OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
DEFINING CHILDREN'S POETRY
POETRY FOR CHILDREN IN THE NINETEENTH, TWENTIETH, AND TWENTY-FIRST CENTURIES
Dramatic, nonsense, and lyric rhymes and verse for juvenile and young adult readers.
Poetry is often the first literature presented to a child, in the form of nursery rhymes or lullabies. Offering lyrical appeal and short, direct themes, these kinds of poetic verse are viewed by some as transitional works which prepare developing minds for longer forms of literature. Yet it is a field under critical pressure, as poets, scholars, and parents regularly debate the defining characteristics of children's poetry. Sheila A. Egoff has questioned, "Is poetry for children a separate territory, or is poetry always simply itself, existing like folklore as a shared ground, held in common by both children and adults? If children's poetry is restricted to that written intentionally for children, does it include adult work chosen and adopted by children as their own? Does children's poetry require a simplification of style and subject matter because of childhood's limitations of experience? Or are such assumptions the result of artificial and patronizing adult attitudes?" There are vast differences in opinion regarding the best way to present poetry to children, with critics arguing over a range of topics from the appropriateness of subject material to the impact of didacticism to the literary quality of verse targeted at young readers. As a result, despite the wealth of picture books that utilize rhyming couplets and more mature verse collections for developing teens, the genre of children's poetry has gone largely unrecognized in literary and scholastic circles, with only two modern works receiving significant critical recognition—Nancy Willard's A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers (1981), a Caldecott Honor book in 1982, and Paul Fleischman's Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (1988), the 1989 winner of the Newbery Medal.
Historically, children's poetry is a relatively new phenomenon couched in ancient fabrics. While the oral tradition has a long history of songs and folklore passed down to younger generations, works of written poetry and verse for juvenile audiences were first sparingly published in the fifteenth century. The first poems written exclusively for children were mostly religious in nature, providing moral instruction, such as John Bunyan's A Book for Boys and Girls; or, Country Rhimes for Children (1686). As published texts became more readily available, children sought their own literary modes and co-opted such adult poetic works as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1797), which proved interesting to young readers with its expressions of adventure on the open ocean, despite its prevailing dark thematic subtext. Mother Goose's Melody: Or, Sonnets for the Cradle (1780)—John Newbery's English-language adaptation of Charles Perrault's collection of fairy tales, Contes de Ma Mère l'Oye (1695)—brought short-verse nursery rhymes into English for the first time. For many, nursery rhymes serve as the embodiment of children's verse, a form that Egoff has termed "the miniature poetry of early childhood" and famed children's poet Walter de la Mare has called "a direct short cut in poetry itself." With the advent of published nursery rhymes, a few scattered collections of poetry written for children began to appear in England, perhaps most prominently, Ann and Jane Taylor's Original Poems for Infant Minds (1804) and Rhymes for the Nursery (1806)—a volume that originated the famous verse "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."
As the nineteenth century progressed, more and more works of children's poetry were published, a trend that blossomed in the Victorian Era. This period witnessed the first deliberate efforts by book publishers to create literary works intended solely for the pleasure of child readers, as illustrated by the release of various landmark volumes by Kate Greenaway, Christina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Randolph Caldecott, among others. The Victorian Era also gave rise to nonsense verse, a poetic mode which parodied more traditional verse forms and appealed directly to a child's sense of the absurd. Classic examples of this type of poetry can be found in Edward Lear's A Book of Nonsense (1846) and Lewis Carroll's paragon of nonsense verse "The Jabberwocky" (1872). This period, typically known as the "Golden Age of Children's Literature," marked a high point in both the quantity and quality of children's poetry. The pantheon of children's verse during the "Golden Age" expanded to include limericks, narrative poems, ballads, songs, nursery rhymes, and psalms. An- thologists often still borrow heavily from this era, during which a wealth of well-known poets first began writing for children. From Kate Greenaway's gauzy sentimentality in Under the Window, with Coloured Pictures and Rhymes for Children (1879) to Christina Rossetti's tale of communion among girls in Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), many of the best known works of children's poetry are derived from this period.
The domestic bliss of Victorian children's poetry eventually gave way to the high fantasy of such early twentieth-century masters as A. A. Milne and Walter de la Mare—whom Egoff distinguishes as having a "profound identification with children and a transcendent enchantment illuminate his work. Haunting and mysterious, his poems explore both the dream world of night and faerie, and the daylight flesh-and-blood realm of earthly, transient beauty." The enormous success of these British poets inspired a generation of American poets who helped recreate the picture book form through light verse and short, evocative rhyming couplets. Most prominent among these early pioneers was Margaret Wise Brown, whose deliberate, sparse poetic style was used to great effect in Goodnight Moon (1947). The next stage in the evolution of children's poetry came during the 1960s with such surrealist, absurdist works as Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham (1960). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, these lighthearted volumes gave way to poetry collections that reflected the growing social turbulence and activism of the era, as seen in such juvenile works as Eve Merriam's Finding a Poem (1970) and Nancy Larrick's I Heard a Scream in the Street: Poetry by Young People in the City (1970). Children's poetry during the 1970s also witnessed an increased presence of free verse, a form that often went hand-in-hand with the heightened popularity of realism. However, Glenna Sloan has debated the impact of this development, arguing that, "while there is unquestionably some movement toward free verse in children's poetry (Eve Merriam, Nancy Willard, Gary Soto, Alice Schertle, and other have written in this form), for the most part, children's poetry stays within its traditions. Typical children's poetry has its roots firmly planted in Mother Goose rhymes; songs that young children love like ‘The Wheels of the Bus Go Round and Round,’ ‘I've Been Working on the Railroad,’ and ‘Old MacDonald’; jump-rope rhymes; pure silliness in verse; and the chants, taunt songs, riddles, mnemonic jingles, tongue twisters and the like that Peter and Iona Opie documented as the oral lore of children worldwide." For modern poets, such as Jack Prelutsky, contemporary children's poetry tends to adopt the cultural signifiers and language of its readers, leading to a more casual and light tone that poet Morag Styles has suggested centers "in the everyday experiences of children, sometimes exaggerated, written in ordinary language, peppered with jokes, insults and slang." Incorporating such diverse infusions as rap, free verse, song lyrics, dub poetry, haiku, and conversational forms, twenty-first-century children's verse seems to place an emphasis on poetry's oral faculties, much in the same way that adult poetry frequently does.
In fact, differentiating between aspects of adult and children's poetry is often difficult, particularly with several prominent scholars arguing that quality poetry, even those works obviously written for an age-specific audience, should ultimately be accessible to any reader, if properly introduced. In general, both categories of poetry share many of the same characteristics. Carl M. Tomlinson and Carol Lynch-Brown have defined poetry as "the expression of ideas and feelings through a rhythmical composition of imaginative and beautiful words selected for their sonorous effects." In drawing a line between adult and children's poetry, the differences consist primarily of deviations in tone, subject, word choice, and complexity. The focus upon thematic elements as a curtain between adult and juvenile poetry is a common point of separation for many critics, with most suggesting the thematic locus of children's poetry should be centered around childhood activities, such as playing, learning, or experiencing different aspects of life for the first time. Rebecca J. Lukens has asked, "What is the difference between poetry for adults and poetry for children? Once again we say that the difference is not in kind, but in degree. We may arbitrarily divide poetry for adults by theme and subject—love or nature lyrics, death or war lyrics, for example. Adults are also concerned about the passage of time, the inevitability of death, and the changing of relationships. Just as the interests of adults are the subjects of their poetry, the concerns of childhood are the subjects of children's poetry. Since much of childhood is spent in play, or in wonder at what is common and yet not commonplace, what surrounds children in their constantly unfolding world are the subjects of children's poetry." While there has been some agreement with regards to thematic message as a starting point for the categorization of children's poetry, this suggestion has nevertheless been met with resistance. For example, scholar and poet W. H. Auden has flatly stated his belief in the overall failure of children's poets, asserting that, "while there are some good poems which are only for adults, because they presuppose adult experience in their readers, there are no good poems which are only for children." Morag Styles has taken Auden's argument one step further, contending that, "there is no such thing as poetry for children. There is plenty of poetry about children; and some of the best poetry ever written is about childhood; at some time or other most great poets explore that inviting furrow—their own youth and growing up. A great body of the so-called canon of children's verse was never intended for the young at all, but was verse which adults thought suitable for children." However, Styles has acknowledged that "the most popular themes for children remain fairly constant—nature, magic, the sea, the weather, school and family life, adventure—and anything that makes them laugh. One of the most powerful is the exploration of childhood itself. Many poets write for children because they want (often unconsciously) to understand ‘the child within themselves’. At worst this can be self-indulgent and full of nostalgia; at best it reaches the tenderness of Rossetti, the gentle scrutiny of Stevenson, or Rosen's funny and unpretentious accounts of everyday life."
Chocolate Dreams [illustrations by Turi MacCombie] (children's poetry) 1989
Songs of Innocence (poetry) 1789; revised and enlarged as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1794
Mother Goose Treasury (nursery rhymes) 1966
A Book for Boys and Girls; or, Country Rhimes for Children [as J. B.] (children's poetry) 1686
Skipping around the World: The Ritual Nature of Folk Rhymes (children's poetry and criticism) 1989
*Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There [illustrations by John Tenniel] (juvenile fiction) 1872
The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits [illustrations by Henry Holiday] (poetry) 1876
†Three Sunsets and Other Poems (poetry) 1898
The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch (juvenile fiction and poetry) 1932
The Jabberwocky and More Nonsense [illustrations by Simms Taback] (poetry) 1964
Walter de la Mare
Songs of Childhood [as Walter Ramal] (poetry) 1902
Peacock Pie (poetry) 1913
Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages [editor] (poetry) 1923Collected Rhymes and Verses (poetry) 1944; also published as Rhymes and Verse: Collected Poems for Children, 1947
Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices [illustrations by Eric Beddows] (children's poetry) 1988
Spinning through the Universe: A Novel in Poems from Room 214 (children's poetry) 2004
Under the Window, with Coloured Pictures and Rhymes for Children (picture book) 1879
Marigold Garden: Pictures and Rhymes (picture book) 1885
A Apple Pie: An Old-Fashioned Alphabet Book (picture book) 1886
The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (poetry) 1932
Season Songs (children's poetry) 1976
Paul B. Janeczko
Brickyard Summer [illustrations by Ken Rush] (children's poetry) 1989
The Bat-Poet [illustrations by Maurice Sendak] (children's poetry) 1964
The Gingerbread Rabbit [illustrations by Garth Williams] (fairy tales) 1964
The Animal Family [illustrations by Maurice Sendak] (children's poetry) 1965
Fly by Night [illustrations by Maurice Sendak] (children's poetry) 1976
A Bat Is Born [illustrations by John Schoenherr] (children's poetry) 1977
X. J. Kennedy
Did Adam Name the Vinegarroon? [illustrations by Heidi Johanna Selig] (children's poetry) 1982
Knock at a Star: A Child's Introduction to Poetry [editor; with Dorothy M. Kennedy; illustrations by Karen Ann Weinhaus] (children's poetry) 1982
Ghastlies, Goops, and Pincushions: Nonsense Verse [illustrations by Ron Barrett] (children's poetry) 1989
Mary and Herbert Knapp
One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children (children's poetry and criticism) 1976
Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams: A Collection of Poems (children's poetry) 1980
Something Sleeping in the Hall (children's poetry) 1985
I Heard a Scream in the Street: Poetry by Young People in the City [editor] (children's poetry) 1970
The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask (children's poetry) 2004
A Book of Nonsense. 2 vols. [as Derry Down Derry] (children's poetry) 1846; revised edition, 1861
The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear [edited by Holbrook Jackson] (children's poetry) 1947
Myra Cohn Livingston
No Way of Knowing: Dallas Poems (children's poetry) 1980
Celebrations [illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher] (children's poetry) 1985
Poems for Jewish Holidays [editor; illustrations by Lloyd Bloom] (children's poetry) 1986
Richard J. Margolis
Looking for a Place [illustrations by Ilse Koehn] (children's poetry) 1969
Finding a Poem [illustrations by Seymour Chwast] (children's poetry) 1970
Fresh Paint: New Poems [woodcuts by David Frampton] (children's poetry) 1986
A. A. Milne
When We Were Very Young [illustrations by E. H. Shepard] (children's poetry) 1924
Now We Are Six [illustrations by E. H. Shepard] (children's poetry) 1927
Walter Dean Myers
Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices (children's poetry) 2004
Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem (children's poetry) 2004
Mother Goose's Melody: Or, Sonnets for the Cradle (nursery rhymes) c.1780
Iona and Peter Opie, editors
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (nursery rhymes) 1951; revised edition, 1997
The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book [illustrations by Joan Hassall] (nursery rhymes) 1955
Contes de Ma Mère l'Oye [Mother Goose Tales] (nursery rhymes) 1695; published in the United Kingdom, 1729
Histoires, ou Contes du temps passé, avec des moralitez (fairy tales and nursery rhymes) 1697
Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose: The Dedication Manuscript of 1695 Reproduced in Collotype Facsimile. 2 vols. [edited by Jacques Barchilon] (nursery rhymes) 1956
The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight: More Poems to Trouble Your Sleep [illustrations by Arnold Lobel] (children's poetry) 1980
The Random House Book of Poetry for Children [editor; illustrations by Arnold Lobel] (children's poetry) 1983
Zoo Doings: Animal Poems [illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky] (children's poetry) 1983
Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast: Dinosaur Poems [illustrations by Arnold Lobel] (children's poetry) 1988
Poems of A. Nonny Mouse [editor; illustrations by Henrik Drescher] (children's poetry) 1989
Beneath a Blue Umbrella [illustrations by Garth Williams] (children's poetry) 1990
Something Big Has Been Here [illustrations by James Stevenson] (children's poetry) 1990
For Laughing Out Loud: Poems to Tickle Your Funnybone [editor; illustrations by Marjorie Priceman] (children's poetry) 1991
If Not for the Cat: Haiku [illustrations by Ted Rand] (children's poetry) 2004
Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme [editor; illustrations by Meilo So] (children's poetry) 2005
Goblin Market and Other Poems [illustrations by Dante Gabriel Rossetti] (children's poetry) 1862
Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book [illustrations by Arthur Hughes] (children's poetry) 1872; revised edition, 1893
Josepha Sherman and T. K. F. Weisskopf
Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: The Subversive Folklore of Childhood (children's poetry and criticism) 1995
Where the Sidewalk Ends (children's poetry) 1974
A Light in the Attic (children's poetry) 1981
Falling Up: Poems and Drawings (children's poetry) 1996
Hymns for the Amusement of Children (poetry) 1771
Robert Louis Stevenson
A Child's Garden of Verses (children's poetry) 1885
Ann and Jane Taylor
Original Poems for Infant Minds. 2 vols. (children's poetry) 1804
Rhymes for the Nursery (nursery rhymes) 1806
A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers [illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen] (children's poetry) 1981
New Found Land: Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery (children's poetry) 2004
*Carroll's epic nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" was first published in the 1872 edition of Through the Looking-Glass. The first stanza of the poem had previously been published in Carroll's self-composed periodical Mischmasch in 1855 under the title "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry."
†The first edition of Three Sunsets was originally bound with E. Gertrude Thompson's Twelve Fairy Fancies.
Sheila A. Egoff (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: Egoff, Sheila A. "Poetry." In Thursday's Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children's Literature, pp. 221-46. Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association, 1981.
[In the following essay, Egoff traces the evolution of children's poetry and defines the genre's common stylistic motifs. Egoff argues, "[i]n the work of the best children's poets there remains that ineffable property which cannot be explained, which mysteriously slips into the poem, transfiguring a technical structure from a work of merely superior craftsmanship into an intellectual, imaginative, and sensuous unity."]
When I began to read the nursery rhymes for myself, and, later, to read other verses and ballads, I knew that I had discovered the most important things, to me, that could be ever. There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable … though what the words meant was, in its own way, often deliciously funny enough, so much funnier seemed to me, at that almost forgotten time, the shape and shade and size and noise of the words as they hummed, strummed, jugged, and galloped along.1
The recollections by Dylan Thomas of his own discovery of poetry express something more fundamental than a poet's awakening to his muse—that childhood and poetry have a natural affinity for one another. Poets have played with language since the dawn of time, carefully choosing words for their quality of sound, meaning, and musical rhythm to create what may loosely be grouped under the name of poetry: mythmaking tribal chants; lullabies; sea chanties; epics, ballads, and folk songs; nursery rhymes; dramatic, nonsense, and lyric verse; and, most recently, free forms including projective and free verse and concrete and found poetry. All these are identifiable through form or content, but poetry itself remains an enigma. No single definition of poetry has ever been found to satisfy readers, poets, or critics. Walter de la Mare writes in the preface to his arresting anthology, Come Hither (1923): "That is one of the pleasures of reading—you may make any picture out of the words you can and will; and a poem may have as many different meanings as there are different minds."
Poetry has been described in terms of structure, musicality, concentration of language, intensity of emotion, and the splintering and reshaping of human experience. It has also been suggested that poetry is recognizable by instinct, that it elicits certain primal, physiological responses in the reader. According to Emily Dickinson: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"2 Randall Jarrell's chipmunk in The Bat-Poet (1964) brings the question and answer together in his response to poetry: "It makes me shiver. Why do I like it if it makes me shiver?"
In turning to that poetry written specifically for children, one quickly encounters the nagging issue of distinction between adult and children's literature. Is poetry for children a separate territory, or is poetry always simply itself, existing like folklore as a shared ground, held in common by both children and adults? If children's poetry is restricted to that written intentionally for children, does it include adult work chosen and adopted by children as their own? Does children's poetry require a simplification of style and subject matter because of childhood's limitations of experience? Or are such assumptions the result of artificial and patronizing adult attitudes? Despite attempts by adults to construct well-intentioned barricades, children continue to seek out poetry, whether children's or adult, that kindles imagination. Perhaps it is the ongoing development of that imagination and an intuitive response to emotion that enable children to take delight in poetry far beyond their conscious understanding.
It is revealing to consider some definitions of poetry given by children themselves in Chrysalis (1968), Harry Behn's lyrical study of childhood and poetry. One child says: "A poem is something else. Something way out. Way out in the woods. Like Robert Frost waiting in a snowstorm with promises to keep." Another feels that "a poem should simply make music with words, that's all. The shorter the better. One … is only, Clink, Clank, Clunk. It's about a carpenter pounding nails in a new house." These lively, perceptive views suggest that children understand intuitively much that is unfamiliar and beyond their acquaintance. Certainly the full impact of some poetry escapes children when it deals with experiences particular to the adult world; nevertheless, children take what they desire, leaving the rest until some moment of fruition at a later point in their lives. Authentic poetry operates on many levels, offering portions of itself to all readers of whatever age.
Although children can appreciate much mature work, they also respond to poetry that perceives the world with the vibrant curiosity and wonder that is natural to childhood. Indeed, many poets have claimed that the thrust of their work is to recall something left behind in childhood—a sense of direct living, of unity, of the joy in constant discovery that goes far beyond mere nostalgia. Much of the work of William Blake and Walter de la Mare expresses this in vivid and wholly realized poetry deliberately aimed at children. Such work is often the result of a combination of disciplined art and creative play. The poet who keeps alive the intense memories of childhood will create poetry suffused with respect for children's intelligence, imagination, and perceptions. This will be a poetry that is not a nostalgic reminiscence about childhood for adults, but rather a celebration of childhood, as gritty and stimulating as it is, for all children.
There also exists the questionable category of "children's verse," that poor cousin of children's poetry which through sheer quantity and numbing mediocrity has always threatened to drown out the music and delight in authentic children's poetry. Children all too often are given verse that is flawed in language, awkward in rhythm, labored in rhyme, and infused with condescension and sentimentality. This superfluity of doggerel generally is offered them because their capacity for mental and emotional response to fine poetry is underestimated. One of the most common pitfalls in the writing of children's poetry is the choice of a nostalgic, subjective tone which too easily slides into a cheaply sentimental romanticization of childhood. Equally dangerous is the tendency toward bombastic didacticism, patronizing moralism, or simply shoddy entertainment. The notion that certain types of subject matter and tone are universally appropriate to children's poetry has led to the continued survival of antiquarian, outmoded verse based on preconceptions of childhood which were specious even in their own era. This is not to say that children's poetry should contain only lofty, so-called "high poetry" as distinct from popular or light verse. One does not expect the insight and transformation of lyric poetry in a light-hearted jingle, which has its own, quite different, values of humor, drama, and musical fun.
A child's response to poetry is instinctive: young children take delight in repetition, rhythm, and rhyme, and it appears that they respond with their very nerves, confirming the belief that poetry is the natural language of childhood. Echoing the rise and fall of the ocean and human breath, rhythm begins for children in the womb, with the first heartbeat, and continues in mother's arms, with rhythmical rockings, soothing lullabies, and lilting Mother Goose rhymes. It is present in the infant's instinctive patterning of cadenced cries and body movements. As they grow older, children greet musical language with an exhilarating swaying of heads, hands, and feet, marking tempo and measure with their bodies and voices.
