The number one most requested list Andrew and I get here at Reading Rants Central is: “Could you make a poetry list, PLEASE?” The main reason I put off writing this list is because it’s very difficult to try and describe a book of poetry to someone who hasn’t read it. So for each of these books, I’m including a sample poem, or an excerpt of a poem. I’m fairly certain that I’m not violating any copyright laws in doing so (after all, I am a librarian, and I did a little research on it) but if you happen to be reading this and you happen to be one of the poets quoted or an editor of one of these books and think that I AM violating your copyright, please contact me ASAP and we will remove the offending passage. Cool? Alright, already! Here it is–my fav. poetry picks for the adolescent angst crew. Now, give me some peace, peeps!
I do not know if these hands will become
Malcolm’s–raised and fisted
or Martin’s–open and asking
or James’s–curled around a pen.
With a beginning that is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ DAVID COPPERFIELD, acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson guides readers through her early life using lyrical prose poems that evocatively describe the people and places that influenced her illustrious writing career. As her family moves from Ohio to South Carolina and eventually Brooklyn, New York, young Jackie never loses sight of the one thing she wants more than anything else: to become a writer. Every heads-up penny found/and daydream and night dream/and even when people say it’s a pipe dream…!/I want to be a writer. Even when reading doesn’t come as easily to her as it does to big sister Dell, Jackie doesn’t give up and is encouraged by the picture books by John Steptoe she takes out from the library. I’d never have believed/that someone who looked like me/could be in the pages of a book/that someone who looked like me/had a story. When she can’t make the words work, (Words from the books curl around each other/make little sense/until/I read them again, the story/settling into memory.) Jackie memorizes stories and quickly moves on to creating her own. Her first book is a stapled collection of butterfly poems, but we already know it will not be her last. Even though Brown Girl Dreaming covers Woodson’s childhood, I don’t know if I buy that this book is only a children’s title. Her clean, lyrical poems have a classic feel that can easily be enjoyed by readers of all ages. And anyone who’s ever yearned to be a writer will especially appreciate the longing that comes through on every page. This achingly wistful, heartfelt tome is a both a personal story and a universal one. It is the origin story of one writer and all writers. And it pairs beautifully with Marilyn Nelson’s How I Discovered Poetry.
I keep writing, knowing now/that I was a long time coming.
Friends, it’s National Poetry Month, so I snagged this tidy collection of fifty autobiographical unrhymed sonnets by acclaimed poet Marilyn Nelson and spent a sublime afternoon in the spring sun absorbing it. I’ve loved Nelson’s work ever since I read A Wreath for Emmett Till, her gorgeous homage to the life and death of a young boy whose callous murder helped spark the Civil Rights movement. This meticulously arranged selection of poems highlight different moments from Nelson’s childhood and adolescence in the 1950’s, each one an intimate little insight into what it was like to be constantly uprooted due to her father’s Air Force enlistment, to be the only black girl in her class or black family on the military base, to wonder and worry when she heard adults mention “The Red Menace” or “hide drajen” bombs. Both a snapshot of a person’s life and an unforgettable time period in American history, How I Discovered Poetry is also tribute to the power of words arranged in lines and stanzas and couplets. The last two poems actually made me gasp aloud, not only because of the thought-provoking content, but with admiration that Nelson could say so much with just a few well-chosen, well-placed words: “I say to the dark:/Give me a message I can give the world./Afraid there’s a poet behind my face,/I beg until I’ve cried myself to sleep.” Get thee to a library and check out Nelson’s work pronto, but if all you’ve got at the moment is an Internet connection and a thirst for beautiful turns of phrase, take a minute to drink in some poetry from this fine selection of websites:
