Saturday, April 12, 2008

Poetry in the Classroom - The City Life

I read (and write) a lot of poetry about animals and nature, but I am also quite fond of poems about the city. Good poems about the city capture the sights, sounds and smells and catapult me back my days walking the streets of New York City. Life in the big city is vastly different from the rural area where I grew up, and for many students, life in the big city may be just as foreign. Two books I like to use for capturing the spirit of the city are Mural on Second Avenue and Other City Poems, written by Lilian Moore and illustrated by Roma Karas and Sky Scrape/City Scape: Poems of City Life, with poems selected by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Ken Condon.

Mural on Second Avenue is a collection of 17 poems that celebrates the city through the seasons and at different times of day. Accompanied by vibrant oil illustrations, the city, as seen through the eyes of a young boy, comes to life. Whether it's looking out the window, walking through the neighborhood, or playing in the park, the poems in this book exude the energy of the city and its inhabitants. There are poems here about building skyscrapers, going around corners, window reflections, pigeons, a mural (lending itself to the title of the book), bridges and more. One of my favorites is this poem about the skyline.
The lines are
rising high.

From my window
I can see
how roofs
design a sky.
Sky Scrape/City Scape is an anthology of poems selected by Jane Yolen. The 25 poems contained inside come from notables like Langston Hughes, Myra Cohn Livingston, Jane Yolen, Carl Sandburg, Lee Bennett Hopkins and many others. The illustrations show crowded streets, fire escapes, graffiitied walls, buildings tall, a garbage dump, and much more. This collection of poems is full of life and almost as energetic as the city itself. Many of the poems on a double-page spread are connected thematically, like the series of poems on skyscrapers or those on street cleaning. Here is an excerpt from a poem by Norma Farber.
Manhattan Lullaby
Lulled by rumble, babble, beep,
let these little children sleep;
let these city girls and boys
dream a music in the noise,
hear a tune their city plucks
up from buses, up from trucks
up from engines wailing fire!
up ten stories high, and higher,
One more book I recommend including in this set is the updated classic by Gwendolyn Brooks, Bronzeville Boys and Girls. Originally published in 1956, this new version is beautifully illustrated by Faith Ringgold. Each poem in this collection of 34 contains the name of a child. This child is either the subject of the poem or the person delivering it. Set in a Chicago neighborhood, these short poems highlight the highs and lows of life in the city, particularly big cities where many are poor. Even though most of the poems are light-hearted, a few are sad. An element of social consciousness is also evident in this collection. Here are a few examples.
Robert, Who is Often a Stranger to Himself
Do you ever look in the looking-glass
And see a stranger there?
A child you know and do not know,
Wearing what you wear?

Michael Is Afraid of the Storm
Lightning is angry in the night,
Thunder spanks our house.
Rain is hating our old elm—
It punishes the boughs.
Now, I am next to nine years old,
And crying’s not for me.
But if I touch my mother’s hand,
Perhaps no one will see.
Together, these three books provide varied glimpses of life in the city and what children living there may experience.

If you want to do some poetry writing about the city but can't get there, here are some resources to inspire you.


  1. Hello

    Could you tell me who wrote the poem Roofscape found in the collection by Jane Yolen. It's a lovely poem and fits right in with what I'm teaching at the moment.

    Many thanks indeed.

    Chloe Hill
    PYP Teacher, India

  2. Hi Chloe,
    The poem Roofscape comes from the book MURAL ON SECOND AVENUE. All the poems in it were written by Lilian Moore.


  3. Hello Tricia

    Thanks for giving the author and thanks for posting the poem too. It's given me lots of ideas.