'Who I Am': Poetry Not Wasted On The Young

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Teen Boy Reading Poetry
'Poetry Speaks Who I Am'
Poetry Speaks Who I Am: Poems of Discovery, Inspiration, Independence and Everything Else ...
Edited by Elise Paschen
Hardcover, 176 pages
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
List price: $19.95
Elise Paschen

Elise Paschen has written several collections of poetry, including Bestiary and Infidelities. She co-founded Poetry in Motion, a program that places poetry in subways and buses. Jennifer Girard hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Girard

Hear Elise Paschen read Emily Dickinson's "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers."

Read the full text — and hear poet Stephen Dunn read his poem "The Sacred."

In the 14th century, Petrarch wrote about love; in the 17th century, John Donne wrote about God. Today, poet Elise Paschen is turning her attention to yet another most universal of human experiences: awkward adolescence.

Paschen is the editor of Poetry Speaks Who I Am: Poems of Discovery, Inspiration, Independence and Everything Else ..., a new book and CD compilation of poems that speak to life as a tween.

"There are poems about when you feel like you hate your mother, poems about loving your mother, poems about when you lose a grandparent, poems about sibling rivalry," Paschen tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "We wanted to really give the broadest spectrum of subjects."

Also in the mix are poems about the pressures of school, including Carl Sandburg's Arithmetic ("If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she/gives you two fried eggs and you eat both of them, who is/better in arithmetic, you or your mother?") and Rita Dove's Flash Cards, in which a 10-year-old girl can't help but think of flowers while her father quizzes her on her math homework.

"She's obviously a whiz kid, but at the same time, she's in math class daydreaming," Paschen says of Dove's narrator. "She actually wants to be writing her poem."

Another theme the collection explores is the pain of puberty. In Parneshia Jones' Bra Shopping, a girl and her mother go in search of the girl's first bra:

"The bra lady and my mother discuss how the bras fit just right and will do the trick with no bouncing at all/ Mama thanks the lady for torturing me and we leave the nightmare that is the bra department."

"When we first heard it, I thought, 'Wow, good for Parneshia that she can turn this subject into something that we can laugh about now,' " Paschen says. "But at the time it can be very humiliating and heart-wrenching being with your mother and the bra lady."

And then, of course, there is the adolescent desire to escape — escape your homework, escape your parents and escape your own body.

In Stephen Dunn's The Sacred, a teacher asks a class for the place they escape to. Everyone is quiet until one student speaks up and says it's his car.

"The car in motion," Dunn writes, "music filling it, and sometimes one other person/who understood the bright altar of the dashboard/and how far away/a car could take him."

It's a poem for young people who are dying to get away to a place where they can be themselves — and aching for the driver's license they need to get there.

Most of all, it's about waiting for the day you can finally fly free — a part of adolescence that, car or no car, everyone can relate to.

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

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Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

The Sacred

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After the teacher asked if anyone had
       a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrunk

in their chairs, the most serious of them all
       said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing

things he'd chosen, and others knew the truth
       had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming
       up, the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
       and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
       in having a key
and putting it in, and going.

Reprinted from Between Angels: Poems by Stephen Dunn. Copyright 1989 by Stephen Dunn. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

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Poetry Speaks Who I Am

by Elise Paschen, Elizabeth Alexander, Joy Harjo and Brad Leithauser

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