Because the fight for justice has begun.”). Appended “Biographical Notes” fill in the details implied in the poems and Thompson’s portraits, group scenes, and still lifes.
Marsalis, Wynton. Jazz A-B-Z: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits. Illustrated by Paul Rogers. Candlewick, 2005. Marsalis and Rogers celebrate jazz greats in alphabetical order from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie, each musician revealed in a distinctive poetic form designed to characterize each musician’s unique personality, talent, and commitment to their career and fans. Thus, John Coltrane comes alive in a list poem, Duke Ellington in meter play, Sarah Vaughan in a sonnet, Billie Holiday in a lyric poem, and Dizzy Gillespie in skeltonic verse. Further enhancing the appeal and information are prose biographical sketches of the musicians, “Notes on the Poetic Forms,” and a discography of “26 Jazz Records You Will Enjoy,” all of which conclude the volume. A book to be pored over and revisited many times for the love of music and inspiration. Many voices waiting to be performed readers theater style.
Nelson, Marilyn. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Illustrated by Philippe Lardy. Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Nelson forms her remembrance of teen-age Till’s 1955 lynching in a heroic crown of fifteen interlinked sonnets. In this format, the last line of one sonnet is the first line of the next sonnet sometimes in slightly different wording, and the final sonnet is comprised of each first line of all the preceding sonnets. Yet, the formality of the form, the language, and the constant literary and historical allusions never lessen the emotional impact of the poet’s gripping exploration of the horrific incidents surrounding Till’s death and the dreadful social and cultural issues that ignited such hatred. Nelson’s introduction—“How I Came to Write This Poem”—her appended notes about Emmett Till, and her description of the rationale and allusions underpinning the sonnets further strengthen the impact of a searing reading experience. Lordy assists with a helpful explanation of the logic behind his symbolic paintings of the natural world tainted by strokes of foreboding.
Nye, Naomi Shihab (Ed.). What Have You Lost? Photographs by Michael Nye. Greenwillow, 1999. One hundred and forty poets, some well known (William Stafford, Lucille Clifton, Pat Mora, and Maggie Anderson) and some published here for the first time, a few in translation, speak from the heart about loss and recovery. In these deeply moving poems, loss ranges from the commonplace (wallet, glove, memory) to the utterly shattering (brother, friend, relationship, husband). Often, though, sadness and regret and grief are transformed by the solace of memory and resignation tempered by spirituality and belief. We can survive and carry on—however changed we may forever be by the experience!
Paschen, Elise and Raccah, Dominique (Eds.). Poetry Speaks Who I Am: Poems of Discovery, Inspiration, Independence, and Everything Else. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2010. More than 100 classic and contemporary poems navigate the meaning of personal and social identity with passion, compassion, humor, uncertainty, bewilderment, and longing. Alongside Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost, readers meet up with Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Alexander, Lucille Clifton, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Marilyn Nelson —many fine poets who explore friendship, family, love, desire, heartbreak, and contentment. Adding to the book’s attraction are the CD with forty-four of the poets reading their own work and the comforting design that invites readers to take their time searching for poems that attract and offer something to live by.
Philip, Neil, (Ed.). Earth Always Endures: Native American Poems. Illustrated with Photographs
by Edward S.Curtis. Viking, 1996. Through this compelling gathering of sixty translated prayers, chants, and songs, readers discover the spiritual beliefs of representatives from more than fifty Native American nations. Gleaned from sources published between 1889 and 1968, the pieces are arranged in a circle, from one dawn to another, in recognition of the Native belief—offered here by Black Elk— ‘“…that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.”’ In some sections, a transparent theme or topic underpins a cluster of poems. Prayer itself binds several pieces that open the anthology. Later, the spirit of rain and nature’s animism are the links that connect “The Wind Blows from the Sea,” “Invocation to the Rainmakers,” and “The Mockingbird’s Song,” each poem driven in thought and rhythm by anticipation of a coming, saving rain. In other sections, the one, for example, sustained by reverence for nature’s gift, the manner is more mysterious and, thus, more opaque, as in this Hidatsa song: “I am simply on the earth,/Need I be afraid?” For all their minimalism, these poems resonate far-reaching meditations on the human condition and the blessed interconnectedness of humankind and all that gives the universe its substance. Alongside each poem is a captivating duotone photograph by acclaimed photographer Edward S. Curtis whose countless photographs, taken in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, helped to preserve the dignity of a host of Native peoples. This is a book to be pored over with students as they fathom Native history, lore, and cultural contribution.
Pinsky, Robert, (Ed.). Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud. Norton, 2009. This is a collection everyone will want to return to time and again! Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate, has assembled a dynamic assortment of more than 400 poems that spans centuries (16th to the 21st), invites delight and wonder, and appeals to a broad range of taste, interest, and degree of sophistication. The seven sections into which the poems have been cleverly arranged according to form and what Pinsky calls “principles,” exhibit “Short Lines, Frequent Rhymes,” “Long Lines, Strophes, Parallelisms,” “Ballads, Repetitions, Refrains,” “Love Poems,” “Stories,” “Odes, Complaints, and Celebrations, and “Parodies, Ripostes, Jokes, and Insults.” Within this vast territory, John Donne keeps company with Emily Dickinson; Theodore Roethke with May Swenson; Shakespeare with Rita Dove; and Christina Rossetti with Allen Ginsberg. Generous introductions speak to the pleasures of experiencing a poem in tandem with unobtrusive analysis, the rewards of reading aloud, and poetic technique, and an accompanying CD features Pinsky reading a selection of the poems. There’s something for everyone in this treasury of delicious delights.
Photos courtesy of and copyright: Free Range Stock, http://www.freerangestock.com