Poetry comes first to children through the oral tradition when it is read and sung to them by adults. Generations of adults and children are linked together through the shared literature of the nursery which is universal to all cultures. English nursery or Mother Goose melodies are enduring survivors of the oral tradition. Genuinely meant to be sung or recited aloud, they constitute a potpourri of easeful lullabies, robust jingles for infant dandling, riddles, and the catches of old tunes. Rich in music, drama, and humor, they are the miniature poetry of early childhood. And they also provide for children, as Walter de la Mare points out, "a direct short cut into poetry itself,"3 as does this traditional lyric crammed with vivid images, one of many in Iona and Peter Opie's The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955):
I saw a peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet drop down hail
I saw a cloud with ivy curled around
I saw a sturdy oak creep on the ground
I saw an ant swallow up a whale
I saw a raging sea brim full of ale
I saw a Venice glass sixteen foot deep
I saw a well full of men's tears that weep
I saw their eyes all in a flame of fire
I saw a house high as the moon and higher
I saw the sun at twelve o'clock at night
I saw the man who saw this wondrous sight.
Since John Newbery's edition of Mother Goose's Melody (ca. 1765), nursery rhymes have remained a traditional and fertile ground for children's book publication and, most especially, for illustration. In almost every art style, the best illustrators of each succeeding generation, from Randolph Caldecott to Nicola Bayley, have taken a hand at interpreting the ample images of Mother Goose. Since 1960, an extraordinary number of new versions of Mother Goose rhymes has been produced, emphasizing experimental art styles, unusual thematic structures, international variants in translation, feisty street rhymes, folk songs, and single illustrated rhymes. These publications range in scope and intent from the scholarly analysis and interpretation of Iona and Peter Opie's The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) to Raymond Briggs's resplendently bountiful Mother Goose Treasury (1966), and the classic folk song, The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night (1961), suspensefully illustrated by Peter Spier.
The transition for children from folk poetry to the original, literary writings of children's poets generally follows a distinct pattern of development. It begins with the irrational musical play of nonsense verse and the stylistic virtuosity and geniality found in humorous and light verse. Proceeding through the dramatic suspense of narrative poetry, the process finally arrives at lyric poetry's melodic intensity.
This pattern of growth in children's appreciation of poetry is observable also in the brief history of poetry deliberately written for children. Like children's literature in general, it has only existed in any quantity for the last two hundred years. Prior to the seventeenth century, that addressed specifically to children was didactic, offering advice and counsel on earthly behavior until the advent of Puritanism. Then concern for children's spiritual education became evident in any poetry written for them.
Except for some of the best works of early writers, a number of Isaac Watts's hymns, a few poems by the Taylor sisters, and William Blake's joyous lyrics, little poetry of merit survives from earlier eras.
Curiously, it was the staid Victorian period that produced in the lunacy of nonsense verse a canon of memorable work. As a secular and playful poetry, it was a reaction to the sentimental morality of most verse then available to children. Chief among the practitioners of this new poetry were those bachelors of nonsense, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Carroll's mathematical precision and satirical wit and Lear's zestful individuality and remarkable syntactical play come together in their capacity to create nonsensical universes perfectly believable and consistent in every detail of their inner laws. Illustrated with his own quirky, naive artwork, Lear's blithe, sly limericks, silly narratives, and sorrowful lyrics reveal a gaiety of language paradoxically married to a deep underlying melancholy. That this is so is evident in these lines from "Calico Pie" in Edward Lear's Nonsense Omnibus (1943):
The Little Birds fly
Down to the calico tree,
Their wings were blue,
And they sang "Tilly-loo!"
Till away they flew,—
And they never came back to me!
They never came back!
They never came back!
They never came back to me!
A second strain of children's poetry developed in the domestic lyric and light verses of Christina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson, and A. A. Milne. This reflected a new awareness of childhood as an entity apart from the adult world and capitalized on chil-
dren's interest in their own day-to-day lives and activities. Rossetti's poetry of epigrammatic charm and melodic poise in Sing Song (1871) conveys a haiku-like appreciation of the tiny details of nature and emotion which occupy the young child. Her images of warm family comforts are the precursors of those of Stevenson and Milne in their portrayal of a safe, secure childhood while yet conveying the self-absorption of the individual child.
Stevenson's empathy toward children's thoughts and feelings and his ability to recall with swift intensity the immediacy of experience in childhood enrich his energetic and tuneful poetry in A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). So pervasive was Stevenson's influence that a host of children's poets copied his mannerisms without capturing his essence. From the work of Eugene Field and James Whitcomb Riley in his own time, to that of innumerable, faceless imitators in the early half of the twentieth century, children's poetry mimicked that of Stevenson. Even Milne's poetry in When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1927)—extended by Ernest Shepard's droll pen-and-ink illustrations—is similar to that of Stevenson in the descriptions of nursery life and the use of the natural speaking voice of the egocentric solitary child. Milne's own individual talent, which distinguishes him from Stevenson, lies in a keen-edged, comic delight in excessive word play and witty rhyme and an adroit skill with metric patterns.
Most early twentieth-century children's poets imitated these writers, until the emergence of Walter de la Mare brought forth a fresh, original talent. Here at last was a true poet for children, one who could never be successfully mimicked or replaced. He seemed to appear out of a void, but his roots go back to Blake's intense lyricism. A profound identification with children and a transcendent enchantment illuminate his work. Haunting and mysterious, his poems explore both the dream world of night and faerie, and the daylight flesh-and-blood realm of earthly, transient beauty. In his Peacock Pie (1913), the poems range from wry nonsense and brightly colored nursery verse, as in "Alas, Alack" which spiritedly begins: "Ann, Ann! / Come! quick as you can! / There's a fish that talks / In the frying-pan." to enigmatic narratives and poignant lyrics, such as the whispering "The Horseman":
I heard a horseman
Ride over the hill;
The moon shone clear,
The night was still;
His helm was silver,
And pale was he;
And the horse he rode
Was of ivory.
The richly varied forms created by de la Mare form a body of work which provides a touchstone for evaluating all children's poetry.
With the exception of de la Mare's work, children's poetry has been marked by its conservatism in comparison to other, more dramatically changing genres of children's literature, having broken less with tradition than, for example, the children's novel. This limitation applies to the work of those poets in the early half of this century following the appearance of de la Mare. Most are forgettable, although a select few, such as Eleanor Farjeon and Elizabeth Coatsworth, produced memorable work.
The traditional forms of nonsense, fairy lore, nursery life, and nature verse had competent interpreters, but nonetheless poetry for children had slowly fossilized into formulae by the mid-fifties. This rigidity was bolstered by the practice of passing down cherished poetry without re-evaluation from one generation of parents and educators to the children of the next. Despite the varied and individualistic responses of children to diverse forms of poetry, it was all too quickly assumed that they are conservative in poetic taste. Whether from acceptance of the theory that children dislike experimentation in form or from a deep rootedness in tradition itself, many children's poets of the past few decades have continued to write in the modes of preceding generations. The constant awareness of the work of the past and the conscious choice to build on its strengths, are more evident in British children's poetry—in the work of James Reeves, Ian Serraillier, and Robert Graves—than in that of North America.
Indeed, the theory of intrinsic conservatism was exploded by primarily American poets of the sixties and seventies who repudiated such an assumption and set out to explore subjects and styles reflecting the reality of their own era. A new generation of children's poets began claiming that the poetry of the classic "child's world" reflected only a stereotypical white, middle-class, secure, and unquestioning vision of childhood and society in the complacent voice of a super-annuated Stevenson or Milne. Their reaction against this sacrosanct subject matter created a new mandate to explore themes of their own time, the social concerns and predicaments of today's children who are no longer secure in a stable world, but who have joined the society of adults living in a harshly realistic, problematic, and volatile world. The new poets arraigned themselves with the beats and such sixties poets as Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and LeRoi Jones, and so allied themselves to rock music and social protest. As in other genres of children's literature, especially the realistic novel, children's poets now wrote of anxiety, alienation, racial and social injustice, war, technological overload, and the dangers of urban life.
In the best of the sociological poetry, this grim naturalism is tempered with satire and humor, as in the works of Eve Merriam and Robert Froman. In Finding a Poem (1970), Eve Merriam's dexterous handling of blank verse, free verse, and verbal nonsense is allied with social satire and a fierce political conscience. Contemporary sociological issues are the subject of ironic, angry, sometimes didactic or simply nonmusical flat verse, as expressed in these lines from "The Wholly Family":
Baby's got a plastic bottle,
plastic pacifier to chew;
plastic pillows on the sofa,
plastic curtains frame the view;
plastic curlers do up Mama,
Mama's hairdo plastic, too.…
Praise of plastic thus we sing,
plastic over everything
keeps us cool and safe and dry:
it may not pain us much to die.
As well as conveying social satire, the images of city life in Robert Froman's concrete poetry in Street Poems (1971) present dark, frightening pictures such as that in the question-mark-shaped "The City Question." The man lying face down on the sidewalk may be a junkie, an alcoholic, or a victim, and the poet explores the familiar urban dilemma of moral involvement clashing with fear. Fear of and anger toward oppressive city dangers are expressed in "Scare," in which a noise in the night may be a junkie, burglar, or "hater man," but is ironically the refrigerator. Although the visual play of Froman's concrete poetry is ingenious and his social concerns sincere, in general, his language and ideas never rise above the level of "agitprop." But his interpretation of a child's city life includes small details of beauty and humor in street-haiku format, and his vision is representative of the sophisticated urban poetry written by such other contemporary children's poets as Merriam, Dennis Lee, Lillian Moore, and Marian Lines.
The new realism is also manifest in cultural pluralism. Numerous poets are writing out of specific ethnic and national focuses, speaking with their own authentic cultural voices. This significant growth of the regional voice—its sense of time and place—and the concommitant involvement with translation of poetry from other languages and cultures into English is shared with adult poets, among whom are James Dickey, James Wright, and W. S. Merwin. Especially absorbing are the numerous poets, typified by June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, and Lucille Clifton, who articulate the black American experience for the young.
June Jordan's complex poetry is not for young children, but it gains power from the picture-book format in which it is presented. Her single long poem, Who Look at Me (1969), is illustrated with twenty-seven paintings of black people reproduced from the works of distinguished artists. In flowing, musical, mostly free verse that uses black English dialect as well as formal and colloquial speech, the poem marks the sorrow, rage, courage, and dignity of the black experience in America. It is unblinking in its testimonial to history:
Sometimes America the shamescape
knock-rock territory losing shape
the Southern earth like blood
rolls valleys cold gigantic
weeping willow flood
that lunatic that lovely land
that graveyard growing
trees remark where men
another black man
died he died again
This new realistic poetry possesses at its best a fresh candor, and at its worst, an extreme naturalism and pop-political sociology that is also seen in the American problem novel. But unlike it, realistic poetry has not fallen prey quite as blatantly to the lure of social didacticism; its condensed form seems to favor the cri de coeur over that of polemics. It has certainly altered the face of children's poetry. Although there still exists poetry extolling the traditional in subject matter, it is now treated with a recognition of the social concerns and sophistication of today's children.
For example, the once blithe interpreters of nature have been displaced by those who explore their subject with a greater seriousness, even a probing of the darker side of existence. One such poet is Ted Hughes, who reveals his lyrical but stark vision in Season Songs (1976). In his poems of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, he uses carefully measured, musical cadences, common speech, arresting images, and incisive diction. His serious, even grim, philosophic tone is rooted in concrete images. As vividly involved in the natural world as Thoreau, Hughes carefully describes his experiences and observations of the seasons' passings, animals, and the growing earth. But unlike traditional nature lyrics, his work also explores the desperate, predatory side of the wild world with a dispassionately observant eye. His dry humor adds dimension to the poems, as in this description from "A March Calf":
Right from the start he is dressed in his best—his blacks and his whites.
Little Fauntleroy—quiffed and glossy,
A Sunday suit, a wedding natty get-up,
Standing in dunged straw
Under cobwebby beams, near the mud wall,
Half of him legs,
Shining-eyed, requiring nothing more
But that mother's milk come back often.
The sophistication of his writing is extended by Leonard Baskin's mature illustrations which have a subaqueous, darkly steaming quality well suited to a book that, for all its intrinsic beauty, seems more a collector's item for adults than children.
That mainstay of children's verse, the comic and nonsensical, has continued also, but in a very much altered strain. The cutting edge of Lewis Carroll's and Edward Lear's pointed Victorian wit, somewhat blunted in the gentler light verse of the early twentieth century, has been rehoned in the poetry of Dennis Lee, John Ciardi, and Shel Silverstein. Like the traditional nonsense verse of Lear or Carroll, their work is both a release of pure pleasure and a tool of acerbic social observation. But contemporary nonsense differs in its development of a deeper sophistication; there is in it a touch of surrealism, satire, or irony that was not present in most children's light verse prior to 1960.
In his light burlesque of manners, The Monster Den, or Look What Happened at My House—and to It (1966), John Ciardi parodies the traditional cautionary tale and satirizes the spirited mischief of children from the vexed parents' point of view. The collection reads as one long narrative, a satirical family saga. Many of the episodes have a mock epic quality reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc's parodied adult-child battleground, as seen in these lines from "And Here's What Happened Next or Those Three," in which the abandoned parents receive a letter from their runaway children:
They wrote us from India next to say
How happy they were they had run away.
"We are seeing the world! It is good to be rid
Of all those things we never did—
Minding and manners and baths and bed.
Small Benn has warts. Miss Myra's head
Is full of wool. John L. just said
All the bad words he was never allowed
To use at home. (My, he looks proud!)
And none of us ever mind anymore.
And we drop our things all over the floor.
And we never ever go to bed.
Well, thanks for the shoes."—That's what they said.…
Edward Gorey's pen-and-ink illustrations have a satisfyingly grotesque, urbane Victorian aura suited to the poems. Ciardi's other collections of nonsense verse are written with the same piquant candor and jaunty gags. Many of his books such as I Met a Man (1961) and You Read to Me, I'll Read to You (1962) are innovative experiments with controlled vocabulary designed for beginning readers.
Another group of nonsense poets takes a casual, popular culture stance. The cartoon breeziness of Shel Silverstein's poems and line drawings in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) are riddled with slang, pugnacious, teasing energy, and wry social commentary, reminiscent of children's street verse. They are as audaciously American as Spike Milligan's slapdash, comic poetry in Silly Verse for Kids (1959) is incorrigibly British.
Also exercising the colloquial diction and vernacular of contemporary children's street verse is Dennis Lee, a respected Canadian poet for adults as well as children. His work at times reflects a specifically Canadian physical and emotional geography. His three collections of nonsensical, domestic, and lyric poetry, Alligator Pie (1974), Nicholas Knock (1974), and Garbage Delight (1977), create a poetry of pure play, jumping with puns and molding the oral language and codes of childhood into original verse. He writes with a fluid sweep of language suggestive of Stevenson, Milne, and Mother Goose, whom he acknowledges as his models. His marked rhythms, cumulative phrasing, internal rhyme, and incessant word play are seen in "Alligator Pie,"
Alligator pie, alligator pie,
If I don't get some I think I'm gonna die,
Give away the green grass, give away the sky,
But don't give away my alligator pie.
which has already become legendary in the popular culture of Canadian children.
Two other noted adult poets have turned their attention to children's light verse, but the results are curiously disappointing. Unlike Lee, neither Conrad Aiken nor Ogden Nash reveal the teasing and nonsensical child surviving within the adult poet. Nash is dryly amusing and precise in his most successful collection of poems for children, The New Nutcracker Suite and Other Innocent Verses (1962), but he runs the risk of poetic parody, failing to capture any real childlike emotion in his uneasy mixture of sly adult satire and child-song lyrics. His historical understanding is tinged with wicked black humor in "German Song" that feels uncomfortable and incongruous in a poetry collection given a picture-book format:
The German children march along,
Heads full of fairy tales and song.
They read of witches in their reader,
They sing of angels in their lieder.
I think their little heads must swim;
The songs are jolly, the tales are Grimm.
Conrad Aiken's poetry in Cats and Bats and Things with Wings (1965) and A Little Who's Zoo of Mild Animals (1977) shares with Nash's work the potential for clever satire and surrealism. But unfortunately it degenerates into oddly flat, adult irony with little base in children's responses to poetry or humor and is often contrived in invention and word play. On the whole, contemporary nonsense poetry seems most compelling and convincing the more closely it aligns itself with traditional humorous poetry. Children revel in certain styles of poetic satire, but it appears that the more experimental and surrealistic forms slide too easily into adult indulgence and wry, self-contained witticism, forming long, overextended jokes which often preclude children as an audience.
Of all the traditional poetic forms, narrative verse has changed the least. It continues to attract poets, primarily British, who use it in various ways. Ian Serraillier, in retelling such medieval ballads and romances as The Challenge of the Green Knight (1966) and Robin in the Greenwood (1967), retains a vigorous pace, and with dramatic character and costume captures an authentic medieval tone in modern diction.
Also writing with a contemporary nakedness of speech is Charles Causley, whose incantatory literary ballad The Hill of the Fairy Calf (1976) is a piece of modern folk art:
And when the harvest moon was white
Above the heavy hill,
The sky a-quake with beating stars,
The night-herd soft and still,
The herdsman laid aside his staff,
And leaned upon a stone,
And smiled and said, ‘The moon and stars
Are mine and mine alone.’
Causley's rich diction, clean imagery, tight rhyme scheme, and meter are underpinned in this and other works by more metaphor at the heart of the story than in earlier narrative verse for children. And his herdsman's quest for power over the faery queen is, of course, humanity's search for meaning in life. The poetry's magical, fairy-tale quality is matched by the primitive, dreamlike illustrations of Robine Clignett which recall the paintings of Chagall.
Like Serraillier and Causley, Robert Graves emphasizes formal structure and stylistic technique in his narrative verse. But his poetry has a wider range of themes including folklike narrative romances that resemble literary fairy tales, nursery-rhyme lyrics, and nonsense jingles. His short set pieces of dialogue-oriented dramatic poetry are unlike any found in the work of modern children's poets. The poems in his collections, Ann at Highwood Hall: Poems for Children (1964) and The Penny Fiddle: Poems for Children (1960), evoke the atmosphere of an earlier century. Self-consciously old-fashioned, exotic-sounding diction and cadenced melodies are evident in the nursery jingle, "The Sewing Basket":
Needles and ribbons
And packets of pins,
And little bodkins—
They'd never mind whether
You laid them together
Or each from the other
In pockets and tins.
For packets of pins
And needles and ribbons
Or little bodkins
Being birds of a feather
Will gather together
Like minnows on billows
Or pennies in Mints.
Graves's period pieces have distant companions in the poetry of childlife. There are still poets writing of the child's immediate world, but they now encompass a broader range of life experiences and portray diverse social and cultural groups of children. But, despite attempts at contemporary relevance, they are closer in spirit to Stevenson or even Graves than to the pop sociology of Merriam or Froman. Various poets follow this tradition, mixing nonsense and light verse with poetry of a more serious lyric and narrative power in an attempt to speak from the center of the child's everyday and imaginative worlds. Such poets as Karla Kuskin, Kaye Starbird, and Myra Cohn Livingston relish evoking the sensibilities of childhood. Livingston's collections, including The Malibu and Other Poems (1972), are rich with droll, musical verses which reflect, in a skillful variety of styles, children's active, sensuous lives.
Inevitably, new themes are paralleled by new styles: technical changes in style and form mirror the new-found freedom of subject matter. Children's poets have adopted the stylistic flexibility and experimentation with form of twentieth-century adult poetry, but their work nonetheless remains at least a generation behind contemporary adult writing. On the whole, adult poetry of the sixties and seventies has been less influential in style than in subject matter, compared to that of the preceding half-century. The most innovative adult poetry of the last two decades centers on structuralism and aesthetics, operating in a complex, intellectual, and meditative vein characterized by the works of Samuel Beckett, Paul Eluard, and René Char, as well as that of such "New York School" poets as John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara. Their emphasis on introspective abstraction renders it inappropriate as an influence on children's poetry.
A more fruitful resource has been the poetry of colloquial, idiomatic speech developed by Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, and William Carlos Williams. Their intense exploration of language is visible also in the work for children by such poets as John Ciardi, June Jordan, Ted Hughes, and Theodore Roethke—all of whom are significantly also writing poetry for adults. They are searching for a natural, illuminating imagery, and an intimate common speech as expressed through free, blank, and projective verse. This quest for a spoken language drawn from both the adult's and child's time and place is accompanied by a return to the oral tradition—to poems made to be spoken and read aloud rather than to remain mute and fixed on the printed page, and to the time-honored role of the poet as bard who recites and sings his work to people assembled at readings or through recordings.
Outstanding among these modern-day bards is Theodore Roethke, whose style is a mixture of free and formal verse. He employs pointed imagery, a modulated tone, and rhythms that embody specific emotional tensions. He has stated that "rhythmically, it's the spring and rush of the child I'm after."4 As to how well he succeeds in communicating that "spring and rush" can be seen in "My Papa's Waltz" from Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures (1973), familiar to many anthologies:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
Its intuitive mix of fear, memory, and love evokes a powerful response, as do others of his mature, affectively memorable poems.
Other practitioners of stylistic change whose work involves a more spontaneous improvisation of forms created by the active imagination include May Swenson, David McCord, Eve Merriam, and Robert Froman. Recognizing that children are not bound rigidly to neat, regular meter and rhyme, they have shared with them delight in the playful visual, aural, and intellectual concepts of shaped verse, concrete poetry, found poetry, and a host of collage and typographical verse forms. May Swenson, in Poems to Solve (1969) and More Poems to Solve (1971), interprets language through riddle and game poems, visually shaped pattern poems, and word puzzles. Eve Merriam also challenges readers to involve themselves in the fun, accentuating the playful communion between poet and reader. In Finding a Poem (1970), she imaginatively explains language terminology, poetic devices, syntax, and grammar, as found in her poem, "Markings: The Semicolon":
Diver on the board
lunges toward the edge;
takes a deep breath;
She similarly manipulates poetic forms so that they describe themselves, illustrating their structure within the context of the poem itself. Her emphasis on snappy, linguistic wit the clever wordplay is evident in such collections as It Doesn't Always Have to Rhyme (1964).
