Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Book Review: Poetry Speaks: Who I Am edited by Elise Paschen

Poetry Speaks Who I AmGenre: Poetry
Reading level: Ages 9-12
Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Publication Date: March 1, 2010
ISBN-10: 1402210744
ISBN-13: 978-1402210747
Editor Website: Elise Paschen

In Poetry Speaks: Who I Am the missing ingredient to the Poetry Speaks series finally sees the light of day. Geared towards the middle/junior high school mind, this collection of more than 100 poems focuses on the me, the concrete, the everyday lives of those most curious of creatures, the tween.

Poets, both historical and modern day speak with one voice into the angst, fear, and joyous part of life that is coming-of-age, of reaching near adulthood, of finding oneself in the onslaught of parent, media, and peer expectations. The byline really says it all. These are poems of “discovery, inspiration, independence and everything else.

Collected in a nice hardback edition with accompanying CD, Poetry Speaks: Who I Am is very easy to use and very readable. Graphically appealing but not distracting from the text with actual illustrations, the book allows the student to feel and experience the works of poetry without feeling that they are constrained in their understanding. Each poem has its own page, making it easy to read them in isolation, but are also somewhat thematically grouped, so it is easy to cover a particular theme easily. My own students, whom I test-ran the book on, loved the way the book was so visually appealing. It often made them feel grown-up, like they had moved from being talked down to, to being expected to think and learn for themselves to be allowed freedom of thought – the lack of which is what many of my own students fear most.

The poems themselves are excellent. Edgar Allen Poe, Ogden Nash, Maya Angelou, Siegfried Sassoon, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Crane, Billy Collins, Nikki Giovanni, and many more great poets are represented here. Both new poets and classic ones are coupled together, but all speak to the experience that is the young adult life.

44 of the poems are represented on the accompanying audio CD. As often as possible, these are readings direct from the source, with the poets reading their own work, 39 of them for the very first time. My own students loved hearing the works from the horse’s lips, as it were, and lapped up each and every reading – finding it much more effective to hear the poet read their own works than to hear me do it. Having the accompanying CD was a godsend for this tired and raspy English teacher.

This is one of the best materials money can buy for teachers of poetry in the middle (and lower upper) school. You can easily open every class with a reading, whether from the CD or yourself, and it is easy to find poems that are quickly relevant to whatever material you are teaching that day, be it sound devices or figurative language. Since there are so many poems, it is possible to open almost every class of the year should you wish it. However, teachers will need to be careful to read the poems before reading them aloud. Some of them contain material (like “Bra Shopping” by Parneshia Jones or “In the Fifth-Grade Locker Room” by Rebecca Lauren) which may not be suitable for younger students or those who are more immature, or even mixed gender classes. There is nothing wrong with the poems per se, quite the opposite, but immature students will latch onto some of the word choices or imagery and miss the real point. In my own case, at a private school with a religious element, I had to be very choosy about which poems I read.

The poems from Poetry Speaks: Who I Am were usually effective. Most of my students, after a discussion of the poem, got the material quickly. Lots of “aha” moments were to be found, after reading and re-reading the poem. Many times the students commented on just how beautiful the poems were, or interesting, or silly, and more than expected asked when a copy could be bought. (I was using an Advance Reader Copy to test-run the material in the classroom).

All in all, I would say this is best book on the market for finding poems that will speak to the middle school mindset. Several budding poets were born from my readings of the text and many more found that poetry could truly speak to them. Teachers need look no further for good, relevant poems for their classrooms, and parents who love poetry could share a special moment over some of the same poets that made them love poetry with their own children. Poetry Speaks: Who I Am, edited by Elise Paschen, captures the beauty of poetry for students who historically hate it. I know of no better compliment to pay it than to say that it turned young minds of stone into minds receptive to the complexities and nuance of poetry and poetic language. Enough said.