The Power of Poetry

Book Links: March 2000 (v.9 no.4)

by Nikki Grimes

I lived in Sweden for six years, and while I was there, I produced Swedish-language radio programs for the immigrant community, among other things. Obviously, Swedish is an unusual language for an American to speak, especially an African American, and so I have a lot of fun with it. Once in a while, when I walk down a city street in the U.S., I’ll hear someone speaking Swedish, and I’ll come up behind him or her and say a few words. And then, I wait. I wait for the person to turn around, to discover the identity of the speaker. And I smile. Why? Because he invariably looks beyond me. After a moment or two, I put the person out of misery, and say hello in Swedish. Something in me savors the look of surprise in his eyes, that look that tells me that I am not what he expected. So, what is my point? Just this: most of the children you and I encounter in our work every day are capable of far more than we generally expect. Whether or not they reach their potential has a great deal to do with the level of our expectations, and how we express them. One way to tap into that potential is through poetry.

I began to get a glimpse of poetry’s power in the classroom by listening to the stories teachers and librarians around the country stopped to tell me at various conferences and book festivals. I’d like to share just one of those stories with you.

Dr. Joyce Briscoe teaches at Clara Barton Elementary School, part of the Long Beach school district in Southern California. This is an institution with a high percentage of students who, at the time of their entry, are considered low achievers. Many of them have been written off by the system because they exhibit low reading skills, and are generally lacking in motivation. This is how these kids come into the school. Thanks to teachers like Joyce Briscoe, this isn’t the way they leave.

Briscoe has a love of poetry, and she is in the habit of sharing verse with her students, from time to time. As it happens, one year, a good friend gave her a copy of Meet Danitra Brown as a birthday gift. Meet Danitra Brown is an ode to friendship, if ever there was one, and so I’ve learned that a number of adults have given this book to their grown-up best friends. Briscoe fell in love with the book and took it to school one day to read to her students—and something happened. Children who had never responded to anything she read before were suddenly sitting up and taking notice. They were listening in a way they never had, and Briscoe paid attention.

During the course of that school term, she developed a subcurriculum around the poems in Meet Danitra Brown. The poems were so effective in motivating children to read that she began using them to motivate students to write, as well. Pretty soon, the idea caught on, and eventually, every teacher in the school was using this poetry as a jumping-off place for writing assignments at his or her own respective grade level.

In addition to classroom teaching, Briscoe also leads workshops on using literature in the classroom, and she began sharing the results of her work with the Danitra Brown poems in these sessions. Between the program at Clara Barton Elementary and the word of mouth from the workshops, the experiment spread throughout the school district.

Now, it has always been my contention that children who are reluctant to read are often so because they don’t find literature that is affirming. If, however, they come to a book that connects to their real lives, they are usually motivated to read it. And the experiments described above bear this out. Why does poetry, in particular, have such an impact on children? Maybe because poetry is portable. A poem can be memorized or sung, or, as it were, carried in the back pocket of the mind.

In Barton’s curriculum, children at each grade level are asked to memorize one of the poems in the book. Then, a number of lesson plans revolve around that poem. One class memorized the poem “Purple,” a popular poem, chiefly, I think, because it includes the word underwear. One little girl told the teacher she wanted to memorize a different poem for her assignment. She chose the poem “Sweet Blackberry.”

Danitra says my skin’s like double
Chocolate fudge ‘cause I’m so dark.
The kids at school say it another way.
“You so black, girl,” they say,
“at night, people might think
you ain’t nothin’ but a piece o’ sky.

I never cry, but inside there’s a hurting place.
I make sure no one sees it on my face.
Then mama tells me, “Next time, honey, you just say
The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”
Now, that’s what I do.
I sure wish I had told them that before.
Those kids don’t bother teasin’ me no more.

