During my days teaching middle school English, I taught a poetry unit about the Holocaust. Every year, when beginning to discuss some of the poetry with my students, I can recall having conversations that went something like this:
Me: Alright folks, tell me some of your thoughts about “I, the Survivor”
Student: It doesn’t rhyme.
Me: Poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme. That’s part of what makes it cool.
Student: What makes it a poem, then?
“What makes it a poem?” On the surface, it seems like such a simple question! But when we really stop to think about it, the question reveals itself to be pretty deep.
People much smarter and more creative than me have thought and written about this question for a long, long time, and some of their conclusions about “what makes it a poem” are truly beautiful. So this month on the Brain Hive blog, I’m going to be spotlighting some of the poetry titles we’ve assembled in our National Poetry Month theme sets (see these instructions for making these lists available on your account home page) using some of these – dare I say it – poetic explanations of “what makes it a poem” as weekly themes. I hope this will help to supplement the conversations you have with students this month about all of the possibilities opened up when when we read, write, and share poetry.
The great American poet Robert Frost once characterized poetry as being “a momentary stay against confusion.” This phrase has been interpreted to mean many things, but to me, it seems that Frost was saying that poetry is a tool to hold onto when nothing else makes sense. Poetry helps us wade through difficult situations and provides us with a method of finding beauty and order in moments that may seem chaotic and ugly. With Frost’s explanation in mind, I chose two books from our National Poetry Month theme sets to highlight this week. Each book introduces us to characters dealing with tragedy and tribulation, and each book makes excellent use of poetic form to make sense of troubling circumstances:
In our K-5 National Poetry Month theme set, check out DeShawn Days, by Tony Medina, illustrated by Gregory Christie (Lee & Low). Medina’s lively poetry expertly captures the range of emotions felt by DeShawn, our hero, as he navigates his way through life in a rough neighborhood, finding joy in everyday kindnesses and relationships.
From our 6-12 National Poetry Month theme set, take a look at Dust of Eden, by Mariko Nagai (Albert Whitman & Company). This novel in verse tells the story of Mina Tagawa, a Japanese American teenager forced from her home in Seattle to an Idaho internment camp during World War II. Nagai treats this difficult moment in American history with artistry; the novel’s free-verse poems welcome readers into Mina’s thoughts and feelings as she attempts to understand the uncertainty of her situation.
I hope these titles (along with the others you will find in your Brain Hive National Poetry Month theme sets) help you as you talk with students this month about all of the things poetry can be. Got any questions for me? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-554-4483.