National Poetry Month Resources

Posted on March 31, 2008. Filed under: Academia, Homeschooling, Poetry |

Was I running a blog? Has it been a year? Let’s just say LONG story and leave it at that shall we? Meanwhile, what you really want follows here:

On the eve of National Poetry Month, I thought I’d compile some useful resources. I’m a longtime member of both the AAP, AWP, and the PSA–which are amazing organizations. And I was thrilled to see the new incarnation of the Internet Poetry Archive while spelunking the web tonight. Plus Bill & Ted’s Excellent Poetry Adventures (couldn’t resist the reference–Billy Collins and Ted Kooser), along with Pinsky’s Fave Poem Project, are extremely all-ages friendly and aimed at a wide audience. Two of my favorite sites–and my homepages at various points (bumped out by the NYT)–are Poetry Daily and Verse Daily.

It should probably be noted–most of what I’m handing you is contemporary American poetry. In many cases, work written in the last decade. Not to say that there isn’t value in the canon of work worldwide that has preceded this present bounty–but most people know about Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. However, if you’re one of the, say, 98% of the American public that’s never read a contemporary poem, here’s a chance to change that.

And, BTW, Jack Prelutsky is now the official U. S. Children’s Poet Laureate. Other children’s poets of note include Eve Merriam, Shel Silverstein, Bruce Lansky (See Giggle Poetry below), David McCord, Karla Kuskin, and Judith Viorst (who also does adult work). My favorite books of children’s poems are Viorst’s “If I Were in Charge of the World” and an anthology called “Reflections on the Gift of the Watermelon Pickle.” Prelutsky’s newer work is also top notch. Well-known poets Gwendolyn Brooks and T.S. Eliot have also produced volumes for children (Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats is where the musical came from).

So, the somewhat haphazard list:

Billy Collin’s Poetry 180 site (also follow the links to the Library of Congress poetry resources)

Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry page (syndicated newspaper column using one accessible contemporary poem with Kooser’s brief analysis of it)

America’s Favorite Poem Project

Internet Poetry Archive

Academy of American Poets (AAP or just “the Academy”)

Poetry Society of America (PSA)

Poets & Writers (the industry–the po-biz–magazine)

AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs)

Council of Literary Magazines and Presses

Voice of the Shuttle (a scholarly clearinghouse including lots of real academic articles on poetry)

PSI (Poetry Slam Incorporated–these are the Chicago folks who started it and still do it better than anybody else)

Poetry Daily

Verse Daily

Poetry Magazine and The Poetry Foundation (more Chicago folks–and the only money in the po-biz)

Project Bartleby

CAPA (Contemporary American Poetry Archive–electronic versions of out-of-print contemporary poetry books)


Giggle Poetry

Scholastic’s Writing With Writers Poetry Section

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On Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”

Posted on April 7, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Poetry |

Okay, the much belated entry on Stevens’ “The Snow Man.” If you haven’t had a look at the poem itself yet, find it here in Poetry Friday stack.

This particular poem has been with me since my freshman year of college. And I still find things in it I hadn’t noticed before. Like just now, I was looking at the stanzas (poetry paragraphs)–three lines each. That’s unusual as a form, but I think the evenness of the stanzas suits the coldness of poem’s tone–and the three-point structure almost makes me think of a waltz. One, two, three, one, two, three, he keeps turning us as we dance through the poem.

The evenness of the stanzas says something about the tone as well. We’re being told something in a very level, reasonable voice–flat even. There’s no hurrying to jam extra lines into one stanza, no lingering with a couplet (two-line stanza) here or there. Nor does the poem take up much space on the page–what he’s asserting here is not A BIG IDEA, and trust me, Stevens is a poet capable of asserting big ideas. It’s a small poem, only 15 lines with only a handful of lines more than 10 syllables.

Those numbers may not sound significant, but in poetry they come close to the big magic: 14 lines of 10 metered syllables each is a sonnet. So Stevens is close to the sonnet form here–but choses instead of the sonnet’s more typical four-line stanzas to use his own three-line structure and to use some really short lines, one that’s only 5 syllables long.

In American poetry, the “conversational line”–the dominant line form of the 20th century and still the dominant form today (though there’s great arguments to be made that text messaging and other electronic media are shortening the standard conversational line)–is 8-12 syllables. It’s called the “conversational line” because 8-12 syllables is about how much one speaker in a casual conversation can say at one time:

“Some weather we’re having, huh?”(7)

“Can’t believe it’s this cold in April.”(9)

“I know. I already packed my sweaters away. “(12)

So Stevens is using lines that tend to be a little shorter than the standard conversational line and he’s not using a standard sonnet form, even though he’s close to it. That tells us he’s doing something different from a sonnet (sonnets generally glory in something or sorrow over it) and that he’s probably artificially shortening some of his lines–which speaks of a certain restraint. So what is he doing?