Although I didn’t want April to slip away without reviewing a poetry book, this is not the one I thought I’d cover. It has sat on my shelf since last fall, it’s slim spine slipping down between other books, sometimes shoved behind but always reemerging to ask the mute question, “Why haven’t you read me?” Why? Because I was afraid it would hurt. Because I was afraid it would make me cry. Because this is a collection of poetry in many forms that examines the murder of Matthew Shepard and it’s aftermath and I knew it would be an emotionally brutal read. And it was. All those things happened—my heart broke, my head ached, I cried. But I’m glad I read it. Because this is also a collection of poetry in many forms that pays tribute to a life cut short and calls on anyone who reads it to fight against the ignorance, intolerance and hatred that caused Matthew’s murder. Each poem assumes a voice of a person or object that either witnessed or was in someway touched by Matthew’s life or death. We hear from the fence he was hung on, the moon who witnessed it, the prosecutor who argued his case, the jury who decided the guilt of killers, the judge who handed down two life sentences in prison. But the poems that touched me the most were those modeled after the famous apology poem “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. (Probably because all the apologies in the world won’t bring him back.) There’s this one, in the voice of Matthew’s heart: “This is just to say/I’m sorry/I kept beating/and beating/inside/your shattered chest/Forgive me/for keeping you/alive/so long/I knew it would kill me/to let you go” And this one in the voice of the judge who rejected the killers’ bogus defense: “This is just to say/I’m sorry/to deny/your request/to use/the gay panic defense/Forgive me/for pointing out/the obvious:/there was someone gay/and panicked that night/but that someone wasn’t you.” Author Leslea Newman has also included loads of fantastic backmatter, including a heartfelt author’s note, an annotated list of all the news sources she drew from to inform her poems and additional resources should readers want to learn more about Matthew Shepard’s life and memorial. A bittersweet and powerful collection.
In this heart-breaking verse novel, Annaleah is devastated when she gets the call that her sometime boyfriend Brian collapsed on the basketball court at the park and died. Just like that, Brian is gone. The situation feels surreal and Annaleah is in a state of shock. “It was absurd/that I had dirty laundry/and that Brian/was dead.” She goes to his funeral, even though she’s never met his parents and doesn’t know his friends. Now Annaleah has to manage all the conflicting feelings she had for the boy she only dated for three months and who she was never really sure of. Of course she feels grief at all the things they will never do together: “I will never/take a trip with you./I will never/dance with you at prom./I will never/know if we had a future/beyond this summer./ I will never/know if you would have said,/‘I love you.’” But she also realizes that their short relationship was far from perfect. “I wonder what it would have felt like/to have a relationship with Brian/where I wasn’t always questioning/and worrying/and feeling so alone.” After spending the summer visiting Brian’s grave, nursing her sorrow and avoiding her friends, Annaleah begins to wonder who she is without Brian’s grief to bear. “Feeling sad/has kept me busy–/it’s been my job./And if I come here less,/what will I have?” But then she meets quirky Ethan at the pizza joint where she works and finds out a secret about Brian that casts their brief relationship in a whole new light. Can Annaleah put the past and Brian’s ghost behind her? Or will she allow the memory of her lost love to destroy her ability to make any new ones? Samantha Schutz’s second book is a sad yet interesting look at the phenomenon of grieving over a relationship that never really was. 1 weepie.
The Pain Tree and Other Teenage Angst-Ridden Poetry collected and illustrated by Esther Pearl Watson and Mark Todd
What it is: A collection of poetry by former and current teens, turned into a book by former ‘zine authors Watson and Todd. Short, (only 25 poems total) but so completely worth checking out, mostly for the amazingly cool/crude illustrations drawn by the eclectic compilers.
What it ain’t: Trite, silly or over-the-top. Yeah, some of this stuff isn’t quite Pulitzer material, but it rings very true to this prior teen, who looks back at her own teen poetry journals and blushes, madly!
Who will like it: Anyone dealing with the trials of adolescence right now, or having teen trauma flashbacks as an adult while lying on a therapist’s sofa.
A Sample: The Pain Tree by Mark Todd/Can’t you feel it?/It hurts so bad!/You can’t?/What’s wrong with you?/How come you can’t feel it?/I don’t believe you./What do you feel?/Nothing!/No pain?/Just nothing, huh?/Well, let me tell you,/You’re missin’ out./It’s wonderful.
