Story In Verse: Poetic Form & Fiction
Teller of tales within verse.
A heartbeat’s snapshot.
With National Poetry Month just around the corner, reading and writing poetry has been on my mind lately. Humans have been telling stories in poetic form since the beginning of oral storytelling. From The Odyssey and The Iliad to Beowulf and Ramayana, poetry has deeply influenced our experience of literature before the novel, as we know it today, was born. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the modern novel. Love it in fact! But I still can’t fully shake the feeling that poetry occasionally gets overlooked for a myriad of reasons: poetry is stuffy or pretentious; it doesn’t tell a full story; or it’s either too easy (based solely on the number of words on a page) or it’s too hard (missing information for the sake of the form).
While I feel these reasons do an injustice to poetry by oversimplifying it, these feelings are often shaped by our earliest experiences of poetry, either in a classroom setting or outside of it. In a classroom, we probably examined specific poems because they were considered “great.” We studied the rhyme scheme, structure and interpreted their meaning (is Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” coming to anyone’s mind?). These are valid ways of studying poetry, but they don’t necessarily showcase what poetry is supposed to do: make you feel alive. Outside of the classroom, if we were exposed to poetry, we might have been given a poem, read it, enjoyed it in the moment, and moved on. While this reading might be closer to the essence of the poem, did we really understand what we read?
Understanding poetry is a balancing act, and like any other kind of reading, it takes time to learn. Regardless of our first experiences with poetry, should we choose to try and widen our search for poetic writing, there is a whole world of literature to be discovered. And if we didn’t already enjoy poetry, there is enough variety that there is something for everybody–music, history, love, adversity, and triumph.
Now, maybe I’m starting to sound a little too much like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society, searching for the ideal of what poetry can be; but remember, poetry started out as an oral retelling to keep stories alive. These were epic and grandiose and exciting! Containing heroes and adventures and multitudes, these poems expressed what it was to be human.
Two of the books I’ve been reading to kick off National Poetry Month are Bronx Masquerade and its brand-new, companion novel, Between the Lines, both by Nikki Grimes. Now, truth be told, I am painfully late to the Nikki Grimes party and that is completely my loss! I love what she does in both of these books, capturing the essence of the teenage voice that is often lost in the whirl of high school. On the whole, the voices ring authentic and almost anyone can see a piece of themselves in at least one of the characters. A much needed reminder that we are all more alike than we are different. The premise of student self-expression carries across both stories and the structure of the books is a great example of how a moment told in prose can be put into a poetic format. The 16-year gap between the books has allowed Grimes to continue to gain recognition as a writer, allowing her to utilize Lines in an even more innovative way than with Masquerade. Grimes takes the opportunity to highlight the teen experience in the foster care system–a personal and important topic to her–creating a space for those who feel invisible to see themselves in literature.
In celebration of poetry this April, check out some of the titles below (or visit your local library and see if they have any displays). Try your hand at a poem of your own. Research a style of poetry you’ve never heard of and challenge yourself. Of like Grimes, find something you are passionate about and express that passion in a poem.
A Stick is an Excellent Thing: Poems Celebrating Outdoor Play by Marilyn Singer. 9780547124933. 2012. Gr K-3.
When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons by Julie Fogliano. 9781596438521. 2016. Gr 1-4.
Crown: An Ode To The Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes. 9781572842243. 2017. Gr 1-4.
Firebird by Misty Copeland. 9780399166150. 2014. Gr 1-4.
Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold by Joyce Sidman. 9780547906508. 2014. Gr 1-4.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill. 9780763669546. 2016. Gr 4-6.
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. 9780064409599. 2003. Gr 4-7.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. 9780147515827. 2016. Gr 5-8.
The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba by Margarita Engle. 9781250110961. 2017. Gr 5-9.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.. 2014. Gr 6-9.
Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes. 9780425289761. 2017. Gr 7-10.
Between the Lines by Nikki Grimes. 9780399246883. 2018. Gr 7-10.
Like Water on Stone by Dana Walrath. 9780385743983. 2015. Gr. 9-12.
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson. 9780147510051. 2016. Gr 9-12.
Up From the Sea by Leza Lowitz. 9780553534771. 2017. Grade 9-12.
Up and coming:
One title that I am exited to share (as well as eventually read) is Cordelia Jensen’s The Way the Light Bends. Slated to be coming out at the end of the month, this story of two sisters (one a biological child, one adopted) on their journey to acceptance, meaning, and identity is told verse and everything I hear has me both hopeful and excited! 9780399547447. 2018. Gr 7-12.
If you want to really stretch the typical poetry boundaries, I recommend checking out Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: The Revolution. While this book is not typical by any standard, the sheer magnitude the show has had on people and what Miranda does with language earns it an honorable mention. An invigorating example of the power of language and structure. 9781455539741. 2016. Gr 10-Adult.
Native Guard: Poems by Natasha Trethewey is a quite treasure and a personal favorite. Trethewey explores the history of Mississippi and her bi-racial heritage in this third collection of poems. While the subject matter is geared towards older readers, when appropriate it is worth a read. My own copy is well-loved and I can’t help but discover something new each time I go back to it. 9780618872657. 2007. Gr 11-Adult.
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