David McCord possesses a quieter, less satiric humor than Merriam, and a deeper base of emotion and theme, ranging from bold nonsense to meditative lyricism. But he shares with Merriam the same attentive care for words and the interest in droll language games and stylish illustration of poetic structure. His concern with technical expertise and rhythmic flair is evident in the antic poem, "Sometimes" from For Me to Say: Rhymes of the Never Was and Always Is (1970):
The clouds are full of new blue sky,
The water's full of sea;
The apples full of deep-dish pie,
And I am full of me.
My money's full of pockets too,
My teeth are full of jaw;
The animals are full of zoo,
The cole is full of slaw.
How full things are of this or that:
The tea so full of spoon;
The wurst so very full of brat,
The shine brimful of moon.
McCord's entire output has been collected in One at a Time: His Collected Poems for the Young (1977), a beguiling book of poetry that is predominantly light and playful, but sensitive to childhood's need for wonder, curiosity, and dreaming.
The fascination with verbal play in the poetry of Swenson, Merriam, and McCord is carried one step further in the anarchistic approach to syntax and the visual movement of language of Robert Froman in his concrete and shaped poetry. In Seeing Things: A Book of Poems (1974), and Street Poems (1971), Froman's simple street-haiku take life from optical tricks with typography and typewriter design; they become visual and verbal puns and acrobatic word arrangements in which the printed shapes support the words by accenting theme.
Influences on modern children's poetry have been eclectic, ranging from the futuristic vision of concrete poetry to the classic control of traditional Japanese haiku. The contemplative tone, compact form, clear humor, empathy with nature, and immediacy of experience of haiku render it inviting to children, and many children's poets have attempted modified nature, street, or nursery haiku. But there is usually lacking the quality of timeless precision and serenity of the Zen spirit typical of traditional haiku, such as is this poem from Harry Behn's collection called More Cricket Songs (1971):
Hands flat on the ground,
a dignified prince of frogs
rumbles a poem.
Stylistic influences also feed back into prose from poetry. The flexibility of contemporary poetry has transformed works of modern children's fiction even more than much of children's poetry. Many prose writers, among them June Jordan in the black English musicality of His Own Where (1971), Alan Garner in the extended poetic construction of The Stone Book quartet (1976-78), and John Rowe Townsend in the Blakeian allusions of Forest of the Night (1974) have made sensitive use of poetic structure, diction, and imagery, along with symbolism and surrealism, transforming their fiction into highly charged verse forms.
Like the modern picture book, poetry for the very young has increased in astonishing quantities since 1960. Recognizing that young children's natural love of rhythm and rhyme make them irresistible targets, poets and illustrators have blended their talents to create a new genre, the poetry picture book. There has always been poetic prose in picture books, but never before have so many skilled poets involved themselves in the picture-book genre as have Elizabeth Coatsworth, Aileen Fisher, Jack Prelutsky, Karla Kuskin, and Norma Faber. The phenomenal growth in the publication of single illustrated poems and col- lections of poetry in picture-book format follows the trend of the ubiquitous single illustrated song and Mother Goose rhyme. The threat in poetry-picture books of over-illustration, stripping the power of children's personal visual imagination and detracting from the poem's innate images is very real, for often the illustrator's interpretation conflicts with the poem's mood. But generally, illustrators have resisted using the format as a mere vehicle or showcase for their artwork.
On the whole, the subject matter and style in these works for younger children remain traditional. An example is Father Fox's Pennyrhymes (1971), by Clyde Watson, which is evocative of traditional Mother Goose and game rhymes. A collection of short, spicy verses, it reflects the spirit of American folk culture amid the changing beauty of the Vermont countryside. The wit and musicality of Watson's poetry is effectively matched by the sly details and extended storytelling lines in Wendy Watson's cartoon-strip drawings. The pastiche quality of some of the rhymes is balanced by their charm, as in this verse with its echoes of "Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross":
Ride your red horse down Vinegar Lane,
Gallop, oh gallop, oh gallop again!
Thistles & foxholes & fences beware:
I've seventeen children but none I can spare.
Particularly successful as a single illustrated poem is Randall Jarrell's A Bat Is Born (1978), a long, lyrical, free verse poem excerpted from his short story, The Bat-Poet. In murmuring cadences, darting rhythms, and sharp imagery, the poem describes the beauty of a newborn bat:
A bat is born
Naked and blind and pale.
His mother makes a pocket of her tail
And catches him. He clings to her long fur
By his thumbs and toes and teeth.
And then the mother dances through the night
Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting—
Her baby hangs on underneath.
John Schoenherr's sweeping, fluid sketches perfectly illustrate the bat's grace and character in expressive double-page spreads of the night sky. The poetry-picture book form also has been employed as a vehicle for poetry and illustration suitable for older children by such poets as Natalia Belting, Richard Adams, Charles Causley, Robert Frost, and June Jordan.
The presence of so many adult poets such as Jarrell and Causley in the province of children's poetry is strong evidence that it has come of age, that it is now sophisticated and noticeably complex, controversial, and experimental. The distinction between adult and children's poetry is no longer as sharp and separate as it once was. More poetry written primarily for adults is used in children's anthologies, and many books of poetry, among them Ted Hughes's Season Songs, may be published for children and yet have an ardent adult audience. Also, innumerable selections from the works of adult poets have been made for children since 1960. A growing faith in the ability of children to appreciate mature poetry has persuaded publishers to issue works of adult poetry edited for children to serve as enticing introductions to the complete works of those poets, among whom Robert Frost is the prime example.
Frost's work has been acknowledged as appealing and provocative to children, not only in picture-book format as exemplified by Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1978), but also in such collections as You Come Too: Favorite Poems for Young Readers (1959). His deep, bold lyrics and narratives of country life attract children with their simplicity, easy-flowing idiomatic language, and understated wisdom.
Langston Hughes is another who speaks with immediacy and freshness to children, and his poetry has been selected for them in the collection Don't You Turn Back (1969). His work expresses black pride, anger, and courage in the musical rhythms of black speech and the blues. With all their ironic humor, bluntness, and gravity, his poems are still universal in their treatment of elemental human emotions, offering Blake-like nature lyrics, murmuring lullabies, and poignant confessions such as "Mother to Son":
Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it kinder hard.
Don't you fall now—
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
In earlier days adult poetry was available to children primarily through selections in general anthologies. With the new abundance of poetry publications of all types and formats, it is of some significance that the anthology still retains its prominence and popularity. Anthologies for children today, those "gatherings of flowers," are overwhelming in their sheer number. Some few excellent ones convey distinctive textures, tones, and original points of view, but an even greater number of bland, eclectic collections pad real poetry with the pap production of hacks. Traditional anthologies—general, encyclopedic collections similar in structure to enduring treasuries from the past—still abound. Recognizable by their chronological survey treatment which concentrates on the "high spots" of children's poetry, they are often entertaining, as is Iona and Peter Opie's The Oxford Book of Children's Verse (1973), but unfortunately most are static, changing little from decade to decade.
In addition to these overviews, there is a glut of anthologies that concentrate on a theme, as does William Cole's collection, A Book of Animal Poems (1973); on a poetic genre such as narrative verse in Rising Early: Story Poems and Ballads of the 20th Century (1964); on a national identity, The Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada (1968); on a cultural or ethnic identity, I Am the Darker Brother (1968); or on a particular age group, The Faber Book of Nursery Verse (1958). Then too, paralleling the modern realistic children's novel, many of the collections emphasize bold, colloquial, and experimental language, such as is found in Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle … and Other Modern Verse (1967), while others probe the intoxicating and tragic experiences of urban life as depicted in On City Streets: An Anthology of Poetry (1968). Like contemporary historical fiction for children which excels in its exploration of prehistoric life, anthologies of primitive poetry for children are abundantly anthologized; one, Out of the Earth I Sing: Poetry and Songs of Primitive Peoples of the World (1968), compiled by Richard Lewis, returns children's attention to the primal dream roots of poetry from the often ironic, self-conscious, and overly cerebral verse being written for them today.
These chants and songs from the childhood of the human race find distant music in much of children's own poetry. In a minor key, it echoes the more complex poetic imagery of primitive peoples in such qualities as openness, vulnerability, and intense concentration on living. Children's natural ease in the poetic form has been recognized as never before in the sixties and seventies. There has been as well a growing movement of encouragement in the schools and libraries of the inner-city ghettos and of the suburbs to bring children together not only to read, but also to write, poetry. Beginning with the pioneer work Miracles: Poems by Children of the English-Speaking World (1966), compiled by Richard Lewis, voluminous amounts of their work have been enthusiastically published. Although much of that poetry has not been worthy of the acclaim, it definitely holds for children a therapeutic value, providing them with an experience of language enrichment and an insight into the creative joy involved in self-expression. It also is helping to restore the spontaneous and natural connection children develop with poetry in their early years, a connection that is often broken as prose becomes the accepted language of reality and purpose. Poetry is now approached in schools and creative writing workshops in a more spontaneous and oral celebration of the art. The best of the poetry children write reveals a fluid play with language, a depth of emotion and imagination, and an uncanny ability to achieve, without practiced technique, natural poetic effects such as those of the self-taught bat-poet who "just made it like holding your breath."
Much of the poetry written by children today seems a far cry from the fresh, primarily lyric and nature images of Miracles, and even farther from the exuberant street and game rhymes invented by children in the oral tradition of childhood's subculture. While still brash and startling in poetic language, the subject matter is likely to be the misery, anger, and courage of ghetto and minority life in the inner city, not surprisingly paralleling that of adult poems for children. Poems in I Heard a Scream in the Street: Poetry by Young People in the City (1970), selected by Nancy Larrick, range from those with a musing, introspective tone to those with a stronger, more muscular language and challenging spirit. They vary in poetic craft from the skilled to the naive, but in subject matter they almost invariably speak in anguish of alienation from and despair of their environment. To these children of the ghetto, the city is "full of hate and war"; living in Harlem is "hell"; there may be no chains on their legs but "the chains on my mind are keeping / me from being Free!"; and "if it means a little comfort, / then Hell I must go." There are also notes of cynicism and stoicism; only occasionally do the children admonish the adult world or feel that their city is "full of love." Aside from the numerous flashes of poetic imagination in these works, as opposed to a kind of primal passion, one obvious fact comes through. An urban ghetto limits a child's experience. The book should be required reading for all administrators of large cities.
The emotions of another ghetto are chronicled in I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 (1964), translated from the Czech. Like Ann Frank's diary, this collection is a gripping testimony of children's capacity for courage, endurance, and compassion in unflinching poetry and shadowy expressionistic drawings that depict the fear, horror, and brief moments of hope or beauty experienced by the condemned Jewish children. The poetry of children is perhaps more interesting to adults than to other children, because it gives them an insight into children's thoughts which are more candidly realistic and colloquial than the artificial, first-person confessional of the problem novel and more authentic and tough in statements of emotional needs than Albert Cullum's disingenuous attempts at a first-person, child lament in the ironic, nihilistic poems of The Geranium on the Window Sill Just Died, but Teacher You Went Right On (1971).
Despite the amount of pressure from the adult world, children can still write with a living sense of wonder, as in this six-year-old's poem of a whale's birth in There's a Sound in the Sea … A Child's Eye View of the Whale (1975):
I have just taken birth out of dark hot mother.
I know I have because I can feel the cool water below me.
It is not a nice day because I can feel the drops of rain on my back.
My tail was all cramped when I came out.
—Luisa Kaye, age 6
Richard Lewis, who consciously brought children's poetry to world attention with Miracles, speaks of all children when he writes in Miracles that it "will serve as a testament to the power and value of the poetic vision that is an integral part of childhood."5
Recognizing the spirited continuation of tradition from the past, it is intriguing to speculate on the future of children's poetry. Ian Serraillier discusses its changing role, which he sees as shifting from the printed page in a return to oral tradition through the electronic media of radio and television:
All art forms, if they are to survive, must adapt to new conditions, and poetry is no exception. If, … this is to mean some measure of escape from the printed page, that is no bad thing: it may again come closer to its origins—in song and dance and the spoken word.… As for the children's poet, he too has a role to play, a wider one than in the past. If he's still around in the distant future, whatever the outward changes, he will probably still be a curious mixture of creator, interpreter and craftsman.6
Poetry written for children at this time in its history has never been so much a part of poetry in general; poets and parents, along with critics and educators have finally put into practice the belief that adult and children's verse are indistinguishable. One may well agree with Naomi Lewis's claim, "Today we think that it is not necessary to write special verses for young or old; a true poem has something for all readers."7
Children's poets today work in any or all forms, adapting them to suit their particular mood and intent. Scanning their works one is struck by the sheer number of competent craftsmen in the field. But while competent skills may offer moments of delighted surprise, flashes of beauty, and unity of music, emotion, and thought, they do not always provide the haunting, quotable memorability which is the hallmark of strong poetry. Despite its various formats, subtlety, and inventiveness, modern children's poetry suffers from an impersonal sameness of style, content, and theme—a lack of distinctive, immediately recognizable voice and vision. Attempting to speak energetically, to articulate the human experience for children in powerful tones and emotions, it often falls short of its goals. It is undercut by its emphasis on the self-consciously relevant subject matter of pop sociology and its tendency to verbal games and jokes that seem condescending toward children's perceptions. Forfeited are the tantalizing original thought and glorious music of language that make poetry memorable and quotable. Ironically, the very freedom of form so vigorously sought has made poetry today more closed; the experiments in style, typography, format, and illustration have fixed poetry to the page, so that its words do not linger to haunt the imagination.
There is a sprinkling of poets, among them Charles Causley, Theodore Roethke, Ted Hughes, and David McCord, whose work is of a caliber far beyond the overwhelming mass of quantity and mediocrity that constitutes contemporary children's poetry. But even these substantial talents do not achieve the universality of childhood vision and musical power that bestowed upon Walter de la Mare the title of "the children's poet." Nonetheless, the best of the modern poetry can awaken in children an awareness of the beauty, sorrow, and wonder in this eternally surprising world. Robert Frost's definition of poetry as a voyage of discovery beginning in delight and ending in wisdom still applies to contemporary children's poetry, although today's voyage may be more turbulent and hazardous than in the past.
In the work of the best children's poets there remains that ineffable property which cannot be explained, which mysteriously slips into the poem, transfiguring a technical structure from a work of merely superior craftsmanship into an intellectual, imaginative, and sensuous unity. Re-entering the charmed circle of Dylan Thomas's images, one realizes that in children's poetry, as in all poetry, "you're back again where you began. You're back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in."8
1. Dylan Thomas, "Notes on the Art of Poetry," in Gary Geddes, ed., 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics (Toronto: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1969), pp. 547-48.
2. Quoted in May Hill Arbuthnot, Children and Books, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1964), p. 193.
3. Walter de la Mare, "Introduction." In Nursery Rhymes for Certain Times (London: Faber and Faber, 1946, 1956), p. 11.
4. Theodore Roethke, from "Open Letter," in Geddes, 20th-Century Poetry … , p. 539.
5. Richard Lewis, ed., Miracles: Poems by Children of the English-Speaking World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966), p. 8.
6. Ian Serraillier, "Poetry Mosaic: Some Reflections on Writing Verse for Children," in Edward Blishen, ed., The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children (Harmondsworth: Kestrel, 1975), p. 102.
7. Naomi Lewis, "Introduction," in Christina Rossetti, Doves and Pomegranates: Poems for Young Readers; chosen by David Powell (London: Bodley Head, 1969), p. 12.
8. Thomas, in Geddes, 20th-Century Poetry … , p. 554.
Aiken, Conrad. Cats and Bats and Things with Wings: Poems. Drawings by Milton Glaser. New York: Atheneum, 1965.  pp.
———. A Little Who's Zoo of Mild Animals. Illus. by John Vernon Lord. New York: Atheneum, 1977.  pp.
Behn, Harry. Chrysalis: Concerning Children and Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1968. 92 pp.
———, comp. and tr. More Cricket Songs: Japanese Haiku. New York: Harcourt, 1971. 64 pp.
Briggs, Raymond, ed. and illus. The Mother Goose Treasury. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1966. 217 pp.
Causley, Charles. The Hill of the Fairy Calf. Illus. by Robine Clignett. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1976. (28) pp.
Ciardi, John. I Met a Man. Illus. by Robert Osborn. Boston: Houghton, 1961. 74 pp.
———. The Monster Den, or Look What Happened at My House—and to It. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966. 62 pp.
———. You Read to Me, I'll Read to You. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1962. 64 pp.
Cole, William, comp. A Book of Animal Poems. Illus. by Robert Andrew Parker. New York: Viking, 1973. 288 pp.
Cullum, Albert. The Geranium on the Window Sill Just Died, but Teacher You Went Right On. New York: Harlin Quist, 1971. 60 pp.
De la Mare, Walter. Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages. Embellished by Alec Buckels. London: Constable, 1923. 698 pp.
———. Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes. London: Constable, 1913. 122 pp.
The Faber Book of Nursery Verse. Barbara Ireson, ed. Illus. by George Adamson. London: Faber & Faber, 1958. 286 pp.
Froman, Robert. Seeing Things: A Book of Poems. Lettering by Ray Barker. New York: Crowell, 1974. 51 pp.
———. Street Poems. New York: McCall Pub. Co., 1971. 58 pp.
Frost, Robert. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Illus. by Susan Jeffers. New York: Dutton, 1978.  pp.
———. You Come Too: Favorite Poems for Young Readers. Wood engravings by Thomas W. Nason. New York: Holt, 1959. 94 pp.
Garner, Alan. "The Stone Book" Quartet. London: Collins, 1976-1978.
Graves, Robert. Ann at Highwood Hall: Poems for Children. Illus. by Edward Ardizzone. London: Cassell, 1964. 40 pp.
———. The Penny Fiddle: Poems for Children. Illus. by Edward Ardizzone. London: Cassell, 1960. 62 pp.
Hughes, Langston. Don't You Turn Back. Sel. by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Woodcuts by Ann Grifalconi. New York: Knopf, 1969. 78 pp.
Hughes, Ted. Season Songs. London: Faber & Faber, 1976. 75 pp.; U.S. ed. Pictures by Leonard Baskin. New York: Viking, 1975. 77 pp.
I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans. Arnold Adoff, comp. Drawings by Benny Andrews. New York: Macmillan, 1968. 128 pp.
I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. 80 pp.
Jarrell, Randall. A Bat Is Born: From The Bat-Poet. Illus. by John Schoenherr. New York: Doubleday, 1978.  pp.
———. The Bat-Poet. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. New York: Macmillan, 1964. 42 pp.
Jordan, June. His Own Where. New York: Crowell, 1971. 89 pp.
———. Who Look at Me. New York: Crowell, 1969. 97 pp.
Larrick, Nancy. I Heard a Scream in the Street: Poetry by Young People in the City. New York: Evans, 1970. 141 pp.
Lear, Edward. Edward Lear's Nonsense Omnibus. London & New York: Warne, 1943. 480 pp.
Lee, Dennis. Alligator Pie. Illus. by Frank Newfeld. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974. 64 pp.
———. Garbage Delight. Pictures by Frank Newfeld. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1977. 64 pp.
———. Nicholas Knock and Other People: Poems. Pictures by Frank Newfeld. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974. 64 pp.
Lewis, Richard, comp. Miracles: Poems by Children of the English-Speaking World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966. 215 pp.
———. Out of the Earth I Sing: Poetry and Songs of Primitive Peoples of the World. New York: Norton, 1968. 144 pp.
Livingston, Myra Cohn. The Malibu and Other Poems. Illus. by James J. Sponfeller. New York: Atheneum, 1972. 44 pp.
McCord, David. For Me to Say: Rhymes of the Never Was and Always Is. Drawings by Henry B. Kane. Boston: Little, 1970. 100 pp.
———. One at a Time: His Collected Poems for the Young. Illus. by Henry B. Kane. Boston: Little, 1977. 494 pp.
Merriam, Eve. Finding a Poem. Illus. by Seymour Chwast. New York: Atheneum, 1970. 68 pp.
———. It Doesn't Always Have to Rhyme. Drawings by Malcolm Spooner. New York: Atheneum, 1964. 83 pp.
Milligan, Spike. Silly Verse for Kids. London: Dobson, 1959. 61 pp.
Milne, A. A. Now We Are Six. Decorations by Ernest H. Shepard. London: Methuen, 1927. 103 pp.
———. When We Were Very Young. Decorations by Ernest H. Shepard. London: Methuen, 1924. 99 pp.
Nash, Ogden. The New Nutcracker Suite and Other Innocent Verses. Designed and illus. by Ivan Chermayeff. Boston: Little, 1962. 47 pp.
Newbery, John. Mother Goose's Melody. London: J. Newbery, 1765.
On City Streets: An Anthology of Poetry. Nancy Larrick, comp. Illus. with photos by David Sagarin. New York: Evans, 1968. 158 pp.
Opie, Iona, and Opie, Peter. The Oxford Book of Children's Verse. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1973. 407 pp.
