I was shocked—an editor had just told me that poetry had no place in science books! This young man had been assigned by the publisher to shepherd my completed work-for-hire, about watersheds for middle school readers, into print. The poetry in question was a line or two by contemporary author Gary Snyder, which I had included in the book’s introduction. Although this exchange happened more than a decade ago, it led to the essay below, first drafted in 2009, I would like to share with you today.
Upcoming Earth Day—with its all its celebrations—has reminded of this essay, as has a brand-new book by local, award-winning poet Joyce Sidman, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (2018). (More on that book, I think, in the next Gone Graphic.) Two of Sidman’s earlier books had figured in the extended written response I ultimately made to that editor’s ignorant remark. I also cited books by two other established, highly-lauded poets; published poems by young authors; and comments about my own sometimes poetic science books for kids. I could have cited many more works. The young man was ignoring a wealth of literature, and underestimating young readers, too!
I was unsure about how to focus my reply, though, until I saw a call for papers for an academic conference centered on “Nature and the Humanities.” I drafted the following essay, which I presented at that Chicago conference in 2009. This presentation dovetailed my work and interest in writing for young readers with my earlier training as a university researcher and teacher. Although the conference program listed me as an “independent scholar,” meaning one without a current university affiliation, even then I preferred being known as a “writer.”
Read on to learn more about “Watershed Moments: Poems that Cross Generations and Genres.” And have a wonderful Earth Day, 2018, however you pay tribute to Mother Earth.
As poet Gary Snyder notes, a “watershed is a marvelous thing to consider: this process of rain falling, streams flowing and oceans evaporating . . . . The watershed is beyond the dichotomy of orderly/disorderly, for its forms are free, but somehow inevitable.” A recent spate of poetry books inspired by Nature supports Snyder’s insights. These books subvert conventional notions of artistic proficiency, distinct genres, and separate audiences.
Young authors now contribute annually to published volumes titled River of Words. This outpouring of talent often begins in classrooms focused on science or environmental issues, or with community groups dedicated to watershed restoration. The Library of Congress cosponsors the yearly writing and art contest which in 1995 began this deluge of creativity. The impact of these poems—whether limpid haiku or cascading torrents of word play—belies the age of their authors. These young people are wise as well as witty.
Other poets writing for young readers recognize this. In volumes such as The Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems and Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, Joyce Sidman conflates genres. The factual explanations she adds after her polished poems do not jar but flow naturally. Lisa Westburg Peters in Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up and J.Patrick Lewis in Swan Song similarly interpose nonfiction with poetry. The ebb and flow of these illustrated volumes satisfies adult readers as well as children. I will highlight these trends, and then conclude with a few instances of how, when I write “faction” for young readers, I too use poetry to convey scientific concepts.
The River of Words competition offers a teacher’s guide to help educators introduce poetic forms and tropes in relation to environmental issues. There are many styles of poetry displayed in its volumes and on its website. For the sake of brevity and because they reflect my own poetic taste, I will share some of the shorter gems with you today. From the 2008 volume published by Milkweed Press, this is how 9 year-old Damia Lewis describes herself:
You may think
I am a shadow,
I am a sun.
A brief, visionary, and luminous statement of hopeful possibilities.
This is how 16 year-old Anna Dumont captures one memorable moment:
GEESE OVER MENDON POND
They came upon us
like I, as a small child,
was always afraid
that a tornado would,
a black mass in the sky,
roaring and cackling,
the occasional high-pitched squeal
like metal on bone.
There were thousands of them,
far more than was necessary,
as if, in the sparse winter,
nature was indulging a little.
Anna Dumont, age 16
A witty and sharp-eyed comment about Nature’s vagaries as well as childhood.
And, finally, in honor of our gathering together today near the shores of Lake Michigan, here is the winner of this year’s Grand Prize in the competition category for grades 7 – 9, now displayed on the River of Words website. Thirteen year-old Patty Schlutt of Grand Rapids, Michigan writes about
Stories Told With Sand Whipping in Our Faces
I was three years old.
My father pulled a map
out of his backpack,
roads spilling across it
like languages I did not understand.