When the teacher asked the girl why she preferred this poem, she said, “Because whenever I read it, it makes me feel beautiful.” When I was growing up, I rarely found beautiful images of myself in the pages of a book, and that’s precisely why I chose to write books for young people like me. I wanted them to meet girls like Zuri and Danitra in Meet Danitra Brown, like LaTasha in Come Sunday, boys like Damon, and men like Blue in My Man Blue. These were people from my neighborhood, from my world. People who walked and talked the way I did, who danced the way I danced, and who worshipped the way I worshipped. These were people whose stories I knew and wanted to tell, people who looked and felt like me.

Today, the marketplace offers a world of books that make children feel beautiful, no matter what their color. Many of these fine books are collections of poetry that span a broad multicultural spectrum. I’d like to share a few examples. Gary Soto and Pat Mora are two of the most impressive literary voices to come out of the Mexican American community. Fortunately, in addition to their works for adults, both write for young readers. Fire in My Hands is one of my favorites of Soto’s work for older readers, while early-elementary children would enjoy his Neighborhood Odes, a great introduction to this poet’s work, and culture. There you’ll find “Ode to LaPinãta,” which begins:

It sways,
In the tree,
In the yard.
This paper pig
Bloated with
Candies, this
Pinata my father
Bought and hung
On a low branch.
I’m Rachel.
Today’s my birthday.

Pat Mora’s work also yields some great finds. Young readers might want to start out with Confetti, but This Big Sky, her literary visit to the Southwest, is the collection that won my allegiance. Check out “Joyful Jabber.”

Every morning the jays swoop
into junipers and pinons, bloom
blue on the branches, broadcast
the news that seeds and water
wait on the warm, flat boulder
behind our house.

More than twenty jays gather
at the table, jabber joyful.
I think of my friend far away and wish
we were feasting together,
soaking up this desert light until we too would soar
over cottonwood and aspen tossing
their gold, over cinnamon hills
and the secrets of canyons,
her hand safe in my hand.

Asian Americans are another group that straddles two cultures, and no one expresses that experience better for children than poet Janet Wong, who brings new meaning to the term multiculturalism. Just take a look at “Manners” from A Suitcase of Seaweed.

If you are Chinese
and you eat out of
a porcelain bowl,
you may pick it up
and push the rice
into your mouth
with your chopsticks,
feeling a bit like
a pig, digging in.
But, it is okay,
if you are Chinese.

If you are Korean,
though, you must
leave your stainless
steel bowl sitting
on the table, even
if it has gone cold
while you barbecue
beef for your father.

And, if you are half
and half, like me,
born in L.A. and hungry
all the time,
you might wonder
if you aren’t better off
sticking with
a knife and fork.

I’m happy to note that the selection of African American poetry for children has grown somewhat in recent years. As well as the staple authors, like Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Eloise Greenfield, and Lucille Clifron, we have fresh voices—like Joyce Carol Thomas.

Living in a world where hunger is a daily factor in many lives, the poem “Bitter,” from Thomas’ book Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea, definitely strikes a chord.

Sometimes the broomwheat is bitter
And the cupboards are bare
No money, little food
And the honey in the pot is hiding
My mother and father’s eyes
stay on the sky
as though
Waiting for the bees to hum
What if the bees don’t come?
Is a question, is a tornado
stopped up in my throat.

Ashley Bryan adds his own voice to the mix. He is known for his art, but perhaps not known widely enough for his poetry. One poem in Sing to the Sun captures the rhythm of his Caribbean roots.

Granny had a way with fruit trees
Hear me now
She mixed fruit slices in her dough
Knew just how
When she wasn’t busy in her kitchen
Baking bread
She balanced baskets with her produce
On her head

She filled her baskets with her fruitbread
Took her time
Put pawpaw, mango, pomegranate,
Guava and lime
She sauntered to the village market
Easy pace
She stepped out better than a queen
Had more grace

But she’d sass you if you vexed her, mon
What I found
No care could move her out the road
Stood her ground
She’d turn and shake a fist and shout,
“Want a lickin’?
Mash me down, nuh
You t’ink my name chicken!”

