Electronic Eye April 2014
Poetry month is upon us again. In my school library, this generally means that language arts teachers vie for a selection from my library’s not insignificant collection of poetry books and they take them back to their rooms. The students take turns skimming the books for poems that speak to them. Perhaps the activities that the teachers assign include copying one poem for memorization later or creating a written collection of favorite poems. Then they write their own poetry based on different poetic forms. Maybe they turn all of this poetic effort into a PowerPoint presentation or a bound book or a cube of poetry.
While generally a fun unit, I’ve been longing to suggest something new to my teachers. I’ve been wondering if there could be another way that would lead our students to a deeper understanding of what it means to live life as a poet. Ideally, I would also love to have budding poets feel inspired to write poetry helps them share their own experience.
And then, of course, there’s the new Common Core State Standards, which asks teachers to give students the opportunity to compare and contrast the experience of reading a poem with listening or viewing an audio or video version of the text (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.7)
The bottom line is that young adults would benefit from hearing more poetry read aloud and I think that it would be invaluable to hear the actual poet read their own work. And sometimes those clips are hard to find on the World Wide Web.
The Web can be a rough place when young adults are looking for free online poetry. Most results in search engines will result in poorly designed, advertisement laden Web sites featuring poems of dubious distinction. If there was ever a need for digital curation of a subject, this is the subject. And these two databases shine in their dedication to poetry and their creative approach in bringing it to the people.
Academy of American Poets
Poets.org is a Web site sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Their main mission is to support and celebrate poets and poetry and they have an impressive online book store where users can purchase the work of American poets. But they also make available full-text poems from many of their authors as well as the full-text of other authors that are in the public domain. These full-text poems come with biographical information about the poet as well as a portrait of the poet. The range of American poets is impressive and includes the standard favorites like Robert Frost and Langston Hughes as well as newer poets such as the recent U.S. Poet Laureates, including Natasha Trethewey.
The Web site has many ways to search for a poet or a poem including advanced search which gives the user the chance to dial down by poetic movement, theme and even poetic form. While there is all this great search functionality, they have tailored this Web site to not look like a database, but as great, easily browsed, destination. One of the most accessible ways of browsing the Web site is the visual search for “Poems by Every Occasion.” Appealing icons identify themes such as ‘love’ and ‘spring’ but also fun ones like ‘sharks’ and ‘carpe diem.’ The front page also notes the most popular poems based on their access statistics. Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” was tops on the hit list on the day that I accessed it (and I suspect is a perennial number one hit.) From the front page, users can also access the selections of the Academy’s very popular “Poem a Day” project, which sends daily e-mails out to subscribers.
Nested inside the “For Educators” tab is a powerful secondary front page called “Poetry Resources for Teens.” On that page you can find links to the poems that speak the most to young adults, a collection of essays and information as well as a section on inspiring ideas for how to begin writing a poem. I also liked their “Life/Lines” project which allows users identify the reasons why a particular line of poetry resonates with them.
A separate tab allows users to browse the audio and video collection of the database. Hearing Gwendolyn Brooks read “We Real Cool” can be a very useful experience that does much to help users understand these short but powerful verses. The collection stretches back to a controversial recording that some feel is the voice of Walt Whitman reading from his poem “America.” The Audio and Video front page also features the top ten most listened to works as well as a section called “Poets Reading Poets” which shares audio of poets reading one of their favorite poems written by another poet.
But my favorite feature is the “My Notebook,” which can be considered a user’s own personal scrapbook on the Web site. A user has to log in in order to take advantage of this functionality. Users creating a notebook are allowed to give it a title and a synopsis about why these poems are being collected. One can even upload a small graphic to further personalize the Notebook. As a user browses the site, they can click on an “Add to Notebook” button at the top of the screen and can then designate which notebook to place the poem in. The best part is that users can make their notebooks public in order to share their favorite poetry with others. This could be a great way to have young adults relate to the poems contained on this Web site.
One additional thought: The collection of poetry on this Web site is filled with all aspects of life experiences. There are some themes and poems that might not be for every young adult reader. But so are many of our libraries.
The Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Foundation is the publisher of the Poetry magazine, which has been championing the cause of poets since 1912. Their Web site has many of the same features as Poets.org. You can search by poet or poem or browse through collections of subjects and seasons. The poets and poems that are featured on this Web site have often been published in Poetry magazine and feature some of the most interesting voices from today and yesterday. Poetry Foundation, however, employs some potentially important limiters to searches including only list poems with related audio or video or ones that they deem “good for children” or “have learning resources.”
The Poetry Foundation Web site also allows users to interact with the site after they create accounts or use their Facebook credentials to log in. They can save poems to a collection titled “My Favorite Poetry.” This is very similar to the My Notebook functionality at the Poets.org Web site. You can only create one collection and you can’t share it as part of the Web site. You can share it to your Facebook account, however.
The Poetry Foundation is part of some very amazing projects with lots of other organizations like PBS’s “The NewsHour,” which jointly sponsors a segment called “The Poetry Series” which delves more in-depth into a topic and uses poetry and poets to help create greater understanding. “Poetry Everywhere” is jointly sponsored by WGBH Boston and features short videos of poets reading their poetry, celebrities reading their personal favorites and also some very beloved poems being made into animated short films. This is a great place to mine for poems to share with young adults.
But my favorite initiative is hosted on SoundCloud, the audio sharing and social media site. This initiative is simply called “Record a Poem” and it invites users of SoundCloud to be part of the “Record a Poem” group and to record their favorite poem. Older young adults could easily be encouraged to honor their favorite poem by recording it and sharing it on this very easy-to-use Web site.
Happy National Poetry month! Here’s to hoping that these Web sites will prove useful to you as you celebrate the poets around us and in all of us!
Kathleen Meulen Ellison has been a teacher librarian for over two decades in both New York City and the Pacific Northwest. She can be reached at email@example.com.