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'Who I Am': Poetry Not Wasted On The Young

In the 14th century, Petrarch wrote about love; in the 17th century, John Donne wrote about God. Today, poet Elise Paschen is turning her attention to yet another most universal of human experiences: awkward adolescence.

Paschen is the editor of Poetry Speaks Who I Am: Poems of Discovery, Inspiration, Independence and Everything Else ..., a new book and CD compilation of poems that speak to life as a tween.

"There are poems about when you feel like you hate your mother, poems about loving your mother, poems about when you lose a grandparent, poems about sibling rivalry," Paschen tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "We wanted to really give the broadest spectrum of subjects."

Hear Elise Paschen read Emily Dickinson's "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers."

Read the full text -- and hear poet Stephen Dunn read his poem "The Sacred."

Also in the mix are poems about the pressures of school, including Carl Sandburg's Arithmetic ("If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she/gives you two fried eggs and you eat both of them, who is/better in arithmetic, you or your mother?") and Rita Dove's Flash Cards, in which a 10-year-old girl can't help but think of flowers while her father quizzes her on her math homework.

"She's obviously a whiz kid, but at the same time, she's in math class daydreaming," Paschen says of Dove's narrator. "She actually wants to be writing her poem."

Another theme the collection explores is the pain of puberty. In Parneshia Jones' Bra Shopping, a girl and her mother go in search of the girl's first bra:

"The bra lady and my mother discuss how the bras fit just right and will do the trick with no bouncing at all/ Mama thanks the lady for torturing me and we leave the nightmare that is the bra department."

"When we first heard it, I thought, 'Wow, good for Parneshia that she can turn this subject into something that we can laugh about now,' " Paschen says. "But at the time it can be very humiliating and heart-wrenching being with your mother and the bra lady."

And then, of course, there is the adolescent desire to escape -- escape your homework, escape your parents and escape your own body.

In Stephen Dunn's The Sacred, a teacher asks a class for the place they escape to. Everyone is quiet until one student speaks up and says it's his car.

"The car in motion," Dunn writes, "music filling it, and sometimes one other person/who understood the bright altar of the dashboard/and how far away/a car could take him."

It's a poem for young people who are dying to get away to a place where they can be themselves -- and aching for the driver's license they need to get there.

Most of all, it's about waiting for the day you can finally fly free -- a part of adolescence that, car or no car, everyone can relate to.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And now let's take a moment to appreciate some poetry for those awkward stages of life. "Poetry Speaks Who I Am" is the name of a collection and CD for tweens and teens.

And, Renee, it's part of a series.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

It is because this, of course, is April, National Poetry Month, and we've been talking with editors of new collections.

When poet Elise Paschen set out to gather material for this particular collection, she searched out poems that speak to a variety of issues that middle schoolers are facing.

ELISE PASCHEN: There are poems about sometimes when you feel like you hate your mother, poems about loving your mother, poems about when losing a grandparent, poems about sibling rivalry. We wanted to really give the broadest spectrum of subjects, offer them to kids this age, so that they could actually find subject matter that would appeal to them.

MONTAGNE: We picked one that went to the fact that kids are obviously spending much of their time in school, and quite a few of the poems take, sort of, school and learning as their subjects.

Rita Dove has a poem in here, "Flashcards."

PASCHEN: Yes.

(Reading) "Flashcards" by Rita Dove. In math I was the whiz kid, keeper of oranges and apples. What you don't understand, master, my father said, the faster I answered, the faster they came. I could see one bud on a teacher's geranium, one clear bee sputtering at the wet pane. The tulip trees always dragged after heavy rain, so I tucked my head as my boots slapped home.

My father put up his feet after work and relaxed with a highball and "The Life of Lincoln." After supper, we drilled and I climbed the dark before sleep, before a thin voice hissed numbers as I spun on a wheel.

I had to guess. Ten, I kept saying. I'm only 10.

