Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Nonfiction | Everyday Words on Everyday Moments

Poetry, historically, is not my thing. I think I can trace it back to my senior year of high school. I was spending a weekend at a state university as part of an Honors Program interview, and we had a seminar session on analyzing a poem. After much lengthy discussion and debate on the poet's motives, meaning, word choice, etc., our discussion leader informed us that the poem in question was not, in fact, actually a real poem but merely an amalgamation of lines from various Dr. Seuss books. Which then prompted further debate on what does constitute a poem. Needless to say, I found this exercise infuriating, and the interpretation of poetry from this analytical perspective turned me off the whole genre for years.

I've since begun, bit by bit, to appreciate poetry on a more personal level. In academic discourse, we're generally taught to approach poetry with a critical eye. We dissect poems into small pieces of words and patterns and use this analysis to speculate on the author's purpose and meaning. And to me, that kind of close reading is MISERABLE. I like to just accept poetry as is, without any interpreted attribution of the author's words. It was written with meaning by the author; it may or may not connect with each reader.

Despite my own problematic history with poetry, it's a genre I try to promote to my middle schoolers to broaden their reading. For the Read Harder Challenge's "collection of poetry" category, I chose a title I'd recently purchased for my school library, Gary Soto's A Fire in My Hands.

THIS collection I can get behind. Soto writes on small moments and memories from his childhood and adolescence in Fresno, California. The most well-known poem from this collection, "Oranges," captures the awkward, nervous elation of a first date on an ordinary gray December day. "How You Gave Up Root Beer" describes the most embarrassing moment around "the girl you like more than your own life." Soto explains the complex way of the world in juvenile terms in "How Things Work." And "Hitchhiking with a Friend" details the briefest of young adventures with a friend, feeling the exhilaration of being far from home, eyes open to "the notion of beauty" in small, unfamiliar sights.

My favorite, though, is "That Girl," a beautiful reminiscence on those early days of lust.

The public library was saying things
In so many books
And I, a Catholic boy
In a green sweater,
Was reading the same page
A hundred times...

Soto's poems lack a commanding rhythm or rhyme scheme, and they rarely feature such simile or metaphor. The words never devolve into poetic descriptors or illustrative adjectives. But they have a soothing rhythm and use simple words to evoke simple experiences. I found the best part of this collection (the revised and expanded edition, specifically) to be the inclusion of an introduction by the author as well as very brief anecdotes that precede each poem. In the introduction, Soto shares his background with poetry and his connection with the place and environment that inspired these poems. The anecdotes at the beginning of each individual poem add context that contributes to the personal appeal of the poem--which, as I stated earlier, is exactly what I'm looking for in a poem! I think this collection is easily accessible, especially to young readers and reluctant [poetry] readers, because it's the kind of poetry that makes you feel like your own small moments are unique and worthy of mention and memory.

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