The Power of Poetry by Sarah FitzHenry
In my career, I’ve come to realize that the rumors about print and reading going out of style are just that – rumors. If you are lucky enough to work with children and books, you know that young people’s passion for stories is as strong as ever. But even I wasn’t completely confident about the current role of poetry in young people’s lives. Do middle schoolers in 2017 really connect with Langston Hughes? Will my students still be inspired by the words of Maya Angelou?
For those of you questioning just like I did, let me share what I learned on a sunny March afternoon moderating an event for the Virginia Festival of the Book – poetry is as powerful as it has ever been. It still has the ability to bring a hush over a room crowded with thousands of people. It still creates an irresistible rhythm that transforms words and turns of phrase into music. It still pops and bubbles and rolls and finds its way deep down inside of the listener or reader, lighting a spark. And as the Newbery winning featured speaker Kwame Alexander recited and rapped, he blew on the embers, igniting small flames that grew to an inferno. Thanks to the work of authors like Kwame, poetry is now more accessible, engaging, and relevant than I can ever remember. Pair Kwame’s power with the stunning and deeply meaningful collage work of Ekua Holmes in their recent collaboration Out of Wonder: Poets Celebrating Poetry, and the possibilities are endless.
Out of Wonder is getting a lot of press for bringing the cool back to poetry – for inspiring a new generation of poets (who have seemingly lost their connection to classic literature) to pick up pens and pencils and spit some verse. During that particular assembly, I asked Kwame if he had any advice for members of the audience who hadn’t had their “ah-ha” moment with poetry yet. Can anyone have this moment? Or is poetry only for some people – the smartest, the richest, the something-est? He thought for a moment, brow furrowed, hand on his scarf, which displayed the pattern of an old-fashioned library card.
“How many of you love poetry?” He asked the audience. Almost one thousand fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students turned to their neighbors and teachers, unsure – should I tell the truth? Am I going to make Kwame Alexander mad if I don’t raise my hand? A few put their hands in the air. “How many of you aren’t sure about it?” He continued, surveying the room as a few more hands shot up. “And, be honest, how many of you don’t like poetry? Don’t get it?” He stood up and walked down the steps from the stage to the floor as most of the hands were sheepishly raised. “Okay. I hear you.” He stood in the middle of the floor, in the thick of the crowd, and rolled up his sleeves. The crowd settled into an anticipatory silence. And then, from memory, he performed a poem from his Newbery Medal winning 2015 novel, The Crossover:
Josh Bell is my name
but Filthy McNasty is my claim to fame.
Folks call me that ’cause my game’s acclaimed,
so downright dirty, it’ll put you to shame.
My hair is long, my height’s tall.
See, I’m the next Kevin Durant, LeBron, and Chris Paul.
Remember the greats, my dad likes to gloat:
I balled with Magic and the Goat.
But tricks are for kids, I reply.
Don’t need your pets, my game’s so fly.
Your dad’s old school, like an ol’ Chevette.
You’re fresh and new, like a red Corvette.
Your game so sweet, it’s a crepes suzette.
Each time you play it’s ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL net.
If anyone else called me fresh and sweet,
I’d burn as mad as a flame.
But I know she’s only talking about my game.
See, when I play ball, I’m on fire.
When I shoot, I inspire.
The hoop’s for sale, and I’m the buyer.
His cadence left them breathless. When he was finished, Kwame slowly lowered his microphone, eyes darting from face to face as the audience slowly broke free of their daze. And then, like a crowd witnessing a game-winning shot at the buzzer, the auditorium filled with screams. 900 pairs of tiny sneakers hit the floor as they stood, hands flung high in the air, high fiving each other, pumping their fists. Kwame stood and waited for the screams to die down. Once the students were back in their seats, he said simply, “Okay. That was a poem. Now tell me the truth – who here loves poetry?”
Every hand in the room went up.
Sarah FitzHenry is the K-8 Librarian at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, VA, and the voice behind library website Fitz Between the Shelves. Sarah is a proud member of Books on Bikes, a robotics coach, a maker, and an all-around geek. Sarah is passionate about creating school libraries that make every child feel welcome, confident, and safe.