Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Poetry in Non-Fiction?

I never asked "Why poetry in non-fiction?" until I had written (with my wife, Yael Schy) a science book containing a series of poems about camouflaged animals -- Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed. . . and Revealed. Yes, the book was already finished before it occurred to me to wonder why I had wanted to do most of it in verse instead of strictly in prose, like all of my other books. If someone had asked, my answer would have been similar to that of the proverbial mountain climber: because it was there. Poetry was a new peak for me and I wanted to see if I could climb it to enter a new literary realm. I didn't think much about how entering that realm could improve the book or affect its readers.

I did know that I was not breaking new ground, though the poetic path through the non-fiction landscape was only lightly worn. The late (and certainly great) Ruth Heller, peerless author and illustrator of non-fiction on subjects that some might consider dry, wrote all of her books in verse. Nary a line could be called dry; "juicy" would be a better description, no matter how "interest-challenged" the topic. Here is how Ruth opens Up, Up and Away: A Book About Adverbs

ADVERBS work terrifically
when answering specifically. . .
"How often?"
and "Where?"

Penguins all dress
This house was painted RECENTLY. . . and
small green frogs live THERE.

(You really must see Ruth's illustrations to appreciate the fullness of her genius.)

In preparing to write this post, I pulled Up, Up and Away and some of Ruth's other books from the shelf. Here she is, speaking about the hows and whys of pollination in The Reason for a Flower:
From an ANTHER

on a STYLE


even WEEDS.
The reason for a FLOWER is to manufacture. . .

Now we know the reason for the flower, and I am beginning to know the reason for the poem. I can't stop reading it! It's fun! It has captured me, latched onto some nerve center in my brain and it doesn't want to let go. The delicious rhymes and rhythms of verse do that. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains how music triggers pleasure sensors in the brain in his 2007 book, This is Your Brain on Music. My hunch is that poetry works in a similar way. Reading can be for information or pleasure or both. If poetry helps put the checkmark in both columns, how can we -- why should we -- resist?

It worked that way for Lucy, the 8-year old daughter of the creators of over 200 podcasts about children's books published on the website http://www.justonemorebook.com/. In their podcast on Where in the Wild?, Mark Blevis and Andrea Ross mention that on a recent ski outing, Lucy could be heard scooting down the slopes reciting the opening lines of our poem "Grayish, Greenish," about the tree frog that can virtually disappear on the similarly-colored bark of a tree:

Grayish, greenish, blackish tree
The colors you see are the colors of me.

Grayish, greenish, blackish bark,
I'm bumpy and blotchy, part light and part dark.

Joy Hulme is another author (and another friend) whose non-fiction verse impressed me long before I considered trying my own hand at it. Looking for insight, I reread
Sea Squares, Joy's poetic introduction to the mathematical concept of square numbers. Using a marine motif, Joy "counts" in squares. Here is how she greets the reader:

Come with me to the side of the sea,
Where the ocean meets the shore.
We'll count some creatures that crawl and creep
Or grow on the ocean floor.
Some flop, some dive, some swim and swish,

Some fly where the breakers roar.

Joy not only paints a picture but she evokes a mood. I'm smelling the salt spray and feeling the sand between my toes. A couple of gulls hove into view. They're in the book, too:

Two two-eyed gulls, with two wide wings,
Shrieking and swooping and pecking up things.
2 white gulls with 2 eyes each,
Have 4 bright eyes to watch the beach.

And then the mood turns slightly comical:

Three three-striped clown fish, black and white and red,
Nesting in anemones' spiny ocean bed.
3 clowns with frowny faces
Have 9 stripes in fishy places.

So poetry can evoke a mood. There's a "Duh!" moment for you -- any English teacher can tell you that and I'm sure many did. Chances are that your English teachers were not thinking of non-fiction. But why shouldn't the wary eyes of the coyote lurking within the pages of a science book be just as mood-invoking as those of an entirely fictitious coyote? And why does the non-fiction reader deserve any less of a mood, conveyed in as few words as possible? Perhaps the ultimate example is in haiku, enjoyed by the Japanese for its paucity of verbiage. In Where in the Wild?, we use the 5:7:5 form to describe the speckled treasures that are a shorebird's eggs, deftly hidden amid the similarly patterned stones of a riverbank:

speckled treasures lie
bare upon the pebbled bank
precious life within

Poetry can also bring a smile on the face of anyone who appreciates worldplay. Our poem about the red-spotted newt, a salamander that roams the forest during one stage of its life cycle, offers surprising rhymes for some important scientific terms, including one found at the poem's end:

... If you should see me on a hike
You may think I'm lizard-like.
But I'm no reptile -- think again!
I'm really an amphibian.

In thinking again, I begin to wonder why more non-fiction is not written in verse. I invite readers of this post to contribute selections from their favorite works of non-fiction poetry (or just to recommend book titles)... and to add to the list of reasons for a poem.


Tricia said...

We can't forget Joyce Sidman. Both Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems and Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow present information in poetic form. Like your book Where in the Wild?, Butterfly Eyes presents a poem and then factual information.

I'm also fond of the work of Marilyn Singer. Books like Turtle in July and Footprints on the Roof: Poems About the Earth.

I could go on. I wrote about science and poetry last year (sadly, before your book came out, so I'll have to update it). You can find it at:
Ruth Heller's camouflage books are on this list.

Thanks for the great post. I love integrating poetry across the curriculum, and wish more folks would consider this as a way to share information.

Anna M. Lewis said...

Fantastic post!
"Joy not only paints a picture but she evokes a mood. I'm smelling the salt spray and feeling the sand between my toes. A couple of gulls hove into view."
You definitely opened my eyes.

Unknown said...

Wonderful article. I happened to see Mammoths on the Move in a bookstore yesterday by Lisa Wheeler and Kurt Cyrus (illustrator). Written in verse, it has gorgeous scratchboard and watercolor images of the massive beasts on their trek.

It’s so true that poetry compels the reader to keep going... if you ever find yourself in front of a restless group of children, just start reciting something in rhyme, and they will get caught up in the rhythm and expectation of what comes next. (Another surefire attention getter? Start drawing... just about anything will do.)

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