April 23, 2014

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Poetry: It’s in the Details

Poetry demands that we pay attention. From haiku to animal poems to riffs on classic tales, this season’s new titles open readers to the world around them—and some exquisite wordplay. Be sure to share them as you celebrate National Poetry Month.

year Poetry: Its in the Details Perhaps no poetic form relies on detail more than a well-crafted haiku. The Year Comes Round: Haiku Through the Seasons by Sid Farrar, illustrated by Ilse Plume (Albert Whitman, 2012: K-Gr 3) begins with an homage to winter’s artistry (“Each windowpane’s a/masterpiece, personally/signed: Your Friend, Jack Frost”), paired with a light-filled illustration worthy of cut crystal by Caldecott Honor artist Plume. A baker’s dozen of poems corresponds to each month of the calendar year, and concludes with a haiku on the Earth’s cycle. Several tap a humorous thread, such as this nod to an autumn tradition: “Waiting patiently/in the pumpkin patch for his/face: Jack O’Lantern.”

animal Poetry: Its in the Details Two recent collections of animal poetry take different approaches to investigating animals, yet both inspire readers to look again at creatures they likely take for granted. National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar!, edited by J. Patrick Lewis (National Geographic, 2012; Gr 1-5), displays stunning photographs of the caliber that first established the publisher’s reputation.

A gorgeous spread of a caterpillar and chrysalis anchors three poems about a butterfly’s metamorphosis. Graham Denton’s poem “What’s a Caterpillar?” answers the title’s question thus: “Little/but a fly/in waiting, ” while David McCord’s comical and factual “Cocoon” takes readers through an entire life cycle, alongside a glorious image of a monarch about to burst from its transparent shelter.

At times, the images are so well matched that readers may wonder, which came first, the poem or the photo? For instance, the second stanza of Alice Schertle’s “The Bull” starts, “I’m striking a pose; I’m standing still/as a statue here on the top of the hill,” as the animal  in the photograph gazes out at readers, right front paw lifted, midway between statuesque and about to charge.

Pug1 Poetry: Its in the Details Place this poem and image alongside Valerie Worth’s “Bull,” from her posthumously published poetry collection Pug: and Other Animal Poems, illustrated by Steve Jenkins (FSG, 2013; Gr 3-5). Jenkins creates a collage of a great-horned brown woolly creature against a toreador-red backdrop, as Worth describes “the earth/[Shaking] forth/Great beasts/From its deep/Folds,” but the bull “Had to be/Hacked out,/Rough-hewn,/From the planet’s/Hard side,/From the cold/Black rock/That abides.” Both poems allude to the qualities of a statue, yet both also describe the pent-up, barely contained energy of the bull. The photo and Jenkins’s collage both play up the animal’s stillness, yet its eyes remain fixed on us—the interlopers.

Two poems about a tiger also beg for comparison. Worth’s “Bengal Tiger” uses thunder as a metaphor for its rage: “Sharp stripes flash/In his fur—/Is it too wicked/To wish/He would break out,/Fill the zoo/With storms,/Run his lightning/Into the world?” Its wide-open jaws in Jenkins’s collage seem to exhale thunder and lightning. The photo of the tiger in Lewis’s anthology, on the other hand, looks like a kitten with its tongue hanging out—a comical contrast to the anonymous limerick, which boasts of a “young lady from Niger/who smiled as she rode on a tiger.” Children can guess before the end what happens to her. Both pairings invite children to talk about not only the details that the poets focus on, but also to how the photo and collage each create specific moods.

Grumbles Poetry: Its in the Details The last pair of poetry books puts fairy tales through their paces, and will attract older readers as eagerly as younger ones. Start by reading aloud Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” then examine the poems inspired by it in Grumbles from the Forest: Fairy-Tale Voices with a Twist by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Kai Dotlich, illus. by Matt Mahurin (Boyds Mills, 2013; Gr 3-5), and also in Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems by Marilyn Singer, illus. by Josée Masse (Dial, 2013; Gr 3-6). Yolen and Dotlich describe the seduction of the sea in “Water Girl” (“I am a water girl./I love the feather curl/Of foam on tops of waves”) and also boats capsizing (“Sometimes I save a man”). They pair it with “A Mermaid’s Love” (“Little Mermaid/loved him so./Enough,/enough/to let him go”).

follow Poetry: Its in the Details Singer, in her reverso poems, focuses on the moment of “The Little Mermaid’s Choice.” Will she stay in the sea, or give up her voice in order to gain a pair of legs and, hopefully, the man she saved? The same words in one direction lean toward one possible choice (“For love/give up your voice./Don’t/think twice”); the words in the reverse direction suggest the opposite choice: “Think twice!/Don’t/give up your voice/for love.” All four poems, taken together with both Mahurin’s and Masse’s evocative illustrations, will add up to a lively conversation among students about whether or not the Little Mermaid made the right decision.

While Singer uses the story of Thumbelina (“No Bigger than Your Thumb”) to explore the tiny heroine’s response (in one poem) to the mole’s proposal of marriage (in its reverso), Yolen and Dotlich create a pair of brief poems of both acceptance of her size in “Thumbelina: A Cinquain” (“what, pray tell, is/the choice of a little missy/at birth?”) and also of triumph over circumstances in “Little Bit: A Haiku”: “I am just a bit/Of a proper young lady,/Still I got my prince.” These poems that riff on the classic stories of childhood subtly ask young people to re-examine their tropes.

Discussion points and classroom suggestions above reference a broad range of CCSS. Some of these include:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.4 Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.
Identify who is telling the story at various points in a text.
Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.
Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters.
Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.
Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions).
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.
Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.
Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6–8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.


ratinterior Poetry: Its in the Details

Pug and Other Animal Poems (Worth)
©2013 by Steve Jenkins


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  1. I just picked up Rainy Day Poems for free on Kindle and I think it’s gonna be a hit with the kids.