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Feature Article: Poetry As Story

by Cay Geisler

Using poetry as narrative is a noticeable trend for the 2004 book season. From lyric poems journaling nature, a memoir told in prose poems, to verse novels, poetry has been busy telling stories. The variety of poetic forms used and the wide range of intended audiences illustrates that poetry as story is a format that has found its following.

Sonya Sones, who has written several verse novels, has another hit on her hands with ONE OF THOSE HIDEOUS BOOKS WHERE THE MOTHER DIES (Simon & Schuster, 2004). Emily's mother has died and she must go live with her father in California who just so happens to be a wildly successful movie actor. Sones is adept at capturing the grief and despair of a teen transplanted against her will who is also mourning for her lost mother. Teens will be enthralled with the Beverly Hills lifestyle, where wealth is obvious and neighbors are often celebrities. What sets this novel apart is a sly twist in the end that leaves us smiling and rethinking several episodes now that we know how things stand. The poetry is free verse, and the language is not overly evocative. However, with the strong character development, fast pace, and flashy setting, it is bound to satisfy her fans and generate more.

Another successful verse novel, this time historical fiction, is Paul Janeczko's WORLDS AFIRE: THE HARTFORD CIRCUS FIRE OF 1944 (Candlewick Press, 2004). Janeczko chronicles the disaster that claimed 167 lives and wounded 500 more, offering eyewitness accounts by victims and survivors alike using strong, visual language and swift characterizations. It is a quick, but powerful read.

NORTH OF EVERYTHING (Candlewick Press, 2004) by Craig Crist-Evans is less successful--not because his poetry is weak, in fact it is often striking--but because the voice of the unnamed boy just doesn't ring true. His actions and voice sound more like a character from the distant past than a current young person. The boy has no qualms about leaving his city life and embraces the country and farming wholeheartedly. Then his mother has a baby, his father dies from cancer and he carries on content to continue the life his father has recently chosen for his family.

SPINNING THROUGH THE UNIVERSE: A NOVEL IN POEMS FROM ROOM 214 by Helen Frost is intended for a younger audience--grades four through eight. The teacher, her students and the custodian write poems about their lives and their interactions with each other, each using a different poetic form. It is fascinating to get glimpses into the lives of these children and see the resultant effects their experiences bring to the classroom. "Every child is like / A little world with ever-changing weather, / Nights and mornings. And somehow, here we are, / Spinning through the universe together" (Frost, 2004). Frost includes a discussion of the various poetic forms, which will intrigue adults, but will probably be skipped over by most students.

And then there's NEW FOUND LAND by Allan Wolf. This hefty tome tops out with 512 pages and is the poetic escapade of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Told from more than 13 points of view using lyric poetry, Wolf's novel is an amazing reading experience. The characters are fully developed, the adventures are endless, and the pathos is real. Spending so much time with these men and Sacagewea results in an intensely heart wrenching story. Did I mention that the narrator is Lewis's dog, Oolum? Fascinating endnotes that detail what happens to the various members of the expedition are also included.

Kathi Appelt has written a remarkable memoir told in prose poems called MY FATHER'S SUMMERS: A DAUTHTER'S MEMOIR (Henry Holt, 2004). Kathi and her sisters wait for and dream about their father who is in the Middle East working. When he comes back, he divorces her mother and marries another woman who has two children of her own. A judge decrees that the girls must spend summers with their father. The prose poems are elegantly rendered vignettes of Kathi's childhood memories, as well as an emotional trip back through the early sixties.

TECHNICALLY, IT'S NOT MY FAULT: CONCRETE POEMS (Clarion, 2004) by John Grandits is a remarkably funny account of eleven-year-old, Robert, told in wildly creative concrete poems. Robert thinks outside of the box, needless to say, and his exploits, concerns, and musings are cleverly evoked in various forms and type fonts that extend their humor and insight. Robert's voice is right on and his perceptions hilarious. This short book is bound to appeal to readers of all ages and will extend the popularity of poetry.

Kristine O'Connell George authors HUMMINGBIRD NEST: A JOURNAL OF POEMS, (Harcourt, 2004) illustrated by Barry Moser. George and her family are fortunate to have a female Anna's hummingbird, the world's smallest bird, make a nest in a ficus tree on their patio and lay two tiny eggs. George writes poems from various family members' points of view, even the cat and dog, as they all observe the new family over a two-month period. Opposite each poem is an exquisite water-colored picture by illustrator, Barry Moser. The pairing of the simple but lovely poems and the gorgeous art makes for a stunning volume. George also attaches notes on her journal as well as detailed information about these amazing birds. George's journal gracefully combines science, language, and art and provides readers with an intimate look at this fragile creature.

The publishing industry appears to be paying attention to the success of the spoken word poetry movement and verse novels for teens, because we are now seeing more verse novels for younger audiences. Using poetry to tell a story is a great way to dispel fears about the poetry that is often taught in schools. Coupled with the wide margins and short lines, poetry as story is appealing to young people who have so much going on, but who still have to make sense of their worlds.

Poetry is language at its best. Exposing children to poetry in its various shapes and forms develops an ear and appreciation for the sounds of our language. Throughout their lives, children should hear poetry--inspiring not only a love for the written word but the spoken word as well. If 2004 is any indication, there is a lot of glorious poetry telling stories out there.

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