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LinguaPhile, April 2001

A monthly e-mail newsletter nurturing the development and enjoyment of English language arts at home and at school.



National Poetry Month . . .

April, 2001, marks the sixth annual celebration of National Poetry Month. Sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, National Poetry Month is a time for literary organizations, libraries, bookstores, schools, and individuals to honor poetry and its vital place in American culture. Watch for special events in your community.

On its Web site, the Academy of American Poets suggests many ways to celebrate this special month.

In addition, the Academy of American Poets is proposing that the United States Postal Service commemorate our nation's literary heritage with a new series of stamps honoring America's best-loved poets. Until April 30, 2001, you can vote for or nominate poets of your choice at

The Web site of the Academy of American Poets offers many valuable resources: biographical information on more than 200 poets, an index (including text) of nearly 1,000 poems, audio renditions of some poems, discussion forums, an events calendar, and more.

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Quotes of the Month: Poets on Poetry . . .

A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.
-- W. H. Auden

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.
-- Paul Engle

Prose -- words in their best order; poetry -- the best words in their best order.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poetry is like a bird; it ignores all frontiers.
-- Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.
-- Maxwell Bodenheim

Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.
-- Carl Sandburg

What can be explained is not poetry.
-- William Butler Yeats

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.
-- Dante

Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal [but] which the reader recognizes as his own.
-- Salvatore Quasimodo

Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.
-- Robert Frost

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
-- Emily Dickinson


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Expand Your Vocabulary: bardolater . . .

The bardolaters celebrated their hero's birthday by enacting scenes from his plays.

bardolater (bar DOL a ter) n. (sometimes capitalized) person who idolizes William Shakespeare (from "idolater" plus "bard," Shakespeare having been known as the "Bard of Avon")

Incidentally, the date of Shakespeare's birth (as well as his death) is April 23 -- the former in 1564, the latter in 1616.

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Q and A: Punctuating Poetry . . .

Question: I never know how to punctuate poetry. Should I just put a comma at the end of every line?

Answer: Poetry conventions have changed a lot in the last few decades. It used to be that the first letter of every line was capitalized regardless of the punctuation at the end of the previous line; now some poems use no capital letters whatsoever. Sometimes punctuation is totally omitted as well.

If you do choose to punctuate your poem more traditionally (irrespective of your style for capitalization), simply follow the same rules that you would use if you were punctuating prose: Separate independent clauses with a period or semicolon, and use commas where needed. Some lines will not end with a punctuation mark.

Correct punctuation serves as a good guide for reading the poem aloud. Lines that do not end with punctuation generally should not be followed by a pause.

We invite your questions for this feature. Send them to Fran at GrammarAndMore.

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Reply to the Question: "How Can You Become a Poet?"
by Eve Merriam (1916-1992)

take the leaf of a tree
trace its exact shape
the outside edges
and inner lines

memorize the way it is fastened to the twig
(and how the twig arches from the branch)
how it springs forth in April
how it is panoplied in July

by late August
crumple it in your hand
so that you smell its end-of-summer sadness

chew its woody stem

listen to its autumn rattle

watch as it atomizes in the November air

then in winter
when there is no leaf left
                               invent one

from Rainbow Writing © 1976 by Eve Merriam. Reprinted with permission. For permission to reprint, contact Marian Reiner.

Eve Merriam was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction for both children and adults. Her awards were many and varied, including the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1946, the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children in 1981, and an Obie for playwriting in 1977. Ms. Merriam's favorite genre was poetry, however. Of her writing career she said in Something About the Author, "I think one is chosen to be a poet. You write poems because you must write them; because you can't live your life without writing them."

Although Eve Merriam died in 1992, her poems are still being published in picture books for very young children. Available from

Low Song (about things at a child's eye level)

On My Street (about people in a neighborhood)

Ten Rosy Roses (a counting book in couplets)

What in the World? (a riddle book with fold-out pages)

Where's That Cat? (co-authored with Pamela Pollock)

One of Ms. Merriam's most influential, provocative, and controversial books is The Inner City Mother Goose, dubbed a "powder keg" by Library Journal when it was first published in 1969. It was the source of two musical plays, Inner City, which opened on Broadway in 1971, and Street Dreams, which opened in 1982, the same year a new edition of the book was released. A third edition, with an introduction by poet Nikki Giovanni, was published in 1996.

