I dislike poetry. I dislike rhyming poetry. I dislike flashy poetry. I dislike poetry that calls attention to its form. It’s simply not my style. I like my words to run from one edge of the paper to the other. To fill it up with words. I don’t like the empty spaces. If it’s much longer than a neat Bashô haiku then I’m lost, with very few exceptions. That includes narrative poems. No Hiawatha for me. No tales of brave Ulysses. It’s the form itself that seems to break down my joy and throw up a barrier.
I dislike coming of age literature. CATCHER IN THE RYE is one of the most ponderous, stultifying, and, yes, hideous books I have ever read. My empathy for Holden Caulfield is nil. Craig Thompson’s BLANKETS is one of the most annoying graphic novels I can think of with its straw man antagonists. It’s only as an adult that I’ve come to a respect for THE OUTSIDERS and SE Hinton and the works of Robert Cormier. As a teen, when these were supposed to speak to me – they simply didn’t.
And, I dislike basketball. I make an exception to watch my daughter play, but that is the sole exception. I’m a poor parent-coach. I don’t make her study tape. Once we watched a documentary on the Bad Boys-era Detroit Pistons, but that was more about teamwork and attitude than the game itself. The game footage was incidental to the words of Isaiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn. It’s not a sport that grabs my attention.
Which makes my unabashed love for Kwame Alexander’s THE CROSSOVER quite an anomaly. A narrative poem arranged in short poem clusters grouped together from Warm-Up through the Quarters and on into Overtime filled with tricks of typography and spacing telling the coming of age of 13 year old twin basketball players Josh and Jordan Bell, sons of a famous basketball star traces a basketball season of discontent for the two. The narrative is first person poetry from the pen of Josh, ostensibly the “intellectual” one, the more studious of the two, a young man as comfortable with a pen and words as he is on the basketball court. Alexander navigates a world dominated by basketball, first love, school, food – and family – with a deft hand. Especially family. Alexander draws the reader into the world of the Bell family easily, the Warm-Up section with its verbal gymnastics putting us into the mind of Jordan, into his world, into his fears. The mundane of school, of repetition and routine, take on the form of epic in his poetry. And like all epics, takes us down the road of triumph, and tragedy. Tragedy and triumph. The strength of human spirit.
The above portion of this review was written last week, well before the city of Baltimore exploded into chaos over the death of Freddy Gray. It almost made my words of praise seem for naught when I looked at them. I thought there would be no column this week. But then, I re-read Alexander’s book. It only took an hour or so, the words lilting and quick, and yet uncompromising and unflinching. And it gave me a deeper appreciation for what Alexander had accomplished. No, he doesn’t give answers to what is going on in the world. No one can really do that. But it draws together a strength, a bond, that is undeniable. What Alexander has written is a story of our times, of the travails of our world. And it needs to be read.
Kwame Alexander can be found at his website: http://www.bookinaday.org/ . THE CROSSOVER recently won the 2015 Newberry Medal for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children. It is well deserved. Seek this one out. Read it. Read it twice.
Good night, and God bless.