Tag Archives: poetry

If a poem is worthy…

If a poem is worthy at all, it isn’t tough—it is frail and exquisite, a mood, a moment of sudden understanding, a cobweb which falls apart at a clumsy touch.

Credit: takeasnap | morguefile.com

Jennings Thompson, editor of Silver Pennies

I Am Not a Poet

icebergI am not a poet, but I do love to write verse.

I don’t make that distinction out of false humility but out of reverence for poetry and for those who create it.

True poetry requires a freshness of language, the kind of unexpected encounter with words that can make the hair rise on the back of your neck. A long-time friend of mine, the poet Barbara Esbensen, used to talk to children about bringing two words together that had never met one another before. I can do that once in a while, but the encounter requires a fair amount of serendipity.

What I can produce intentionally and reliably is work that is lyrical. I revel in rhythm and sound and the shape of the words on the page. I can write succinctly, too, and with close attention to what is left out, the unspoken that will resonate in my reader’s psyche.

Picture books, every picture book worthy of the multiple readings young children so often call for, use all of these techniques. And they are, of course, the techniques of poetry whether they reach the full status of poetry or not.

My most recent picture book, illustrated by John Shelley and published by Holiday House, Crinkle, Crackle, Crack . . . It’s Spring!, is a case in point.

Crinkle, Crackle, Crack ... It's Spring!I work with sound, lots of sounds. Not just the sounds that the characters pursue, trying to find their source: “crinkle, crackle, crack, rap, bap, tap, crunch, scrunch.” But I let the sounds of the more ordinary words telling the story flow for reader and listener alike: “You’d pop out of bed, / you’d creep to the door, / then you’d step outside to see . . . / mud, / rotten snow, /trees shivering in the dark.” Note the repetition of p’s followed by the sudden stop of “mud, rotten snow,” etc.

I toss in an occasional free-floating rhyme, too. “And oh . . . of course, / the bear. / The one standing there / in the middle of your yard.” When I’m writing board books for the very young, I usually work in a predictable rhythm and rhyme scheme: “How do I love you? / Let me count the ways. / I love you as the sun / loves the bright blue days.” (From How Do I Love You? illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church and published by Scholastic.) But for slightly older readers such as those for Crinkle, Crackle, Crack I prefer a more free-flowing line. “The bare bones of trees / stand on a hill / in the chill / breeze.” or “And together they’ll cry, / ‘Take care! / Beware! / Despair! / You can bet / you’ve just met / your worst nightmare!’” (From Halloween Forest illustrated by John Shelley and published by Holiday House.)

The fact that I was playing with rhyme in that unpredictable way seemed to disconcert reviewers until my editor had the wisdom to use the jacket copy to instruct. She referred to the text as “unmetered, rhymed verse.” Once given a name for what they were reading, reviewers quoted that phrase in their reviews and complaints fell away.

Perhaps the most important technique of poetry that picture books use is resonance. The iceberg effect. Ten percent above the surface and ninety percent below. Of course, the text must hold back, leaving room for an illustrator to bring his or her own magic to the story, but the text needs to do what any good poem does as well, leave room for the one who receives the words to feel.

Longest NightResonance is more difficult to demonstrate without giving the entire text, but I’ll risk a brief example from another of my picture books, The Longest Night illustrated by Ted Lewin and published by Holiday House. It opens this way: “The snow lies deep. / The night is long and long. / The stars are ice, the moon is frost, / and all the world lies still. / Bears sleep, as do the velvet mice. / A moon shadow lies by every tree, / thin as a hungry wolf. / “Sha-a-a,” whines the wind, the bitter wind. / “Cold and dark now rule. / Cold and dark now rule.”

If that text doesn’t induce an almost physical shiver, I’m not doing my job.

I’ll say it again. I don’t claim the name of poet for myself or call my work poetry, but the techniques of poetry enrich everything I create, especially when I am writing for the very young.

It is, after all, these techniques that make a story work through the multiple readings young listeners often crave. They do something more as well. They prepare those same listeners for the real thing.

This blog was first posted on E. Kristin Anderson’s site, “Write All the Words.”

And Again

starting overThis is almost amusing, writing about the progress of a manuscript while I’m still sorting each step, but I suppose it’s instructive, too. Instructive for me to examine my process and instructive for those who assume, because I’ve been publishing for forty years, I have moved far beyond the two steps forward, one step back jig so many manuscripts seem to require.

Two weeks ago I wrote about starting over on my memoir. I spoke of the letting go I did when I decided to write it in prose instead of verse, and then the second letting go of returning to the verse when I decided that my new prose approach wasn’t the answer either. After the second letting go I settled to the task of getting the verse assembled into a cohesive whole.

But then a writer friend joined me in a short retreat in the beautiful bluff country of southeastern Minnesota. She arrived from Vermont with a novel she has been working on for a long time. I brought the memoir I’ve also been working on for a long time . . . and we both brought questions about our work.

These were my questions: Did it matter that the verse wasn’t all of equal strength? Would it even be possible to bring everything up to the same level? Were the leaps I was taking, the great chunks of my life I was leaving out, a problem? And the scariest question of all, was I using the quick-in, quick-out of verse as a way of avoiding exposing my own vulnerability?

