As October proceeds and Halloween approaches, it’s the perfect time to pull out the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and that usually means the appearance of what is probably his most famous poem, “The Raven”. It’s not easy trying to convince a bunch of middle schoolers that it’s worth it to conquer the language of literary classics. Or even adults. Or even librarians. Thank goodness that the Stand-Up Librarian has come to the rescue with a rockin’ musical version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. Click here to read her confession about reading Poe… or trying to… and what a difference the music makes.
I have heard so many people say “I hate poetry”! To quote Erasure “It doesn’t have to be like that”. There are AWESOME poems out there to make you sit up and take notice– words brought to life on the page, spoken or sometimes sung to you, or by you, or with someone else. Some are long, others short. Some will rhyme, and others don’t. Maybe you’ll find one to scare you, or make you laugh, or inspire you to create something of your own. Here are a few of my favorites. Some I’ve shared with my kids, and others they haven’t yet grown into. But with poetry alive in our home, they’ll get to experience them here (and maybe at school– you don’t have to hate it just because you learned it at school) and I hope you will take a chance on a few of them, too.
The Bat by Theodore Roethke
I first remember reading this poem in Cricket magazine when I was about nine years old. It was accompanied by a terrifying black and white pencil illustration. I’ve never forgotten it. I can still picture that page in my head and it still creeps me out.
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
One of the great things about this poem is that most of the words don’t make any sense. So when someone complains to you that it makes no sense, you can tell them it’s really not supposed to. It evokes a intense visual response– with a line like “the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame”, how could it not? And it’s fantastic to read aloud, especially with someone else. In spite of, or maybe because of, the complete nonsense of the vocabulary, my son could recite it (and did, with glee) when he was four years old.
The Loch Ness Monster’s Song by Edwin Morgan.
I had a hard time finding the text of this online, and when I did, I was surprised at how it looked (I didn’t like how it was presented, so there is no link). I first encountered this in a book of children’s poetry meant for reading aloud, called A Foot in the Mouth (edited by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka), and I remembered it as looking different in terms of spacing and placement of words on the page. When I looked back, it was amazing to see what a difference page design made in my ability to read and enjoy this poem, so go find the book. It is a relatively new one. The Song of the Loch Ness Monster is a “sound poem”, meant to be read out loud, but you will spend a lot of time tripping over your tongue as you attempt to do so. Again, complete (if enjoyable) nonsense, but any adult who attempts to read it to a child is guaranteed to cause giggles. Luckily, Morgan recorded it (link) so you can hear the way the poem is intended to sound, and it does sound very much like the song one might expect from this watery cryptid.
The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes
Okay, The Highwayman is a really long one and it is found sometimes in high school English textbooks. And it does have some challenging vocabulary, and it does take place well into the past. But it’s also a tremendous ghost story with tragedy and romance. I was sold on it after Loreena McKennit recorded it to unearthly music on her album Book of Secrets. Here’s a video illustrating the song. It was also the inspiration for a racy romance novel called The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter, but that’s neither here nor there.
Little Orphant Annie by James Whitcomb Riley
Yes, absolutely, I have recommended this poem more than once. It is delightful and scary, and Riley’s true love for all children shines here. This is another to read aloud, and it too is fairly simple to remember if you do it enough. Riley wrote in dialect but he used simple language, and he sure knew how to tell a story. Sadly, there isn’t a good in-print copy of this poem (Joel Schick’s The Gobble-uns’ll Git You Ef You Don’t Watch Out is out of print), but if you whisper it around a campfire, you won’t really need one. Anne Hills put the poem to music in this video. It appears on her 2007 album Ef You Don’t Watch Out. It does not look like it’s easily available through Amazon but she does have a MySpace page– here is a link to the song there. (I’m psyched that she has recorded an entire album of Riley’s poems. Indiana fourth grade teachers, take note.)
The Tyger by William Blake
I first encountered this poem in the 1975 edition of Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? by Kenneth Koch. I might have been five or six at the time, and I read it over and over. It does have a companion poem, The Lamb, but The Tyger was the one I read again and again. The vision of the tyger “burning bright/through the forests of the night” is powerful, a spark for the imagination to illuminate the darkness (Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ first YA vampire novel, In The Forests Of The Night, clearly referenced this). This could be a really frightening read-aloud for some kids, so step with care… but hey, it’s Halloween soon.
The Hearse Song by Anonymous
Also known as “The worms crawl in”. Yes, it is completely gross and morbid, and I am not the world’s biggest fan of this one. But kids seem to love it. It is rooted in folklore and the oral tradition, and a version can be found in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark.
Check one (or more) of these out as a Halloween treat. Tell me if you like it. And if you have other suggestions, let me know!