I enjoy writing poetry, as some of you might know, but I usually like to read comics, genre fiction, and nonfiction stuff like Fast Food Nation instead of poetry. When I had an opportunity to read and review a book of poetry from public school students that work, in theme, with William Stafford’s poetry (which is also included) I couldn’t pass it up. Stafford, a Poet Laureate of Oregon, is interesting to me because people who went to Oregon public schools are very familiar with him and his works; since I come from North Carolina, reading We Belong in History: Writing with William Stafford was a chance to learn about one of Oregon’s cultural treasures.
This book, as with the last book review I wrote, was published by Portland State University’s Book Publishing Program (the press is called Ooligan Press). I’ll go ahead and say that even though this review is an assignment, my assessment of the book is unfiltered. For those who are only looking for a numerical value score for the book and you don’t want to have any of the contents spoiled, I would rate this book as a 4 out of 5. It’s an interesting book in that it’s not just poetry (there are essays and lesson plans) and that it blends Stafford’s work with that of students who have studied his work. The rest of the review is below the cover image.
I figure I’ll start out by saying that what works for me in this book is the interplay of Stafford’s writing with that of the students. I’ve never encountered that approach before and so it added a novel element that I wasn’t immediately expecting when I picked out the book to review. The other parts of the book that are unique are the lesson plans included in the back — one each by Erin Fox Ocon and Robin Scialabba — and there are essays (one by Stafford himself) as well. This is certainly enough to make the book memorable.
The selections from Stafford were good, though as I’m not overly familiar with his work I can’t say I’m an authority as to whether there were better options. The book is broken into themed sections: Nature, Family, and Moments In Time; my favorite Stafford poems were “Fall Wind”, “Parentage”, and “Representing Far Places”, respectively. They each spoke to me more than the others (not that the others weren’t good), especially “Parentage” which reminds me a little of the relationship that I have with my father. Surprisingly, many of the student poems were also excellent. “Fire” by Sam S. and “I Am From Oregon” by Anushka N. were particularly nice.
What Didn’t Work as Well
Overall, I enjoyed this book, even though I’m still not 100% certain what you would call it — it’s not a traditional poetry anthology or collection of a single person’s works. I think it the unique form the book took it also sacrificed some of the strength it could have had — by incorporating a few too many elements, the book doesn’t seem like a cohesive whole to me. Some of the poetry is pretty obviously the work of pre-college students; this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it does add a level of sincerity to the overall message that Stafford’s work is worth studying and touches students from Oregon, but it might disappoint readers who are looking for a collection of really highbrow poetry. My last minor critique would be that I would like it to have a bit more of Stafford’s work in it since he’s the glue that holds the endeavor together.