Thursday, March 31, 1988

Joyful Noise: Except That Books Don't Make Noise

The Newbery winning book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (1988) by Paul Fleischman sat around my house for several cycles of being checked out from the library before I'd exhausted my limit and had to return it. The day before it was due, I was waiting for a buddy to pick me up and then we were headed to a Rainmakers concert. I read the entire book before my friend arrived.

I'm not a poet. I'm not typically a fan of poetry. It is significant that I read this book while prepping to listen to a group with a distinct vocalist who has a knack for great phrasing. I can handle poetry as lyrics - words which I get to hear out loud in the voice of the person who (usually) wrote them. Poetry is about the sound of the words when strung together. Poetry is written to be heard, not read.

That problem is compounded by this book, in which instructions are even offered at the onset that the intent is for each poem in the book to be read by two people, one taking the part on the left of the page and the other the right. There are times when both people will be talking at once and other times when only one person is speaking. For example, here's the beginning of the poem "Water Striders":

Whenever we're asked
If we walk upon water
We answer

Then the person on the right replies "for sure" and the one on the left follows with "To be sure." This captures, in essence, the nature of the entire book - poems about nature read in two parts. That's the unifying theme for all the poems in the book. They aren't designed to work together as a story, but individual pieces. You can see the poems here.

Clearly these poems are designed to be read by kids in school. In that context - when heard out loud - the poems are more effective, as you can see here:

Outside of that context, however, the poems feel incomplete. The Newbery Medal showcases excellence in children's writing. That means the work should stand alone as a written piece. While I can see the appeal of Joyful Noise to, say a couple of second grade boys doing an in-class report, the book just doesn't work for me as a work of literary significance. I'd rather "hear" poetry - so I'll stick to going to the Rainmakers' concert and hearing lines sung like "The generation that would change the world is still looking for its car keys."

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