Above all else that Stevens is remembered for–he is remembered as a poet of great imagination. And here, he’s imagining himself as a snow man. He’s trying to imagine what it would be like to be a creature made entirely of snow–but set with eyes, maybe with earmuffs to suggest ears. He’s asking himself, what would a snowman see? What would a snowman hear? What would a snowman feel or think? As poem, it’s an absurd project, but it’s a testament to his immense talent that he can start with such a wacky premise and produce such a beautiful piece.

And I think the success of this pieces lies in the creation of that cold, reasonable tone (none of the emotionality of a sonnet, none of warmth of a casual conversation between strangers), that measured tumbling of the three lines stanzas, those short restrained lines.

He’s got me convinced that’s how a snowman might perceive the world. Has he convinced all of you? Anybody want to post a counter poem? Or perhaps a poem from a different point of view, say one of the spring’s first daffodils? How would the form of that poem be different, how would its outlook change?

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National Poetry Month at Homeschool Kid Lit

Posted on April 1, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Poetry |

Fitting that our month devoted to poetry begins with a day for fools. I say that in all love–I think it takes being something of a fool to be something as a poet.

Fools take risks. They do tricks. They get away with all manner of outrageous words and deeds. They don’t ask for the attention of the court, by the very nature of what they’re doing, they get it. They exist outside the boundaries that limit everybody else. True, they do so at the king’s whim, but that too is part of being the fool. Knowing that at any moment your life as you know it could be over.

But I digress. Having outed myself as a poet just before National Poetry Month (NPM) and having complained that kids don’t get enough “real poems”–I’ve decided to do my part. Each week I’m going to post on a 20th-century poet whose work includes at least a few relatively accessible pieces that I think parents and children can enjoy together. I’ll post the poems for examination as Poetry Friday pieces, though for the purposes of NPM, any given day counts as a Poetry Friday here at Homeschool Kid Lit.

As for the poets we’ll take up together, I’m going to start with Wallace Stevens. Mainly because I’d never heard of him until college and I wish I hadn’t had to wait that long. Here’s the link to the Wikipedia entry:

While the Wikipedia entry’s accurate, it’s going to make him sound a lot scarier than he is. If too much information makes your head hurt, then remember just this much: he was a lawyer, then an insurance mogul–very much a man of the world, nothing like the wispy big-eyed poet stereotype; he’s considered a Modernist–he believed it was important to find the meaning of a thing or an event, though he didn’t believe that religion, the traditional route to meaning and understanding, necessarily held the answers. In terms of his willingness to take on the role of fool? He was positively Shakespearean.

The pieces I’m going to post and offer up for discussion are, I think without exception, from his first book Harmonium, published in 1923.

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Some Thoughts on Poetry and Speed

Posted on March 27, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Poetry |

Okay, time for a confession: I’m a poet. Academically trained, have a book out and everything. But I’ve been working outside the genre the last couple of years–doing some other worthy and exciting projects, including my first science fiction stories.

Now though, poetry’s calling me back and I’m moving that direction, not just as a writer but as a reader too. I get something from reading and writing poems that I don’t get anywhere else and it’s why I’ll probably always wander back eventually, no matter where I’ve been roaming.

I love the way the language of a poem slows me down. Makes me enter a moment, a thought, a feeling, an experience with a deliberation and awareness I wouldn’t normally bring to the page. It sounds counterintuitive to say such quick little lines, readily consumable in a single reading, can actually go slower than prose–but here’s the thing, in poetry there’s nowhere to go.

To work, a prose narrative has to effectively carry me from page to page, there has to be a reason to keep reading, keep turning those pages. A poem that really works is going to have me stuck on the same page, reading it over and over, wanting to just crawl between the lines and pitch a tent so I can stay there even longer.

Let me give you an example. When I was eleven or twelve, I got into a stash of literature textbooks my Mom had kept from one of her college classes. I discovered both Shelley and Tennyson that year and took to memorizing lines I loved. I was in college before I intellectually understood a lot of what I was reading, but there was something so compelling about the language, I didn’t care that I didn’t get all of it. I took what meaning I could from it and took the rest on faith. By the time I had to write about In Memoriam in college, I’d had six or seven years of rolling these words around on my tongue and in my heart: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, /Believe me, than in half the creeds.” “And Power was with him in the night, /Which makes the darkness and the light, /And dwells not in the light alone…”

I recently read an argument about what kinds of poems we should be offering our kids in order to instill a love of poetry in them. One side argued they need quick and clever rhymes, puns and wordplay to keep drawing them back to the magic of language that’s so wonderfully concentrated in poetry. The other side argued that kids needed poems that would help them explore the subtle texture of the world, develop their emotional and spiritual selves. The text, of course, resolved the argument by saying quite democratically that we need to offer kids all kinds of poems.

