National Poetry Month: A Look at HMH Poets and Their Works

April is National Poetry Month, which makes it the ideal time to bring poetry into your classroom—especially if you haven’t already been doing so! Poetry has always been part of HMH’s offerings, and we are home to many poets whose subject matters align closely with subjects taught in schools.

Poetry in History

History is inextricably bound up with poetry. The first tales ever told were poems—epic tales of heroes and the founding of societies, from Beowulf and The Odyssey through today. Poets are exploring the untold stories of history and ensuring that a variety of voices, past and present, are heard. 

Natasha Trethewey, an HMH author, excels at combining the personal with the historical, lending her works extraordinary power as they speak of life in the United States. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Native Guard would work well in any high school American history class, as Trethewey presents a sequence of sonnets in the voice of a black soldier in the Louisiana Native Guards, a regiment of former slaves who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. Her collection Thrall uses paintings, photographs, and documents as the source material for poems about being mixed-race in in the United States, both today and in the past. Her latest, Monument, includes new poems along with a selection of previously published works, exploring memory and the resonance of family history through time. 

Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson achieve a similar memorable experience for younger grades with the new picture book The Undefeated. The book presents history as a living thing whose stories have relevance and resonance today, and it places today’s children firmly in the story as it is ongoing. Alexander’s poem and Nelson’s artwork mesh beautifully, telling the story of being black in in the United States from 1619 through today. They show us real people, including those whose names are lost to history. They do not shy away from acknowledging the harsh reality of slavery, bombings, and brutality but do so in a way that is both real and age-appropriate. It is tempered with those who fought and continue to fight for social justice. The book would be great for any age group, even though it is listed as for Grades 1–4. 

Science and Nature

Most children are curious about the natural world, and so poetry about bugs, birds, seasons, and elements can be a good choice for younger classrooms. Joyce Sidman received the award for excellence in poetry from the National Council of Teachers of English in 2013 for her body of work, and many of her books for Pre-K to Grade 4 celebrate scientific inquiry and knowledge without losing the thrill of poetry and language. In Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature's Survivors, the poems explain how some animals have survived on this planet for millions and millions of years while 99 percent of other species that have ever lived have become extinct. And not only have beetles, geckos, and sharks survived—they can be found almost everywhere around the globe. In other words, they are ubiquitous. 

In Round, Sidman writes of all the things you can see in nature that are round—sunflowers, planets, and eggs, to name a few—and she encourages readers to go out and observe and find more. Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold explores how the natural world copes with frost and snow and other elements of a cold climate. She has other books about the seasons, night creatures, and several additional topics. Sidman won the Siebert Medal this year for her nonfiction book The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (Grades 5–7), and her poetry shows the same love of observation of the natural world.

The Arts

Poetry is also great when it is just about the joy of language and expression. Children need all sorts of ways to express themselves, and poetry meets that need. In Nikki Grimes’ book A Pocketful of Poems, she writes the poems twice: once as free verse, and once as haiku. The book is illustrated with collages by Javaka Steptoe, and the whole book is filled with the wonder of words. 

Some poets love to retell stories that have been around for centuries. The Greek myths, for example, have been told and retold throughout civilization because they manage to speak to every time period. In his novel made of poems, Bull, David Elliott retells the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, using a different poetic form for each character. The language is at times raunchy (“Waddup, bitches?” is how Poseidon begins the novel) but nothing that almost any high schooler hasn’t heard before.  

For younger grades, a retelling of a familiar story that also expands into the theatrical is Miss Muffet, or What Came After by Marilyn Singer. Singer, who also received the award for excellence in poetry from the National Council of Teachers of English, turns Miss Muffet and her spider friend (she is not scared of him in this version) into a musical theater production, with stage directions and choreography as well as songs and the main story poem. It shows off the wonder of poetic language as well as the ways that new forms can throw new light on old stories.

Poetry is one of the most magical forms of literature because it can take a variety of forms and experiment with language and meaning. It can help students understand the essence of the story it tells. It belongs in every classroom—especially during April.