———. The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book. Additional illus. by Joan Hassall. Oxford: Clarendon Pr., 1955. 223 pp.
Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle … and Other Modern Verse. ed. by Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueder, and Hugh Smith. New York: Lothrop, 1967. 139 pp.
Rising Early: Story Poems and Ballads of the 20th Century. ed. by Charles Causley. Drawings by Anne Netherwood. Leicester: Brockhampton, 1964. 128 pp.
Roethke, Theodore. Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures: Poems for Children. New York: Doubleday, 1973. 48 pp.
Rossetti, Christina. Sing Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book. Illus. by A. Hughes. London: G. Routledge & Sons, 1871. 130 pp.
Serraillier, Ian. The Challenge of the Green Knight. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1966. 56 pp.
———. Robin in the Greenwood: Ballads of Robin Hood. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1967. 76 pp.
Silverstein, Shel. Where the Sidewalk Ends. New York: Harper, 1974. 166 pp.
Spier, Peter. The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961. unpaged.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. A Child's Garden of Verses. London: Longmans & Co., 1885. 101 pp.
Swenson, May. More Poems to Solve. New York: Scribner, 1971. 64 pp.
———. Poems to Solve. New York: Scribner, 1969. 35 pp.
There's a Sound in the Sea … A Child's Eye View of the Whale. Tamar Griggs, comp. San Francisco: Scrimshaw Pr., 1975. 93 pp.
Townsend, John Rowe. Forest of the Night. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1974. 83 pp.
Watson, Clyde. Father Fox's Pennyrhymes. Illus. by Wendy Watson. New York: Crowell, 1971. 56 pp.
The Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada. Mary Alice Downie and Barbara Robertson, comps. Illus. by Elizabeth Cleaver. Toronto: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1968. 95 pp.
Richard Flynn (essay date June 1993)
SOURCE: Flynn, Richard. "Can Children's Poetry Matter?" Lion and the Unicorn 17, no. 1 (June 1993): 37-44.
[In the following essay, Flynn asserts that poets who compose overly simplistic verse to appeal to young readers are actually doing a disservice to their intended audience, commenting that, "[p]oetry is both complex, artificial, formally conceived expression and it is work, but in postmodern America it is rarely thought of as serious work; it is marginalized like children and children's literature."]
Unexamined assumptions about poetry often go hand-in-hand with unexamined assumptions about childhood. Poets, like children, are thought to have access to some originary, mystical language of the unconscious. The language of poetry is thought to be "other"—archaic, grounded in rhythm and play, as Jacqueline Rose points out, in opposition to narrative fiction "as the forward progression of advancing literary form" (139). Poetry in contemporary America is considered a specialized language, something we often put away with childish things:
Classifying "otherness" in language as infantile or child-like reduces it to a stage we have outgrown, even if that stage is imbued with the value of something cherished as well as lost. In the end, the very association of linguistic rhythm and play with childhood becomes a way of setting the limit to what we are allowed to conceive of as a language which does not conform to the normal protocols of representation and speech.
Classifying "otherness" in language is a way of delineating and circumscribing language communities. Certain others—children and poets—may be nostalgically cherished, and simultaneously diminished. Poetic language is thought to bear a magical relationship to what it signifies. Like childhood, poetry is thought to signify universal, even inarticulate, truth. Lyric poetry (the dominant twentieth-century mode) is characterized by its supposed sincerity and authenticity, innocent, genuine, and precious like children's play. Often in this pretense of authenticity, its real value as a complex discourse constructing meaning is obscured. Thus, there are contradictions in the way we view both poetic language and children.
Poetry is both complex, artificial, formally conceived expression and it is work, but in postmodern America it is rarely thought of as serious work; it is marginalized like children and children's literature. Relegated to the specialization of the expert, albeit an expert in language play, the activity of poetry increasingly becomes a marginal utility in a marketplace culture. Unlike fiction, which at least has commercial potential, the rewards of poetry are realized by grants, academic appointments, or stints as poet-in-the-schools. In The Child as Poet: Myth or Reality? (1984), an idiosyncratic but often convincing indictment of poetry-in-the-schools programs in the wake of Kenneth Koch, Myra Cohn Livingston shows how the generalized crisis of contemporary poetry filters down to the schools:
Poetry dies in the schools too often because in this society it is not respected. It is tacked onto language arts, it is mutilated by gimmickry, it is castigated as a frill. It is thought of as some esoteric region of the mind, as a luxury.… [Those who perpetuate this "false mythology"] believe … that poetry is a sort of therapy for children.… [T]hey feed upon the child's product and create for themselves a utopia on earth where they are the impresarios of the child prodigy.
The first contemporary practitioners of the poetry-in-the-schools movement were poets somewhat outside the mainstream of then-dominant verse cultures—they were typically New York School figures like Ron Padgett, and most prominently Kenneth Koch—descendants of the raw side of the anthology wars of 1959-60.1 The rhetoric of the movement shows an unspoken conflict between competing aims—the stated goals of empowering children as writers go hand-in-hand with nostalgic, adult impulses to romanticize childhood. Kenneth Koch professes a belief in "taking children seriously as poets" but at the same time subscribes to the romantic myth that "children have a natural talent for writing poetry and anyone who teaches them should know that" (25). Taking as his model the university writing workshop, he subscribes to the idea that creative writing cannot really be taught:
Teaching really is not the right word for what takes place: it is more like permitting children to discover something they already have. I helped them to do this by removing obstacles, such as the need to rhyme, and by encouraging them in various ways to get tuned in to their own strong feelings, to their spontaneity, their sensitivity, and their carefree inventiveness.
Even though one may question Koch's romantic rhetoric here, one need not condemn it wholesale: the idea that children are natural, feeling, spontaneous, carefree, and inventive may well have a positive effect on the way we teach and treat them. Although it is a romantic ideology, it is nevertheless one that insists on the value of the child's imagination. And yet, another remark of Koch's reveals ulterior, less defensible impulses behind the project of teaching children to write poetry:
The [children's] poems were beautiful, imaginative, lyrical, funny, touching. They brought in feelings I hadn't seen in children's poetry before. They reminded me of my own childhood and of how much I had forgotten about it. They were all innocence, elation, and intelligence.
(emphasis added; 6)
Despite poets' utopian aspirations, this passage indicates the ease with which they may unwittingly become "impresarios" by virtue of the pervasive view of childhood in which the child is constructed in our culture to represent the lost "innocence, elation, and intelligence" of sensitive adults. Unlike narrative fiction, poetry is a "product" that any child can create with the aid of the right impresario. If the value of children's poetry is located in reminding the adult teacher of his or her own childhood, the professed goal of empowering children as writers becomes problematic.
In their recent defense of imagistic free verse as the preferable model for children's poetry, "Meeting the Muse: Teaching Contemporary Poetry by Teaching Poetry Writing," William and Betty Greenway mistakenly embrace an economic metaphor: "We'd like to make a sales pitch on the benefits of teaching free verse writing as a way of developing an appreciation in the student for contemporary poetry" (138). Rather than recognizing the value in poetry, however, their method appears to rely on a largely naive and discredited theory of language:
When we look at a word like "sad," for instance, we see only a word, but when we look at a word like "rose," we see a thing. Words like this are transparent: they allow us to see through to the thing itself. And if they sound like the things they represent as well, like "stone" and "willow," so much the better.
Although certainly there is something to be said for Ezra Pound's dictum that poets should "go in fear of abstraction," and for Williams's "no ideas but in things," the theory of language offered here is unconvincing. Gertrude Stein's most famous quotation shows us, of course, that "rose" is no more "transparent" than "sad" (in what sense is any signifier really "transparent?") and the onomatopoeic qualities of "stone" and "willow" are questionable at best. No critic of adult poetry and indeed no adult poet could get away with such a dubious aesthetic, and yet some notion of children's originary innocence allows us to accept unquestioningly such discredited linguistic notions and to build a pedagogy around it. A pedagogy of childhood becomes linked to a pedagogy of poetry: children, using "natural" or "transparent" language, learn to write haiku—a form looked askance at by most practicing adult poets—and even this minimalist, cute, and supposedly childlike form will work only "if you drop all the strict syllable and line restrictions" (Greenway 139).
We do not tell our students that anything goes with their science and math problems, nor even, for that matter, with the prose we teach them to write. When we give children music lessons, they must learn rules and concepts, many of them by rote; if we applied the pedagogy of the elementary creative-writing classroom to piano lessons, we would end up recognizing how ludicrous that pedagogy is: any child can play the piano if only we didn't bother with the insistence on measure and the restrictiveness of making them learn the notes.
It seems that children's writing, like poetry for adults, has become a clouded battleground for competing camps of poets with specific political or careerist agendas. Today, children who are taught to "appreciate" and to write poetry are more often being taught how to consume products according to the particular persuasions of whatever poet happens to be in the schools rather than to recognize and attempt to discover value. This is true whether the poets are of the New York School, the language school, or the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Notwithstanding the challenge to the prevailing workshop aesthetic from language poets on one side and neoformalists on the other, there is a sense in which writing-workshop poetry is still valorized, especially in schools. At the same time, this so-called "dominant verse culture" continues to feel vulnerable and threatened, necessitating the teaching of its method of writing as a way of legitimizing its hegemony in academia. At the university level, graduate writing programs teach the consumption of dominant "free verse" poetry through writing workshops, with the hope that MFA student poets will buy and read and support the work of other MFA teachers and students.
With the burgeoning of such programs, the growth industry of poetry in the schools has become both a means of employment for MFAs in a glutted market and a way of conditioning new consumers. The professionalization of poetry has reified its audience as "other." As poet Dana Gioia observes in the Atlantic, "as American poetry's specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined":
the engines that have driven poetry's institutional success—the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university—have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.
The idea that an innocent and separate realm of children's poetry should exist at all is questionable at best, and it has led to a narrower, more circumscribed notion of poetry reflected in contemporary anthologies. Despite its questionable linguistic and pedagogic assumptions, the Greenways' essay is useful in implicitly challenging the increasingly parochial view of children's poetry canonized in recent anthologies of poetry for children. Compared to Walter de la Mare's exceptional anthology Come Hither (1923, 1957), Jack Prelutsky's Random House Book of Poetry for Children (1983) illustrates the ways in which the range of poetry children are thought to enjoy has narrowed. De la Mare introduces children to Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Yeats, Hardy, and Frost alongside nursery rhymes, ballads, and doggerel. On the other hand, Prelutsky defines a "renaissance in children's poetry" separate from the adult canon:
During the last thirty or forty years there has been a renaissance in children's poetry. Many of the best children's poets who ever wrote are writing today. Such contemporary writers as Aileen Fisher, John Ciardi, Lilian Moore, Dennis Lee, and Shel Silverstein, to name a handful, are creating children's poetry that is relevant, understandable, and thoroughly enjoyable. Such poets, unlike some of their pedantic predecessors, do not seek to educate children in a way that will make them more socially acceptable to adult company.
Most of the work in Prelutsky's anthology is, as he admits, humorous or light verse by poets who "write from the child within themselves for ‘other’ children" (19). Such speaking from the child represents more of a condescension, almost a colonization, than a genuine attempt to write poems that will evoke a meaningful response from children. Even when excellent contemporary poets are represented, the selections seem too proscribed.2
Although children may initially share Prelutsky's preference for Lilian over Marianne Moore, we are doing them a disservice if we encourage them to retain that preference into adulthood. The Greenways make an excellent point when they argue that "We may be teaching students the poetry they like as children, but not the poetry they'll like as adults" (138). However, insofar as they promote dominant workshop verse (William Stafford appears to be one of their favorites) as a model for children's reading and writing, they impose an equally limiting agenda of their own. If, as they state, children's "preferences in poetry tend to the rhymed, the repetitive, the metered or rhythmical" (138), it seems irresponsible to disregard such preferences.
Poet James Applewhite argues that the crisis in contemporary poetry involves a "scarcity of value" in the midst of "the melancholy and uncertainty of a culture where all is for sale" (469). I would argue that the narrowing range of children's poetry also arises from that bankruptcy—in which we have come to define both poetry and children as commodities. The challenge to those of us involved with both children and poetry is to facilitate the discovery of poetry's value while recognizing that neither poetry nor childhood derives from some essential, unimperiled human nature. If, as Susan Willis argues, children have not yet learned "to substitute alienation and commodities for human relationships" (33), perhaps poetry can help them temper the more negative aspects of socialization.
The question of children's poetry is complex. We must pay attention to Rose's corrective to what she calls the "ethos of representation," but affirm with James Applewhite the "essential idea of artistic value." Although we must certainly reject naive and essentializing notions about children, poetry, and "transparent" language, we must not reject "values achieved through a life and death commitment to authentic linguistic enactment [that] set apart the achievements of Dickinson and Robinson and Frost and Williams and Pound from lesser, slacker users of poetic language in their times" (Applewhite 473).
More than 15 years ago, Phillip Lopate lamented "The Balkanization of Children's Writing." Wanting to avoid the manipulation of children, and criticizing "editors from every conceivable school of writing, who … keep slicing the mountainous piles of children's compositions into separate, packaged visions of the Child" (104-5), he invokes Keats's theory of negative capability as a possible solution to the dilemma of children and poetry:
Keats speaks of "negative capability" as the rare gift of being able to hold several contradictory possibilities in mind without jumping to a conclusion. Schools, with their encouragement of the first student with the right answer, do little to build up a tolerance for this sort of creative tension.
If we wish to be of service both to children and to poetry, we must recognize the contradictory nature of our pedagogies. Rather than tricking children into a method, we must help them and each other discover value in art, even as we recognize that the very source of such value resides in its contingency. Working within and against the social and political institutions that devalue children, we might at least help them negotiate contradictions to discover the valuable creative tension that poetry and all imaginative writing may provide.
1. These "anthology wars" adopted Levi-Strauss's terminology of the "raw" and the "cooked." The raw anthology, Donald Allen's The New American Poetry contained the work of beat, projectivist, and "New York School" poets, including Kenneth Koch. The cooked anthology, Hall, Pack and Simpson's New Poets of England and America, represented mainstream and formalist poetry. The binary oppositions fomented by this controversy have set the tone for contemporary debates about experimental versus mainstream poetry. Currently, the "radical" project of the so-called language poets is pitted against the "conservative" project of the neoformalists and neonarrativists, with both sides attacking the so-called mainstream verse culture emblemized by the Iowa Writers' Workshop and other master of fine arts programs.
2. For example, while Prelutsky includes Roethke's wonderfully subversive "Dinky," poems like "Child on Top of a Greenhouse" or "My Papa's Waltz" are excluded. Williams is represented only by "This Is Just to Say," Jarrell by the weakest poem from The Bat-Poet, "The Chipmunk's Day." Excellent poems by Gwendolyn Brooks such as "A Song in the Front Yard" or "We Real Cool" are omitted in favor of weaker Brooks. There are weak selections from Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and nothing from Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Marianne Moore, Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, Anne Sexton, or Robert Lowell, who have all written poems either for or accessible to children and are included in other children's anthologies. The most heavily represented poet is, unfortunately, Prelutsky himself.
Allen, Donald M. ed. The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. New York: Grove, 1960.
Applewhite, James. "Poetry and Value: A Personal View." South Atlantic Quarterly 90 (1991): 469-81.
de la Mare, Walter. Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages. 1923. New York: Knopf, 1957.
Gioia, Dana. "Can Poetry Matter?" The Atlantic Monthly May 1991: 94-106.
Greenway, William and Betty. "Meeting the Muse: Teaching Contemporary Poetry by Teaching Poetry Writing." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 15 (1990): 138-42.
Hall, Donald, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson, eds., New Poets of England and America. New York: Meridian, 1957.
Koch, Kenneth. Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. New York: Vintage, 1971.
Livingston, Myra Cohn. The Child as Poet: Myth or Reality? Boston: Horn Book, 1984.
Lopate, Phillip. "The Balkanization of Children's Writing." The Lion and the Unicorn 1 (1977): 98-109. Reprinted from Lopate, Being with Children. New York: Bantam, 1975. 261-74.
Prelutsky, Jack, ed. The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. Illus. Arnold Lobel. New York: Random House, 1983.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Willis, Susan. A Primer for Daily Life. London: Routledge, 1991.
Morag Styles (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Styles, Morag. "Poetry for Children." In International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, edited by Peter Hunt, pp. 190-205. London, England: Routledge, 1996.
[In the following essay, Styles outlines how children's poetry has evolved over the last three hundred years, noting how the dominant thematic material has shifted from religious didacticism to sentimental nostalgia to adolescent realism.]
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Shaw, J. M. (1962) Childhood in Poetry, Detroit: Gale Research.
Townsend, J. R. (1897) Written for Children, 3rd edn, London: Penguin.
Webb, K. (ed.) (1979) I Like This Poem, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Hall, D. (1985) The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Morse, B. (1992) Poetry Books for Children, A Signal Bookguide, South Woodchester: Thimble Press.
Opie, I. and Opie, P. (1973) The Oxford Book of Children's Verse, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
———. (1977) Three Centuries of Nursery Rhymes and Poetry for Children, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
St John, J. (1975) Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, Toronto: Toronto Public Library.
Shaw, J. M. (1962) Childhood in Poetry, vols 1-5, Detroit: Gale Research Company.
Styles, M. (1990) ‘Lost from the Nursery: Women Writing Poetry for Children, 1800-1850’, Signal 63: 177-205.
———, and Cook, H. (eds) (1988) There's a Poet Behind You, London: A. and C. Black.
———, and Triggs, P. (1988) The Books for Keeps Guide to Poetry, 0-16, London: Books for Keeps.
Glenna Sloan (essay date March 2001)
SOURCE: Sloan, Glenna. "But Is It Poetry?" Children's Literature in Education 32, no. 1 (March 2001): 45-56.
[In the following essay, Sloan attempts to construct a tentative definition for the role of children's poetry in the twenty-first century, advising teachers and parents that, "[i]n raising poetry lovers, we are well advised to give [children] at first poetry of their own that speaks directly to them, giving voice to their concerns, echoing their points of view."]
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Adoff, Arnold, All the Colors of the Race. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1982.
Carroll, A. et al, (Eds.), 101 Great American Poems. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1998.
Carroll, Lewis, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. London: Heritage, 1971, 1944.
Fletcher, Ralph, Twilight Comes Twice. New York: Clarion Books, 1997.
Florian, Douglas, Bing Bang Boing. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.
Frye, Northrop, On Teaching Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972.
George, Kristine O'Connell, Old Elm Speaks. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.
Hague, Michael (Selector and Illustrator), The Owl and the Pussy-Cat and Other Nonsense Poems by Edward Lear. New York: North-South Books, 1995.
Hirsch, Edward, How to Read a Poem. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.
Koch, Kenneth, Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. New York: Scribner, 1998.
Koch, Kenneth, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams. New York: Chelsea House, 1970.
Kuskin, Karla, Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.
Lee, Dennis, Alligator Pie. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974.
Lee, Dennis, Garbage Delight. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1977.
Lewis, J. Patrick, Riddle-icious. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
Livingston, Myra C., "But Is It Poetry?" Part 1, The Horn Book Magazine. December 1975, 571-580.
Livingston, Myra C., "But Is It Poetry?" Part 2, The Horn Book Magazine. February 1976, 24-31.
Livingston, Myra C., The Child as Poet: Myth or Reality. Boston: The Horn Book Inc., 1984.
Livingston, Myra C., Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
McCord, David. For Me to Say. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.
Opie, Iona, and Opie, Peter, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. London: Oxford, 1959.
Opie, Peter, and Opie, Iona, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book. London: Oxford University Press, 1955.
Prelutsky, Jack (Compiler), The 20th-Century Children's Poetry Treasury. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Rosenberg, Liz, "Has Poetry for Kids become a Child's Garden of Rubbish?" The New York Times Book Review, November 10, Section 7, 55, 1991.
Rosenberg, Liz (Ed.), The Invisible Ladder: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poems for Young Readers. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.
Samuels, Patrice, "A Symphony of Classicism and Mad Avenue," Workplace, The New York Times, December 22, 1999.
Schertle, Alice, Advice for a Frog. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1995.
Sloan, Glenna, "Eve Merriam: A Profile," Language Arts, 1981, 58, 957-964.
Smith, Lillian, The Unreluctant Years. Chicago: American Library Association, 1953.
Soto, Gary, Canto Familiar. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.
Styles, Morag, From the Garden to the Street: Three Hundred Years of Poetry for Children. London: Cassell, 1998.
Townsend, John Rowe, Written for Children. Lanham, MD & London: Scarecrow Press, 1996.
Updike, John, A Child's Calendar. New York: Holiday House, 1965, 1999.
Vetere, Kim, Author Study: Valerie Worth. Unpublished student paper, Master of Education Program, Queens College, CUNY, Flushing, NY, 1999.
Willard, Nancy, A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Worth, Valerie, All the Small Poems and Fourteen More. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987, 1994.
Joseph T. Thomas, Jr. (essay date 2004)
SOURCE: Thomas, Jr., Joseph T. "Child Poets and the Poetry of the Playground." Children's Literature 32 (2004): 152-77.
[In the following essay, Thomas argues "that any comprehensive study of American children's poetry—and, morebroadly, children's poetry in general—is ultimately insufficient insofar as it fails to acknowledge and consider playground poetry as poetry, as belonging to a rich poetic tradition."]
