Friday, December 15, 2017

Speaking Poetically... Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander

"Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing," wrote the award-winning poet Lucille Clifton. That's a broad statement, since the word "wonder" itself can carry dual meanings, to be in awe and to question something, but its meaning applies well to children, who know both feelings well.

But poetry often doesn't feel natural to most young people, who, like even the best of rapper-poets, are still tied to the idea of fixed rhyme and meter. But along comes Kwame Alexander, writing a novel about, of all things, a twelve-year-old who lives for basketball and outdoing his twin brother at it. It's not easy combining vibrant game-play with sibling rivalry and life and death in blank verse stream-of-consciousness poetry for middle-schoolers, but Alexander did it with aplomb, winning the 2015 Newbery Award with his novel The Crossover (review here).

Now Alexander turns his attention to spreading the word for poetry. As he describes his growing-up years, he had a head start.

In my home words came alive.
Our house was a Walmart of books,
Reading was our hobby, our playdate.

But since not all kids come with a home court advantage, Alexander and his teammates, Chris Colderly and Marjorie Wentworth, offer poems written in the style of famous poets such as e. e. cummings, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Nikki Giovanni, and fourteen more. Here's Wentworth, doing Dickenson:

I keep an old vase in my room
That says believing in roses make them bloom

And in the style of Robert Frost:

I have stopped to shake the dry snow
from the branches and watched the outline
of each bare tree sharpen like stone,
and consider that quite often
Life is too much like a pathless wood.

Colderly also takes a crack at Nikki Giovanni's colloquial style:

Poetry is barbecue, cotton candy,
blues, Birdland, Sunday morning gospel,
ripples on a pond.

And here he is, doing the poet Gwendolyn Brooks:

Bronzeville lads, way past cool,
Voices like butter, melting blues,
Bronzeville lads, gone too soon.

Kwame Alexander's Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets (Candlewick, 2017) has a lot to offer young readers in the upper elementary and middle school years in this introduction to the wonder of words and their power. The old saying, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," is true, and enticing young people to "get" the feel of famous poems and try their hand at writing their own both introduces these poets and offers models for writing. Teachers will want a copy of this book on their own shelves as a way to introduce their students to ways of writing from the senses and from the heart. "The exercise of celebrating poets in their own voices leads naturally to the idea of the classroom writing prompt—which Colderley, writing haiku in the style of Basho, seems to anticipate: “Pens scratching paper/ Syllables counted with care/ Poets blossoming,” says Publishers Weekly.

Kwame Alexander's other books also include the free verse soccer-themed story, Booked (see review here) and the best-selling The Playbook: 52 Rules to Aim, Shoot, and Score in This Game Called Life. Rebound, Alexander's prequel to his Newbery winner, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April of 2018.

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