Looking for fresh voices in poetry for young people? More multicultural poetry is available than ever before, with many wonderful titles to choose from. Although the works of such classic poets as Langston Hughes have appeared in many anthologies, more contemporary poets, including Angela Johnson, Pat Mora, Janet S. Wong, and Jaime Adoff, are still new names to many readers. A quick survey of recent poetry titles turns up at least 35 major poets of color writing for young people today, representing most of the major microcultures within the United States. In addition, more and more international poetry is finding its way into libraries and classrooms in the U.S.
Seeking out the poetry of parallel cultures enables children to see firsthand both the sameness and the differences that make the human landscape so dynamic and fascinating. Poets of color are using the language, experiences, and images of their cultures in ways that are fresh and powerful. The special succinctness of poetry is also appealing, and powerful points about prejudice, identity, and cultural conflict can be made in very few words
Sharing poems in pairs can help children to engage their critical thinking skills by comparing the topics, themes, points of view, or language of the two poems. Selecting poems that reflect cultural details adds an additional layer of meaning and interest. Of course, reading and enjoying the poem for its own sake is the first step. Responding, comparing, and analyzing often follow naturally when children read, hear, and recite poetry together. Repeated readings could incorporate choral reading arrangements and child participation. The suggested pairings below can be used as a starting point, and with a little practice, you’ll soon find it easy to spot poem pairs on your own.
"Andre" by Gwendolyn Brooks, from Bronzeville Boys and Girls
(HarperCollins, 1956; reissued 2007)
"What Is a Family?" by Mary Ann Hoberman, from Fathers, Mothers, Sisters, Brothers: A Collection of Family Poems
(Little, Brown, 2001)
Choosing two poems on a similar topic, such as family, provides an opportunity to consider how different poets approach the same subject. In these two poems - in fact in these two collections - the poets share the child’s questioning about what constitutes a family, about who our parents are, and about where we fit in as individuals. Encourage children to choose their favorite “family” poems and create a display of poems and family photos.
"Why Such a Hurry?" by Monica Gunning, from America, My New Home
(Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2004)
“Red Brocade” by Naomi Shihab Nye, from Nineteen Varieties of Gazelle
Poems can share similar themes that help us think about how people around the world view each other. Here, the poets invite us to pause for hospitality, whether we’re traveling by horse, mule, bus, or train. Gunning’s Caribbean context provides one setting, while Nye’s poem clearly echoes Arab traditions. Both highlight the pleasures of taking “time to say hello.” Follow up by creating simple welcome mats to take home or discussing differing customs or traditions for welcoming guests and family visitors.
Comparing Poems about Poetry
“Wish” by Linda Sue Park, from Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo Poems
“A Blank White Page” by Francisco X. Alarcón, from Iguanas in the Snow and Other Winter Poems / Iguanas en la Nieve y Otros Poemas de Invierno
(Children’s Book Press, 2001)
Look at how poets have captured the beauty of poetry itself and what a poem can be and do. Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park explores the Korean poetic form of sijo to describe poetry’s impact, “from brain all the way to heart,” while Francisco X. Alarcón uses images of “a meadow / after a snowfall” to describe the page a poem is written upon. Children can try writing their own “definition” poems modeled on the sijo or free-verse format of these two examples. Next, create a “dictionary” anthology of all of their “defining” poems.
Comparing Points of View
“Jet Lag” by Andrea Cheng, from Shanghai Messenger
(Lee & Low, 2005)
“Same Difference” by Nikki Grimes, from Tai Chi Morning: Snapshots of China
Poems can also reflect a poet or character’s point of view, describing an experience in a way that reflects an individual perspective. The poems in each of these two collections unfold to tell the story of a character’s travel to China for the very first time. Here, readers see China through the eyes of a Chinese American girl and an African American adult. Each voice compares the sights and sounds of the marketplace at home with those encountered in China. Children with roots or family members in other countries may have similar experiences they want to share. They may also want to discuss or describe the sights and sounds of their own home or marketplace settings.
“E-mail” by Eloise Greenfield, from The Friendly Four
“Text U L8r” by Aislinn O’Loughlin, from Something Beginning with P: New Poems from Irish Poets, edited by Seamus Cashman
Poets constantly experiment with how words are arranged, organized, and even punctuated, capitalized, or spelled in their poetry. In these two examples, the poets create poems as if they are e-mail messages or text messages. Whether the writer is African American or Irish, poets use artistic license to capture feelings and experiences in new and creative ways. Children may want to try using text symbols, abbreviations, and emoticons to create their own original poems in more experimental formats.
“Everyday Poetry: Pairing Poems across Cultures” by Sylvia M. Vardell reprinted by permission of Book Links magazine (January 2008, vol. 17, no. 3). (Hyperlinks and book covers added by PaperTigers.)
Posted March 2008