Monday, March 1, 2010

Julie Larios on Making Poetry Sing: A Careful Reading of Joyce Sidman’s Red Sings from Treetops

The StorySleuths are tickled pink--or red perhaps--to have the FABULOUS Julie Larios blogging for us today, sharing a poetry lesson for those of us striving to read like writers . . . and poets:

May I say straight off the bat that I love Red Sings from Treetops? Why beat around the bush (or around the treetop?) I’ll just sing it out: I love it, love every page, down to the smallest detail, from the strip of earthen words which parade typographically across the bottom of the title page, to the cheer-cheer-cheer chirped by Red on the opening and closing pages.

People who know me know I can be hard on poetry. That’s because I respect it. I hate to see it made pale and thin by a poet’s failure to use the many devices available, or made florid by its misuse as a kind of stand-in for therapy. Good poetry is about the artful control of language, not the outpouring of emotion and not the vacuity of prose broken into lines.

You see? I get grumpy quickly about poetry which doesn’t try hard enough. Then along comes a poet like Joyce Sidman and a book like Red Sings from Treetops, described accurately on the jacket flap as a book which inspires us to cast a closer look at “the thrilling colors of the seasons.” Immediately, all my whining stops. What a lovely book!

What is it then about Sidman’s work that fills me with pleasure and optimism? Well, let’s start with the most basic tool in the toolbox, which she handles like a fine craftsman: Sound. Sound is the auditory thread of the DNA rope that Poetry shares with her twin, Music. Here are the first twelve lines of the book, opening the section titled “Spring”:

Red sings
from treetops:
each note dropping
like a cherry
into my ear.

Red turns
the maples feathery,
sprouts in rhubard spears;
Red squirms on the road
after rain.

Bear with me – I want to look at those lines carefully (maybe even surgically) for a minute. The compression of sound devices used in these twelve lines (34 quick words) is masterly. A list might help organize what I see and hear when I read these lines as a poet, looking for technique:

1. In the first stanza, “spring” rhymes with “sings” and chimes (a kind of syllabic echo) with the word “dropping.” That same word, “dropping” also chimes syllabically with “treetops.” The words “cheer” and “ear” are a full rhyme.

2. The combination of “cherry” and “ear,” like a musical phrase blended by pressing your foot down on a piano pedal, becomes the word “cheer.”

3. The repetition of “cheer-cheer-cheer” approximates a cheap and a chirp, and we hear it as birdsong.

4. Half the words in the stanza – 9 of the 18 –contain the letter “r.” That’s not an accident. Sidman knows that our ears pick that up as a sustained musical note.

5. In the second stanza, 10 of the 16 words contain the letter “r” – a strengthening of the sustained note, which is the sign of a very good voice (for singers as well as for poets.)

6. The word “turns” is a near-rhyme with “squirms,” as is the word “feathery” with “cherry.” The word “spears” reaches back up to the previous stanza to rhyme with “cheer” and “ear.”

The above list is generated by a poet looking consciously (she is a fine enough poet so that some of this might even happen sub-consciously) at just one poetic device – sound. I could list many examples of poetic strategies in these lines: simile, personification, control of line breaks, evocation of the senses. But it’s important to say what I think is best about Sidman’s work: You don’t have to see all these strategies at work to enjoy the poetry, which is light on its feet, graceful and unself-conscious. The poems don’t beat us over the head with rhyme; they’re not doggerel, they’re not operatic nor do they call attention to the poet. They don’t require surgical dissection to understand. Instead, the poetry hums and dances its way along, through all four seasons and through many colors. As a read-aloud, Red Sings from Treetops is a delight , visually and auditorially, to adult readers and the children alike.

Delight. That’s the word I want to emphasize. Joyce Sidman knows how to play with words and make language delightful. The illustrations also delight us, they move and sing, and that makes for what the Caldecott committee called “the perfect interplay of poetry and illustration.” Though I suspected Jerry Pinkney’s bold Lion would roar his way to the Caldecott Medal this year, as a poet I had my fingers crossed for text-rich Red Sings from Treetops, and I was thrilled to hear it announced as a Caldecott Honor book. The illustrator, Pamela Zagarenski, is a multi-talented painter and sculptor, and if you want to see more of her work, you can save yourself some time hunting around the web and go directly to the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Jules put together a stunning compilation of Zagarenski’s work for the post of June 18, 2009.

Red Sings from Treetops has deservedly won many awards and much praise this year; it’s been designated one of Best Books of 2009 by critics and organizations across the country (the ALA, the well-respected critic Sylvia Vardell, the American Booksellers for Children., and many more.) It’s also short-listed for the still-to-be-determined Cybils competition, so I’ve got my fingers crossed again!

Ezra Pound, who knew a thing or two about poetry, exhorted poets to “make it new.” But how can you say anything new to children about colors or about the seasons? Some people wouldn’t try. Too many people have been there, done that, they might think. Not Joyce Sidman. She knows how to say it new. Part of her poem about the colors of autumn is shown with a dark double-page spread that includes a strange constellation – a whale that somehow morphs into a shadowed village. Along the ground, the words “mystery” and “play” are handwritten and tucked into the dirt. Behind bare tree branches, the moon dominates on the right hand side; two cheerful figures – a person and a dog – roll/walk along toward it on the left. Here are the words – the poetry – Sidman gives us:

In fall,
the wind feels Black:
full of secrets.
Pup sniffs and sniffs,
its mysteries.

And there is White:
Resting in dark branches.
It sings a song
Of waxing and waning,
Swims up
Through its cool sky-pool.
Good night,

Black wind that is star-spangled. A cool sky-pool of white moon. That’s how you make it new. Sidman is a joy to read, and this book belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who respects poetry and is delighted by it.

StorySleuths Tip #50: Remember that Julie's lesson on reading poetry like a poet applies to all that we write, as poetry is the music that makes our prose sing.