More than anything, I believe every child should have the experience of finding himself or herself in the pages of a book—whether she wears glasses, or not; whether he’s thin as a reed, or round as a melon; whether she is culturally deprived, or not. Again, in Meet Danitra Brown, I wrote:

Mom says I need culture, whatever that means;
then she irons some dumb dress, makes me take off my jeans,
drags me to the theatre for some stupid show.
(It turns out to be fun, but I don’t let her know.)
Next day, I tell Danitra what the play is about
then we go to her bedroom and act it all out.
We play all of the parts, and pretend that we’re stars,
Like the ones that step out of those long shiny cars.
Then Danitra starts dancing while I sing the main song
and she promises next time she’ll come along.
We decide we like culture, whatever that means,
But we both think that culture goes better with jeans!

Every reader is different, but once a reader sees himself or herself in a poem or book, he or she can begin to discover the wonder of words and the power of poetry—and perhaps dream of becoming a poet someday: “O, to poet like a laser, / Pierce darkness with one word.”

Featured Poetry Books

Bryan, Ashley. Sing to the Sun. 1995. 32p. HarperCollins, $4.95 (0-06-443437-0). Gr. 1–5.

Mora, Pat. Confetti: Poems for Children. Illus. by Enrique O. Sanchez. 1999. 32p. Lee & Low, $15.95 (1-880000-25-3); paper, $6.95 (1-880000-85-7). Gr. 1–up.

Mora, Pat. This Big Sky. Illus. by Steve Jenkins. 1998. 32p. Scholastic, $15.95 (0-590-37120-7); paper, $3.99 (0-590-37120-7). Preschool–Gr. 4.

Soto, Gary. Fire in My Hands: A Book of Poems. 1990. 64p. Scholastic, paper, $3.99 (0-590-44579-0). Gr. 7–9.

Soto, Gary. Neighborhood Odes. Illus. by David Diaz. 1992. 89p. Harcourt, $15.95 (0-15-256879-4); Scholastic, paper, $3.50 (0-590-47335-2). Gr. 3–7.

Thomas, Joyce Carol. Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 1993. 32p. HarperCollins, $15 (0-06-021087-7); paper, $4.95 (0-06-443439-7). Preschool– Gr. 3.

Wong, Janet S. A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems. 1996. 48p. Simon & Schuster, $15 (0-689-80788-0). Gr. 4–up.

Sampling Grimes

Anessa Lee and the Weaver’s Gift. Illus. by Ashley Bryan. 1999. 32p. Greenwillow, $16 (0-688-15997-4). Gr. 2–up.

At the Break of Day. Illus. by John Collier. 1999. 32p. Eerdmans, $17 (0-5028-5104-5). Gr. 1–4.

A Dime a Dozen. Illus. by Angelo. 1998. 54p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-2227-3). Gr. 5–9.

C Is for City. Illus. by Pat Cummings. 1995. 40p. Lothrop, $16 (0-688-11808-9). Preschool–Gr. 4.

Come Sunday. Illus. by Michael Brant. 1996. 32p. Eerdmans, $15 (0-8028-5108-8); paper, $7.50 (0-8028-3108-8). Preschool–Gr. 4.

Hopscotch Love and Other Poems. Illus. by Melodye Rosales. 1999. 39p. Lothrop, $14.95 (0-688-15667-3). Gr. 4–8.

Is It Far to Zanzibar: Poems about Tanzania. Illus. by Betsy Lewin. 2000. 32p. Lothrop, $15.95 (0-688-13157-3). Gr. 1–up.

It’s Raining Laughter. Illus. by Myles Pinkney. 1997. 32p. Dial, $14.99 (0-8037-2003-3). Preschool–Gr. 3.

Jazmin’s Notebook. 1998. 102p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-2224-9). Gr. 5–10.

Meet Danitra Brown. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 1994. 32p. Lothrop, $16 (0-688-12073-3).

Gr. 1–4. My Man Blue: Poems. Illus. by Jerome Lagarrigue. 1999. 32p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-2326-1). Gr. 1–up.

Nikki Grimes is an award-winning poet and author of many books for children. She is also a fiber artist and jewelry maker.