As many teachers know, Randall Jarrell's The Bat-Poet is not only a touching, sensitively rendered fairy tale. It is also a very effective—and commonly employed—introduction to both the reading and writing of poetry. Besides suggesting Jarrell's complex and dialectical theory of poetry,1The Bat-Poet also touches on the competing impulses that might drive one to versify, the satisfying and unsatisfying reactions one's poetry might elicit, the social function of poetry, and even elements of craft. Though Jarrell's bat-poet is of uncertain age, it seems reasonable to read him as a child, or perhaps an adolescent. The bat-poet is a precocious student of poetry, and, though he once enrages his mentor, the mockingbird, by writing a somewhat ambivalent piece about him, the bat nonetheless composes the "right" kind of poetry, the poetry of the schoolhouse, or what I call official school poetry. He is one of the rare students Kenneth Koch remembers initially desiring for his first Teachers and Writers workshop, that is, a child "who already like[s] poetry" (274). The bat writes poems of which Myra Cohn Livingston would probably approve, "fine poetry" that exhibits phonological cohesion, that displays "the judicious use of rhythm, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and other tools of the craft" (22, 256). In short, the bat represents the good student, one who accepts and works within the traditions of adult poetry. Certainly there are human children who, like the bat, strive to emulate the adult poets they encounter, but more common are those raconteurs, to borrow Iona Opie's term, who specialize in the sometimes bawdy playground poetry. These child poets serve to remind us of what children often do with language while outside grown-up supervision. As we will see, they reveal that children have a poetic tradition of their own, a carnivalesque tradition that signifies on adult culture, even while producing poetry that rewards repeat listenings. I argue that any comprehensive study of American children's poetry—and, more broadly, children's poetry in general—is ultimately insufficient insofar as it fails to acknowledge and consider playground poetry as poetry, as belonging to a rich poetic tradition.
Before addressing this tradition, we must first discuss "official school poetry," the dominant mode of children's poetry in the school, the kind of poetry written by adults and taught to children in the classroom. Charles Altieri writes that "A mode becomes dominant when it develops institutional power—both as a model for the ways in which agents represent themselves and, more important, as the basic example of what matters in reading and in attributing significance to what one reads" (8). No doubt official school poetry is dominant: championed in the schools and elevated in education textbooks, official school poetry—a type of poetry—has come to stand in for poetry in its entirety, both in the classroom and in literary criticism.2 Robert Frost exemplifies official school poetry; however, all poetry belonging to this group need not resemble Frost's work in theme or form. Rather, official school poetry is notable for its apparent teachability, its use of literary devices, its use of, in the words of Livingston, the "tools of the craft" (a phrase which makes poetry seem much more monolithic than it is). Frost's poetry is eminently teachable, emblematic of the "life and death commitment to authentic linguistic enactment" James Applewhite writes of in "Poetry and Value" (473). Applewhite uses Frost's work as an example of the "achievements" that should be "set apart […] from lesser, slacker users of poetic language" (473).
Poems selected for classroom use are principally the least politically and formally vexing; they appear easily thematizable and interpretable, and thus are classroom friendly. Their politics is often difficult to excavate, even as they implicitly privilege the adult poetic tradition. Classroom practices (informed by problematic assumptions regarding poetic language) encourage misinformed readings of official school poems (most famously, the common notion that Frost's ultimately dark "The Road Not Taken" is an inspirational poem, a reading that hinges upon an almost willful inattention to language).
In The American Poetry Wax Museum, Jed Rasula contends that poetry anthologies, and, by extension, current trends in poetry pedagogy, serve to turn otherwise exciting and powerful poetry into wax figures set upon a "waxen shrine" preserved for "an airconditioned immortality" (2). He characterizes the wax museum mentality evidenced in the practice of anthologizing as a "carceral archipelago," writing that his aim,
in elaborating this thesis of a poetry wax museum, is to suggest that the seemingly autonomous "voices and visions" of poets themselves have been underwritten by custodial sponsors who have surreptitiously turned down the volume on certain voices, and simulated a voice-over for certain others. Nothing defines the situation more succinctly than the police phrase protective custody.
Though he is discussing the canon of contemporary American poetry for adults, a stronger argument could be made for official school poetry for children. The custodians in this respect are the teachers, the adults needed to understand, to interpret, and indeed to produce poetry, whereas the museums are school approved textbooks and anthologies. Rasula reminds us of Michel de Certeau, who in The Practice of Everyday Life maintains, in Rasula's paraphrase, "The dominant modern institutions […] are colonization, psychiatry, and pedagogy, which focus and bring into line the renegade tendencies of the masses, the unconscious, and the child" (31; emphasis added). Calling American poetry a "social ‘imaginary,’" Rasula laments that
Poems have rarely circulated in America as cultural items, as pragmata of daily life. They appear, when they do, as exotic species, nurtured with devotion. So poems are not intrinsically distinct from museum specimens, curiosities in need of explanation, of reassuring placement.
This certainly is the case with official school poetry for children. Of course, this mode of poetry will always have a place in the classroom, where adults often have good reasons for teaching what they teach—but it is important to regard children's culture alongside adult culture. However, as I have suggested, the poetry emerging from the cultures of childhood is too often overlooked, deemed "lesser," "slacker," as Applewhite might say. This poetry is "turned down" and "voiced over" by official school poetry and the critical conversation surrounding it, and it does in fact exist as pragmata of the child's daily life, as a body of work that children use and manipulate generally without adult intervention, "explanation," or "reassuring placement." This poetry is the poetry of the playground.
As its production is not monitored by authority figures, poetry of the playground is often vulgar, violent, and, I might add, uproariously funny: it embodies "the renegade tendencies of […] the unconscious, and the child" that Rasula mentions (31). If official school poetry is a museum piece, archived in air-conditioned anthologies for students, then playground poetry is the graffiti on the museum walls, the notes penned on the anthology's cover. Its very nature makes it unlikely that playground poetry would be domesticated by being anthologized for children, as opposed to being collected by folklorists. (Iona and Peter Opie's I Saw Esau: A Schoolchild's Pocket Book is a notable exception.)3 From the point of view of most adults, playground poetry is uncanny. The poems are not "frightening," nor do they generate the "dread and horror" that Freud associates with unheimlich ("The ‘Uncanny’" 339). However, in many ways they are "disturbing, suspect, [and] strange," all qualities that Anthony Vidler attributes to the uncanny (23). Vidler writes that the uncanny
might be characterized as the quintessential bourgeois kind of fear: one carefully bounded by the limits of real material security and the pleasure principle afforded by a terror that was, artistically at least, kept well under control.
This fear is the result of "a yet unfinished history that pits the homely, the domestic, the nostalgic, against their ever-threatening, always invading and often subversive opposites" (13). Playground poetry operates as one of these subversive opposites. It dismantles nostalgic notions of the innocent, obedient, and controllable child, and thus, in my experience, tends to disturb adults, as it implies sexualized, complicated child-agents able to control their world through linguistic play and sometimes violent, anti-authoritarian imagery.
Playground poetry, as an oral tradition, vexes privileging notions of the individual, authorial genius, while simultaneously complementing the adult, largely literary, poetic tradition(s). In Poetry as Discourse, Antony Easthope argues that "Bourgeois poetic discourse now has no real audience" (161). He claims that most people, rather than turning to poetry, instead turn to "such genuinely contemporary media as cinema, television and popular song in its many varieties" (161). He may be right. But the poetry of the playground exists outside of the "Bourgeois poetic discourse" Easthope discusses. It is folk-poetry, aligned with "nursery rhymes, the lore of schoolchildren, ballad, industrial folk song and even, more recently, the football chant" (Easthope 65). The poetry of the playground exists in the space between original composition and received oral tradition. The poems are public properly. Like the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose, no one child "owns" these poems; they belong to each child equally, and each child retains the right to alter and revise the poems as s/he sees fit, as context and mood dictate. There are no "great authors," white male or otherwise. Rather, there is a community of author/performers. As Iona Opie writes in People in the Playground,
The expression most likely to mislead an adult enquirer is "I made it up." To a child this is the direct equivalent of "It came into my head" and has no connection with creativity. […] The phrase "I made it up" is so universal in this context that all doubts of juvenile honesty must be suppressed. Probably memory is the same as creation in a child's mind.
The authors are anonymous, yet the authors are everywhere.
In Knock at a Star, a popular poetry anthology for children, X. J. and Dorothy Kennedy quip that "After Shakespeare, Anonymous may be the second best poet in our language. At least, he or she wrote more good poems than most poets who sign what they write" (6). By pairing "Anonymous" with Shakespeare, the Kennedys elide the folk and communal nature of anonymous poetry, rewriting the oral, folk tradition in terms of literate traditions. The poem that inspires this comment, "Algy," while clever, certainly lacks the material force of many—if not most—of the American playground poems collected by folklorists in the last thirty years:
Algy met a bear
The bear met Algy.
The bear was bulgy,
The bulge was Algy.
The other examples they give of "the second best poet in our language" are equally clever, though oddly nonrepresentative of the kinds of verse compiled in Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts or One Potato, Two Potato. Many of the poems collected in these texts similarly deal with death. However, they frequently do so much more graphically, employing startling, often upsetting imagery coupled with a great degree of rhythmic, musical play, though certainly they share with "Algy" the impulse to play with language on the morphological and syntactical level. Later in the book, the Kennedys provide an example of a jump-rope rhyme, asking the child reader whether s/he can "write a new one," reminding him or her, "Don't forget to try it out on the playground," implicitly inscribing a distinction between verse appropriate for the classroom and that appropriate for the playground:
Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around,
Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground,
Teddy bear, teddy bear, show your shoe,
Teddy bear, teddy bear, out go you!
Francelia Butler includes this rhyme in Skipping around the World (though without the inversion in the final line), and calls it "One of the best known of the action or agility rhymes" (119). It is odd that the Kennedys select this verse from all those available, because, as Butler reminds us, "Teddy Bear" is an agility rhyme, employed to provoke body movements and showcase jumping prowess rather than to flaunt wit and lyrical inventiveness.
If we compare "Teddy Bear" to the majority of the pieces included in Butler's Skipping around the World, we suspect immediately that concerns about publishing holdups and parental reaction might have played a role in the Kennedys' selection. The Kennedys' choice avoids many of the themes and much of the spirit that predominate in playground rhyme, themes that recall Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque. Bakhtin's theories have proved useful in the literary analysis of children's texts because children's literature is often marked by what John Stephens has called "a playfulness which situates itself in positions of nonconformity" (121). He continues, noting that the carnivalesque in children's literature "expresses opposition to authoritarianism and seriousness, and is often manifested as parody of prevailing literary forms and genres, or as literature in non-canonical forms. Its discourse is often idiomatic, and rich in a play of signifiers" (121). Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes are perfect examples of this playful, carnivalesque literature. Joel Chaston has recently argued convincingly that L. Frank Baum's Oz books similarly embody Bakhtin's theories.4 However, Stephens notes that though carnivalesque children's literature frequently
mock[s] and challenge[s] authoritative figures and structures of the adult world—parents, teachers, political and religious institutions—and some of the (often traditionally male) values of society such as independence, individuality, and the activities of striving, aggression, and conquest, [it fails to] make extensive use of the abusive language or the insulting words or expression generally characteristic of the carnivalesque in its breaking of the norms of official speech.
Stephens is correct when considering literature produced, published, and distributed by adults for children, but when we consider the oral traditions of children themselves, we see none of the hesitance to employ the language of the billingsgate evidenced in mainstream American children's literature.
Though carnival regularly serves a repressive function in society—a steam valve of sorts—the performance of playground poems circumvents this repressive function. As we will see, the poems do employ carnivalesque images and hierarchical inversion, but children generally chant them outside the purview of watchful adults. Most adults, especially those monitoring schoolyards (and my students testify to this), chastise and reprimand children for chanting the more obscene and obviously sexual rhymes. Unlike, say, Mardi Gras, which operates as a sanctioned "time-out" (without the punitive connotation "time-out" has attracted for young people over the last decade or so), the recitation of playground poems—especially the very off-color rhymes—is rarely encouraged by adults (though exceptions do exist). Furthermore, these rhymes are not a once-a-year, strictly monitored release of tension. Of course, recess itself is a "time-out," but playground poetry is not chanted exclusively during recess. These poems exist as an ever-present fact in the life of most children, be they chanters or listeners. De Certeau is useful in explaining the function of playground poetry. Following Foucault's analysis of power in Discipline and Punish, de Certeau explores "how an entire society resists being reduced to [discipline, or, in French, surveillance]." He asks, "what popular procedures (also ‘miniscule’ and quotidian) manipulate the mechanism of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them" (xiv). I hold that playground poetry is one of these procedures, serving as one of "the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals[,]" like children, "already caught in the nets of ‘discipline’" (xiv).
Take, for example, this jump-rope rhyme collected by Butler in New York City, a rhyme I remember chanting as a child:
Was a good old soul.
He washed his face
In a toilet bowl.
He jumped out the window
With his dick in his hand,
And said, "'Scuse me, ladies!
Similarly, the two poems below, variants of the same motif, provide further examples of carnivalesque imagery and diction. Butler indicates that these two poems have been frequently chanted on U.S. playgrounds between 1965-1988, though there is no reason to doubt they are still chanted today:
I fucked your mama
Till she went blind.
Her breath is bad
But she sure can grind.
I hate to talk about your mama;
She's a good old soul.
She's got a ten-ton pussy
And a rubber ass-hole.5
The differences between the Kennedys' selection and the three rhymes above are manifest. Bakhtin's theories of carnival laughter are helpful in teasing out the implications of these differences. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin argues that carnivalesque images "are opposed to all that is finished and polished, to all pomposity, to every ready made solution in the sphere of thought and world outlook" (3). The child poet implied by the Kennedys' selection is readily containable, is cute, is controllable by the adult: "Can you write a new one?" they ask the child, ordering, with an exclamation point, "Don't forget to try it out on the playground!" (151), to which we might add, "but not in the classroom!" The child poet/performer implied by the three rhymes above, however, is resistant, rebellious. S/he does not need an adult's encouragement, and in fact, the poems fly in the face of adult authority, be that adult a former Chief Executive of the U.S. or the even more powerful mother. S/he recalls the folk implied by Bakhtin's Rabelais—the folk that Michael Holquist characterizes as "blasphemous rather than adoring, cunning rather than intelligent; they are coarse, dirty, and rampantly physical, reveling in oceans of strong drink, poods of sausage, and endless coupling of bodies" (xix).
Furthermore, the poems illustrate a recurring theme in playground poetry. The poems evince a fundamental tension between the body and the mind, a tension designed to produce either laughter or disgust, perhaps both. This laughter—festive laughter, Bakhtin would call it—is not "an individual reaction to some isolated ‘comic’ event" (11). Rather, it is "universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival's participants" (11):
Was a good old soul.
He washed his face
In a toilet bowl.
These four lines exemplify grotesque realism, which Bakhtin argues works by pitting exaltation and debasement against one another:
Earth is an element that devours, swallows up (the grave, the womb) and at the same time an element of birth, of renascence (the maternal breasts). Such is the meaning of "upward" and "downward" in their cosmic aspect, while in their purely bodily aspect, which is not clearly distinct from the cosmic, the upper part is the face or the head and the lower part is the genital organs, the belly, and the buttocks.
Abraham Lincoln, a figure most American schoolchildren are taught to revere, is debased. The child poet grants that Abe is "a good old soul," even while debasing that "soul" by describing him "washing his face"—the "upward" or "cosmic aspect" of the character—in a "toilet bowl," representing the lower, earthly, "purely bodily aspect" of the poem's comic hero. Bakhtin argues that grotesque literature obeys the "peculiar logic of the ‘inside out’ (à l'envers), of the ‘turnabout,’ of the continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings" (11). These poems also obey that logic, sending the admired Abraham Lincoln hurtling out a window with his "dick in his hand" proclaiming hyperbolically, "I'm Superman," foreshadowing his imminent—and embarrassing—fall.
Bakhtin notes that carnivalesque literature concerns unfettered "images of the human body with its food, drink, defecation, and sexual life" (18). Likewise, the "your mama" poems above debase the generally privileged mother, conflating, in the second example, the mother's womb as a site of birth, of sexual activity, with the anus, site of defecation. The carnivalesque "degrades" which, to Bakhtin, means to "concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth" (21). If the face and head relate to the cosmic, the celestial, the spiritual, the child poet of "I fucked your mama" debases the mother by fucking her "Till she went blind," rendering useless the eyes, the windows to the soul, the organs of control and observation, which to the child may seem panoptic in scope. The poet also comments on her bad breath: the month, so ready with orders and admonitions (and, yes, with praise and love), is bodily. The child poet describes the head, site of the brain, originator of rules, as an offensive place, even as the lower stratum is celebrated: despite her bad breath, her blind eyes, her ability "to grind" more than compensates. The mother in the third example is distinguished by hyperbolic exaggeration of the lower stratum. She may be "a good old soul," but that good soul is nothing compared to her "ten-ton pussy" and her "rubber ass-hole."
These rather extreme examples are not, to be sure, the most sensitive or lyrical pieces. Altieri holds that lyricism "is a term applicable to all attempts to use what literature can exemplify as a model for affirming in ostensibly secular forms predicates about the mind, person, and society that were the basic images of dignity and value in religious or ‘organic’ cultures" (13). These poems are not concerned with "images of dignity." They are not designed for subtlety. In "Education by Poetry," Frost writes, "Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, petty metaphors, ‘grace’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have" (36). These poems are not, however, concerned with the mind, but with the body. They are composed and performed with the aim of producing strong, bodily reaction: laughter, guffaws, gasps, groans, or, in the case of jump-rope rhymes, facilitating vigorous play. Schoolchildren sit at desks much of the day, are asked not to visit with neighbors, not to cut-up, not to laugh. Even the most natural of bodily functions requires a pass from the teacher, and children learn quickly about the taboos of flatulence. Thus, it is not surprising that the poems children perform in the playground center on taboo subjects. They problematize the mind/body split, unceasingly reminding us that we are physical, material, even as they revel in group play, exchange, and unrestrained noise. Unlike mainstream adult poetry, which is chiefly experienced in isolation, while reading in softly lit studies or in hushed recital halls or coffeehouses, the success of a playground rhyme hinges upon, as Sherman and Weisskopf write, "the audience's reaction" (16), a direct, present reaction.
The poems above are obviously situated in the tradition of "playing the dozens," a particularly carnivalesque activity Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discusses in The Signifying Monkey. Gates reminds us that the dozens, the toast, and Signifying Monkey tales have been "generally recorded from male poets, in predominately male settings such as barrooms, pool halls, and street corners." Furthermore, as is so apparent in the poems above, they generally have "a phallocentric bias" (54). Thus, it might seem surprising that the playground poems we have discussed, and others like them, have been predominately composed and disseminated by young girls skipping rope, not in barrooms, but in playgrounds and on city streets. Gates notes that "Signifyin(g) itself can be, and is, undertaken with equal facility and effect by women as well as men," referring us to storyteller Gloria Hall's versions of the Signifying Monkey poems (54). The poems above, with their exaggeration of male pride, power, and desire, mock the patriarchy even as they contain sexist language. (Let's recall, Lincoln is not Superman, and his inflated opinion of himself will, the poem suggests, earn him at the very least a nasty bump on the head.) It is curious that Gates does not discuss more extensively children's skipping rhymes, as here the tradition is quite evident, quite firmly in the hands of girls: and not exclusively girls from an African American background.
The one skipping rhyme Gates discusses is a parody, a common type of playground rhyme. First recorded by Roger D. Abrahams in Positively Black, the rhyme reads,
Two, four, six, eight,
We ain't gonna integrate.
Eight, six, four, two,
Bet you sons-of-bitches do.
Luke Etta Hill, the East Texas teacher who collected the poem, "reported hearing some of her [third grade] students jumping to the rhyme" (2). All of the students were female. Abrahams maintains that through rhymes such as these "the great Civil Rights movement has become enshrined in the oral traditions of the young," arguing that "the explosiveness of the verbal exchanges between whites and blacks during that time is somehow defused by relegating these sentiments to use in play" (2). However, Abrahams appears not to recognize the poem as parody, failing to note the probable source of the children's rhyme, a source that exists outside of the world of playground poetry.
Gates maintains that the rhyme was written in response to another rhyme, one that was used to resist/mock the authority of the federal government. It is important to note that the source rhyme is not a playground rhyme. Unlike the skipping rhyme recorded by Abrahams, the source is a cheer, a rallying cry, one not exclusively intended for children, but, instead, one that involves both child and adult participants in a public sphere. The original rhyme, first recorded in Little Rock, Arkansas, September 1957, was chanted by both adults and children, though the rhyme was led by Anglo-American, Central High cheerleaders, who, according to Gates, "chanted in the most threatening tones,"
Two, four, six, eight,
We don't want to integrate.
Gates elaborates on the East Texas parody and its historical moment:
This rhyme repeats and then reverses a rhyme that was chanted by white racists during the problematical integration of a Little Rock, Arkansas, high school in 1957. Although I was a child, I vividly remember hearing this chant on the news and the circumstances that occasioned its use. Each morning during the initial days of this integration attempt, white adults and their children lined either side of the school walk and hurled vicious racial epithets at the black children attempting to attend this previously all-white public school and at the members of the National Guard who had been ordered by President Eisenhower to escort and protect these children.
Gates argues that the East Texas rhyme "Signifies upon its racist antecedent," which it does marvelously, and in carnivalesque fashion.
