Friday, March 19, 2010

How to Like Poetry


Poetry is hard. We know we’re supposed to like poetry and be moved by its verses, but it can be a lot of work to understand. Poetry starts out fun, with the nonsensical delights of Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Roald Dahl. But once we’ve got the basics down, things get serious pretty fast—heavies like Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and even Shakespeare get thrown into the mix, and all those metaphors and rhyming couplets and iambic pentameters get tricky. Still, poetry is among the most creative forms of expression. Rules of rhythm and rhyme are made to be broken and—believe it or not—poetry has always had a wicked sense of humor. From revisiting classic poets to illustrated poetry editions to the newest trend of novels in verse, here are some books that just might convince you to give poetry one more try.

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, 2001, HarperCollins (Children’s Poetry/ Children’s Fiction)


Love That Dog is a poetry book about a boy who doesn’t like poetry. But his grade school class is doing a poetry unit, so the boy—young Jack—has to play along. He’s charmingly stubborn; if he has to write poems, he’s going to write poems about not liking poetry: “September 13/ I don’t want to/ because boys/ don’t write poetry./ Girls do.” Still, Jack has a knack for this, and soon he’s filling his notebook—which doubles as our slim novel—with intimate little verses about the whys and wherefores of poetry, and, eventually, his own versions of poems by famous writers (William Carlos Williams and Walter Dean Myers especially) that his gently persuasive teacher reads to the class. As the months of the school year go by, Jack’s poems get brighter and better. Soon, Jack’s own story begins to emerge from between the lines, the story of Jack and his beloved old dog, a dog named Sky with “his tongue all limp/ and his chin/ between/ his paws.” The story of a boy and his dog is hard to resist, but it’s thanks to author Sharon Creech’s wonderfully genuine voice that it’s the poetry that makes her story truly timeless.

Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor, 2002, Viking Press (Poetry/ Anthologies) 


Garrison Keillor, nationally loved writer, has charmed millions of listeners with his daily poetry readings on public radio’s A Writer’s Almanac. Keillor’s criterion for a good poem is deliciously simple, especially for those of us who don’t really like poetry—or who don’t think we do. A good poem, says Keillor, is one that demonstrates “stickiness, memorability… You hear it and a day later some of it is still there in the brainpan.” He likes poems that tell a story or paint a vivid picture, something simple and subtle but effective nevertheless, and he has collected those poems here in a collection titled simply Good Poems. There are poems that ode to aspects of the everyday like rock and roll (in “Ooly Pop a Cow” by David Huddle), food (in “Song to Onions’ by Roy Blount, Jr. and “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos William), even poo (in “The Excrement Poem” by Maxine Kumin. There are poems that offer insight into relationships between lovers (in “Venetian Air” by Thomas Moore), families (in “I Stop Writing the Poem” by Tess Gallagher), and animals (in “Walking the Dog” by Howard Nemerov). There are poems about snow (“Lester Tells of Wanda and the Big Snow” by Paul Zimmer), poems about the color yellow (“The Yellow Slicker” by Stuart Dischell), and poems about language (“The Possessive Case” by Lisel Mueller). And through it all, through all three hundred and fifty poems, there is the good-humored spirit of bringing the poems that people can appreciate to the people who will appreciate them. Thank you, Garrison Keillor.

The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse edited by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, 2003, New York Review Book Classics, originally published 1930 (Poetry Classics/ Anthologies)


It’s a comfort to know that even the best poets can sometimes go terribly, horribly, hilariously wrong. And that’s a thought that has been comforting readers for seventy years, ever since two gentlemen named D.B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee collected a bunch of poems they deemed bad in an anthology bearing the name The Stuffed Owl. An attempt to write a poem, it seems, becomes the great equalizer. When Lord Byron mucks his way through an overly sentimental poem about the shedding of tears on graves, or when William Wordsworth tries to get away with a rhyme like “That is a work of waste and ruin:/ Consider, Charles, what you are doing,” we simply cannot help shaking our heads in disbelief, rolling our eyes in mock despair, and turning the page for more. The Stuffed Owl’s subject index another is a magnificent work of folly: The reader, merely by consulting the index and flipping back through the pages, may be exposed to topics as varied as “Bagpipes, their silence regretted” (page 5), “Hats, unfashionable in heaven” (page 216), and “Oysters, reason why they cannot be crossed in love” (page 108). The tongue-in-cheek tone, the mischievous delight in the missteps of others, and the playful spirit in which these poems are presented does indeed prove that as moving as it is when verse goes right, there is much amusement to be gained when poetry goes gleefully wrong.

Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry for Your… Brains by Ryan Mecum, 2008, How Books (Poetry/ Horror/ Humor/ Illustrated Novels)


You wouldn’t guess that poetry would be able to jump on the trendy zombie literarature bandwagon, but sure enough, you can read The Zombie Survival Guide, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Zombie Haiku too. This blood-splattered volume of verse is even more notable for adopting the highly treasured haiku structure consisting of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. This is actually a journal of poems found during the early days of the zombie plague. Not much is known about the author, except that he once was a poet, and now he’s eating brains. Yet he managed to chronicle his change from artist to icky after being attacked by an undead mob and taking shelter in an airport restroom—until he got hungry for, well, brains. Now, as zombies roam the streets moaning and groaning, our infected poet records thoughts like “Reanimation/ Would be much more difficult/ Inside a coffin” and “My dad used to say/ ‘Always finish what you start’/ So I eat her hair.” It gets a little gory, especially when combined with realistic zombie photos taped to the torn and bloodied pages, but author Ryan Mecum always keeps his quirky premise wickedly funny and bitingly smart. Mecum’s website at goes a step further to feature zombified verses by famous poets; Shakespeare, for example, writes: “To bite through the skull/ Or bang it against the wall?/ That is the question.” Who knew the walking dead could be so poetic?

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, 2008, Harper Books (Poetry/ Fiction/ Fantasy) 


Novels in verse: A reader gets all the drama, suspense, mystery and humor of a prose book, but it’s told in free verse poetry. Free verse is a poetic style that avoids any strict repeating rhymes or patterns and concentrates instead on a natural rhythm. It’s still poetry—pay attention to the line breaks and flow of the words—but its fluid structure makes it ideal for telling a longer narrative story. And, in the case of Sharp Teeth, what a story it is. Anthony Silvo is a lonely, luckless dogcatcher in Los Angeles. The packs of dogs that roam the streets are actually rival gangs of werewolves. Lark, a shark-like lawyer when in human form, is a pack leader with a revenge plan against a traitor to the pack. A strange small man with a very large partner is involved in the drug trade and bridge tournaments. Detective Peabody is on the trail of a series of lycanthrope-related murders. And a beautiful, mysterious, nameless werewolf-woman is sweeping hapless Anthony the dogcatcher deeper into the whole mess. The lives of these men, women, and beasts are filled with violence, abuse, and betrayal. That means that rare moments of truth, trust, and romance are all the more heartbreaking—but make no mistake, they still have a wicked bite to them. Told in an epic poetic voice that is bloody and beautiful, author Toby Barlow’s debut novel is an intricate, intriguing look at the supernaturally seedy side of city life.

New Found Land: Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery by Allan Wolf, 2004, Candlewick Press (Teen Poetry/ Historical Fiction) 


Poetry, especially in its novel-in-verse form, is surprisingly well-suited to historical fiction. Poetry has a distinctive voice, and history is best told from the points of view of many. In New Found Land: Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery, fourteen characters tell the tale of the cross-country journey undertaken by Captains Lewis and Clark in 1804. The goal was to follow the rivers from the east to west, to find the legendary Northwest Passage that would lead from coast to coast, and to map the lands in between. The fourteen unique voices in New Found Land include the members of the Corps of Discovery—the poetic name given to the expedition team—and other historical figures: Sacajawea, the Native American guide; President Thomas Jefferson; Clark’s slave, York; sundry adventurers, alcoholics, hunters, guides, and gentlemen; and even a Newfoundland dog owned by Captain Lewis who is named Seaman but calls himself Oolum. Diverse personalities, motives, notions of freedom, goals, triumphs, and tragedies merge seamlessly with historical fact as each character narrates an episode, experience, or thought in insightful free verse entries. Chatty teenager George Shannon adds humor on one page, Sacajawea’s longing comes pouring across the next, and through it all author Allan Wolf conveys the immense scope of this mammoth undertaking and how it changed the lives of all involved. It will come close to doing the same for its readers, who are destined to be swept away by the drama, history, and yes, the poetry, of New Found Land.

Visions in Poetry series edited by Tara Walker, published by KCP Press, 2004-2008 (Poetry Classics/ Illustrated Books)

  • Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Stèphane Jorisch, 2004
  • The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, illustrated by Murray Kimber, 2005
  • The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, illustrated by Geneviève Côté, 2005
  • Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer, illustrated by Joe Morse, 2006
  • The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Ryan Pierce, 2006
  • The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, illustrated by Stèphane Jorisch, 2007
  • My Letter to the World by Emily Dickinson, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, 2008
The Visions in Poetry series is, quite simply, delightful. With seven trim little books, the team at KCP Press has created one of the loveliest collections of poetry that you’re likely to find on bookshelves anywhere. Each volume is a single poem, a famous, beloved, classic poem illustrated by a noted artist in a fresh, original style. The Highwayman, a romantic early 20th-century poem about a dashing robber and the landlord’s “black-eyed daughter,” is re-imagined as a stylized motorcycle adventure through the charcoal-black streets of New York City. The charmingly nonsensical tale about the union of The Owl and the Pussycat is given a surreal, dreamy quality by pages of delicately inked pencil and watercolor illustrations; artist Stèphane Jorisch ups the ante on the irresistibly weird “borogroves” and “mome raths” of the Jabberwocky as well. Mighty Casey is every inch the tragic hero when he takes up that baseball bat in the dusky sandlot of Ernest L. Thayer’s ode to baseball bravery Casey at the Bat. And when the likes of Emily Dickinson, Geneviève Côté, Edgar Allan Poe, and other friends join the club, it becomes almost impossible to imagine simply reading these poems as black words on a white page ever again. The matching of artist to poet is spot-on and the result is a stunning little collection of the prettiest poetry you’ve ever read.

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