The Universality of Poetry [Part 1 of 2]

More like, uni-verse-ality!

*revels in the groans of despair*

Okay.

Fine.

I’ll get to the point.

Poetry is typically met with the chorus of joyless moans not unlike the ones I imagine you emitted when you read my alternate title above. And here, I must refer to an exchange on poetry from The History Boys if only to stay true to my own geeky self:

TIMMS: Sir. I don’t always understand poetry.

HECTOR: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.

TIMMS: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

I just love that that is Timms’ complaint- that poetry talks about stuff that hasn’t happened to him and his peers. I mean, yes, he is specifically talking about classic English poetry and I will largely be talking about modern free verse, but irrespective of form, if your appreciation of any kind of literature depends solely on your ability to know exactly what the author is talking about, it rather defeats the purpose of literature don’t you think? There might be moments of familiarity and complete understanding but most of the time, reading is (as John Green puts it) an exercise in empathy.

Today I want to write about two verse novels that I think fit the theme of crossover month, not just because poetry is a form that lends itself to a varied audience, but also because the topics are … different. For me, at least, these novels are challenging because of the way they coax me out of my own head and my comfortable (see also: privileged) life. It does bother me a little that the kinds of characters we see in these books- realistic fiction written in verse- are not more mainstream and are almost never seen in science fiction or fantasy. And yet, I think the choice of form is a good one because I sincerely believe that, if you let it, poetry has a way of leading you away from yourself. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that anything (even well written prose) that has a sense of musicality to it can add a whole new layer of magic to the storytelling. (Plus, I guess if these stories were science-fiction/fantasy, it suddenly becomes doubly YA and apparently some people just can’t handle that?!)

Anyway, for this blog post I would like to introduce a book called Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family. – [X]

So, I was introduced to this book as Megan, a contributor to this blog and a bestie, was at the tail-end of her thesis on Representations of Trauma and Culture in the Guatemalan Refugee Experience in Juvenile Fiction. Up until that point, I was all about the difficulties of fantastical characters *cough-Magnus-cough*, rather than exploring other kinds of literature. This was a first for me in many ways. It was the first verse novel that I ever read as well as the first book I’ve ever encountered that talked about the refugee experience through the eyes of a child.

The thing that I instantly loved about this book was how Hà’s voice shines clearly through the poetry. At no point, during my reading did it feel like the writing was at odds with the child’s voice. I knew, within the first few pages, that this book would be heart-wrenchingly good. And I was right. Thanhha Lai balances out the pain of losing a father, the confusion of politics and war, and the anxiety of poverty, with strong images of simple pleasures and the bold mischief of a young girl. There are no easy definitions for the life that Hà leads- not in Vietnam, and definitely not in the States. And here, I feel that this is a book that will not only be useful to younger audiences but also to older readers, especially those who are educators, because Lai is careful to write about blatant racism as well as poignantly point out how public institutions have a way of othering people without being overt about it:

I wish …

that I could be invisible

until I can talk back

that English could be learned

without so many rules.

I wish

Father would appear

in my class

speaking beautiful English

as he does French and Chinese

and hold out his hand

for mine.

Mostly

I wish

I were

still

smart.

(Lai 158-159)

Of course, this is only one part of Hà’s (semi-fictional) account that touched me. Lai is exceptionally insightful of many other issues as well, including class and religion. There are just so many things to look at, and so many questions that shake one’s worldview, that it is quite disappointing that many will turn up their noses at books like this one simply because they have ugly, preconceived notions of what it is to a) read poetry and/or b) read “children’s” literature.

7 responses to “The Universality of Poetry [Part 1 of 2]

  1. Lovely, Yash! You’ve convinced me that I want to read Inside Out and Back Again and, more, that I will like it a great deal. If I could just borrow your copy, ha ha.

  2. I really like verse novels and I think they are a great medium for talking about really heartwrenching stuff. Perhaps because things become more sparse and felt in verse compared to prose. I don’t know but yes, I enjoyed this one immensely as well. Oh yes, there’s this other verse novel called Sold by Patricia McCormick that was tough to read.

    • Yup! That’s pretty much what I was trying to get at with my absurdly long post! (And I will definitely check out Sold. Thanks!)

  3. Pingback: The Universality of Poetry [Part 1 of 2] | TremaineMTY·

  4. Pingback: The Universality of Poetry [Part 2 of 2] | The Book Wars·

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