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Literary Arts

Emergent Verse | Young poet crafts mature verse

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Sometimes imagery, structure, rhythm, language and theme come together in a perfectly delightful combination, making a poem seem not so much composed as received.

Winona Dean’s poem below at first struck me as effortless.

The Tiger and the House Cat

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The tiger prowls
And hunts its food
It runs
And could fly for its freedom

The house cat paces the carpet floor
It tries to run outside to play
But is pulled back in for its safety

The tiger walks on the jungle floor

The trees become the ceiling
It walks, runs, pounces, and hunts,
Without a wall to contain it

The house cat dreams
of forest trees
forest floors and
a forest breeze

It wakes up with a stuffy sneeze
and has no room to breathe

The tiger sleeps beneath the stars
Thinking about just what we are,
are we the tiger,
running fast, being free
no curfew to come inside please

Or are we the cat,
So lean and black,
Having the love of someone who
has your back?

Although she makes it look easy, there’s plenty of craft going on here.

After the intriguing title, the first thing a reader probably notices is the parallel structure. The author contrasts these two familiar creatures with concise, well-chosen details described in simple, concrete words, a movie in the mind. The theme becomes instantly apparent — protective security versus complete freedom, making me recall watching a wolf endlessly (and, to me, heartbreakingly) pace the perimeter of his zoo cage.

While she’s learned, or perhaps intuited, that poetry’s not about the message so much as it’s about imagery and music, I still admire her poem’s theme, reminding me that I must sometimes forgo comfort and security to “[run, pounce and hunt] without a wall to contain” me, in order to be a balanced, whole human being.

Winona Dean, the author, is 10 years old. She’ll be 11 soon.

“I use imagination a lot,” Winona explained in our phone interview. “I picture everything as I write.”

She told me she’s written hundreds of poems. At 5, she wrote a song that the family still sings, complete with words and music! So how has one so young accomplished so much already? Her writing process stresses revision. She estimated she revised “The Tiger and the House Cat” 15 to 20 times. In fact, she had put the poem away in favor of other projects until she recently revived it.

Besides the parallel structure, there are many other examples of poetic sophistication in “The Tiger and the Housecat.” For instance, after mostly eschewing rhyme in the poem’s first half, she begins to rap, using rapid-fire rhymes beginning in verse four, continuing in that groove for the remainder. She avoids predictable rhymes by employing different parts of speech, the verb dreams rhyming with the nouns trees, breeze and sneeze; and the slant, or close, rhyme of free (noun) with please (verb). Images and words flash past so fast and furiously, it’s easy to imagine the poem as a song with a pounding beat!

In addition to rap music, she also has literary influences. Maya Angelou’s poetry for children has been important to her development, she said. Doubtless this young poet has absorbed as much from simply reading the great Angelou as Bob Dylan did, at 20, from listening to the folk songs recorded in the field by Alan Lomax. Immersion, even imitation, are often necessary stages in an artist’s career.

With her passion for poetry, supported by an impressive work ethic, Winona could easily publish a volume of verse before she graduates high school, if she’s so inclined. Winona is multidimensional, with athletic and other interests. She told me of plans to attend camp this summer and go out for track in the fall.

I failed to ask her if she’s formally studied poetic craft; however, she participated in the Mills Lawn poetry group that met after school last fall, facilitated by her mother, and poet, Maggie Dean, and other adults. While she might benefit from such study, I believe she’s fine doing just what she’s doing: writing and revising prolifically, discovering for herself how magical and fun poetry can be, how it fits into an active life that stresses imagination.

I’m grateful and amazed this poet has borne such fruit so early and chosen to share her work with us.

Send me your poems at

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