I had chosen to write in verse initially because of a firm rule I have always lived by in my writing life, I don’t write about other people in my life, at least not about those still living and reading. Writing in verse allowed me to skip over anything I didn’t want to talk about … like a 28-year marriage, for instance. But was I using my ability to pick up a topic and put it down again to avoid asking the hard questions about my own life, too? And what possible value can a memoir have if it doesn’t take on hard personal questions?

Here are the answers that came back: The fact that the verse wasn’t all of equal strength was a problem. And I probably wasn’t going to be able to bring it all to the same level. The leaps were a problem, too. And I did seem to be hiding behind the form. My friend suggested, gently but firmly, that I start over again in prose.

She said it all in a context of fierce support for the memoir itself. She told me again and again how much power there is in my life’s story. She reminded me what an accomplished writer I am, what an accomplished prose writer. And she spoke warmly of what I had already achieved in verse.

Interestingly enough, another good writer friend, someone with whom I often trade picture-book manuscripts for vetting, had said some of the same things six months ago. But six months ago I wasn’t ready to hear it. The fact that she had said it, though, helped make it possible for me to hear it now.

And so once more I’m letting go. Truly letting go. When I tried shifting to prose last time, I simply took my verse and elongated the lines. So I wasn’t really changing what I was doing. This time I’m not even going back to look at the verse. I’m just writing the stories I first wrote in verse again … without leaving so much out this time around. The fact that I’ve already written these stories in such a condensed, such an intense form makes the new writing easy. The words tumble out in an eager stream.

Does this mean the months and months I spent trying to make this manuscript work in verse were all a waste? I don’t think so. In the first version I discovered the stories I want to tell. And my plan is to retain some of the verse to introduce each section, so some will survive in its first form. And the refinement of language and thought the verse demanded has honed my story for the telling. So I’m grateful for what I have done … and excited to begin what feels like the definitive draft.

And my friend. Well … I read her novel-in-progress and told her how much I loved her characters, was compelled by her voice, admired her writing. I also told her I thought she hadn’t yet found her through line and that she needed to think about that and start again.

Did we each permit ourselves a sigh? Of course. But once the sighing is done, good work lies ahead.

A formless form

I’ve found a new way to write.  It’s something I’ve been doing from time to time for several years now. I gallop along in a free-swinging prose dropping in rhymes here and here and over there, too, just for fun. It could almost be called free verse except that free verse specifically doesn’t use rhyme.

In Like a Lion, Out Like a LambMy first picture book to be published using this oddly formless form was In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb published by Holiday House in 2011 with delightful illustrations by Emily Arnold McCully

March comes with a roar.
He rattles your windows
and scratches at your door.
He turns snow to mud
then tromps across your floor.

Another passage shows the variation in rhythm and in rhyme placement better:

No, never!
This fellow is much too clever.
He finds himself a sunny spot.
He stretches, yawns,
and curls into a knot.

Halloween ForestI didn’t have any name for what I was doing. I just liked doing it. When I used this formless form again in Halloween Forest, just out this fall, (with wondrously spooky illustrations by John Shelley) an interviewer asked me if I had a pattern in mind as I wrote. “No,” I found myself answering. “It’s more like writing by the seat of my pants.” And, in fact, the hardest part of writing this way is avoiding falling into any specific pattern for too long so that the reader won’t be too disrupted when I move on to an entirely different rhythm.

And hanging from
the branches
are bat bones.
Climbing the trunks
are cat bones.
Snarled in the roots
are rat bones.
Bat bones,
cat bones,
rat bones,
and all are
looking at
you.

And a little later:

And together they’ll cry
“Take care!
Beware!
Despair!
You can bet
you’ve just met
your worst nightmare!”

The first time I wrote this way my choice seemed to drive reviewers crazy. One complained about “off rhymes.” There wasn’t an off rhyme to be found in the entire text! It would have been more fair to say the rhythms were “off,” if it’s fair to use the term “off” because the pattern keeps shifting until there is no pattern at all. 

My editor, Grace Maccarone, became proactive with Halloween Forest. She named this new form in the jacket copy. “Unmetered rhyming verse.” The starred review in Kirkus repeated that descriptor. A Booklist reviewer said, along with praise generous enough that I shouldn’t complain, “Bauer’s rhymes are bumpy, sometimes purposefully so” and I wanted to holler, “It’s not the rhymes that are bumpy, it’s the rhythm that keeps shifting! Can’t you see?”

But it doesn’t matter. It’s fun to invent a new form. And it’s fun to sit down with the end result and swing through the text with a lilting gallop as though there were no other way to tell a story. In fact, I so enjoyed the end result when each was coupled with its art that I almost forgot how much work it was to make my newly devised formless form work. I got to thinking it hit the page that way on my first try … until I went back to my computer files and counted one, two, three … fourteen drafts of Halloween Forest. And that doesn’t count the many changes, large and small, that were made in each draft before I thought to rename it and save it again.

In fact, I was reminded how hard I’d worked to create those texts when John Briggs, the Publisher at Holiday House, asked me to write a companion book for Halloween Forest. I’m not sure whether it was the idea I came up with that didn’t work or if this formless form I devised was too hard to do again, but I’m still struggling. 

I’m ready to go back to the safety and comfort of formlessness or a tightly defined form … at least until the next time rhymes come blasting through demanding to find their own continually shifting place on the page.