I’d buy that resolution if I really believed that most kids, most teachers, most homeschooling parents had ready access to age-appropriate poems of both kinds. Seems to me that while poetry collections aimed at adolescents manage quite handily to move between those two distinct types of poems (I might say between rhymes and poems)–that poetry collections aimed at younger children tend overwhelmingly toward the bouncy stuff. I’d love to be wrong about that assertion, so if any of you are aware of poems or poetry collections for children under the age of 12 that do have that tendency toward slowness, I’d love to hear about them. Comment away!

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Crunch! Healthy Food Books for Healthy Kids

Posted on March 11, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Food Culture, Homeschooling, Web Resources |

So we’re subscribing to a farm this year–it’s a cool idea. We pay a local farmer about $600 for the season and in exchange we get six months of just-picked local organic vegetables–everything from spring radishes to fall squash and lots of yummy stuff in between. Weekly pickups right in town. Since the quantities may occasionally be, well, more than we can eat in a week (four heads of cabbage?), I’ve been obsessing over cookbooks lately–figuring out how we’re going to cook and store such bounty.

My favorite evening last week involved me sitting up in bed reading to my three-year-old about spinach, turnips, and broccoli from Diana Shaw’s Almost Vegetarian. While I think Shaw’s cheerful and inventive cookbook is perfect family reading for short spells–I started to wonder about kids’ books that focus on healthy food culture.

And I realized I already had at least one on hand, Treasure Hunt with the Munch Crunch Bunch by Jan Wolterman, Melinda Hemmelgarn, and J.W. Wolterman. A friend had dropped it off to see what we thought of it and we’d had such fun cutting out the cards–great goofy illustrations of fruits and vegetables with “Foodles” (food riddles) on the back of each one, I’d forgotten it was actually a book. The story’s cute, but it’s the cards that have had all the attention at our house. They’re just the right size for my daughter to carry around, put in any one of her several purses, or sort out and discuss at length. They even have their own carrying case. She recognized a lot of her favorites immediately (“That’s a carrot with a hat!”) and it’s made her curious about some more exotic plants as well (“What’s bok choy?”).

Likewise Lynne Cherry’s How Groundhog’s Garden Grew gave us a fun break from grocery shopping when we sat down to read it at the local health food store. While the text waxes a bit didactic for my taste–groundhog gets chastened into learning to garden, the illustrations are soooooo gorgeous we both wanted to lick the pages. And it’s such a full visual experience. Even the margins are stuffed with tantalizing herbs and spices or small pictures outlining the steps to longer processes. Since it spans the whole growing season, from early spring to the great Thanksgiving feast, its seasonal appeal is a long one. And trying to identify all the lush fruits and vegetables made for a great seek-and-find game.

I am, in fact, off to grab a snack of some of freshly shelled peas…

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Mindfulness Markers

Posted on February 17, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Web Resources |

On to some of the most disposable books in the world of kid lit: coloring books. And yet–what an incredible experience to sit quietly with a child and simply color a page. Though, okay, we have days where coloring is an olympic event with elements of both snowboarding and javelin throwing involved, more and more often, coloring is becoming an exercise in mindfulness for both of us.

I wouldn’t natively have used the term “mindfulness” for our marker sessions until I talked to a therapist friend and asked if he knew anything about coloring as therapy–he noted that he’d seen it used as a mindfulness technique and I think it fits. If mindfulness is about bringing ourselves more completely to the present moment, then coloring has certainly done that for us. When my daughter colors she’s absorbed in it as a project–sometimes so deeply that she fills the whole image with a single hue. For me, it’s become a lovely way to center my energies on a task: finding the right color, filling the shape with the chosen color, smoothing out the texture into a more uniform matte or inventing some texture for contrast.

To find some coloring books that might hold my attention as well as hers, I did some digging and found a lot more resources than I anticipated. Dover and Bellerophon are the two biggest publishers, but the Running Press series, many of which are now out of print, are truly beautiful books–and sturdy! I’ve included some coloring-pages sites, though many of them are extremely ad heavy. We use DLTK a lot, in large part because it offers a quick ad-free printing option. The coloring pages on Wendy Wallace’s site all arrive as one gigantic download–over 1600 pages. The list of coloring books by government agencies is well worth exploring, if only for the giggles. The Coloring Addict list and the Wildflowers list I think are useful, as each of them pick up titles I hadn’t seen noted elsewhere. Right now, however, I’m thrilled that my Googling this evening led me to Jan Brett’s coloring pages. I’m a longtime fan and am delighted by the range of coloring pages she’s made available.

