National Poetry Day

The Crossover

It’s National Poetry Day tomorrow. Quite often, we assume that children will be introduced to poetry at school – they will be asked to memorise a poem, write an acrostic poem of their own, or find a poem in a special poetry book. But if we ask ourselves, ‘what is poetry?’ we will discover that our introduction to poetry comes much earlier than school.

Poetry is an art form in which the language displays rhythm or verse. It’s not easy to define, and why so often children are quick to ask if poetry is something that rhymes.

Children also ask this because for some of them the earliest poetry they’re exposed to is the rhyming kind. Nursery rhymes are poems. And they’re important too – research shows that early exposure to rhymes increases a child’s ability in spatial reasoning.

Modern day nursery rhymes can be found in picture books. Whereas old nursery rhymes can be attributed to historical meanings, such as ‘Ring a Ring ‘o Roses’ representing the Black Plague, (although no factual evidence of this is available) our modern day picture books tell us stories in rhymes that can help us make sense of the world. Julia Donaldson’s Superworm is about teamwork, A Squash and a Squeeze teaches a reader to be thankful for what they have. Other picture books use free verse to weave their wonderful narratives.

For many of us, poems of our youth stay in our memory far longer than passages of prose. This may be because the predictability of some rhythm and rhyme narrows down the chances of available choices. The emotions in a poem (and I’m generalising here) are often heightened simply by the brevity of the words. And emotions and attention are linked, so we remember poetry more easily. I can certainly recite from memory many of AA Milne’s poems – particularly Disobedience, but there is much repetition and the rhythm is so perfect that even the verse written only in initials scans perfectly.

For children, poetry in the library is often shelved near the jokes section. Children love the nonsense and breaking of rules in poetry. Nonsense poems are a key entrance point into a love for poetry – I defy you to find a child who doesn’t love On The Ning Nang Nong.

But, lastly, free verse poetry is being used more and more frequently in contemporary narratives for children or young teens, particularly those which deal with difficult or sensitive subjects. I reviewed One by Sarah Crossan on this blog a few weeks ago, which deals with issues surrounding conjoined twins. Another book came my way this week, which is publishing in the UK tomorrow, and it is equally stunning and impressive in its quality and narrative content.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is about 12 year old twins, Josh and Jordan, who are stars of their school basketball team and have hopes of being professional players. The story is told through Josh’s eyes as the twins’ relationship begins to deteriorate when Jordan gets friendly with a new girl. The verse works cleverly – with pulsating bursts of fizzing energy to describe his basketball games, hip-hop in style, the words moving and using the white space on the page as a ball player would use the court:
“Be careful though
‘cause now I’m CRUNKing
CrissCROSSING
FLOSSING
flipping”
and more delicate simplified poetry without as many adjectives or movement of words to describe Josh’s feelings off the court.

It isn’t sentimental, Josh’s feelings come at you from behind the words on the page. Kwame Alexander also uses Josh’s reports of text messages and phone conversations to tell the story, as well as using his vocabulary homework – every so often Josh uses a new word from his school vocabulary test as the starting point for a poem and weaves it into his life. It is clever and effective:
“pul-chri-tu-di-nous
Having great physical
beauty and appeal…
As in : Wait a minute –
why is the pulchritudinous girl
now talking
to my brother?”

Josh is an extremely likeable character, despite his jealousy of his twin, and his family and relationships with them are expertly portrayed. Kwame Alexander also touches on the racial elements of the story – his Dad gets pulled over by the police, but it is subtle and well-handled.

For boys who are reluctant readers and only into sport or music, this may be the perfect way into reading – short bursts of text – ongoing references to basketball (even the book is divided into the four quarters of the game), and yet a crackling narrative underneath. Kwame Alexander told The Washington Post that he wrote it “to show boys and girls that poetry can be cool.” He succeeded. My only fear is that the text is so basketball-led it may put off UK readers. Not that it was a disincentive for me – I devoured it. I wish someone would write a similar one based in football. That would be my perfect children’s book. To purchase a copy, click here or ask for it at your local children’s bookshop.

 

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