Saturday, July 18, 2009

Poems from Homeroom--Review

I am always on the lookout for books that I can use in the classroom. Sometimes novels or nonfiction. Sometimes poetry. Poetry written specifically for teenagers, poetry they would pay attention to, takes special skill. It requires that the poet connect or reconnect with a lot of adolescent emotions that most grown-ups would love to forget.

With Poems from Homeroom: A Writer’s Place to Start, Kathi Appelt has done a laudable job of delving into those feelings. She writes in the introduction that, with the exception of the opening poem, each is based on an individual person from her life, someone special she had in mind to make the poem work for her on an emotional level. In itself, not bad advice to an aspiring poet. Appelt mixes free verse with more structured forms, such as acrostics, haiku, and a sestina.

The acrostics in particular are good models. This form of poetry is often used as an ice-breaker in classrooms--a quick this-is-who-I-am assignment. Unfortunately, in my experience, many of these poems lack any depth or originality. They skim the surface of the student/poet or just consist of the quickest, easiest words that came to mind (or could be found in a dictionary). In her book Appelt writes seven acrostics, each about a dead rock legend. In each she tried to incorporate something of that legend's voice. These are powerful examples to share. Deep and insightful. Thoughtful.

The haiku is another of the most assigned and least understood forms of poetry. Too many teachers get in the 5-7-5 mindset and look for nothing more than syllable count. This misses the true power and beauty of traditional haiku, which juxtapose some small, intimate descriptive image with a larger idea. In Japanese each haiku uses a kigo, or season word, to let the reader know which of the four seasons that haiku represents.

Unfortunately, Appelt also seems to fall into this trap. Although she uses haiku in a clever way, interlocking several to create one completed idea, she missed a couple of nuances. Namely, she wrote senryu--not haiku. Senryu has the same 5-7-5 count but is not locked into nature. It is more often used to look at humans and our foibles. Also, tradionally, each haiku/senryu should stand by itself, a complete idea, although a haiku sequence such as she has here is not unheard of.

The sestina is one of the harder forms to write. The need to repeat key words in a different sequence in each of the stanzas is exacting and effortful. Making it seem effortless is even harder. Appelt’s “Research Paper Sestina” was fun to read and a fresh example to share with your students: one on a topic (research papers) that they can easily relate to.

And all this is only the first half of the book.

After the last poem comes the second section, where she writes about the inspiration for each poem and has several questions to get young poets (or even older ones like me) thinking. These are excellent jumping off points into writing original poems.

This was an accidental find in the public library. I am glad I decided to peruse the poetry shelves as this book is going to be valuable to me in the future. After I get my own copy, of course.

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