Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Poetry for Kids: Walt Whitman

I have loved the poetry of Walt Whitman for most of my life. 

One of the earliest volumes of poetry I bought myself was Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I was sixteen years old and read the poems over and over. Many years later I was in a choral group that sang Ralph Vaughn William's Sea Symphony, based on Whitman's poetry, a work that endures as one of my favorites. 

The idea of bringing Whitman's poetry and vision of human experience to children is dear to my heart. And today, the birthday of Walt Whitman, I was glad to read the newest  Poetry for Kids volume on Walt Whitman. Thirty-five poems or poem excerpts include Whitman's favorite poem, A Noiseless Patient Spider, and his well-known poem upon the death of President Lincoln, O Captain! My Captain! 

An Introduction, commentary on each poem, and definitions are included as parent/teacher helps. The illustrations are beautiful.

When I came to On the Beach at Night I was moved to tears. 
"On the beach at night,
Stands a child with her father,
Watching the east, the autumn sky./Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading.
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky.
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and ale the lord-star Jupiter.
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades."

Seeing the stars and Jupiter buried under the clouds, the child weeps. Her father comforts the child, saying, "Weep not, child,/Weep not, my darling,/With these kisses let me remove your tears,/The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious." And the father continues, "Something there is more immortal even than the stars."

Children watch as the world descends into darkness, the clouds of war obliterating happiness and peace. I remember sensing my parent's fear during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the feeling of vulnerability when President Kennedy was assassinated. I remember watching the second tower fall on 9-11, and helping my son pack his most precious things in a bag in preparation. I had hoped he would grow up in a better world. 

And here is Whitman telling us that there is something more powerful than darkness, something eternal that tends toward clarity and light that we can trust in.

I look at the world today and how we are tending toward darkness, how the center is not holding. What can we say to our children about the future? 

Whitman has given us a voice. It is the gift of poetry to say what we long to hear, what we need to believe, but are unable to articulate. 

I received a free ebook from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Poetry for Kids: Walt Whitman
Edited by Karen Karbiener and illustrated by Kate Evans
Moondance Press
$14.95 hardcover

Adults who want to understand Whitman's vision would enjoy Song of Myself: A Complete Commentary from University of Iowa Press. Read my review here.

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