I Wouldn’t Thank You for a Valentine: Poems for Young Feminists Edited by Carol Ann Duffy, illustrated by Trisha Rafferty
What it ain’t: Despite the title, this isn’t pro-femi-nazi, man-hating stuff. (Sad to say, some of you still think the word “feminist” means that girls think they’re better than guys, and therefore hate their collective patriarchal guts. NO! It’s all about everyone getting equal pay for equal work–we should ALL be feminists, male or female!) It’s about being a girl and then a woman and all the stuff that is great about it, and, just to make it interesting, all the stuff that stinks about it.
Who will like it: Rrriot grrls who rock out to Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco and Liz Phair, and the boys who love them.
A Sample: Peck’s Bad Boys/Teacher called me a hussy/I told her I just wanted to be one of the guys/Their games more daring, longer-lasting/like an all-day sucker./Not fighting exactly/no back-biting, hair-pulling,/just out-front shin-kicking, punching/wrestling in the dirt/Rolling, maybe laughing/I told her I just liked the contact/all that hard muscle,/all those smells, dust, sweat, warm flesh./ Judi Benson
What it is: A collection of poems by nine masters of the spoken word form who perfected their art in the Brooklyn Moon Cafe and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe here in NYC. A short bio of each of these poets of color is followed by three or four samples of their work. Spoken word poetry kinda defies definition, but it’s a little like a story, a little like a song, and usually has a beat. It can be confrontational, contemplative, both, or neither.
What it ain’t: the Beat poets of the 60’s! There’s still some finger snapping involved, but this modern spoken word is an organic kind of poetry that is still growing and evolving as an art form.
Who will like it: Anyone and everyone who digs the stylins’ and profilins’ of the spoken word form.
A Sample: Excerpt from Jessica Care Moore’s “Black Statue of Liberty”: I stand still above an island, fist straight in the air/Scar on my face, thick braids in my hair/Battle boots tied, red blood in the tears I’ve cried./Tourists fly from all over just to swim near my tide/Or climb up my long flight of stairs./But they trip on their shoe string lies./Piece by piece they shipped my body to this country/Now that I’m here, your people don’t want me./I’m a symbol of freedom, but I’m still not free/I suffer from class, race and gender inequality./
What it is: The cream of the crop of teen-penned poems collected from the terrific New York Public Library and Poets House teen program, Poetry in the Branches. Editor Dave Johnson led poetry workshops where teens could write/read/share their poetic endeavors. Johnson picked these 36 pieces to represent all the good stuff he heard.
What it ain’t: Cheesy! This is sincere, from the heart poetry.
Who will like it: Wanna-be published, currently adolescent poets.
A Sample: Shoes/They’re my old men in rocking chairs,/spitting biographies into the sky./They’re gatherers of stories,/picking up the spit of kings,/the seats of beggars,/and the smell of babies/from crannies in the sidewalks/that glitter like a prostitute’s makeup/when the sun hits right./And the tales of the world,/in elegant calligraphy,/are written on their soles./–Ben Zeitlin
What it is: A collection of poems by many different people (some you may recognize as a famous writer or philosopher) that illustrate the difference (and occasional similarities) between truth and untruth. Editor Patrice Vecchione writes in her introduction, “Poetry is a particular way of telling the truth…Often a poem will say what you know is true but had never heard put into words before.” It’s pretty deep and kind of interesting to read these poems and try and figure out why the editor chose them for this book, and how they all go together. Vecchione was also nice enough to include brief bios about the poets in the back of the book, so if you liked the voice of any particular person, you can dig in and find out where to find more of their works.
What it ain’t: No poetry in here by teens, folks. Just poems by professional and classical writers that adults thought you would like, and that may start your own writing wheels spinning.
Who will like it: Razor-red lipstick wearing Goth girls who sneak copies of Emily Dickinson into their black-light lit bedrooms, and boys who play in serious bands (and I don’t mean Making the Band, gelled-hair poptarts!) who are looking for inspiration for their deep-down, soul searching lyrics.
A Sample: An excerpt from Julia Alvarez’s “from 33”: Sometimes the words are so close I am/more who I am when I’m down on paper/than anywhere else as if my life were/practising for the real me I become/unbuttoned from the anecdotal and /unnecessary and undressed down/to the figure of the poem, line by line,/the real text a child could understand/