MONTAGNE: That really goes to that sense that kids can have at this age, of pressure.

PASCHEN: Absolutely. And interestingly about this poem, the speaker of the poem, the I, is being drilled by her father on her math homework. She's obviously a whiz kid - she does very well at math. But at the same time, she's in math class, I presume, daydreaming.

MONTAGNE: The geranium...

PASCHEN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...on a teacher's desk.

PASCHEN: Exactly. So I think in that second stanza of the poem, you can see the budding, or the beginning, of the young poet. You know, she's a whiz kid at math but she actually wants to be writing her poem.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PASCHEN: But her father's drilling her, you know, about doing her math homework.

And we also tried to pair living poets with historic poets. So, right across the page from Rita Dove, is Carl Sandburg's poem, "Arithmetic."

MONTAGNE: And this is a really fun poem...

PASCHEN: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: ...which is a little on the long side, but perhaps you could read the first six or eight lines and we'll get the idea.

PASCHEN: (Reading) Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons, in and out of you head. Arithmetic tells you how many you lose or win if you know how many you had before you lost or won. Arithmetic is seven, 11, all good children go to heaven; or five, six, bundle of sticks. Arithmetic is numbers you squeeze from your head to your hand, to your pencil to your paper, till you get the answer.

MONTAGNE: That poem, there's a lot of fun poems in the book. And some, again, back to modern issues that kids really struggle with. One of the more amusing ones and wonderful ones is on the CD, and it's Parneshia Jones who is reading her poem "Bra Shopping."

PASCHEN: You know, "Bra Shopping" is a perfect example of what girls this age are going through. And actually, my mother-in-law who is in her 70's particularly liked "Bra Shopping." And she said I remember when I was at Marshall Fields and my mother forced me to buy my first bra.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: We'll go to the CD and hear Parneshia Jones finish the poem.

PARNESHIA JONES: (Reading) After we are halfway through the bra inventory, we check out. Oh, honey. You picked some beautiful bras, the bra lady says. Remember, hand wash. How about burned and buried, I think to myself.

The bra lady and my mother discuss how the bras fit just right and will do the trick with no bouncing at all. Mama thanks the lady for torturing me and we leave the nightmare that is the Bra Department.

My mother turns and looks at me, now really, was that so bad?

MONTAGNE: It's actually pretty funny, though.

PASCHEN: Well, when we first heard it, and we heard a longer version of the poem, I thought - wow, you know? Good for Parneshia, that she can turn this subject into something, you know, that we can laugh about now. But during the time it can be very humiliating and heart-wrenching, being there with your mother and the bra lady.

MONTAGNE: There's also a wonderful poem about speaking up in class. And it's more than that. It's actually about how difficult it is for kids to engage sometimes. It's called "The Sacred," and it's by Stephen Dunn.

It shows a side of adolescence that I think most everyone will remember.

PASCHEN: (Reading) "The Sacred" by Stephen Dunn.

After the teacher asked if anyone had a sacred place and the students fidgeted and shrunk in their chairs, the most serious of them all said it was his car. Being in it alone, his tape deck playing things he'd chosen. And others knew the truth had been spoken and began speaking about their rooms, their hiding places. But the car kept coming up, the car in motion, music filling it, and sometimes one other person who understood the bright altar of the dashboard and how far away a car could take him from the need to speak, or to answer, the key in having a key and putting it in, and going.

MONTAGNE: It's like flying free for a kid.

PASCHEN: It really is. And I think, again, it serves as a metaphor because again, if we're looking at kids who are in middle school, this poem again, will speak to them in terms of just places where they can be themselves. And where they can, as you say, fly free. And also look maybe forward to the time when they can get their driver's license and escape.

MONTAGNE: Poet Elise Paschen, she's edited a new collection for tweens called "Poetry Speaks Who I Am."

INSKEEP: Some of which you can read at NPR.org, where you can also hear a reading of Emily Dickenson's "Hope is the Thing with Feathers."

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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