Friday, April 18, 2008

My River Runs to Thee: Poetry for Young People edited by Frances Schonmacher

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

Making the deceptively simple poems of Emily Dickinson alive and meaningful to modern children would seem a daunting task. Yet Houghton-Mifflin's Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson (Poetry For Young People), in one of their on-going series titled Poetry for Young People, takes on one of America's best-known and more difficult poets bravely.

Editor Frances Schoonmaker does a fine job of humanizing the voice behind the famous recluse of Amherst. An intensely alive but retiring member of a family of local superstars, Emily Dickinson lived in the shadow of her pretty and witty older sister Vinnie and her industrious father and brother, founder and treasurer of Amherst Academy. Rarely venturing out into the world, she nevertheless wrote, "To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." Ironically, however, it is Emily for whom the Dickinson family is mostly remembered. Schonnmaker's brief biographical sections make the outdoorsy "Aunt Emily," who lowered cookies and muffins in a basket to the playmates of her nephews and nieces from her renowned kitchen, seem like a person most kids would like to know.

Interspersed with her most childlike poems ("I'm Nobody; Who're you?), her nature riddle poems, probably written for those same children, ("A Narrow Fellow in the Grass"), and an assortment of other pieces, the editors provide vignettes from Emily's life which illuminate the poems. We see Emily going for long walks with her dog, watching wild animals from the borders of her garden, and most intriguing of all, dashing off short poems and hand-binding them into little books to be hidden in the crannies of her desk for no one but herself to see.

Editorial glosses to the poems explain in simple language the themes, symbols, and organization of her poems, and Schoonmaker ties the subjects of Dickinson's pieces to corollary events in her life whenever possible. While some reviewers find fault with the light-hearted watercolor illustrations of this edition, the choice of poems and bits of biography are right on for the target readership of this book.

Better received by reviewers is Poetry for Young People: Robert Frost (Poetry For Young People). Appealingly illustrated with folksy New England scenes, the wonderfully kid-friendly pieces of Robert Frost are interpreted and extended by the editor's glosses to the poems themselves. Well-known poems such as "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," and "The Road Not Taken" are also accompanied by somewhat lesser known works such as "Now Close a Window."

As with Dickinson, the natural sights and sounds of the New England countryside are both the source and the main subject of these poems. "My poems have all gone home," Frost once said of their setting. Because both poets help the reader stop and really see a small piece of nature, the two books together make comfortable companions for classroom units on American poetry.

Schmidt's selections of Frost's poems are divided into four seasonal groups, beginning with autumn and "The Last Word of the Bluebird." As in the Dickinson volume, poems are analyzed and interpreted in short summaries on each page.

Other diverse poets featured in their own volumes in this notable series are Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Wordsworth, William Carlos Williams, Edward Lear, W. B. Yeats, Maya Angelou, Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Coleridge, Rudyard Kipling, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allen Poe, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Louis Stevenson.



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