I think we should teach poetry in school but not just the “classics” or what “academics” like, but stuff you WANT to read. Many kids (and adults) hate poetry because it is “girly” (yes, some I was taught was “flowery/girly”) or because is dull (yes, I have fallen asleep more than once while reading some my teacher(s) was forcing on me). And yes, there can be too many rhymes (not that I am complaining mind you, some of my favorites rhymed, but if you are 10-years-old or even 35-years-old, rhyming has the stigma of “babyish”). Therefore, I vote for getting fun contemporary authors out there!
Okay, Billy Collins is an “old white European dude.” But I am hoping he is a nice guy because his works are hilarious and clever. High School and College classes would have been more fun if we had this living white dude, instead of the dead, white dude Shakespeare. Or that dead, white dudette Dickenson (great stuff, but been there, done that). Collins “gets it” and “with it” when it comes to easy-to-understand language, images of the word, and format. Or at least he is in Whale Day: And Other Poems. And even though this collection might not be the best to start with, as it does deal with death in several poems, it is funny, sweet, and thought provoking. I was by Collins at his funeral (surreal as it was) and I was looking out a train window at the flowers his mother could have been looking at, while unknown to her, her future husband could have (on another train) been on his way south simultaneously. I was there when he drank tea, talked to lovers, at college. Poems with their accessible language and images represent life and death. Humor and absurd is mixed in with seriousness. Even a story about badgers playing trumpet or his future mother and flowers, are something you must know. You can read a couple at a time, sipping tea, looking out windows and even on the train. While there are no internal illustrations, the cover has a lovely image that helps show some of what you will encounter.
Of course, we should also expand our horizons and find contemporary poets who are not old white dudes. And honestly, you cannot get much farther from that than with Akosua Afiriyie-Hwedie and her collection of poems in her collection titled Born in a Second Language. She is an African author who was born of parents from two different nations and brought up in a third. She speaks several languages and talks about how language is an important part of her life. She mentions the pros, cons, and issues one has as a non-native English speaker, the issues as a person who can converse in multiple languages and the issues of not knowing which one to use. She speaks of the mother figure and images surrounding that. She talks about religion and God and how it relates to her African heritage. She is a voice not often heard talking to the reader of her experiences with language, religion, family, immigration and living. The theme of language, its importance and power, is probably the most heavily written about theme in this short but packed poetry book, but all themes are equally powerful. Afiriyie-Hwedie’s style is mostly non-traditional. Poems are not “in a classic style” but can flow across the page. The words can even start to literally disappear or overlap making it next to impossible (if not impossible) to read. It is both messy and organized at the same time. This poet does not just talk about language but shows you language in its beautiful. raw nature.
I started this review off mentioning 10-year-olds. However, I do not feel that anyone under the 13 or 14-year-old crowd would be able to appreciate it all. These two collections have a maturity that experience can give you. However, I do think that some of the poems could be read to a child, and you could talk about them. Afiriyie-Hwedie talks contemporary issues, therefore, I would start with her.