Published in School Library Journal, September 2004
Some kids like to play baseball. Some prefer playing “house.” And more than a few enjoy both. I was a kid who liked to play with words. I was fascinated not only by their sounds and their definitions, but by their shades of meaning. I would take my paper dolls and concoct elaborate descriptions of their costumes: “This stunning magenta sheath is made of watered silk with a tulle peplum. The matching cloche hat has hand-sewn paillettes.” What a joy it was to be able to distinguish magenta from rose, paillettes from mere sequins.
I was enchanted by words then—and I still am. And what better to do with such enchantment than to bring the magic to others, children in particular, by becoming a writer—and, more specifically, a poet? For what genre is as much about gorgeous, glorious, perfect words than poetry?
Samuel Coleridge said it well: “Prose is words in their best order; Poetry is the best words in their best order.” I’ve used this quote many times in speeches and articles, and I still believe it. It’s not that prose doesn’t also call for exactitude and shading, but that poetry requires it. In a poem, every word counts. However, since there’s a lot of poetry out there (as well as prose that purports to be poetry), I’ve recently amended the quote in my mind to read “the best poetry is the best words in their best order.” For some time now, I’ve been asking myself and other poets what constitutes the best poetry. I could add “for children,” but in my opinion good poetry is good poetry, whomever the audience. When Michael Cart and I convened a poetry panel at the 2002 ALA Convention in Atlanta, I put together a selection of poets’ answers to the question “What Makes a Good Poem?” These responses, some of which I will quote throughout this piece, showed both diversity and commonality. With regard to the latter, everyone agreed on the ability of a good poem to say a lot in a few perfectly chosen words.
Good poets are fussy, always looking for that right word, always arranging and rearranging the order of the words until they sing. Sometimes the words are unusual or sophisticated, as in Lillian Morrison’s “Green Song” (Whistling the Morning In, Boyds Mills, 1992) where she talks of “glory-filled weather… when grasshoppers in their gauntlets/hop along high.” Other times they are simple, as in Valerie Worth’s “Sparrow” (All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, Farrar, 1994), which begins “Nothing is less/Rare than/One dust-/Colored sparrow/In a driveway.” If Worth had said “Nothing is more common than…,” the poem itself would have been more mundane. If Morrison had used gloves instead of gauntlets, she would not have conveyed the prickly, armored look of grasshopper legs. The best words in their best order indeed.
But much as I agree with Coleridge, I feel he tells only part of the tale. The best poems may be funny, profound, or both. They may ask philosophical questions of various weight. They may use established forms or create their own. But whatever form they take—whether they amuse, provoke, move, or enlighten—the best poems do so not only through the exceptional use of language, but also through rhythm, rhyme, imagery, surprise, and, as Naomi Shihab Nye says, “a way of ending that leaves a new resonance or a lit spark in the reader or listener’s mind.”
An evocative poem can, like a photograph, capture a moment in time. It does so through unique images that touch and delight us because of both their freshness and their rightness. Sometimes, a single, vivid, detailed image is the poem. A great image, as Lee Bennett Hopkins points out, can really blow you away. But one blow-you-away image does not by itself make a wonderful poem. The rest of the poem has to be designed with care to support that image, so that it in turn can pull the whole poem together. Hopkins himself created such a potent image in one of his autobiographical poems from Been to Yesterdays: Poems of a Life (Boyds Mills, 1995). The young narrator and his family, unable to pay the rent, must quickly vacate their apartment. The boy looks around at all the cardboard boxes full of objects and memories resting “there/when you need them most/to move you on—/there—/when we must take/flight/in the middle/of a wrinkled,/corrugated night.” That final, somewhat oblique image, so full of haste and impermanence, grabs me every single time I read the poem and resonates long after I’ve closed the book.
The best poems are often full of such subtleties. Even the seemingly straightforward requires thought. For example, we have to slow down to think about Kristine O’Connell George’s “Poaching” (Old Elm Speaks: Tree Poems, Clarion, 1998): “The neighbor’s fruit tree/has come to visit, bringing/ripe plums for dessert”; or to get the full “ah” effect of Nikki Grimes’s “Chinese Painting,” (Tai Chi Morning, Cricket, 2004) in which a master practices the same stroke repeatedly to capture “the essence of magpie or mountain”: “A few strokes/and a bird is born/A few more/and it sings.” Good poems often call upon us to ponder and to unravel. Patrice Vecchione puts this brilliantly: “A fine poem needs mystery… it doesn’t say everything. If you were to compare a poem to a simple math equation, say 1+1=2, then a poem is butterfly+jagged scar=his warm breath on your neck. It’s another way of knowing that makes perfect sense.”