In her excellent memoir for children Through My Eyes, Ruby Bridges recalls a similar chant outside her New Orleans elementary school, another candidate for the East Texas source poem. Bridges, just starting first grade, was attempting to attend the recently desegregated William Frantz public school in November of 1960. She notes the "carnival" atmosphere in front of the school, writing, "There were barricades and people shouting and policemen everywhere. I thought maybe it was Mardi Gras, the carnival that takes place in New Orleans every year. Mardi Gras was always noisy" (16). She quotes from the November 15, 1960 issue of The New York Times,
Some 150 whites, mostly housewives and teenage youths, clustered along the sidewalks across from the William Frantz School when pupils marched in at 8:40 a.m. One youth chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate; eight, six, four, two, we don't want a chigeroo."
(Qtd. in Bridges 16)
Regardless of which of these cheers is the antecedent, the East Texas playground rhyme remains more interesting formally. Again, the two racist cheers are resistant, arguing against the power of the federal government to legislate integration. However, the cheers are both monologic, whereas the parody is polyvocal, heteroglossic, repeating verbatim the first stanza of its racist precursor, and confronting it directly with "bet you sons-of-bitches do." Thus, the second poem is dialogic, presenting two sides of the debate, though obviously privileging the second. The second voice directly opposes the sentiment of the first; just as the third line, "Eight, six, four, two," perfectly reverses the first series of numbers. Unlike the reversal in the New Orleans source poem ("eight, six, four, two, / we don't want a chigeroo"), the parody's reversal accentuates the message of the poem, suggesting that although the logic of the first voice may be culturally dominant, the supposedly backward thinking of the second voice may become dominant, this possibility enhanced by the rough music of the last line: the staccato punch of the accented bilabial [b]'s adorned by the sibilant [s]'s and affricative [c?] of bitches. As resistant as the probable source poems are, they nonetheless represent the dominant ideology of the community in which they were chanted. In the parody, although the order of the first is deemed numerically "correct" and linear, the inverted order of the second, created in resistance to the first, remains functional in terms of the jumping game and the formal restrictions of the poem's rhyme scheme. Carnival allows the playful reimagining of the world, the reversal and dismantling of hierarchies; the East Texas playground rhyme formally and thematically demonstrates that these reversals can be viable.
Gates points out that the dozens (and Signifying in general) has less to do with "making fun of—parodying to ridicule—than it has to do with simply "making fun," that is, "the play of language itself (68). Of course, not all playground rhymes participate so directly in the tradition of the dozens as those examined thus far, though many do comment on, lampoon, and parody the adult poetic tradition, playing with and objectifying preexisting texts, "making fun" with (not necessarily of) texts provided by adult culture. In "The Rejection of Closure," Lyn Hejinian writes, "Children objectify language when they render it their plaything, in jokes, puns, and riddles, or in the glossolaliac chants and rhymes" (278). It is the playground poet's tendency to "objectify language," to turn it into a "plaything," specifically in regard to parodies, that I would like to turn to now. The East Texas parody discussed above demonstrates the playful objectification of language so common in playground poetry. And indeed, even the trio of "Good Old Soul" rhymes are parodies of a kind, recalling the famous nursery rhyme "Old King Cole Was a Merry Old Soul," extending the source poem's rather tame critique of authority to carnivalesque heights—or, perhaps better, lows. The playfulness of playground rhymes is apparent, but what is not so apparent is the sophistication and coherence of playground parodies.
Parody is common in children's poetry. Adults writing for children have commonly used the device, Lewis Carroll most famously and, arguably, most successfully. In Knock at a Star, the Kennedys discuss parodic poems, calling them "take-offs." They tell their child readers that
Sometimes it's fun, when you're singing a song or saying a poem to make changes in it. Just for the nonsense of it, you substitute a word or two of your own for a word or two of the poet's. [Then,] you're well on your way to writing a take-off—also called a parody.
As an example, the Kennedys cite Kenneth Koch's well-known "Variation on a Theme by William Carlos Williams," a playful parody of Williams's "This Is Just to Say." Jack, the child protagonist of Sharon Creech's verse novel Love that Dog (2001), also parodies a Williams poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow," a poem often anthologized for children and commonly taught in the classroom:
I don't understand
the poem about
the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
and why so much
If that is a poem
about the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
then any words
can be a poem.
You've just got to
Creech's narrative challenges a failing in poetry pedagogy, one Carroll similarly challenges in his Alice books. Students are generally not provided an officially sanctioned space to feel frustrated, angry, or resentful toward works of official school poetry, especially, as Carroll points out, toward the more didactic pieces. Miss Stretchberry, the instructor in Creech's novel, provides her student with such an outlet, creating a sanctioned space to parody works that are normally presented as verbal icons to be revered. Furthermore, Miss Stretchberry crafts for Jack a space in which he can play with Williams's text's formal devices, and thereby voice his frustration creatively, productively. However, it is important to note that Jack's poem, as resistant as it is, is considerably less violent than Koch's famous parody, which approaches the level of violence so regularly found in playground poetry and its close cousin, the nursery rhyme.
Commenting on the lack of energetic and multivalent interaction between student and poem so common in the classroom, Jed Rasula writes,
Students are not often given affirmation that the meddlesome quality of a literary work should be preserved, let alone drawn out; rather, they are taught to "appreciate" literature, which easily translates into a directive to keep complaints private and squelch discomfort; or, in more authoritarian circumstances, given to understand that whatever they think can and may be used against them, and that it is better by far to recapitulate what has been sanctioned.
Rasula concentrates on students' stifled resistant tendencies, omitting potentially playful responses, whereas Creech's parody foregrounds the interface between resistance and play, demonstrating a profound insight into the poetic tradition of the playground rhyme, and perhaps even into the poetic enterprise itself. Jack's poem can hardly be classified as carnivalesque, yet it does foreground the parodic, resistant, and playful impulse so often found in playground poetry, mocking Williams's piece even as it employs its dominant (albeit most obvious) formal trait. Creech understands the child's impulse to play with poetic tradition, whereas the Kennedys, in gently assuring the child that it is okay to compose parodies, come across as somewhat naive. If the vast number of rhyming parodies collected by folklorists is any indication, children hardly need to be encouraged to compose parodic poetry, and, as we shall see, the poems produced are not always as affectionate as Koch's parody of Williams.
The most well known set of parodies in the canon of playground rhymes surely must be the many variations on Isaac Watts's hymn "Joy to the World." With these poems, playground poets join ranks with Lewis Carroll in using Watts's verse as a source for poetry. Like Carroll's parody "How Doth the Little Crocodile," these parodies are generally violent and involve death. The graphic violence in these parodies directly opposes Watts's own aspirations for his verse. Watts conceived his poetry as "a constant Furniture, for the Minds of Children, that they may have something to think about when alone," as an antidote to the "shocking and bloody histories, [and] wanton songs or amorous romances" they might encounter (qtd. in Styles 14). Though "Joy to the World" was not originally intended for a child audience, since its adoption as a common Christmas carol it has become associated with children and the increasingly child-centered holiday, which probably explains why child poets have adopted the hymn as a convenient scaffolding for their purposes.
Based on Psalm 96:11-13, the hymn's religious theme is in conflict with its schoolyard variations. The second verse of Watts's hymn reads,
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
Whereas "Joy to the World" describes the "fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains" resounding with joy at their Lord's arrival from above, the playground versions question the hierarchical values implied by the hymn. For example, one version reads,
Joy to the world, the school burned down,
And all the teachers died.
We're going to take the principal
And hang her from the toilet bowl
With a rope around her neck,
A rope around her neck,
A rope, a rope around her neck.
(Sherman and Weisskopf 113)
In Watts's version, the world "receive[s] her King" gladly, the "nations prove / the glories of His righteousness." Not so in the playground version, which inverts the normal power relationships between teacher and student, principal and class clown. Authority— whether King or principal—is not revered in the playground, and, using conventional carnivalesque imagery, the head, the site of the intellect, is noosed and hung surrealistically "from the toilet bowl." Of course, the parody's primary target is not Watts's verse, but instead school culture itself. Again, the child poet is making fun with Watts's hymn, not necessarily of it.
In another variation, the poet chants, "Joy to the world, my teacher's dead, / I chopped right off his head." The head and all it symbolizes is cut from the teacher, and, in mock sensitivity, the child poet assures us that we need not "worry 'bout the body [because] / I flushed it down the potty" (113). Sherman and Weisskopf note that this "caricatured, almost ritualized violence" is an embodiment of the child poets' "resentment over having their days structured and their freedom curtailed" by school officials and parents (103). Instead of "engaging in actual violence," most children release their frustrations through poems such as these, poems that employ consistent im- agery and balanced form; as exemplified, for instance, in this two-stanza version, collected from an eleven-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy:
Joy to the world, the teacher's dead,
We barbecued her head.
What happened to her body?
We flushed it down the potty.
And around and around it went,
And around and around it went,
And around and around and around it went.
Joy to the world, the school burned down,
And all the teachers are dead.
If you're looking for the principal,
He's hanging from the flagpole
With a rope around his neck,
With a rope around his neck,
With a rope, a rope around his neck.
(Sherman and Weisskopf 113)
Certainly this piece is not designed for adult ears, especially in these post-Columbine times. Its hyperbolic violence, however, might distract most listeners from its sophisticated structure. The poem uses parallelism to interesting effect. Both stanzas refer to fire: in stanza one, the teacher's head is barbecued; in stanza two the school is torched. Just as the teacher's head is a metonym for the mind and the authority that insists children sit still and develop theirs, so too is the school that houses that authority. Both are subjected to fire, both destroyed by flame in a strangely bacchanalian sacrifice. More parallelism occurs in the third line of both stanzas. There the poet directly addresses the reader (or auditor), implicating us in the acts of rebellion, as if we are asking where the young rebels hid the teacher's body, as if we are looking for the principal, perhaps to do him in ourselves. But the most compelling symmetry concerns upward and downward movement, recalling the inverted cosmology of carnival. In the first stanza, the teacher's body is flushed down the toilet, is transformed into waste, while in the second the principal is strung up, taking the place of the flag, the symbol of freedom to which children are often encouraged to pledge their allegiance each morning. The school is burned down, converted to ash, while the principal, the ultimate (male) authority of school, is hoisted up, the Earth's downward pull putting an end to the students' "curtailed" freedom. The principal becomes a perverse flag of child-rule, maintaining his elevated status only as a corpse, devoid of intellect or spirit.
The "Joy to the World" parodies also demonstrate how playground poems are embodied through oral performance. Unlike official school poetry, which is frequently described using musical terminology and metaphors, playground poetry commonly incorporates music and melody. These poems are rooted in the oral tradition of the nursery rhyme, Mother Goose. They are not poems for the page. Rather, playground rhymes are often lyrical in the original sense of the word: musical, sung to the lyre. However, whether the poems are chanted or sung, they invariably involve body movement. Just as the bodies described in the poems are often contorted and exaggerated in hyperbolic fashion, the bodies of the performers are moving in time with the chant, dancing along with the melody. Playground poetry is embodied through melody, intricate clapping games, hand gestures, and elaborate jump-rope techniques. Again, the body has preeminence in these poems. Furthermore, sometimes the body movements are necessary to understand the literal meaning of the rhyme. Consider this poem a student of mine remembers chanting in Chicago:
Mama's in the kitchen burning that rice,
Daddy's on the corner shooting that dice,
Brother's in jail raising that hell,
Sister's on the corner selling fruit cocktail.
She reports that the rhyme is chanted, not sung, and the last three syllables are heavily accented, involving corresponding hand gestures that illuminate the last line's double entendre. Upon each word, the performer grips first the breasts, then the groin, then the buttocks: "fruit, cock, tail."
The last poem I will discuss is perhaps one of the most well-known playground rhymes, the infamous "Ms. Lucy" hand-clapping rhyme, which serves as an exemplar of the playfulness of playground poetry while suggesting another category of children's poetry, one we might call domesticated playground poetry, a mode of poetry existing in the borderlands between playground and official school poetry, as it is mediated more directly by the cultural norms of the adult world. Though domesticated playground poems most definitely employ elements of the carnivalesque discussed above, they do so only to a limit, and this limit is one set by the social codes of the culture in which they were produced:
Ms. Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell.
Ms. Lucy went to heaven and the steamboat went to …
Hello operator, please give me number nine,
And if you disconnect me I will chop of your …
Behind the refrigerator, there was a piece of glass.
Ms. Lucy sat upon it and it went right up her …
Ask me no more questions, I'll tell you no more lies.
The boys are in the bathroom pulling down their …
Flies are in the meadow, the meadow's in the park.
The boys and girls are kissing in the
D.A.R.K. D.A.R.K. D.A.R.K. dark dark dark.
The dark is like a movie, a movie's like a show
A show is like a TV set, and that is all I know …
I know I know my mother, I know I know my pop
I know I know my sister with the 18-hour
18-hour 18-hour bra bra bra.
(Sherman and Weisskopf 33-34)6
"Ms. Lucy" foregrounds embodiment not only through the elaborate hand clapping that often accompanies performance, but also in its morphological play, which works as well on the page as off. This poem plays with language at the level of sentence and word simultaneously. It violates sentence boundaries, disrupting conventional narrative flow, even as it blurs the lines between one word and the next, calling attention to the materiality of word, the plasticity of language, using that plasticity to navigate the border between social acceptability and taboo.
The poem is perplexing imagistically, almost surreal. Guided by shared morphological and phonological elements, it drifts from one setting to the next, one image cluster to another. But there is a strange sense that can be made of the poem. The images vacillate between two topics, sex and punishment, sometimes suggesting sex is punishment. Formally, the poem foregrounds its awareness of and begrudging respect for appropriateness, decorum. It takes its interest in sexuality and violence only so far, and then pulls back, testing the flexibility of rules, instead of flagrantly breaking them. The adult listener (or, perhaps, the snitch) is implied in the form. As Sherman and Weisskopf write, the poem has a certain "attraction for children: when caught by adults, those children can say in feigned innocence, ‘We were just singing a song …’" (206).7 In fact, the poem itself seems a symptom of the desire to transgress without transgressing.
Though it is the steamboat and not Ms. Lucy that goes to hell, the poem seems preoccupied with those issues that, conventionally, might land one there. The first two lines, with their almost arbitrary judgments on Lucy and the steamboat, suggest the seemingly arbitrary verdicts doled out by adult authority figures. Yet, within the logic of the poem, it is appropriate that the steamboat go to hell, with its phallic smoke stacks, its bell and clapper implying a sexuality that will be made overtly oedipal by the poem's end. Even the operator, responsible for correct connections, is vaguely sexual. I cannot help but recall Carl Sandburg's poem "Manual System," in which he describes Mary, a telephone operator who "has a thingamajig clamped on her ears / And sits all day taking plugs out and sticking plugs in" (1-2).
A tension in the poem exists between the desire to articulate sexual curiosity and a desire to censor that curiosity. The punishments themselves, which are never actually realized, thanks to morphological transformation, highlight the ambivalence. On the one hand, the poet sends the steamboat to hell, perhaps for being too steamy, and on the other, the poet threatens to punish the operator if s/he "disconnect[s]" the speaker from whomever s/he is speaking to (perhaps a girlfriend or boyfriend?). The first might elicit (or at least symbolize) sexual desire, while the other holds the potential to disconnect it. Both are punished. The poem then moves from the painful image of Lucy sitting on a shard of glass (described in unabashedly sexual terms: "it went right up her …") to a voyeuristic look at boys "in the bathroom pulling down their.…" Here we have the most overtly sexual moment in the poem, one tied to the carnivalesque by its conflation of erotic desire with waste, the voyeuristic impulse to watch others urinate.
We might argue that many children do not, as they clap along to "Ms. Lucy," consider the thematic interrelationship of the various images, but certainly they understand their consistent tone, that they all belong in the same poem. As Francelia Butler reminds us,
Some adults are surprised, even shocked, to learn that many children's rhymes, including those for skipping, have an unmistakably sexual, sometimes even bawdy, element. In some, the bawdy aspect is too broad to appeal to refined tastes. I have heard children skipping such rhymes, totally unselfconsciously. Whether they understood in all cases the meaning of the rhymes is hard to tell. What is certain is that children, as they grow up, become secretly fascinated with erotic content. After all, what child has not wondered about what goes on between parents behind the closed doors of their bedroom.
"Ms. Lucy" builds to this very thought, the mysteries within the parents' bedroom. We move from "boys and girls […] kissing in the dark" to a curious chain of similes: "The dark is like a movie, a movie's like a show / A show is like a TV set, and that is all I know." But despite claims to the contrary, it seems that this is not all the speaker knows, for in line 14 we return again to a male and female pairing, the speaker's "mother" and "pop." This pairing and its placement in the poem suggests another kind of show a child might encounter in the dark, the Freudian Primal Scene. Thus, the voyeuristic impulse in lines 8 and 10, the scopophilic desire to see "The boys […] in the bathroom" and "The boys and girls […] kissing" is linked with the desire to know "what goes on between parents behind the closed doors of their bedroom."
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud calls this desire "uncanny," as it "arouses anxiety within [the child]" (624). With its neatly subverted violent impulses, surrealistic dream-like imagery and shifts, its preoccupation with kissing in the dark and evocation of the mother and the father, this poem certainly fits Freud's description of the child's response to the primal scene, "a sexual excitation with which their understanding is unable to cope and which they also […] repudiate because their parents are involved" (624). Laura Mulvey reminds us that Freud's discussion of scopophilia in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality revolves "around the voyeuristic activities of children, their desire to see and make sure of the private and the forbidden (curiosity about other people's genital and bodily functions, about the presence and absence of the penis and, retrospectively, about the primal scene)" (16). Indeed, if Mulvey is correct in noting that scopophilic pleasure hinges on the objectification of whomever is being watched, then the poem's preoccupation with the objectification of language itself resonates perfectly with the poem's theme, even down to the last image of the sister in her "18 hour bra." She is being spied upon.
The emphasis on "the dark" in lines 11 and 12 recalls Mulvey's argument that the voyeuristic pleasure of cinema (the "movie" in line 12) hinges on "the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen," a contrast that ultimately "helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation" (17). This darkness, this "voyeuristic separation," along with the formal pulling away from inappropriate language and issues, tempers the potentially traumatic experience of the primal scene. The violence, the "chop[ping]" and damnation, suggests an understanding of the violation involved in such spying, and perhaps a reckoning of the "primal" nature of sex, its potentially violent dimension. As Freud writes in his Three Essays, "If children […] witness sexual intercourse between adults […] they inevitably regard the sexual act as a sort of ill-treatment or act of subjugation: they view it, that is, in a sadistic sense" (62). This view helps explain the violent undercurrents in "Ms. Lucy." Furthermore, Freud's insight that children "usually seek a solution of the mystery [of their sadistic interpretation of sex] in some common activity concerned with the function of micturition or defaecation" provides a suitable explanation for mother and pop's link to the bathroom humor of "The boys are in the bathroom" (62).
The poem's attraction to children lies in its working through competing impulses, the desire to see, the desire to know, and the urge to repress those desires, to submerge them, just as the steamboat is submerged. In this respect, the poem is unusual for a playground rhyme, as it is uninterested in unrestrained play, in carnivalesque reversal of hierarchy, the unabashed celebration of the body. It is cleaned up, sanitized. Whether it is sanitized for the child's benefit, or, more subversively, in order to test boundaries in the presence of adults, depends, I suppose, on the child performing the rhyme. Either way, this rhyme moves towards the classroom; it operates in two realms at once, can be performed near authority without much fear of punishment, whereas the other playground rhymes are meant exclusively for young ears.
As seen in the "Joy to the World" parodies, the spirit of playground poetry resists and playfully engages repressive elements of adult culture through the linguistic play of carnival. It inspires children to construct their own tradition, to compose their own poetry, to teach themselves. "Ms. Lucy," however, is more like the subversive poems of John Ciardi, Shel Silverstein, and the nonsense of Theodore Roethke, than other playground rhymes. The carnivalesque impulse of the poem operates within the framework of wider (adult) cultural norms of decorum and punishment/retribution for the violation of these norms.
Often, as children grow older, they neither maintain a taste for playground poetry nor develop a taste for official school poetry. Because teachers and other adults fail to tap into the playful spirit of playground poetry, there is no mechanism for bridging the distance between what appears to be outdoor freedom of expression and indoor repression.
Unlike adult verse, playground poetry is owned and reinvented by each new generation of children, and therein lies its power. Testifying to the fact that poetry is a heterogeneous discourse that operates in multiple registers and serves multiple purposes, playground poetry is worthy of consideration alongside the adult poetic traditions usually privileged in the classroom. Yet perhaps bringing playground poetry into the classroom would somehow diminish it, take away its charm and power. Or, perhaps bringing it into the classroom, the living room, perhaps treating playground poetry as poetry, talking about it with children, singing it alongside them, perhaps such a dialogue could lead both children and adults to an enriched understanding of poetry and the communities that produce it. It's worth the risk.
Portions of this paper were originally presented at Illinois State University's Children's Literature Graduate Student Colloquium and the Fifth Biennial Conference on Modern Critical Approaches to Children's Literature. Special thanks to Richard Flynn, Carmen Ganser, Lissa Paul, and Jan Susina for their insights and suggestions throughout the drafting process.
1. For more on Jarrell's dialectical poetic, see Thomas Travisano's "Randall Jarrell's Poetics" and my own "‘Levels and Opposites’ in Randall Jarrell's The Bat-Poet."
