My theme for this semester is "Bad Poetry." Not that I'm trying to write bad poetry or even working on poetry, but I am trying to learn more about and honor the tradition of poetic storytelling. So I'm looking at the link between epic poems and the modern novel in verse, which makes for some heavy reading. It also means that I'm spending a lot of time reacquainting myself with poetry and the associated literary terms. Which means I'll be doing some writing exercises that will help me do this. If I learned anything from the brilliant Martine Leavitt's workshop this past residency, it's that you have to write through the bad. Even if you think you'll never use it, you need to put pen to paper and write. So over the next five months, I expect I'll be churning out a lot of bad poetry, and in doing so, I hope to be able to create something good along the way.
For your enjoyment, here's my reading list for my first assignment. If you're an exceptional keen observer, you might even be able to figure out what my first essay was on.
101 Great American Poems by the American Poetry & Literacy Project: I wasn't a fan of how this book edited classic poems. They also included a lot of selections from Dickson, Frost, Longfellow and a few others when I think more of a verity of poets would have been nice, including stepping into modern poetry. But this is a decent overview of American poetic traditions. It's a good review for people who haven't taken an Am Lit class in a long time, but it's not going to make anyone a lover of poetry
Bats Around the Clock by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Melissa Sweet: I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation the other day (yes, I’m that nerdy), and Deanna Troy was trying to explain poetry to an alien race. She said it’s “an art form that uses words put together in new and unexpected ways, sometimes in rhyme.” Kathi is a perfect example of that. I loved that she used rhyme without sounding campy and used rhythm to keep the pages turning.
Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole: Such a fantastic wordless picture book. Introduces the concept of slavery in a gentle way even the youngest children can understand yet doesn't downplay the tension and inhumanity of it all. I love that Cole doesn't shy away from these big topics (e.g. And Tango Makes Three), but I don't think he even realizes what amazing work he's doing beyond putting a beautiful picture on the page.
The Beowulf Poet: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Donald K. Fry: I am so glad that I found this collection of essays. They have done more to help me understand the difference between craft essays and literary analysis than anything else has previously. While these are all highly academic essays, they look at specific constructive elements of Beowulf rather than the overall literary value of the work or any theme it addresses.
Beowulf translated by R.K. Gordon, narrated by Robertson Dean: I cannot express how much I enjoyed experiencing this epic poem in it's original form—aloud. While I feel this translation pales in comparison to Heaney's, there is no denying that this story was made for an oral telling, and Dean doesn't disappoint.
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation translated by Seamus Heaney: I haven’t read this poem since 2001, when the Heaney translation first hit shelves. I remember loving it and feeling passionately about the story, which is probably why I read an older translation twice “just for fun” back in high school. But looking at it with the eyes of a writer was fascinating. I felt like I was seeing the alliterative verse and caesura for the very first time, which is what makes Heaney’s translation so amazing. (Now I want to hear the original Old English text read aloud.) The cyclical nature of the plot and the personification of weaponry blew my mind. There is so much meat here!
Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ronald Koertge: I liked that Koertge gave his main character a very specific reason to explore poetry, even though this book didn’t have much of a plot. I especially liked the use of reflective flashbacks and varying poetic forms. And as you’ll learn about me in...oh, about April, I’m a bit obsessed with baseball, so any time you see baseball and Shakespeare in a book, you’re pretty much guaranteed my love and appreciation—ask me about The Wednesday Wars by Gary D Schmidt sometime.
Faraway Home by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Earl B. Lewis: While this is a sweet book about a little girl who is trying to understand why her father must go to Ethiopia to visit his sick mother, I didn't much care for the timeline. I know that sounds strange, but it would have been a lot more engaging if the little girl had learned about Ethiopia from her father's letters or stories from his childhood rather then them sitting in a comfy chair talking about what living in a third-world country is like. But this is still a good book for American children to learn that not everyone is so blessed to live like we do.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd, illustrated by Jim Kay: I listened to the audiobook almost a year ago and wanted to go back and read the print version. I don't know of any other novel with more beautiful illustrations, and the theme is so big and powerful it deserves multiple reads. I'll admit to being a big baby and crying both listening to it and reading it.
The Gingerbread Man by Nancy Nolte, illustrated by Richard Scarry: I always like fairytale retellings, and knowing this story, I thought this book was going to be fun to read and an interesting look at rhyme. Unfortunately, there was nothing unexpected about this book, which made me lose interest very quickly.
Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter Reynolds: This book was a total inspiration to me. I’ve read it about a dozen times before, but this time, when I picked it up, I noticed completely different things through writer’s eyes. I love how Raczka uses line breaks and can establish such a clear sense of place in less than five syllables. And as with every time I read this, I appreciate how he brings in the traditional Japanese element of seasons in haiku, which is often times overlooked by Western writers.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, narrated by Cynthia Holloway: I can see why a lot of people like this book. It's very sweet and nostalgic. It's a great example of beautiful writing, but pseudorealism in literature isn't really my cup of tea.
Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems: This book will forever hold a special place in my heart. As the first book I ever bought at the Strand and then memories of Ashley reading this aloud to me and not being able to stop laughing. What great memories are attached to this book. I wouldn't trade it for all the books in the world.