Like Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices features poems that are meant to be read aloud, or performed. Written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated with black and white sketches by Eric Beddows, Joyful Noise presents the attitudes and opinions of a variety of insects.
Joyful Noise opens with a short note from the poet giving direction on how the poems ought to be read. Presented in two voices, the poems occasionally alternate between two voices, or present both voices speaking at once. The insect collection of poetry begins with “Grasshoppers,” leaping out into spring. “Vaulting from/ leaf to leaf/ stem to stem/ plant to plant,” two grasshoppers speak sometimes in unison in a bouncy rhythm that mimics that movement of the insect. “Mayflies” has the two insects speaking in the first person about their brief time on Earth. “We’re mayflies/ just emerging,” they both say. “The Digger Wasp” also employs first person narration, but in this case we get “I.” “I will never/ see my children/ they will never/ gaze on me.” It is one voice speaking through a dual-voice performance. “The Digger Wasp” is probably the most emotional of Fleischman’s poems, describing the life cycle of a digger wasp, who never lives to see her children born. Speaking as “I,” the readers and listeners feel very connected with the wasp as it speaks, and the dual voices give the narration texture and depth.
Fleischman’s poems do not follow a pattern, but they are each elegant in their simplicity. Sometimes rhyming (sometimes loosely, but pleasingly), often repeating and spoken in a round, these poems would make for very effective performances. The poems are not long, and might be easily memorized, and the back and forth between two voices really brings the language to life. Fleischman makes these poems relevant by anthropomorphizing the insects and imbuing them with thoughts and emotions to which most readers and listeners can relate. Similarly, Fleischman extends his audience’s understanding by making them familiar with new concepts, such as the idea of only living for a day, like the mayfly.
Each poem in this collection is presented in two voices, divided into two segments, side by side, either alternating lines or given simultaneously. This makes each poem easy to read aloud. The poems are illustrated by black and white sketches by Eric Beddows that represent the title insects, often in wonderful detail. This artwork is subtle and adds to the experience without overpowering it.
Joyful Noise won the John Newbery Medal in 1989, and has stood the test of the ensuing years, remaining a popular choice for juvenile poetry. I find one poem in particular to be rich with possibilities. “Honeybees” features two honeybee voices, one a queen and the other a worker. Together they explain their lives as bees, and though their narration overlaps in places (“I’ll gladly explain”), they have wildly different opinions. The queen’s life is full of pleasures (“I’m fed/ by my royal attendants”), but the worker’s life is full of drudgery (“without two minutes time/ to sit still and relax.”) Using this poem as an inspiration, it would be interesting to have students or patrons think about another species that might have two very different experiences in life, and to explore those differences with poetry. How different, for example, are the lives of a house cat and an alley cat?
Fleischman, Paul. Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Illustrated by Eric Beddows. New York: Harper Trophy, 1988. ISBN: 9780064460934