It is Poetry Month, and I have to confess that I’ve never really learned to appreciate poetry—at least not when I read it silently. Poetry
, however, offers a new world of pleasures and opens up my imagination to an auditory play of cadence and words. In high school, I discovered stories in verse and plowed my way through Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”—unfortunately not available on audio in the 60’s—just to get another take on the Arthurian legend. I was hooked on that kind of poetry. Then I was introduced to the unforgettable 1950’s Columbia Masterworks recording of Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body,” read by Judith Anderson, Tyrone Power, and Raymond Massey, with glorious musical backgrounds to set the tone. Sadly it’s now unavailable, but it comes as no surprise that the National Recordings Registry added the recording in 2015. I certainly added it to my personal list of poetry I love.
If you, like me, appreciate the seduction of poetry more when it’s read aloud, Booklist offers a solution: novels in verse, with plenty for listeners both young and old to enjoy. Younger readers and listeners seem to be the primary audience for this form, but there are a handful for adults, including some classics. Note that several authors listed below have audio productions of more than just the title in verse.
The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, read by Corey Allen
Skilled narrator Allen’s warm voice personifies 13-year-old African American twins Josh (aka Filthy McNasty) and Jordan “JB” Bell and their family in this paean to all things basketball and life. Selections in various forms of poetry include humorous rhymed couplets, as well as some hip-hop.
Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech, read by Mandy Siegfriend
Percussive thump-thump-thumps punctuate this free-verse prose poem about transformation, and a steady heartbeat mirrors the constant changes in 12-year-old Annie’s life as she adjusts to her mother’s pregnancy, her grandfather’s forgetfulness, and her best friend’s moodiness. Siegfriend reads in thoughtful, gentle tones that perfectly reflect adolescent Annie’s growing awareness of her fears, uncertainties, and other feelings.
Iliad, by Homer and translated by Stanley Lombardo, read by Stanley Lombardo and Susan Sarandon
Whether new to Homer’s Iliad or familiar with its riches, listeners are in for a treat with this award-winning audio of Lombardo’s 1998 translation, which employs modern language and colloquial jargon without sacrificing the majesty of the classic poem or the narrative’s well-loved images and metaphors. Caught in the cadence of Lombardo’s splendid narration and the language of Homer, listeners become immersed in the ancient story of one man’s anger and the consequences of his emotions. Here is a YouTube video of Lombardo reading from his translation.
Impulse, by Ellen Hopkins, read by Laura Flanagan and others
Three suicidal teens meet in a rehab hospital, and they tell their stories in free-verse form in this intense and gritty novel. The narrators bring credible resonance to the respective characters, as the teens work from an initial point of confusion and depression (the actors sound appropriately lifeless) to a place of friendship, honesty, and acknowledgement of life changes
,portrayed in more energetic tones.
Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson, read by Dion Graham
Graham’s portrayal of 11-year-old Lonnie Collins Motion (nicknamed Locomotion) underscores the beauty of Woodson’s writing, in which Lonnie expresses his feelings in 60 poems (told in free verse, sonnet, haiku, and other forms).
Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case, by Patricia Powell, read by Adenrele Ojo and MacLeod Andrews.
This powerful documentary novel in non-rhyming blank verse explores the landmark 1967 civil rights case, which took on pre-Civil War interracial marriage laws in Virginia and is also the subject of the award-winning film, Loving. Ojo and Andrews deftly voice the couple, whose conversations explore their joy, sadness, longing, and, finally, triumph.
Sold, by Patricia McCormick, read by Justine Eyre
Eyre speaks in an Indian accent infused with British overtones to portray Lakshmi, a 13-year-old Nepali girl whose weak, impoverished stepfather sells her into sexual slavery. Eyre’s rhythmic cadence soon mesmerizes listeners as she carefully modulates her tones to tell Lakshmi’s first-person story, revealed in prose and free verse.
True Believer, by Virginia Euwer Wolff, read by Heather Alicia Simms
True Believer continues the powerful story of Verna LaVaughn, from Make Lemonade, who struggles with new emotions about friendship, romance, and ambition. Simm’s stunning narration of this novel in blank verse allows the hard realism of the plot to enter listeners’ hearts.
Unbound, by Ann E. Burg, read by Bahni Turpin
Young, light-skinned Grace has been called to work in the Big House in the pre-Civil War South. When she overhears the plan to auction her family, they must embark on a dangerous journey to escape. Turpin dramatically portrays characters and their plights in this novel in verse, based on slave narratives.
The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic, by Alan Wolf, read by Michael Page and others
This imaginative novel in verse relates the familiar story of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Through brief poems listeners learn the story first-hand from many different perspectives—from the shipbuilder and the captain, famous passengers like John Jacob Astor and Molly Brown, unknown second and third class passengers, staff including the telegraph operator, and even the stentorian voice of the Ice and the hurrying fervor of the Rat.
Words with Wings, by Nikki Grimes, read by Mutiyat Ade-Salu
The clear voice of Ade-Salu gives wings to Grimes’ story of Gabby, a young girl trying to come to terms with the separation of her parents while searching for a path to her own dreams. This brief free-verse novel celebrates the power of words and imagination.
Yellow Star, by Jennifer Roy, read by Tavia Gilbert
Five years after her confinement by the Nazis in the Lodz Ghetto, in Poland, nine-year-old Syvia and her family are among the 800 Jews who are rescued after Nazi guards flee the approaching Allied armies. Reader Gilbert’s youthful tones heighten Syvia’s fear of the Nazis, hears the “sputspop. . . vroom” of the Nazi officers’ motorcycles, and lies with her father in a newly dug grave to escape detection in this free-verse Holocaust tale.
Don’t forget other recordings of classic stories in verse like Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and “Beowulf.” The latter is available in an abridged version, read and translated by Seamus Heaney (available here), and in several unabridged recordings.