Dover Publications

Bellerophon Books

Running Press Coloring Books:

Coloring pages at intuitive counselor Wendy Wallace’s website:

Coloring Book Fun (free coloring pages)

DLTK’s Coloring Pages

Coloring books and pages from various government agencies:

Coloring Addict’s Essential Coloring Books

Celebrating Wildflowers coloring books

Jan Brett’s Free Coloring Pages

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Firing the Canon

Posted on February 10, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Reading |

I owe a great deal of my recent thinking about canonical issues to an article that appeared in November/December 2006 issue of Home Education Magazine: “One Mother’s Search for the Meaning of Literacy” by Sheri Kinser. In the article, Kinser discusses the difficulties of determing what it is her son “should” know in order to be considered literate. It’s a thoughtful article and filled with a lot of the same questions I ask myself. However, she ends up consulting E.D. Hirsch’s cultural literacy books and slides into the kind of anxiety only books like Hirsch’s can produce: Do I know enough? Does my child know enough? How is my child going to learn all this material?

I began to wonder how widespread Kinser’s anxiety was, especially among homeschoolers. So I’ve been gathering a little anecodotal information–listening to a lot of conversations and making some discreet inquiries. And guess what? Everybody (homeschoolers, public schoolers, private schoolers) I heard or overheard is concerned about whether our kids know enough of the right stuff to survive out in the world without us. Now, not all of those conversations revolved around book knowledge, but a fair number of them did. And it’s no big surprise.

But what did surprise me was how few of the people I listened to seemed to have ANY idea how the Western Canon came into being. Most people seem to assume there’s this core of books you’re supposed to read just because they’re important books. And here’s where I can feel grad school starting to pay off. On Groundhog Day (And it was about that time that it started being known as Groundhog Day) in 1835, Thomas Macaulay addressed the British Parliment concerning its policy on the education of the people of India. While Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” didn’t break any new ground, it did succinctly put forward several ideas that became key to the British occupation of India for the next 100 years. Macaulay called for the teaching of British materials in all disciplines, for the teaching of those materials in English and for the teaching of only a small segment of the Indian population, who would then be responsible for the education of the rest of the nation.

In its attempts to educate India, the British nation systematized its own cultural heritage–the canon-making process began in earnest. And there were fights even then about what should go in–calls for sealing the canon at the year 1600, for example. By 1909, this obsession with determining the proper books one ought to read in order to be culturally literate had jumped to the U.S. with the publication of the Harvard Classics series. The next big step was the Great Books of the Western World series, edited by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. While the Great Books folks are still around, they are now only one of many sources happy to tell us all what we should know in order to be literate. Harold Bloom, of course, would cheerfully like to be taken as the proper contemporary authority on all such issues.

What’s missing from those programs–from Harvard to Harold and Hirsch–is *why* their particular assemblage of books or facts makes us literate, what such literacy means. The canon that emerged after Macaulay’s speech had a purpose: propaganda and indoctrination. To Macaulay, literacy among the Indians meant grateful acceptance of their status as second-class citizens of the empire. Are we to assume the purpose of each successive rendering of said canon is similar in nature? What about the alternative canons to have emerged? The canon of women’s literature, for example, as exemplified in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women? Or are we to assume each successive rendering of the Western Canon or each variant thereof has its own agenda? Or at this point, is it all about using guilt and anxiety to make money?

I find myself drawn in many different directions by those questions, but what seems clearest to me today is that it’s important to consider the source creating a canon, the contents of the canon, the purpose of the canon and its relevance for our own lives and goals. It would be too easy for me to lay out examples that use the notion of a canon to bully, intimidate, indoctrinate or exclude, so instead I want to offer a couple examples of creative and liberating projects that use the canon idea.

First in line, Ursula LeGuin’s controversial Norton Book of Science Fiction. Norton hired her to produce an anthology of the best science fiction from the last thirty years. And she did–the best ecofeminist science fiction produced from 1960-1990. It certainly isn’t representative of the genre as a whole, but its purpose is clear, its contents are lively and enlightening and, for me anyway, its relevance is both immediate and enduring. It’s just not what Norton thought it was getting.

A second affirmative example comes from the sweltering pit of canon battles over college-bound reading lists. What should kids read to ready them for college? It’s a great question, and it’s been answered in many different, often nuanced and intelligent, ways. My favorite at the moment is the YALSA list of Outstanding Books for the College Bound. I like its inventive blend of young-adult and adult books, its ongoing maintenance (updated every five years), and its clarity of focus.

So, stay tuned. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this issue again. Though for now, I think it’s time I paid some attention to the canon of unread library books likely to topple over on my dog.

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