The good people at Sourcebooks, the force behind the bestselling books Poetry Speaks (for adults) and Poetry Speaks to Children (for the elementary-school set) have come out with Poetry Speaks Who I Am, a collection of poems designed to appeal to kids in middle school, although given the sophistication of the collection as a whole, it seems appropriate for high school as well.
The editors apparently "asked poets to send poems either that were important to them at [middle-school] age or that they'd written about being [that] age". They went through hundreds of submissions to put together this really interesting collection, which is a combination of long-dead poets (Poe, Whitman, Keats, Dickinson) and contemporary poets (including Ron Koertge, interviewed here last month, Sherman Alexie and U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan).
One of my favorite poems in the entire collection is an untitled poem by Rosellen Brown found on page 12 of the book:
What are friends for, my mother asks.
A duty undone, visit missed,
casserole unbaked for sick Jane.
Someone has just made her bitter.
Nothing. They are for nothing, friends,
I think. All they do in the end—
they touch you. They fill you like music.
Some poems appear to engage in direct dialogue with their neighbors. Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") sits next to a poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins's poem, "Litany", which begins with a quote from Jacques Crickillon ("You are the bread and the knife,/The crystal goblet and the wine . . . ") Although written nearly 400 years apart, both poems share a similar sly sense of humor; Shakespeare's turns out to be a love poem despite insulting the woman of which he speaks throughout the first twelve lines of the poem (e.g., "And in some perfumes is there more delight/Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks."); Collins's poem sounds more like a love poem at first, feels very much like a poem about the use of simile and metaphor in poetry somewhere in the middle, with an ending that feels like it was a love poem after all ("You are still the bread and the knife./You will always be the bread and the knife,/not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.")
There are poems about what it is to be African American, Native American and Asian American. Poems about first kisses, valentines, mathematics, and death. There are a total of 108 poems in the book, in fact, and of those 108 poems, forty-four have been recorded on the CD that accompanies the book. In many cases, they are read by the poet that wrote them – and not just in the case of contemporary poets like Collins and Ryan, but also in the case of Robert Frost, whose poem, "Acquainted With the Night", appears on the CD read by its author along with Langston Hughes reading "Dream Variations." In some cases, they are read by others.
The poem ends with a section of blank lined pages and the encouragement to add poems to the book – your own, or those by other poets that speak to you, and who you are.