It’s all about us! Join former U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis on a lyrical journey through the United States to experience the wonders of America’s people and places through 200+ inspiring poems and stunning photographs.
Celebrate the gift of language and the vibrant culture of the United States with this collection of classic and never-before-published poetry. Poems are arranged by region, from coast to coast, and among them you’ll find works by Langston Hughes, Dorothy Parker, Robert Frost, Naomi Shihab Nye, Walt Whitman, and more. From the familiar to the surprising, subjects include people, places, landmarks, monuments, nature, and celebrations. Designed for sharing, but geared to younger readers, this beautifully illustrated treasury is a must-have for the whole family.
America the (Poetically) Beautiful
“All poetry begins with Geography.”
This idea from Robert Frost which appears on the first page of a new collection of poetry illustrates best the idea of synthesis between verse and visual. The sun presents just over the ridge of a quiet meadow of tall grasses reminding older readers of “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
That the editor, J. Patrick Lewis leads with a quote from one of America’s most beloved poet laureates is not an accidental inclusion or placement. The newest collection of poetry from the series of anthologies presented by National Geographic is a trip into and through what Lewis identifies as “the breadth and depth, the head and heart of America” (5). Invoking the idea of Frost and an inability to stay, this collection becomes a type of travelogue in verse for the reader. It is with this perspective that Lewis presents this new collection of poems for young readers.
J. Patrick Lewis is no stranger to working with National Geographic Partners, LLC having edited 2012’s Book of Animal Poetry and 2015’s Book of Nature Poetry collections. In what seems to be a three-year cycle for these collections, it is timely that the new collection would focus upon America, her places and her people. What is suggested by the new collection is that while there a number of entities which may set to divide America, one has served the country well by way of its ability to unify the people: poetry. Poetry about America and her people.
In the fall of 2018, in cooperation with National Geographic, former Children’s Poet Laureate and National Council of Teachers of English award winning poet, J. Patrick Lewis realized a personal dream of putting together a collection of poetry that would be representative of the United States as a whole (including its territories). Citing First Nations author, William Least Half Moon’s Blue Highways as an inspiration, in particular, for this collection, Lewis promises to bring the reader “the underside, backside, inside, and other side of America, the undiluted richness of our national diversity” (5). A quick glance at the newest collection provides the reader a sense of a journey to come.
Anyone familiar with National Geographic’s trade and periodical publications will come into the text with expectations for its outward presentation and packaging. Those familiar with the aforementioned poetry collections for children will see something by way of a formula that seems to work by way of vision and verse within these collections created for children but celebrated by the adults within the poetry and education communities. A striking dust jacket adorns each of the three collections and offers more than two-hundred poems that celebrate the subject of the collection. Underneath the dust jacket is a case which incorporates to appropriate images from the National Geographic archives. The front cover of the book presents a full-cover image of a person wearing a foam headdress designed to make them look like the Statue of Liberty looking through a viewer as one might if he, she, or they were looking at a tourist attraction. The suggestion here is not lost on the reviewer that The Poetry of Us is a collection designed so that the reader can look into and through the poetry and see America through a poetic lens.
The introduction to the collection spans thirteen pages and offers an introduction to the mix of poets and approaches to poetry to come. Here, Robert Frost is juxtaposed within the spread with award-winning poet Carole Boston Weatherford. Walt Whitman “hears” and Langston Hughes in the next spread.
What follows the introduction to the collection is a dive into New England’s rich traditions and celebrations. And, then, the collection proceeds to take the reader through six more regions each presenting its best self as a part of the composite nation sharing verse and vision. Some pieces capture an event like Kate Coombs’ Boston Marathon (which is coupled with David Elliott’s “Boston Baked Beans: A Recipe” which is more of an exploration of the Boston vernacular than a recipe one might follow). Rebecca Kai Dotlich’s “The Place of 500 Miles” celebrates the Indianapolis 500, an event with which she would be familiar as one who lives near the city.