2. Though a considerable body of work surrounds playground poetry, it treats children's playground rhymes exclusively as folklore, and for the most part consists of collecting rhymes and annotating sources. One of the most notable early studies of children's poetry and song as folklore is Iona and Peter Opie's I Saw Esau: Traditional Rhymes of Youth (1947), followed by their equally important The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), the first book in a trilogy of texts including Children's Games in Street and Playground (1969) and The Singing Game (1985). These studies, generally ethnographic and anecdotal, do not consider the rhymes as poetry, as rich, complicated—if ribald and irreverent—poems that deserve analysis from a literary perspective. In The People in the Playground (1993), Iona Opie writes that in these books she and her husband "tried to demonstrate the quantity, diversity, and astonishing longevity of children's lore" (viii). However, the Opies only implicitly suggest the literary merit of the poetry of childhood, generally sidestepping its political dimension, which, as we will see when we discuss anti- and pro-integration rhymes, is considerable.
Francelia Butler's Skipping around the World: The Ritual Nature of Folk Rhymes (1989) is another interesting work that amasses and annotates a great number of rhymes. Skipping is in the spirit of its predecessors: Jump-Rope Rhymes (1969), by Roger D. Abrahams; One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children (1976), by Mary and Herbert Knapp; and Roger D. Abrahams and Lois Rankin's Counting Out Rhymes (1980). These texts implicitly question Romantic notions of the innocent child, pointing to the complicated social systems generated in children's play, emphasizing the child's desire to make sense out of (and often lampoon) so-called adult concerns like sex and violence. In Jump-Rope Rhymes, Abrahams articulates his dissatisfaction with the contemporary study of children's rhymes, specifically jumping rhymes: "Commentary on jumping rope has been done primarily by journalists and recreation experts," complaining that much of the commentary "has been of the ‘isn't this cute’ sort" (xix). He then remarks on the paucity of rigorous, historical, contextual investigations into "the ways in which [playground rhymes] fit  into other patterns of play activity" (xix). In the years since Abrahams wrote these words, considerable work has been done in this area (notably by the Knapps). But most of the literature still operates in the presentational mode. Indeed, one of the latest books on children's rhyme as folklore, Josepha Sherman and T. K. F. Weisskopf's excellent Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: The Subversive Folklore of Childhood (1995), resembles, like Butler's, an annotated anthology of collected rhymes and songs. Of the book-length studies concerning the oral folk-poetry of children, Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts and One Potato, Two Potato are the most useful and exhaustive treatments of the oral folk-poetry of contemporary U.S. children. Though my goal is not to treat these rhymes as folklore, I sympathize with Abrahams's critique, and seek in this essay to extend the parameters of the discourse surrounding playground rhymes—again, not as folklore, but as a dense poetic tradition consisting of equally dense and rewarding texts.
3. The 1992 edition, marvelously illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is obviously designed to appeal to children.
4. See Chaston, "Baum, Bakhtin, and Broadway."
5. Though these two rhymes actually work well together as a two-stanza poem, they are, in fact, separate rhymes.
6. Both my wife and I remember hearing the rhyme as "Miss Suzy," though many of my students remember "Ms. Lucy." Other versions outline the exploits of Ms. (or Miss) Helen, Lulu, Mary, Rosie, Sally, Suzanne, and even Johnny. Given the content of the poem, Ms. Lucy, with its pun on the word loose, is perhaps the most appropriate of the list. For a brief but enlightening history of the rhyme, see Sherman and Weisskopf 205-07.
7. Some children might not appreciate the embedded profanities in "Ms. Lucy," but I imagine those children are rare, and principally the production of the naive adult's imagination. As Butler writes of skipping rhymes in general,
I have heard adults protest that children could not have made up most of these rhymes because they do not understand the sexual implications. However, since we know that children manifest erotic behavior from birth, there is reason to believe that many of them are fully aware and capable of imagining without any adult assistance the rhymes they are chanting.
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Travisano, Thomas. "Randall Jarrell's Poetics: A Rediscovered Milestone." The Georgia Review 50 (1996): 691-96.
Vidler, Anthony. The Archectural Uncanny. Cambridge: MIT P, 1992.
TEACHING CHILDREN'S POETRY
Vernon Scannell (essay date December 1987)
SOURCE: Scannell, Vernon. "Poetry for Children." Children's Literature in Education 18, no. 4 (December 1987): 202-07.
[In the following essay, Scannell offers suggestions and techniques for introducing poetry to young readers in the elementary classroom environment.]
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Norejane J. Hendrickson and Nancy Taylor Coghill (essay date summer 1986)
SOURCE: Hendrickson, Norejane J., and Nancy Taylor Coghill. "Nineteenth-Century Children's Poetry: A Reflection of the Age." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 11, no. 2 (summer 1986): 72-7.
[In the following essay, Hendrickson and Coghill highlight the underlying thematic elements in nineteenth-century children's poetry, stating that, "the need to preach and teach was prevalent throughout the nineteenth century, but that toward the end of the century, humor, limericks and jingles, and poems about holidays became more common."]
In Early American Children's Books, A. S. W. Rosenbach proposes that children's books reflect the minds of the generation that produced them more than any other type of literature. In fact, an examination of English and American poetry of the nineteenth century provides a historical perspective of two societies' perceptions of children's needs—for guidance, for moral enlightenment, for socialization, for pleasure and imagination.
As Arnold points out, most of the composers of verse were not professionals, but women exponents of the didactic school who desired to instill Victorian values into the young, and to protect them from evil. A comment by John Shaw suggests that they succeeded: "We read it, we memorized it, we declaimed it, not always willingly, sometimes resentfully, but so constantly and in such profusion that it burned into our souls and became what Isaac Watts called the ‘furniture of our minds.’"
It was the John MacKay Shaw special collection of "Childhood in Poetry," housed in the Robert Manning Strozier Library, Florida State University, that inspired our study of nineteenth-century poems. The collection of approximately 26,000 items contains poetry written for children from the seventeenth century to the present. After reading historical accounts of nineteenth-century children's literature we were curious as to what we actually would discover about poetry for children in the nineteenth century if we randomly sampled the Shaw Collection; so we drew every fiftieth card from the forty-two card catalogue trays. A final sample of 383 poems met our criteria: each was a single, non-epic poem published in England or America during the nineteenth century. That each poem was written for children was confirmed by a preface or introductory chapter, volume dedication, or review found in the Shaw Collection.
After we determined our final research sample, we went to the Shaw Collection and located, read and summarized the 383 selections. We placed each citation and summary on an individual index card, so that we could recheck any entry if there was reason to do so. We then individually read the summaries on the cards to see if the poems could be classified under broad topic headings, and then we met and discussed our findings.
As to classification headings (e.g. Holidays, Nature, Animals) we were in agreement in most cases, although we had some concern about broad topics such as "Death." For example, should a poem dealing with death itself be separated from one dealing with death and God? And should a poem dealing with God and religion be separated from one dealing with God and death? Also, should humor be a broad category by itself? After some discussion, we agreed that the content of the poems would fit into twenty-one categories.
These are the categories:
- Joy and Delight in Childhood
- Childhood Recollections
- Childhood Activities
- Guidance (General)
- Guidance (Parental)
We then asked six pairs of judges to place the poems into these categories. Each judging pair read and categorized one-sixth of the poem entries. If the pair could not agree on appropriate categories, we asked an arbitrator to assist in the decision-making.
We then divided the poems listed in each of the twenty-one into ten year periods, from 1800 through 1899. This gave us the number of poems listed under each classification for every decade. It also provided us with the number of entries under each category for the century (See table).
In the period from 1800 to 1809, there are only two entries, one classified under Virtues and Values and the other under Family. In examining the total sample, Virtue and Values have the most entries (eighty out of 383). There are entries under this category in each decade. We were not surprised to find this topic prevalent in the Victorian era, but finding over a fourth (twenty-three of eighty) of the poems on the topic in the last decade of the hundred year period clearly indicates that poetry was being used to indoctrinate children throughout the century.
The historical literature suggests that God and religion were an important part of the education of young children. Fifty-five entries in our study are in the God and Religion category. Each decade beginning with 1820 has entries in this category. In the 1850-59 period, when historians report more liberalism than earlier in children's literature, thirteen entries of the fifty-five are on the topic of God and Religion. In 1870-79, when more poor children were being given the opportunity to become educated, and again in the next decade, there are a number of poems on God and Religion (1870-79, twelve of fifty-five; 1880-89 eleven, of fifty-five).
According to Gillian Avery, in the mid 1800's there were two distinct codes of behavior for children. One code was for the leisure class, the other for working class children who were not afforded time to play. The codes determined the type of reading materials offered to children. In a 1980 monograph, Avery notes that in the 1870's the space between the two types of reading began to narrow, but it was not until the 1890's that school stories for poor boys depicted the boarding school life of the leisure class. Meanwhile Darton notes that adventure stories became popular in the 1880's. He suggests that children of this time were still guarded from senselessness, but not from laughter; from recklessness and vice, but not from courageous adventure. Imagination was recognized and was allowed to be used. Our research supports these comments by Avery and Darton to a degree; there are more poems overall in each decade as the century progresses, and by 1880-89, there is greater diversity in our sample. Every category is represented, including, for the first time, Limericks/Jingles and Murder. There are also a fair number of entries under Fantasy and Humor. In addition, some poems in other categories, such as Family and Holiday, contain imaginative ideas related to the topic.
According to P. H. Muir, the period when children were allowed to use imagination and to read for pleasure began in 1840. In the twenty-three entries in the 1840-49 decade, ten poems have to do with Death, Death and God, and God and Religion, and only three are classified as Fantasy, Humor and Holidays. Moore's classic poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is the entry under Holidays. Although the poem was actually written in the early 1800's, our publication source was dated 1849. The poem classified as Humor is "The Secret's Out, In Spite of Teeth" by J. G. Grant, which is about a lady who has a secret which her lips and tongue want to tell. Honor has charged teeth to bite if either tell. Finally, the lips are bribed with a kiss let the secret out—in spite of teeth. Although it was classified by judges as humorous, there is a moral in the poem, even though it is presented in a humorous way: a lady's honor can be overcome with a kiss. The poem classified under Fantasy is "Anticipation," by Mrs. Embury. It tells about looking forward to a home in the country by a stream surrounded by birds and flowers:
Oh T'will be sweet,
to sit within the porch at even tide
And drink the breath of Heaven
At thy dear side.
In our study sample, 197 poems (fifty-one %) are in the following categories: Virtue/Values (eighty entries), God/Religion (fifty-five entries), Death/God (thirty-two entries), Death (twenty-one entries), and Punishment (nine entries). The other 186 poems are distributed unequally across the remaining classifications, with Fantasy, Family and Nature categories having the most poems (nineteen or more) and Friends and Murder having the least (three or less).
The majority of the Fantasy poems (twenty-six of twenty-nine) are found in the 1870-1900 time period. The Fantasy poems are often related to fairies or animals or to children themselves. "Captain Butterfly," by E. Kirk, tells of a butterfly who is tired of living on a farm, so he makes a sailboat of a shell, with a spiderweb for a sail, and goes to sea. Soon he has no pollen nor flower, nor food. The sea turns rough. The butterfly gets sick and frightened. Finally, the wind blows him back to shore, where he is welcomed by other butterflies. There is a moral, for the butterflies decide they should not go to sea.
Another Fantasy poem, "The Toys' Revolt" by F. H. Wilson, tells of a child who is frightened by an awful dream. The toys say it is their turn to play, and they use the children as toys. The tin soldier marches a boy for miles. They shoot at him with guns that pop. Tops spin boys. Marbles pound them. Dolls comb tangles in little girls' heads, wash their hair, get soap in their eyes, and run off when someone calls. The dolls leave the girls wet and bald.
A lighter Fantasy poem, "My Baby Boy" by M. H. Taylor, is about Charley who looks in a mirror at his image, the other "Tarley" (Charley). He says, "Dot boo eyes too, dot my pritty dress." He looks very carefully in the mirror, stroking his cheek. He has to stand on a chair to see. He is asked, "What is it, Charley? What do you see?" This man in miniature (Charley) says, "I'm lookin' to see has my 'iskers tome."
The first limericks or jingles in our sample are in the 1880-89 period. This example by C. B. Loomis would appropriately fit our current times of teacher accountability:
A teacher whose spellings unique
thus wrote down ‘the days of the wique’.
The first he spelt ‘Sonday’.
The second day, ‘Munday’.
And now a new teacher they seek.
Other limericks or jingles are on sports, fire and safety, heat in Havana, and cold in Montana, and a child practicing the piano at the "do-re-mi" stage.
As classified by the judges, the Virtues and Values category is the largest (eighty poems, approximately twenty-one percent of the sample). In actuality, a number of other categories, for example Parental Guidance, Guidance (general), Death, Family, and Joy and Delight cover content related to Virtues and Values, even though the poems were judged to fit into more specific headings. Parents and adult writers were still indoctrinating children to follow established life styles and conforming ideas. In the Joy and Delight classification, a couple of the poems deal with older people not appreciating the noise of youngsters until the adults realize the blessings of having the children around them.
The poems on death and those related to religion are depressing; the judges commented that they would not choose to participate in another study of this type, because it was too difficult to read so many sad, and often "preachy" poems about God and/or death. Heaven is viewed as a home to look forward to, where one will spend the future with God. The world is often pictured as sinful. In "To a Young Child" by E. Scudder, the child is a welcome visitor from heaven. He must live in this desolate place—a homesick, weary wanderer—until he is called back to heaven again. In "Christ: A Refuge in Trouble," J. Dore expresses the idea that Christians let spirits rise when earthly care troubles them. "Thus worldly troubles oft prove blessings in disguise, / they lead our souls from earth and urge us to the skies"—actually, to Jesus for rest. On a rare occasion, some humor slips into the Religion category. For example, there is one poem by C. Anderson about a little child wanting to recite a Bible verse in Sunday School. She practices all day on the shortest verse, "Jesus Wept." When the Sunday School teacher calls on her, she nearly cries, and then she remembers the verse and says, "Chwist Cwied."
Death was a reality to families in the 1800's. Many children died very early in life, because of inadequate living conditions for children of poor families, and because of the prevalence of disease for all children. In these poems, youngsters are taught that God or angels come from the bright sky and carry little children to God's home. The idea is that after death there is joy if one has lived properly. After death, all earthly cares and concerns are forgotten. An example is "Rock Me to Sleep," by W. D. O'Connor:
Never hereafter to wake or to weep;
Rock me to sleep, mother—rock me to sleep.
The poems often express the thought that a child who died is happy and will wait with God until all other family members join him/her. At times in the poems, the dying child speaks to the mother of beauty and the joy of heaven and the joy of being called by the Savior. (The mother is the parent who appears in most of the poems, but the father appears in some poems, and at times both parents are mentioned.) The Death poems express a common theme: even though there is sadness at a child's death, and often a question as to whether one should have loved the child so much, the belief remains that the pure will be eternally happy. In "The Child's Grave" J. T. Worthington states that one should be thankful for God's taking a pure child from the world of sin, and that a gift is still gained from God through death. As one reads this kind of poem, it becomes apparent that Death for those who believed in God was joyful, and an equalizer for the privileged and the poor.
For poems in the Death category where religion is not emphasized to any major degree, there is a different perspective. In some cases, loyalty to one's job, one's family, or friends is the main point of the poems. Other entries tell of birds singing at the grave, or a flower growing where a person has died. A few portray death as ugly and fearful. One example is "A Convict's Daughter," by H. Todd. The child cries and calls to her father as she stretches out on the ground. She has been told that her father has been sent with other convicts to a country under her feet. The child continues to call for her father but she gets no answer. She is told that she will understand when older:
There are lands 'neath our footsteps lying,
whence cries can win no return.
Various authors writing about the nineteenth century have emphasized the submission of children's wills to God and to their parents. In Nineteenth-Century Children, Avery points out that both parents and teachers often used the fear of death to induce children to behave.
In our poetry sample, there is surprisingly little on violence and child abuse; perhaps the medium of poetry does not lend itself to physical punishment as much as it does to mental stress. There are nine poems in the Punishment category. In two, the children are soundly thrashed with a cane. In another poem, the vain child's hair ribbons are turned into butterflies, and they fly away with her to an unknown destination. Several other entries are imaginative in nature, and the children are punished by dreams or fright. In one of these poems, there is a story of three mice who are caught in traps just within reach of cheese tidbits. On the whole, physical punishment is not prevalent in our sample. Perhaps the American idea that more could be taught through love and modeling had taken effect.
In one category, Murder, there is only one poem, "The Fancy Shot" by C. D. Stanley. In it a captain asks a soldier to shoot a messenger. He does, only to find that he has killed his brother. The captain says, "T'was heaven's decree." The two men bury the dead man in secrecy.
In the early 1800's, books were pirated from England, and the English influence did affect Americans; but in our sample, the American influence was the predominant one. Approximately seventy percent of the books and magazines in the sample were published in the United States of America. In chronicling differences between nineteenth-century English and American families, Calhoun notes the more liberal American attitudes toward children. According to DeMause, this difference may be partially attributed to the following of the Puritan ideal. While the majority of Americans reared their children to be like their parents, and to preserve a conservative, conforming life style, liberal Americans emphasized that children differed from adults and should be respected as children. Robertson suggests that this philosophy was not too prevalent until the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, nevertheless, it allowed for greater tolerances of youth's immaturity and more patience in guiding children.
In summary, our findings in the poetry sample were in general accord with historical writings about children and families in the 1800-1899 period. As the century progressed a wider selection of poems for children was available. The 1840's did indeed bring a transition period during which children were allowed to use some degree of imagination and to read for enjoyment. We also confirmed that the 1870's was a period of major growth, and that more variety in reading was offered to children.
Our sample also showed that the need to preach and teach was prevalent throughout the nineteenth century, but that toward the end of the century, humor, limericks and jingles, and poems about holidays became more common. Early twentieth-century trends as well as current trends in children's literature seem ripe for further investigation.
Anderson, C., "Bessie's Text," In, Wide-Awake. Foreman, ed. (D. Lothrop and Co., Dec. 1887-May 1888), 269.
Arnold, A., Pictures and Stories from Forgotten Children's Books. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1969).
Avery, G., Nineteenth-Century Children. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1965).
———. "Children's Books and Social History," In, Research about Nineteenth-Century Children and Books. Monograph No. 17, (University of Illinois, 1980).
Calhoun, A. W., A Social History of the American Family. Vol. II. (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1945).
Darton, F. J. H., Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of a Social Life. (University Press, 1932).
DeMause, L., The History of Childhood. (New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974).
Dore, J., "Christ: A Refuge in Trouble." In Juvenile Magazine (The Primitive Methodist Magazine). Vol. 11 and 16., (London: William Lister Conference Office, 1862-1867), 193.
Embury, Mrs., "Anticipation," In G. W. Monroe: The Keepsake of Friendship. (Worchester: Tucker and Ruggles, 1848), 171.
Grant, J. G., "The Secret's Out, In Spite of Teeth," In Merry's Museum and Parley's Magazine, Vol. XVI, (S. G. Goodrich, ed., New York: S. T. Allen and Co., 1848), 135.
Kirk, E., "Captain Butterfly," In St. Nicholas Magazine. Vol. 7, M. M. Dodge, ed., (New York: Scribner and Co., Nov. 1879-Nov. 1880), 873.
Loomis, C. B., "A Model Speller," In St. Nicholas Magazine Vol. 21, Part 2, M. M. Dodge, ed., (New York: Scribner, May 1894-Oct. 1894), 627.
Moore, C. C., A Visit from St. Nicholas. (New York: Spaulding and Shepard, 1849).
Muir, P. H. English Children's Books, 1600 to 1900. (New York: Praeger, 1954).
O'Connor, W. D., "Rock Me to Sleep," In Poems. by Elizabeth Aker, (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1886), 190.
Robertson, P., "Home as a Nest: Middle Class Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Europe," In The History of Childhood. Lloyd DeMause, Ed., (New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974).
Rosenbach, A. S. W., Early American Children's Books. (The Southworth Press, 1933).
Scudder, E., "To a Young Child," In An American Anthology, 1787-1900. Vol. I, E. C. Stedman, ed., (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1900), 298.
Shanley, C. D., "The Fancy Shot," In Bugle Echoes. Frances F. Browne, ed., (1886), 70.
Shaw, J., Childhood in Poetry. (The original index and the first and second supplements.) (Detroit: Gale Research Co., The Book Tower 1962, 63, 64, 66, 72, 76).
———. "Poetry for Children of Two Centuries," In Research about Nineteenth-Century Children and Books. Monograph No. 17, (University of Illinois, 1980).
Taylor, M. H., "My Baby Boy," In Harper's Young People. Vol. IV, No. 193, (New York: Harper and Brothers, July 10, 1883), 568.
Todd, H., "A Convict's Daughter," In Parish Magazine. J. Erskine Clarke, ed., (London: W. W. Gardner, 1878), 15.
Wilson, F. H., "The Toy's Revolt," In Harper's Young People. (New York: Harper and Brothers, Nov. 1888-1889), 788.
Worthington, J. T., "The Child's Grave," In Female Poets of America. by R. W. Griswold, (Philadelphia: Cary and Hart, 1849), 261.
Shelley J. Crisp (essay date September 1991)
SOURCE: Crisp, Shelley J. "Children's Poetry in the United States: The Best of the 1980s." Children's Literature in Education 22, no. 3 (September 1991): 143-60.