Later, seagulls scampered
through the dunes
as we climbed to a place
where roots laced like fingers over the earth
and Lake Michigan lay before us,
as if it were a guardian.
We stood looking out over the place where
he was born, the hospital
where doctors waited in white shoes
while his throat burned
from tonsillitis. I could see him
a young boy darting through the streets
on his way to the dunes,
the closest thing to heaven
that we have while we live below the stars.
The driveway his father paved
by hand, bruised
from days of bricks
pulling him towards the earth.
His memories fell from his mouth
and I remember them all well
as if it was that morning
and I was standing tall
with his childhood looking back at me.
I believe that these poems speak for themselves, for their creators who are poets first, young poets second. Their vision and artistic proficiency are moving for adult readers as well as their peers.
At the end of this of this paper, I have attached three other poems by young writers, including one written in both English and Spanish. That kind of multiculturalism is typical of this competition, which is an international one, with entries so far from 16 countries. Humanists will also be pleased by the competition’s inclusion of the visual arts, both as a separate award-winning event and in the way it pairs visuals with poems in the anthologies. Another artistic symbiosis occurred in 2002, when multifaceted composer Chris Brubeck, commissioned to create a piece for soprano Frederica von Stade, composed River of Song. Its libretto contains poems by five River of Words young poets as well as e.e. cummings. I have that CD here, and can play a bit at the end of this session or after it if any of you wish.
Joyce Sidman’s award-winning picture books contain poetry that is versatile and sophisticated, giving readers the sensations of Nature before presenting their scientific explanations. In Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems, these lucid prose explanations appear on the same pages as the poems. In Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow, each double spread of poems ends with the questions, “What am I?” and the answers are revealed only once the page is turned. A double spread of limpid prose then appears.
In 2005’s Song of the River Boatman, one device Sidman uses is repetition. Here is the beginning of her poem “Listen to Me”:
Listen to me on a spring night,
on a wet night,
on a rainy night.
Listen for me on a still night
for in the night, I sing.
That is when my heart thaws,
my skin thaws,
my hunger thaws.
That is when the world thaws,
and the air begins to ring.
The prose paragraph that follows the complete poem contains facts about its speaker, the inch-long tree frog called a spring peeper. Sidman later aptly uses a cumulative poem to present the food chain of creatures that feast upon one another in a summer pond. She uses contrapuntal voices to capture the mirrored lives of two water bugs—the water boatman and its upside down twin, the backswimmer. But I believe the synergy between the four quatrains of “The Season’s Campaign” and the prose explanation that floats alongside is a ready demonstration of how Sidman sinks the ideas of distinct genres and of separate—adult vs. child—audiences in her works. She writes
The Season’s Campaign
I.Spring II. Summer
We burst forth, Brown velvet plumes
crisp green squads bob jauntily. On command,
bristling with spears. our slim, waving arrows
We encircle the pond. rush toward the sun.
III. Fall IV. Winter
All red-winged generals Our feet are full of ice.
desert us. Courage Brown bones rattle in the wind.
clumps and fluffs Sleeping, we dream of
like bursting pillows. seed-scouts, sent on ahead.
Sidman then adumbrates what illustrator Becky Prange has depicted in a flowing quadriptych. In a paragraph titled “Cattails,” Sidman explains that
Cattails are plants called emergents, for they grow half in and half out of the water. Their tall, spiky leaves spread around the edges of ponds and shelter many animals. Red-winged blackbirds nest in them, muskrats build mounds with their leaves, and ducks paddle among them, hidden from predators. The most distinctive part of the cattail is its brown “flower,” which looks like sausage on a stick. Soft as a cat’s tail, this flower becomes a fluffy mass of parachuting seeds, spreading with the wind. When tiny cattail seeds fall on moist soil, they sprout and grow new cattails.
Adult as well as younger readers will readily appreciate how cunningly Sidman has woven this information throughout the military parade of her poem.