Like the original Mother Goose rhymes, The Inner City Mother Goose delivers social and political commentary. It is less subtle than Mother Goose rhymes, however. It will take many readers outside their own neighborhoods -- and their own comfort zones -- as it vividly depicts the brutal reality of life in contemporary urban areas: the poverty, the violence, the oppression, the filth, the corruption, the desperation. Still, readers are likely to recognize that they share many dreams with the Inner City characters: for love, fairness, education, a decent home, gainful employment.

Many of the rhymes echo the words and/or the rhythm of familiar Mother Goose rhymes, creating the illusion of playfulness and innocence. Often the last line of a poem takes an unexpected twist that ambushes the reader as if he or she were being mugged on a dark street.

Eve Merriam said, "I have been told that The Inner City Mother Goose was at one time the second most banned book in the country. I didn't write it for children. It was never intended to be a children's book. But it has percolated down, certainly to high school and junior high."

The Inner City Mother Goose offers much food for thought and discussion -- from the forms it mimics to the social situations it portrays. Teen and pre-teen readers might need guidance to distinguish between a lifestyle described and a lifestyle endorsed.

Recommended for ages 12 and up

Available from The Inner City Mother Goose


Portico Books News . . .

We apologize for the inconvenience caused by technical difficulties that beset us in March: first, the encryption that crept into LinguaPhile, particularly for aol subscribers; second, the several-week interruption of our toll-free phone service while the number was in limbo between two phone companies. If you tried to call -- to place an order or to get information about our products, please try again. The number is now back in service.

* * *

If you're an educator, I hope you're giving serious consideration to ordering a copy of Hands-On English for each of your students. Think how much easier your job would be (not to mention your students' jobs!) if everyone in your class had quick access to this wealth of information.

* * *

Fran will be exhibiting at the Southwest Home Educators Ministry (SHEM) conference on April 27 and 28 in Springfield, MO. If you will be there, please stop by to say hello. If you know others who will be attending, please urge them to do the same.

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How to Write Poetry by Paul B. Janeczko . . .

Any thoughts I might ever have entertained about writing a book on poetry writing were quickly dispelled when I discovered Paul Janeczko's guide. How to Write Poetry is the book I hope I would have written on this subject.

First of all, the small format and conversational style invite the reader in. Janeczko begins by suggesting ways for writers to catalog their words and ideas. In addition to those mentioned in the previous two issues of LinguaPhile, he suggests use of a tape recorder when writing notes is not practical. Janeczko also emphasizes the importance of reading. Throughout the book he provides bibliographic lists that provide more information on concepts in each chapter. Yet another list of good poetry anthologies is included at the end of the book.

After a sketch of the writing process, Janeczko describes several specific kinds of poems: acrostic poems, synonym poems, opposite poems, clerihews, list poems, poems of address, persona poems, and narrative poems. Elements especially important in poetry (sound, images, word choice, figurative language, and line breaks) are discussed in a recurring "Poetcraft" feature. Poems by students and by famous poets amply illustrate both the poetic elements and the particular formats. Biographical notes on all poets are included near the end of the book.

Other special recurring features of How to Write Poetry include "Writing Tip from a Poet," "Try This" (specific suggestions for writing), and various checklists. In addition to the biographical and bibliographical information mentioned earlier, the book includes an index and a comprehensive, cross-referenced glossary, which even includes examples of various formats.

Although Janeczko maintains that poems must be written for oneself, he also suggests many ways to "publish" finished poems -- from handmade books to cards and posters, to submitting to magazines and contests. He recommends Market Guide for Young Writers by Kathy Henderson (Writer's Digest Books, 1996) as an invaluable resource for those interested in submitting for publication.

Even beyond the pertinent subjects Janeczko includes, however, is the manner in which he conveys his information. Having taught English and compiled more than a dozen poetry anthologies, Janeczko is a master who projects wholehearted confidence that young poets can and will succeed.

Recommended for grades 4 and up.
Published by Scholastic, 1999
Available from How To Write Poetry

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Celebrating National Poetry Month . . .

