Finding appealing poetry for teens is a challenge. Today we offer two very different possibilities. One from Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott. The other for beginners.
I also recommend taking a look at YALSA’s Outstanding Books for the College Bound lists. In particular, the 1999 list includes a long list of poetry. This has a nice diversity to it, and a good two-thirds are still in print.
Adult/High School–A cat scaling a wall and an ocean breaker cresting lead the poet to an observation concerning the human heart. The cat’s claws grip the wall as it begins to scamper up, then there’s a slip, and in the end a quickening fall. The breaker too follows the pattern of “gripping, sliding, surrendering. . . to the lace-rocked foam.” These images, in a poem that manages, in 16 marvelously crafted lines, direct Walcott to observe that the action of the cat and the movement of the breaker are one with “the heart, coming home, trying to fasten on everything it moved from.” The poem has rhyme and rhythm, allusion and metaphor, and phrasing rendered with such precision that it is easy to imagine many readers pausing to catch their breath. A fair question remains: is there anything here for young adult readers? Are these poems beyond the reach of the poetry “novice?” It is true that they are not easy. There are allusions to classical mythology, the Bible, Shakespeare, Dante. And the landscape of the majority of the poems is, as usual, the poet’s Caribbean homeland. But anyone, anywhere, of any age, can relate to the “desert indifference” of a cat with its “who-the-hell-are-you?’ calm,” with its belly turned upward as it lies in the midday sun with “eyes slitted in ecstasy.” White Egrets is full of such images of universal accessibility, just as it is full of deep and lasting truths of what it means to be human. The themes are large: love, death, birth, ageing, loss, triumph. The locales are varied: New York, Amsterdam, Capri, Spain, Italy, Saint Lucia. The particulars are innumerable: egrets, acacia trees, terra-cotta warriors, diabetes, empires, Barack Obama. The end result is a gift to all who turn to the written word for truth and beauty.– Robert Saunderson, formerly at Berkeley Public Library, CA
Adult/High School–This succinct and serviceable volume begins on exactly the right note for “beginners” who wonder what this thing called poetry could possibly be. After an epigram by Emily Dickinson, where she famously claims that she knows she is in the presence of poetry when she feels as if the top of her head were taken off, page one begins with the wonderful first few lines of Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry:” “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Indeed there are, and indeed she is not alone in that sentiment. But, of course, Moore has more to say on the matter. She suggests that by reading poetry, even while having a perfect contempt for it, one discovers, in the end, that poetry holds “a place for the genuine.” The authors of this book make good use of Moore’s astute and marvelously stated observation throughout their well-paced and well-illustrated introduction to the art of poetry. The book touches on all the basics: the meaning, look, sound, and sense of poems; the vast array of poetic forms, from epics and odes to limericks and free verse; how to read a poem; and how to experiment with writing one’s own poems. There is also a brief survey of the history of poetry from Homer to Hip-Hop. The volume is enlivened with carefully chosen lines from the vast palette of verse, and by appropriately emotive original drawings. Two criticisms, however, need to be noted. One, in their effort to be inclusive, they tend to overwhelm “beginners.” A handful of new names is one thing, but a list of 50 or 100, or more, with very little said about each one, tends to take on the charm of a page from a telephone book. Also, it appears that the proofreader got a bit tired or distracted, especially toward the end. In a book that explores the wonders precise language can achieve, it is especially important to dispense with the typos. Nonetheless, Poetry for Beginners is a worthwhile purchase.–Robert Saunderson, formerly of the Berkeley Public Library, CA