In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Guest blogger: Grownup poetry for YA readers

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I am so jealous of your dinner with Lois Lowry!  I've been meaning to write about her for a long time, and will do so on Friday, when (I hope) I'll be done with portfolio grading, and facing only a large stack of final papers from my other classes.  Until then, here is my most excellent friend and colleague Emily, who teaches the Poetry Workshop class at Stuyvesant and is an accomplished poet in her own right.

Dear Annie,

As someone who has spent the past ten years teaching poetry to teenagers, I want to recommend a handful of writers that young, word-loving people respond strongly to.

Teenagers and poetry are, of course, a fabulous match. When I was in high school, I spent long hours on the front lawn reading Adrienne Rich’s poems out loud with my friend Eve, the grass tickling our legs. My school-issued Norton Anthology of Poetry was permanently cracked open to the short “Women Writers” section, ten pages that eventually led to my career as an English teacher and poet.

Since then, the internet has democratized poetry in wonderful ways. Type “Sarah Kay,” “Alvin Lau,” or “Andrea Gibson” into Youtube and you’ll be instantly thrilled by the spoken word videos you discover. (I’m totally serious: try it!) Page poems, too, are easier than ever to find and connect to. The web site has a marvelous search mechanism - “Poems for Every Occasion” - that allows my high school students to search by topics such as “Grief,” “Summer,” “Poems that Teenagers Like,” and even “Sharks” or “Shoes.” That said, there’s something beautiful, almost secretive, about the experience of holding a book of poems, and the right book in the right young hands can be a very big deal.

Mary Oliver is a perennial favorite, one who writes lovely, accessible nature poems. She’s written reams of books, and New and Selected Poems, Volume One and
American Primitive
are both favorites of mine. Here’s the entirety of “Wild Geese,” a poem it is easy to imagine a high school writer falling in love with:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

100 Selected Poems
is a wonderful little edition of poems by e.e.cummings, a writer whose explosive calligrams and expressively-punctuated poems are universally adored by my students.

            A more contemporary writer I love is Lucille Clifton. Her book Blessing the Boats is a great place to start, and her short, evocative, lower-case poems go down easy but linger in the mind. Here’s an excerpt from Four Notes to Clark Kent, titled “note passed to superman,” that is sure to delight young readers:

sweet jesus superman,
if i had seen you
dressed in your blue suit
i would have known you.
maybe that choir boy clark
can stand around
listening to stories
but not you, not with
metropolis to save
and every crook in town
filthy with kryptonite.
lord, man of steel
i understand the cape,
the leggings, the whole
ball of wax.
you can trust me,
there is no planet stranger
than the one i'm from.

The lyrical humor of Billy Collins is easy for writers of all ages to adore, and his web site and fantastic anthology series, Poetry 180, is designed to integrate poetry reading into daily student life. I know both teachers and students will appreciate this representative excerpt from the poem “Did I Miss Anything?” by Tom Wayman:

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

     Everything. I gave an exam worth
     40 percent of the grade for this term
     and assigned some reading due today
     on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
     worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Check out the website to read the rest; it only gets better.

On a totally different note, Sara Teasdale wrote gorgeously sad love poems, many involving Union Square, Coney Island, and other New York landmarks that delight my city students. Like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet whose love sonnets I could not get enough of in high school, Teasdale’s work is filled with rhythm and rhyme, so that she feels at once contemporary and deeply classical. Many of Teasdale’s poems are deliciously sad, perfect for a heart-broken high-schooler, but here’s the beginning of a more joyful piece, “Barter”:

LIFE has loveliness to sell,
     All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
     Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

 There are, of course, roughly a zillion other poets I could recommend: Nick
Flynn’s Some Ether is raw and potent; Frank O’Hara’s
Lunch Poems
radiate casual joy; Yusef Komunyakaa writes gorgeously visceral poems about growing up in the American South; Kimiko Hahn’s intimate, conspiratorial poems in Mosquito & Ant feel like secrets that the coolest girl in school is whispering into your ear. As Billy Collins once wrote,

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

Poetry does, indeed, lead to more poetry, both the reading and the writing of it. These writers are a good place to begin. 


And love from me, Annie

No comments:

Post a Comment