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Poetry Basics by Valerie Bodden

The good people at Creative Education were kind enough to send me copies of the four titles in Valerie Bodden's series of Poetry Basics. Alphabetically, they are Concrete Poetry, Haiku, Limericks, and Nursery Rhymes.

In each of the books in the series, Bodden not only provides historical context for the particular form or type of poetry discussed, but also provides and explanation as to what the form is, and how to write it, along with a glossary, a bibliography and a list of books for further reading. I highly esteem all four volumes in this series, and I have to say quite honestly that I wish I'd written these myself. They are just the sort of thing I'd love to do, and Bodden organizes and presents the material brilliantly.

Concrete Poetry was nominated for a 2009 CYBILS Award, which is how this series came to my attention in the first instance. As Bodden says on the first page of text, the goal of concrete poetry "is to have the shape or appearance of a poem reflect what the words express." Bodden provides historical as well as contemporary examples of concrete poetry, which have been variously called "pattern poetry" and calligrammes, among other things. The point Bodden makes is that "While most traditional poems are meant to be read, concrete poems are meant to be seen." The book is quite simply a brilliant explication of what concrete poetry is, and where the form might be headed (including mention of animation).

Bodden establishes early on that "[t]he goal of the Japanese form of poetry called haiku is to help readers feel the emotion of a poem by presenting them with a brief image." Following an explanation of the history of the form - and how it made its way into Western literature - Bodden explains the technical requirements of the form quite nicely. She's quick to note that 5-7-5 is not necessarily a requirement of English-language haiku, since English syllables are not the same thing as Japanese onji (sound syllables, each of which takes roughly the same amount of time to say, while English syllable lengths vary). She explains the need for and use of a break (usually at the end of the first or second line) and a kigo, or word indicating what season the poem is set in, then takes up senryu, a non-nature poem using the same format as haiku.

Without so much as a passing mention about the man from Nantucket or the young lady from Lynn, Bodden explains the history of the limerick (a form that predated its actual name). The form predates Edward Lear's A Book of Nonsense, published in 1846, but it's Lear's work that helped cement the form as one popular with children. The rhyme scheme and rhythm of the form are explained, as are poetic terms such as alliteration. The book extends to other forms of nonsense poems and to poems using nonsense words (such as Lewis Carroll's portmanteau words), including a brief discussion and sample of Carroll's "Jabberwocky".

Bodden traces the history of the nursery rhyme back 2,000 years, while noting that some of the ones still known today date back prior to the 1600s. "And at least half of all nursery rhymes are probably more than 200 years old." The oral tradition of nursery rhymes is noted, as well as a mention of the sources for various rhymes, which are drawn from divergent sources including songs for adults, street vendor cries and religious traditions. Often violent in nature and/or containing nonsense, the variety of nursery rhymes is discussed, as are the variety of rhyme schemes and musical nature of these poems. The purpose of nursery rhymes is examined as well, including entertainment, teaching, and parody. Although not as in-depth, it is as interesting and informative in its way (and for its intended readership) as Heavy Words, Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme by Chris Roberts, which I find terribly well-done and clever indeed.

I recommend the first three books in particular for library collections and classrooms for the elementary and middle-school age group, as a means of teaching the origin, history and forms contained in the books. Nursery Rhymes, while absolutely fascinating from a historical perspective, is recommended as well for those interested in history and origins of the poems, but not so much for use in a writing program.

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