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Editorial April 2003
Thoughts that Breathe

By Hilary Williamson

Poetry is thoughts that breathe and words that burn. (Thomas Gray)

Thoughts that breathe, words that burn? How succinct a description that is of the effect of great poetry. I just read a children's book in free verse that seems to me a perfect example of 'thoughts that breathe'. In Sharon Creech's Love That Dog (aimed at ages eight to twelve but delightful well beyond that age range) a teacher draws out of an initially resistant boy a talent for poetry, and eloquence on a subject that disturbs him; his thoughts breathe out onto paper.

Other poetry I've come across recently for younger aficionados includes Exploding Gravy - verses that succeed in their promise to 'make you laugh' - and FEG, intriguing puzzle poetry, self styled 'Ridiculous Stupid Poems for Intelligent Children', and fun for philologists of all ages. Or if you want words that breathe a little louder in your ears, try audiopoems like Leslie Pockell's collections of The Best Poems of All Time Part 1 (Classics to 1850) and Part 2 (1850s to the present). Hearing verse in so many different voices has made me enthusiastic about the new insights that listening brings to poetry.

Though very different in feeling, the style of Love That Dog brought to my mind an older favorite and a classic - Don Marquis' marvelous poems about Archy and Mehitabel. The voices in these verses are reincarnations, respectively, of a 'vers libre bard ... into the body of a cockroach', and Cleopatra into an alley cat. Alley cat Mehitabel's motto is 'toujours gai toujours gai', and she and the typing cockroach Archy are very funny - if you have a taste for the absurd in 'vers libre', that is. You can find Archy and Mehitabel on the net at

There is a great deal more poetry to be enjoyed online from Ogden Nash to Seamus Heaney. Have a look at our Links and Online Reading pages or simply search the net for bards and their lays. And since this eclectic selection is already on the light side (we'll leave the 'words that burn' for next time), let's round it off with another old favorite. Piet Hein is always good for philosophy packaged in slightly silly (but curiously comforting) verses called grooks. Here's one, titled Brave, that we can take to heart in a recently frightening world:

To be brave is to behave
bravely when your heart is faint.
So you can be really brave
only when you really ain't.

Enjoy reading and listening to ballads and jingles, dirges and doggerel, lyrics and limericks, odes, idylls and elegies, runes and rhymes, sonnets and satire this National Poetry Month, and don't forget to breathe in!
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