As a matter of reverent introspection, the collection also features poems about subjects the present the work of our country that has been ongoing for some time. In the “Southeast” section of The Poetry of US, J. Patrick Lewis takes his turn as poet to return to the story of Emmett Till which appears in the spread with a poem by Reuben Jackson, a tribute to Trayvon Martin.
In the “Great Plains,” readers are invited to read and to take in the rich and diverse languages of America. Dr. Gabriela Baeza Ventura presents a translation of La Luz de El Paso for which author/poet Pat Mora offers an English translation which celebrates what the people of this region experience through each of the senses including what they hear each day in English and Spanish.
Traveling through the collection to the “Rocky Mountain West,” readers encounter a classic poem, “The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks coupled with Susan Blackaby’s “Backyard Barbecue.” Fly fisherman presented by Ralph Fletcher meet Steven Withrow’s white rapid navigators as Michelle Heidenrich Barnes helps the reader to lift off with hot air balloon pilots in a concrete piece, “Mass Ascension.”
There is so much to celebrate in this new poetry collection. Each of the regions of the book would easily compliment a unit of study on a region or a particular city. The collection becomes an introduction to the contemporary poets while giving a nod to the poets who have come before. The mix of poets, subjects, forms, and styles represents nicely the diversity of our country and this is where The Poetry of US could receive its highest praise in the thoughtful presentation of the whole of the country.
“Last Thoughts” invite the reader to consider the words to George M. Cohen’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” as a sun sets now on a golden coastline. Langston Hughes invites and challenges the reader to “Let America Be America Again.” Leigh Lewis closes the collection with “I Am More” which serves as a summary statement for the collection and for the country it was designed to present and to celebrate.
It would be just as easy to climb into this collection and pick the poems from the index that are familiar or part of a reading curriculum. In his “Final Note” for the collection, J. Patrick Lewis challenges and reminds the reader when he writes, “we have stopped to admire beauty and oddity in equal measure. Though our poets have painted a nation of rainbows, they have not ignored the darker weather of poverty and discrimination. . .each page here reveals a powerful poetry of place from mountains to plains and rivers from out-of-the-way America to the explosion of its great cities. Nor have we left behind some of our memorable citizens whose lives have enriched us all” (184).
As a classroom teacher, I cannot think of a more necessary for the room collection than The Poetry of US. Whether this book would land in the hands of a teacher who would use the book to compliment a unit of study or in the hands of a young reader who would consider the book region by region, the whole of the text provides the inroads to many more lessons in poetry as the book presents a country by way of its “underside, backside, inside, and other side.”
Safe, mostly conservative choices in an expansive gathering, with dazzling visuals.
Some 200-plus short poems about U.S. places, people, and events are superimposed on big, bright landscape and other photographs.
Notwithstanding Lewis’ grandiose claim that these “chiseled words and fabulous photos” present “the underside, backside, inside, and other side of America,” the general tone is blandly celebratory, with only occasional, mild dissension. Robert Frost’s paternalistic “The Gift Outright” (“The land was ours before we were the land’s”) is paired, for instance with Carole Boston Weatherford’s protest litany “Power to the People” (“You Are On Stolen Land”); and Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” appears, rather obviously, side by side with Langston Hughes’ “I, too, sing America.” The poetry largely steers clear of abstractions, violent imagery, or even, aside from a strongly rhythmic final chant by Leigh Lewis, declamatory slam or hip-hop language. Topics range from natural wonders to local festivals, regional food, salutes to celebrities including John Wayne and Willie Nelson, elegies for Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, sports, religious observances, and statements of ethnic or national identity. Nods to the diversity of American voices include frequent entries by immigrant and minority writers as well as poems in Spanish, Arabic, and Korean with accompanying translations into English by, usually, the poets themselves. The photos, gorgeous as they are, largely serve a decorative function as only a handful bear identifying captions.