If you are an educator, you might see these as assignments for your students. You will be rewarded if you do them also.

1. To become more attuned to word choice, identify a few words within a poem which you think were particularly inspired choices. Then substitute for each of them either a blank or a more ordinary word. Present the altered poem to your students (or exchange with a colleague) to see which words will be suggested for those strategic locations. (It is fine to come up with more than one possibility.) If ordinary words have been substituted, you have the additional challenge of identifying words that were not included in the original poem.

2. Use page 131 in The Activity Book to guide your analysis of a poem, noting the following:
  a. Your response to the poem (how you think and/or feel when you finish reading)
  b. How the poet provoked your response
  c. Effective sense images in the poem
  d. Sounds in the poem that reinforce meaning
  e. Clever wording (double meanings, parallelism, etc.)
  f. Visual devices (such as the poem having the shape of its subject)
  g. The main idea the poet is trying to communicate

3. Read a number of poems until you find one that you especially admire. Analyze what it is about the poem that appeals to you. Make a written list of these qualities, and keep it in your notebook to remind you to incorporate these characteristics in your own writing.

4. Memorize a poem that you especially like for some reason. (It may or may not be the same poem that you chose for #3.) Recite this poem -- with gestures as well as vocal and facial expression -- for your family, class group, another class, residents of a nursing home, etc. Be sure to practice your poem before you present it to your audience; you might even want to critique (and improve) your performance by using a VCR.

5. Write poems using formats described in The Activity Book or LinguaPhile:

  a. Haiku (use of a photo helps to focus on one moment and makes an attractive display) -- p. 9

  b. "Then and Now" poem -- p. 23; "LP," January, 2001 (item #4 under Janus: Writing/Bulletin Board Ideas)

  c. "Emotions and Senses" poem -- "LP," September, 2000 (item #7 under Learning Activities)

6. Help younger children (in your family or in your school) to write a simple poem, such as an acrostic poem. In this format the poem describes the poet, and each line begins with a letter of the poet's name (the first line with the first letter, the second line with the second letter, and so on). Each line could be self-contained with a word or a phrase, or a single thought could continue from one line to the next.

It would be good if, before working with the child, you wrote an acrostic based on your own name to serve as a model. Then you could help by posing questions to stimulate the child's thinking. You could also help with spelling or serve as a scribe.

7. Put an original poem on a poster or card. You could add a picture (a drawing or computer graphic, a photograph, or something you cut from a magazine). A poster does not need to be large. Consider the size that is best for your poem and any graphic that you wish to display. You might want to print the poem on colored paper or card stock and send it to a friend or relative. You could send it flat or could fold it to make a self-mailer or card. Hand-made gifts such as this are always very special (remember that Mother's Day will be here in May).

8. Send me any new poems that you write; I'd love to include them in the May issue of LinguaPhile.

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Puzzler: Terse Verse . . .

A. Express each of the following ideas as a two-word rhyming phrase. For example, "a minor car accident" could be called a "fender bender." The number in parentheses indicates the number of syllables in each word.

1. fare in a seafood restaurant (1)
2. drooping flower (2)
3. prolific reptile (2)
4. small spirit who grants wishes (2)
5. one-of-a-kind relic (2)
6. duo who perform on the trapeze (2)
7. container in the shape of an African ruminant (2)
8. genuine murder (3)
9. formal social dance in Rio (3)

B. Now make up some "terse verses" of your own. First get the pair of rhyming words. Then come up with the clue. Send your favorites to include in next month's LinguaPhile.

Answers to Part A next month.

Answer to March puzzler:

The finest thought runs the risk of being irretrievably forgotten if it is not written down.
--Arthur Schopenhauer

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Thank you for reading. If you find LinguaPhile helpful and interesting, don't keep it a secret! Consider which of your friends would also enjoy it, and send them information about subscribing. We welcome your comments and suggestions:

An index to LinguaPhile articles is now available. If you would like one, send a self-addressed stamped envelope (with a note specifying what you want) to Portico Books, P.O. Box 9451, Chesterfield, MO 63006.

© 2001 Fran Santoro Hamilton


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