In the 2006 volume Butterfly Eyes, Sidman continues to address a range of audiences. This is evident in her identifying some of the poetic forms she uses in her titles, such as the poem “We are Waiting (a pantoume).” Turning the page, readers learn that this aptly repetitive poem– beginning and ending with the same line, as pantoums do—describes forest renewal or succession. The added frisson of seeing how subtly the poet has aligned her form with its content need not be present to savor these pieces; yet this knowledge resonates for the informed adult or young reader. And readers mystified by the rather exotic word “pantoume” may be inspired to look up its meaning. Sidman does not talk down to her audience, purportedly elementary school aged readers. Similarly, Sidman’s short poem “He” works on several levels:
in dawn sun
Who is he?
When the next page reveals that this creature is a fox, the adult or sophisticated reader will gain added pleasure from knowing that “foxy” means clever or crafty, but one need not know this to appreciate the other visual and tactile images in this poem.
Lisa Westberg Peters has a very different voice—wry, rollicking, and goodhumored—in her 2003 collection Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up. She often uses puns and plays with conventional narrative forms to convey her joy in geological facts. Both are apparent in this earthy gem, which takes the form of a set of written directions:
Instructions for the Earth’s Dishwasher
Please set the
gently on the
No jostling or scraping.
Please stack the
basins right side up.
No tilting or turning
Please scrape the mud
out of the mud pots.
But watch out!
They’re still hot.
As for the forks
in the river,
just let them soak.
if anything breaks,
it’s your fault.
In the End Notes for this book. under this poem’s title, Peters explains that
Some complex geological features have simple, everyday names. For example, a plate is a section of the earth’s outer layer, or crust. A basin is a low area in the earth’s crust. A shelf is an underwater platform on the edge of a continent. Mud pots are formed when rising steam changes rock into clay. A river is “forked” when it has more than one branch. A fault is a crack in the earth’s crust.
Other fun-filled poems in this anthology take the forms of a love letter, an obituary, want ads, a warning label, and recipes. . The title poem, “Earthshake,” is a recipe for a frothy beverage—akin to a milkshake! In each instance, an End Note explains the science behind the poem. I believe Peters’ inspired whimsy appeals to old as well as young and is an effective bridge linking poetry and prose.
J. Patrick Lewis takes a slightly-more more solemn tone in his 2003 collection, Swan Song, which befits its subtitle: Poems of Extinction. As he explains in his melodious and onamtopoeia-rich Foreward,
This book is about the recently departed. In Earth’s great forests and fields, they buzzed and chirped and bellowed through little incidents of sorrow from roughly 1627 to 2000. Whether beautiful or homely, giant or dwarf, each species was its own drama in many disappearing acts, even if it was very far off the Broadway of the dinosaurs.
As you can see from the sophisticated language and sentence structure of this paragraph, Lewis’s audience encompasses both old and young readers. The poet uses End Notes to explain the history of each vanished species, eulogized in a poem, such as this one which—bittersweetly—yields both the volume’s title and shorthand for extinction itself:
Chatham Island Swan
Chatham Island, rich and rare resort
For migratory marvels on the wind,
Is something of an empty royal court:
A paradise without a queen and king.
Exotic birds were commoners to those,
Who once, an age ago, could silhouette
In symmetry and S on S, and pose,
Or glorify a shoreline, dripping wet.
But beauty is handmaiden of the strong,
Or else we might have heard
this Swan’s swan song.
Lewis’s graceful play upon “swan song” in the poem’s last line is as elegant as Christopher Wormell’s wood block illustration. And the End Note which explains the extinction of this New Zealand bird is as sophisticated and rich in its prose as the poem itself:
Four hundred fifty miles from any other inhabited land, the group of ten Chatham Islands is a part of New Zealand. Maoris, the first human settlers, populated them in 1000 A.D. The Chatham Island Swan, lovely by being, innocent by nature, defenseless in its habitat, found its way to dinner tables—and to extinction—even before the British colonized the islands in 1791.
Lewis, perhaps even more than Sidman, writes prose that is poetically rhythmic.
Finally, let me just point out a few instances in which I have used poetic language to make science memorable for young readers in picture books. I completed the Amazing Science series, a collection of six books, in 2003 specifically for very young readers—children pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade. Each book had an assigned topic, tailored to grade school curriculum. But I wrapped science concepts in words children could savor and take with them as they grow. For instance, in Dirt: The Scoop on Soil, readers learn that “Squiggling worms, trailing snails, slithering snakes, and burrowing rabbits loosen the soil as they crawl through it.” I am pleased to say that this book is one of 22 that the Minnesota State Department of Agriculture distributes annually to classrooms statewide.
