ESSAY: “Nine Notions Without a Resolution” by Steven Withrow

1. remarkable, special, excellent, extraordinary, outstanding, superior, first-class, marvellous, notable, phenomenal, first-rate, prodigious, unsurpassed
2. unusual, odd, strange, rare, unprecedented, peculiar, abnormal, irregular, uncommon, singular, deviant, anomalous, atypical, aberrant

Among the forces of antagonism that beset poems for the young is the perception that poetry is  exceptional. This word cuts two ways, and even the best connotations can become obstacles for poets, teachers, readers, and publishers. If prose is the literary norm then verse is abnormal. There is not only a difference in kind between prose and verse but also a difference in esteem.

Are poems too weak, too strong, too smart, too silly, too hard, too profound, too edgy, too easy, too short, too curt, too good, too strange for the masses? For our children?

Is verse so different from prose that it must be segregated, downgraded, or elevated?

Does courting a much larger audience belittle poetry?

Are there already too many poets?

“A half dozen worthies…have saturated the market. New applications are not being accepted. Find another career.”

“Kids love poetry!”


For years I was an advocate not for children’s poetry, but for children’s comics. When I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, there were no comics in bookstores (save for a few graphic novels for adults) or in libraries (save for a few Tintin and Asterix albums), and there was no Web. Comics were newspaper strips or floppy pamphlets in hobby shops (no kids or girls allowed).

Along with Scott McCloud and a few others, I predicted that the Gen X and Gen Y generations—especially young women—would integrate comic strips, comic books, manga, and picture books into an accepted (and acceptable) form of literature. And they’re now doing just that…and much more.

Today, publishers are starting up comics imprints; librarians and booksellers see comics as staple purchases; and preschoolers are learning to read via sequential art. Kids don’t think of them as comics; they’re just books or apps. These were impossibilities, and they became realities. The paradigm shift occurred, and comics aren’t going away.

I’ll be bold and say that we’re on the verge, the near edge, of something similar (and similarly dramatic) for poetry—witness the YA verse novel as one sort of “pre-shift” adaptation—something that will likely reach critical mass later this decade. And after that…it’s anyone’s guess. Some will say, “Never going to happen—poetry’s too [insert favorite adjective].” However…

Kids and teenagers are catching on to what poetry can do—and they’ll create something for the 21st century that we 20th-century kids have never seen and can barely imagine. And when they do, I want them (and their teachers) to inherit a sense of history and tradition that could easily be lost or pushed aside.

Who was Myra Cohn Livingston, anyway?

When the next Valerie Worth comes along, will the comparison still be viable?

Do we accept exceptional?

©2011 Steven Withrow, all rights reserved

2 thoughts on “ESSAY: “Nine Notions Without a Resolution” by Steven Withrow

  1. Steven – Wonderful thoughts, musings and conundrums! In terms of your first point, I will say that I think good poets thrive on the fact that a word like “exceptional” can mean both excellent and aberrant, both marvelous and strange. Words and the world around us contain contradictions that appeal to poets. Poetry is more indeterminate (in terms of a fixed meaning) than prose, I think – no wonder, then, that people who are not exposed to it often think of it as a slightly exotic bird. I wouldn’t want that bird to change its feathers – it’s remarkably beautiful – so my feeling is that we simply (simply???) work to change people’s comfort level with it. I see it as a poet’s job to help both kids and adults embrace a less linear approach to language (and, as a result, life), making room for wit and mystery – and, of course, for contradiction. To replace rigidity of thinking with fluidity. To open up the idea of many people and multiple meanings. Encouraging that kind of attitude will contribute to making the world a more peaceful place – I honestly believe that.

    I’ll think on some of your other points and reply to those soon. meanwhile, thanks for posting them.

  2. Steven:
    Thank you for your 8 pronged thesis. got 2 more orders from me and Staples had to deliver a 2 shelf unit from me so I could house the childrens’ poetry books.
    Jeanne Poland

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