When you read a poem silently, you have to take time to savor the images and the mystery to enjoy this other “way of seeing.” Adults are sometimes bugged by this. Kids usually are not. They don’t need or expect everything to be literal. They like figuring out puzzles. They’re often more capable of listening, really listening, possibly because they still like being read to. And if any type of literature demands to be read aloud, it’s poetry, for one of its most important aspects is its musicality. A good poem can use rigid or changeable meter; it can employ rhyme and a specific structure or be free verse. But whatever it is, its rhythm is, in Karla Kuskin’s words, “the skeleton that holds a poem together.”
It’s the rhythm that drives the poem, that speeds up or slows down our collective heartbeat. It may be the soothing pace of Jane Yolen’s “Grandpa Bear’s Lullaby” (Dragon Night and Other Lullabies, Routledge, 1980): “The night is long/But fur is deep/You will be warm/In winter’s sleep…”; or the testifying chant of Walter Dean Myers’s “Macon R. Allen, 38, Deacon” (Here in Harlem, Holiday, 2004): “I love a shouting church!/Praises bounding off the ceiling/The rhythm catching up the feet/Tambourines that send the spirits reeling/Yes, give me a shouting church!…”; or the mantra in my own “Spider” (Fireflies at Midnight, Atheneum, 2003): “Web/is the work/is the home/is the trap/is the hub/is the map….”
When rhythm goes askew, it’s often because of its partner in crime: rhyme. Rhyme is tough to write well. We’ve all read verse gone bad thanks to twisted syntax, mis-stressed and mispronounced words, tacked-on syllables or entire words, rhymes that aren’t, or moon/June/spoon clichés. But when rhyme works, the results make for marvelous poetry, appealing to both kids and adults. There is something viscerally, as well as mentally, satisfying about rhyme’s playful patterns, its musicality, its closure. It is interactive—we wait eagerly to see if we can come up with the correct rhyme, tickled if we’re clever enough to succeed, equally tickled if the poet has one-upped us with something so inspired we couldn’t possibly have imagined it. Good rhyme has genuine wit and style and, for kids, it’s usually funny. Consider “Consider Cow” by Alice Schertle (How Now, Brown Cow?, Harcourt,1994), which begins, “Consider cow/which rhymes with bough/but not with rough/that’s clear enough…”; or “The Mule” by Douglas Florian (Mammalabilia, Harcourt, 2000): “Voice of the mule: bray/Hue of the mule: bay/Fuel of the mule: hay/Rule of the mule: stay”; or “August Ice Cream Cone Poem” (Food Fight, edited by Michael J. Rosen, Harcourt, 1996) by Paul Janeczko: “Lick/Quick.”
I get a good laugh from these poems. In fact, good poetry of any sort is good for us all. When I recently spoke to a group of fourth graders, I was heartened when they told me they love poetry because it makes them calm or lively or thoughtful or happy. Joseph Bruchac says, “A good poem is like medicine. It can be made up of almost anything, but only when the ingredients are put together in the right proportions—neither too much nor too little—can it affect your life. Taking that medicine analogy even further, just a little dose of good poetry is sometimes all you need to be helped and even healed.” I know that Bruchac—and every fine poet out there—would agree that for that good medicine to work, we have to stop treating it as medicine. Poetry is not “hold your nose and swallow.” The best poems in the world can’t do their best work if folks think of them as cod liver oil.
One librarian told our poetry panel that she and her staff would rush into classrooms, read a poem or two, and run back out—a kind of commercial that broke up the kids’ day and made poems seem something worth buying. She has the right idea. At the 2004 ALA Convention in Orlando, former ALSC president Barbara Genco, of the Brooklyn Public Library, and I held the first Poetry Blast, at which 15 poets, myself included, read. The point of it was to present poetry as an aural art, to introduce the audience to really good poems by poets familiar and unfamiliar, and to have, well… a blast! It seems Barbara and I are on the right track because Poetry Blast 2 is scheduled for ALA Chicago, 2005, and there are proposals for this event at other major conferences. As J. Patrick Lewis says, “A good poem begs to be shared with others.” Thanks to all of us for sharing.
All of the quotations in this piece were used with permission from the publisher, the poet, or the poet’s representative.