Light: Shadows, Mirrors, and Rainbows begins with a two page spread that reads:
Shadows play on a sunny day. Water glints and gleams. At a storm’s end, a rainbow bends.
Wherever you look, light dazzles and dances. It makes wonderful shapes and colors. Light is what lets you see things.
Guidelines for this series called for no more than three sentences per page. I concluded Light with this two page spread:
All around, light is sparkling, swirling, blinking, bending, and bouncing.
Watch. Wonder. Investigate. Our world is shining with colorful new things to explore.
At times, in this series, guidelines and editorial concerns led me reluctantly towards more plodding prose, but my background in the humanities gave me strength and motivation to resist! And so, in Rocks: Hard, Soft, Smooth, and Rough, readers learn that “Some sedimentary rocks tell stories about the past—stories of forgotten forests and vanished seas. They tell tales of creatures that swam, slithered, or crept.” This book concludes by asking readers to look closely at the rocks around them and asks, “What stories do these rocks tell?”
It pleases me to think that—along with the extraordinary poetry of Sidman, Peters, and Lewis—some of the young authors entering the River of Words competition may have read my science picture books in their school classrooms or libraries.
Copyright 2009 Natalie M. Rosinsky
Brubeck, Chris. “River of Song.” on Convergence (Music CD). NY: Koch Entertainment, 2002.
Lewis, J. Patrick. Swan Song: Poems of Extinction. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions, 2003.
Michael, Barbara, ed. River of Words: Young Poets and Artists on the Nature of Things. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2008.
Peters, Lisa Westerg. Earthshake: Poems from the Ground Up. NY: HarperCollins, 2003.
Rosinsky, Natalie M. Dirt: The Scoop on Soil. Minneapolis: Picture Window Books, 2003.
————————-. Light: Shadows, Mirrors, and Rainbows. Minneapolis: Picture Window Books, 2003.
————————-. Rocks: Hard, Soft, Shiny, and Smooth. Minneapolis: Picture Window Books, 2003.
Sidman, Joyce. Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
——————. Song of the River Boatman & Other Pond Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Snyder, Gary. A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds. Berkeley, CA: 1995.
More Poems from River of Words. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2008:
WHEN I WAS SEARCHING FOR A POEM
a fox stepped out of nowhere.
His long legs stretched across the stone wall.
He paused as we stared,
both wondering where the other was going,
although it was obvious each was wandering—
I paused as we stared,
both wondering why the other was
using it for direction—
He wasn’t a sly fox—
At least I didn’t see it in his eyes.
He was frightenend.
I’d never seen a fox before.
I was frightened, too.
A living poem—
A girl, a fox
only by a stone wall
and a fear of the unknown.
Zoe Mason, age 13
Often have I come to you
In the fitful light of evening
Or the constant sheen of morning
And often have I sought your solace,
Show me the secret of your solitude
That thing, that unknown certain thing
Which has brought you through a hundred shifting seasons
And will bring you through at least a thousand more.
Teach me to be alone through summer, autumn, winter, spring
And still to catch the gleaming sunset
And dance in golden eddies in the shadows of the islands.
Tell me all the secrets of those silent seasons
Or one thing only—
When spring comes, show me how to break the ice.
Alexandra Petri, Age 14
THERE IS A DARK RIVER HAY UN RIO OSCURO
There is a dark river En la alcantarilla de la calle
In the gutter of the street En frente de mi escuela
In front of my school. Nacio de la lluvia
It was born in the rain Y no corre mas.
And isn’t flowing any more. Se quieda triste
It’s sort of sad Con goats de gasolina
With drops of gasoline Y un papel rojo
And a red wrapper Que tiro un nino
Some kid tossed Despues de comer un dulce.
After eating a candy. Petro aun triste y sucio
But although it’s sad and filthy Lleva la sombra de mi cara
It carries the shadow of my face Las nubes andrajosas
The tattered clouds Y en blanco y negro
And in white and black Todo el cielo.
The whole sky.
Michelle Diaz Garza, age 9
& Rosa Baum, age 9