[In the following essay, Crisp evaluates the body of American children's poetry during the 1980s, compiling a list of the decade's best works of juvenile verse and offering criteria for ranking the poetic output of other children's authors publishing in the 1980s.]
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Suggested Reading List
Carle, Eric, Animals Animals. New York: Philomel, 1989. [anthology for young to intermediate]
de Regniers, Beatrice, This Big Cat and Other Cats I've Known. New York: Crown, 1985. [K-4]
Fisher, Aileen, When It Comes to Bugs, Chris and Bruce Degen, ill. New York: Harper, 1986 [K-4]
Greenfield, Eloise, Daydreamers. Tom Feelings, ill. New York: Dial, 1981. [ages 8-10]
Greenfield, Eloise, Under the Sunday Tree. Amos Ferguson, ill. New York: Harper, 1988. [grades 2-5]
Little, Lessie Jones. Children of Long Ago. Jan Spivey Gilchrist, ill. New York: Philomel, 1988. [young to intermediate]
Livingston, Myra Cohn. A Circle of Seasons. Leonard Everett Fisher, ill. New York: Holiday, 1982. [all ages]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, Sky Songs. Leonard Everett Fisher, ill. New York: Holiday, 1984. [intermediate]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, Earth Songs. Leonard Everett Fisher, ill. New York: Holiday, 1986. [young to intermediate]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, Space Songs. Leonard Everett Fisher, ill. New York: Holiday, 1988. [young to intermediate]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, Up in the Air. Leonard Everett Fisher, ill. New York: Holiday House, 1989. [ages 5-8]
Lobel, Arnold, The Book of Pigericks: Pig Limericks. New York: Harper, 1983. [young-intermediate]
Lobel, Arnold, Whiskers and Rhyme. New York: Greenwillow, 1985. [ages 3-6]
Merriam, Eve, You Be Good and I'll Be Night: Jump-on-the-Bed Poems. Karen Lee Schmidt, ill. New York: Morrow, 1988. [ages 3-6]
Prelutsky, Jack, Ride a Purple Pelican. Garth Williams, ill. New York: Greenwillow, 1986. [ages 2-6]
Prelutsky, Jack, Poems of A. Nonny Mouse. Henrik Drescher, ill. New York: Knopf, 1989. [anthology for younger readers]
Singer, Marilyn. Turtle in July. Jerry Pinkney, ill. New York: MacMillan, 1989. [grades 3-5]
Swann, Brian, ed., A Basket Full of White Eggs: Riddle Poems. New York: Orchard-Watts, 1988. [grades 1-3]
Willard, Nancy, A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers. Alice and Martin Provensen, ills. New York: Harcourt, 1981. [K-5]
Yolen, Jane, Ring of Earth: A Child's Book of Seasons. John Wallner, ill. New York: Harcourt, 1986. [ages 3-6]
Yolen, Jane, Best Witches: Poems for Halloween. Elise Primavera, ill. New York: Putnam, 1989. [ages 8-10]
Adoff, Arnold, All the Colors of the Race. John Steptoe, ill. New York: Lothrop, 1982. [grades 4-6]
Adoff, Arnold, Sports Pages. Steve Kuzma, ill. New York: Lippincott, 1986. [ages's 8-11]
Adoff, Arnold, Chocolate Dreams. Turi MacCombie, ill. New York: Lothrop, 1989. [grades 3-6]
Armour, Richard, Insects All Around Us. Paul Galdone, ill. New York: McGraw, 1981. [young to intermediate]
Bodecker, N. M., A Person from Britain Whose Head Was the Shape of a Mitten and Other Limericks. New York: Atheneum, 1980. [intermediate]
Bodecker, N. M., Pigeon Cubes and Other Verse. New York: Atheneum, 1982. [intermediate]
Bodecker, N. M., Snowman Sniffles and Other Verse. New York: Atheneum, 1983. [intermediate]
Cassidy, Sylvia, Roomrimes: Poems. Michele Chessare, ill. New York: Crowell, 1987. [intermediate]
Causley, Charles, Early in the Morning: A Collection of New Poems. Michael Foreman, ill. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1987. [intermediate]
Ciardi, John, Doodle Soup. Merle Nacht, ill. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1985. [young-intermediate]
Esbensen, Barbara Jaster, Words with Wrinkled Knees: Animal Poems. John Stadler, ill. New York: Crowell, 1986. [ages 2-5]
Fisher, Aileen, Rabbits, Rabbits. Gail Niemann, ill. New York: Harper, 1983. [young-intermediate]
Fleischman, Paul, I Am Phoenix: Poems for Two Voices. Ken Nutt, ill. New York: Harper, 1985. [all ages]
Fleischman, Paul, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Eric Beddows, ill. New York: Harper, 1988. [grades 4-6]
Forrester, Victoria, A Latch against the Wind. New York: Atheneum, 1985. [intermediate]
Holman, Felice, The Song in My Head. Jim Spanfeller, ill. New York: Scribner's, 1985. [grades 3-6]
Hooper, Patricia, A Bundle of Beasts. Mark Steele, ill. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1987. [ages 4-6]
Janeczko, Paul B., Brickyard Summer: Poems. Ken Rush, ill. New York: Orchard, 1989. [intermediate-older]
Kennedy, X. J., Did Adam Name the Vinegarroon? Heidi Johanna Selig, ill. Boston: Godine, 1982. [intermediate]
Kennedy, X. J., The Forgetful Wishing Well: Poems for Young People. Monica Inoisa, ill. New York: Atheneum, 1985. [intermediate]
Kennedy, X. J., Brats. James Watts, ill. New York: McElderry, 1986. [intermediate]
Kennedy, X. J., Ghastlies, Goops, and Pincushions. New York: McEldery Books, 1989. [intermediate]
Kuskin, Karla, Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams: A Collection of Poems. New York: Harper, 1980. [ages 7-9]
Kuskin, Karla, Something Sleeping in the Hall. New York: Harper, 1985. [ages 3-7]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, No Way of Knowing: Dallas Poems. New York: Atheneum, 1980. [older]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, Celebrations. Leonard Everett Fisher, ill. New York: Holiday House, 1985. [all ages]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, There Was a Place and Other Poems. New York: McElderry, 1988. [ages 9-11]
McCord, David, Speak Up: More Rhymes of the Never Was and Always Is. Marc Simont, ill. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. [intermediate]
Merriam, Eve, A Word of Two with You: New Rhymes for Young Readers. John Nez, ill. New York: Atheneum, 1981. [intermediate]
Merriam, Eve. Blackberry Ink. Hans Wilhelm, ill. New York: Morrow, 1985. [K-2]
Merriam, Eve, Fresh Paint: New Poems. Woodcuts by David Frampton, New York: Macmillan, 1986. [intermediate]
Merriam, Eve, Halloween ABC. Lane Smith, ill. New York: Macmillian, 1987. [ages 8-10]
Merriam, Eve, Chortles: New and Selected Wordplay Poems. Sheila Hamanaka, ill. New York: Morrow, 1989. [all ages]
Merriam, Eve, A Poem for a Pickle: Funnybone Verses. Sheila Hamanaka, ill. New York: Morrow, 1989. [ages 4-7]
Morrison, Lillian, Overheard in a Bubble Chamber and Other Science Poems. Eyre de Lanux, ill. New York: Lothrop, Lee, Shepard, 1981. [older]
Norman, Charles, The Hornbeam Tree and Other Poems. New York: Holt, 1988. [young-intermediate]
Pomerantz, Charlotte, The Tamarindo Puppy: And Other Poems. Byron Barton, ill. New York: Greenwillow, 1980. [young]
Pomerantz, Charlotte, If I Had a Paka: Poems in Eleven Languages. Nancy Tafuri, ill. New York: Greenwillow, 1982. [younger]
Prelutsky, Jack, The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight: More Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. Arnold Lobel, ill. New York: Greenwillow, 1980. [intermediate]
Prelutsky, Jack, The Baby Uggs Are Hatching. James Stevenson, ill. New York: Greenwillow, 1982. [ages 5-8]
Prelutsky, Jack, The Sheriff of Rottenshot: Poems. Victoria Chess, ill. New York: Greenwillow, 1982. [intermediate]
Prelutsky, Jack, Zoo Doings: Animal Poems. Paul O. Zelinsky, ill. New York: Greenwillow, 1983. [intermediate]
Prelutsky, Jack, It's Snowing, It's Snowing. Jeanne Titherington, ill. New York: Greenwilow, 1984. [younger]
Prelutsky, Jack, The New Kid on the Block. James Stevenson, ill. New York: Greenwillow, 1984. [intermediate]
Prelutsky, Jack, Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast: Dinosaur Poems. Arnold Lobel, ill. New York: Greenwillow, 1988. [younger]
Ryder, JoAnne, Inside Turtle's Shell and Other Poems of the Field. Susan Bonners, ill. New York: MacMillan, 1985. [grades 2-5]
Rylant, Cynthia, Waiting to Waltz: A Childhood. Stephen Gammell, ill. Scarsdale, NY: Bradbury, 1984. [younger]
Silverstein, Shel, A Light in the Attic. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. [ages 9-11]
Steig, Jeanne, Consider the Lemming. William Steig, ill. New York: Farrar/Michael di Capua, 1988. [intermediate]
Turner, Anne Warren, Street Talk. Catherine Updike, ill. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1986. [grades 2-4]
Viorst, Judith, If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries: Poems for Children and Their Parents. Lynne Cherry, ill. New York: Atheneum, 1982. [intermediate]
Worth, Valerie, Small Poems Again. Natalie Babbitt, ill. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1986. [intermediate]
Yolen, Jane, How Beastly!: A Menagerie of Nonsense Poems. James Marshall, ill. New York: Collins, 1980. [intermediate]
Bierhorst, John, ed., The Sacred Path: Spells, Prayers, and Power Songs of the American Indians. New York: Morrow, 1983. [grades 5 and up]
de Paola, Tomie, comp./ill., Tomie de Paola's Book of Poems. New York: Putnam, 1988. [intermediate]
Farber, Norma, and Myra Cohn Livinston, eds., These Small Stones. New York: Harper, 1987. [grades 4-6]
Hall, Donald, ed., The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America. New York: Oxford, 1985. [intermediate]
Hopkins, Lee Bennett, comp., The Sky Is Full of Song. Dirk Zimmer, ill. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. [intermediate]
Hopkins, Lee Bennett, comp., A Song in Stone: City Poems. Anna Audette, photos. New York: Crowell, 1983. [ages 7-9]
Hopkins, Lee Bennett, comp., Dinosaurs. Murray Tinkelman, ill. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1987. [intermediate]
Hopkins, Lee Bennett, comp., Side by Side: Poems to Read Together. Hilary Knight, ill. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. [younger]
Janeczko, Paul, ed., Don't Forget to Fly: A Cycle of Modern Poems. Scarsdale, NY: Bradbury, 1981. [older]
Janeczko, Paul, ed., Pocket Poems. Scarsdale, NY: Bradbury, 1985. [ages 11 and up]
Janeczko, Paul, ed., Going Over to Your Place: Poems for Each Other. Scarsdale, NY: Bradbury, 1987. [older]
Janeczko, Paul, comp., This Delicious Day: 65 Poems. New York: Orchard-Watts, 1987. [grades 5-7]
Janeczko, Paul, comp., The Music of What Happens: Poems That Tell Stories. New York: Orchard-Watts, 1988. [grades 7 and up]
Kennedy. X. J., and Dorothy M. Kennedy, eds., Knock at a Star: A Child's Introduction to Poetry. Karen Ann Weinhaus, ill. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982. [ages 8-12]
Knudson, R. R., and May Swenson, comps., American Sports Poems. New York: Orchard/Watts, 1988. [ages 11-17]
Larrick, Nancy, comp. When the Dark Comes Dancing: A Bedtime Poetry Book. John Wallner, ill. New York: Philomel, 1983. [ages 2-5]
Larrick, Nancy, comp., Cats Are Cats. Ed Young, ill. New York: Philomel, 1988. [ages 9-11]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, ed., Why Am I Grown So Cold?: Poems of the Unknowable. New York: Atheneum, 1982. [intermediate and older]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, ed., Cat Poems. Trina Schart Hyman, ill. New York: Holiday House, 1984. [intermediate]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, ed., Poems for Jewish Holidays. Lloyd Bloom, ill. New York: Holiday House, 1986. [intermediate]
Livingston, Myra Cohn, comp., Halloween Poems. Stephen Gammell, ill. New York: Holiday House, 1989. [intermediate]
McCullough, Frances, ed., Love Is Like a Lion's Tooth. New York: Harper, 1984. [ages 12 and up]
Prelutsky, Jack, The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. Arnold Lobel, ill. New York: Random, 1983. [grades 1-6]
Smith, William Jay, comp., A Green Place: Modern Poems. Jacques Hnizdovsky, ill. New York: Delacorte, 1982. [grades 1-6]
Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk, comp., Dancing Teepees: Poems of American Indian Youth. Stephen Gammell, ill. New York: Holiday House, 1989. [grades 2-5]
David L. Russell (essay date March 1998)
SOURCE: Russell, David L. "‘The City Spreads Its Wings’: The Urban Experience in Poetry for Children." Children's Literature in Education 29, no. 1 (March 1998): 31-42.
[In the following essay, Russell laments the lack of thematic responsibility in most children's poetry, but optimistically highlights several juvenile poetry collections thataddress the modern urban experience as an examples of poetic works that do present meaningful and appropriate messages for young readers.]
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Gioia, Dana, "Can Poetry Matter?" The Atlantic Monthly, May 1991, 94-106.
Janeczko, Paul B., Brickyard Summer. New York: Orchard Books, 1989.
Janeczko, Paul B., selector, Poetspeak: In Their Work, About Their Work. 1983. Rpt. New York: Collier, 1991.
Larrick, Nancy, ed., l Heard a Scream in the Street: Poetry by Young People in the City. New York: M. Evans and Company, 1970.
Larrick, Nancy, ed., Piping Down the Valleys Wild. New York: Dell, 1968.
Livingston, Myra Cohn, Climb into the Bell Tower: Essays on Poetry. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
Margolis, Richard J., Looking for a Place. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969.
Rosenberg, Liz, "Has Poetry for Kids become a Child's Garden of Rubbish?" The New York Times Book Review, 10 November 1991, 55.
Soto, Gary, Canto Familiar. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995.
Soto, Gary, A Fire in My Hands. New York: Scholastic, 1990.
Soto, Gary, Neighborhood Odes. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1992.
Richard Flynn, Kelly Hager, and Joseph T. Thomas, Jr. (essay date September 2005)
SOURCE: Flynn, Richard, Kelly Hager, and Joseph T. Thomas, Jr. "It Could Be Verse: The 2005 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry." Lion and the Unicorn 29, no. 3 (September 2005): 427-41.
[In the following essay, Flynn, Hager, and Thomas profile the winners of the 2005 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry and evaluate 2004's contributions to the children's poetry canon.]* * *
Winner: Marilyn Nelson. Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Asheville, NC: Front Street Books, 2004.
Honor Books: Helen Frost. Spinning through the Universe: A Novel in Poems from Room 214. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004.
JonArno Lawson. The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask. Toronto: Pedlar Press, 2004.
Walter Dean Myers. Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices. New York: Holiday House, 2004.
Allan Wolf. New Found Land: Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2004.* * *
In her introduction to the 2004 edition of The Best American Poetry, Lyn Hejinian makes clear that she doesn't "believe in ‘bestness.’" She initially resisted editing the collection, only agreeing after she had come to see her job as a cartographer of sorts, one responsible for giving readers a taste of the "dynamic, ever-changing" terrain of poetry as "a site of perpetual transitions and unpredictable metamorphoses." She writes, "there is no end point in poetry. Indeed, American poetry has always been so full of energy and inventive that it is impossible to define poetry once and for all or to delimit its space. What is or isn't a poem? What makes something poetic? These questions remain open" (9). Her anthology—like all the collections in the Best American series—com- pletely ignores children's poetry. Even the most radically inclusive poets and critics of poetry tend to ignore children's poetry and leave it outside the world of "real" poetry, that is, poetry for adults. So it is especially heartening—and crucial—that 2004 marks the inauguration of The Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry, a continuation of Signal's venerable award, which, sadly, ended in 2001 shortly before the journal ceased publication with its one hundredth issue in 2003. Unlike Signal, which considered only books of poetry published in Great Britain, The Lion and the Unicorn Award focuses on North American poetry. But like Hejinian's anthology and the Signal poetry award, this new award similarly resists the idea of "bestness" and focuses instead on excellence in children's poetry. We are not choosing the "best" book of poetry for children. We would find it hard to choose between Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (1997) and Stephen Mitchell's The Wishing Bone (2003) had they had been published the same year. Both are excellent, but which is best?
In reading the North American poetry for children published in 2004, we were faced with similar questions, though we did arrive at a winner: Marilyn Nelson's Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem, a moving collection that we unanimously selected as the most interesting and complex of the books we received from publishers. The four honor books are not ranked, for they are all so different, so satisfying and impressive that ranking was impossible. These books suggest how diverse and multiple poetic expression can be as they participate in an array of poetic modes and traditions, each working from quite different aesthetic assumptions: there are lyrics, elegies, narratives (two call themselves "novels"), historical narratives, literary nursery rhymes, and, of course, light verse. We did wish there were more formally experimental works. The one collection of concrete poetry (Technically, It's Not My Fault, by book and magazine designer John Grandits) wasn't an especially interesting example of the form. Our list of finalists is heartening, nonetheless. The state of children's poetry in North America isn't as depressingly limited as most of the seventy-seven books we received might lead one to believe. However, while we resist easy notions of "best," we still find pretty useful the notion of "bad."
Our winner, Fortune's Bones, and our four honor books forecast a promising and stylistically diverse future. We have Helen Frost's Spinning through the Universe: A Novel in Poems from Room 214; JonArno Lawson's The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask; Walter Dean Myers's Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices; and Allan Wolf's New Found Land: Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery. One could also say that we have only five excellent books of poetry. Frankly, as book upon book arrived and we began our discussions, we initially despaired. Reading the bulk of what publishers consider poetry worthy of consideration for this award, we feared that the world of children's "poetry" was in serious trouble.
Again, the year's best books—the real books—are impressive. Too many of the books we received suggest that publishers often don't even know what poetry is. Our favorite misguided submission comes from Maple Tree Press: Are You Psychic?: The Official Guide for Kids. Aside from this informative, self-help title, we also received a number of "novels-in-prose" (a new term that we might adopt to distinguish such texts from the increasingly popular genre of novel-in-verse), picture books whose lineated prose somehow must have looked like poetry to the junior editors who sent them to the awards committee, collections of folktales, you name it. What we weren't receiving were many collections of poems that looked like serious contenders.
As we have suggested, we did receive several collections that, in different ways and to varying degrees, embrace the hybrid genre of novels-in-verse. The popularity of this genre is worth noting, not only because it continues a vibrant tradition of poetry that can be traced from the epic to the encyclopedic contributions of the Victorians (Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh  and Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book [1868-69]), but also because much poetry written for children today attempts to continue this tradition. Too often the YA equivalent of Lifetime Television for pre-teenagers (a category into which Linda Oatman High's Sister Slam and the Poetic Motormouth Road Trip and Kathi Appelt's My Father's Summers: A Daughter's Memoir regrettably fall), they fail to heed Ezra Pound's dictum, "Go in fear of abstractions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose" (5). Two notable exceptions to this tendency are Helen Frost's Spinning through the Universe, subtitled "a novel in poems," and Allan Wolf's New Found Land, proclaimed as "a novel" on its dust jacket.
The poet who chooses this form fashions an overarching narrative, making explicit the links between the individual poems and foregrounding the teleological structure of the whole. By highlighting the paths that lead from one poem to another, verse-novelists draw attention to the book as a constructed whole, with a pattern and a logic to its design. Similarly, verse-novels guide the reader from one poem to the next, privileging the plot of the collection and celebrating the way in which one poem leads (or doesn't seem to lead) to the next. It could be argued that novels-in-verse formalize the way we read a book of poetry: highlighting themes and motifs and articulating the connections between poems and the patterns at work in the book. It could, however, also be argued that the form teaches us only how to read a collection of lyric poems arranged as a chronological narrative and not the many collections that are arranged otherwise. We all know how crucial—and exciting—it is to find poetic connections and patterns. Harold Bloom defines criticism as "the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem" (96) and Robert Frost reminded us fifty years ago, in "The Prerequisites" that "a poem is best read in the light of all other poems ever written" (815). Novels-in-verse encourage you to look for those connections. While Here in Harlem and Fortune's Bones are not, it is true, verse-novels, Myers and Nelson do, in their explicit emphases on the formal and thematic kinship that exists among the poems that make up their collections, reveal the narrative inclinations of their books.
This genre is, unfortunately, too often abused; this year's examples by High and Appelt, along with earlier attempts by Mel Glenn, Sonya Sones, April Halprin Wayland, David Levithan, and Steven Herrick are almost entirely made up of verse that seems to have been composed according to the principle of "chopping your composition into line lengths" (4), which Pound so scathingly warns against. It is also true that the vast majority of teen novels-in-verse seem to exist in profound ignorance of what is excellent in "all other poems ever written," that while they draw attention to the connections between the poems in their own individual collections, they do not enter into conversation with the tradition outside the narrow confines of that textual world.
We also received many collections in the distressingly popular genre of parody. Sometimes such efforts even win recognition, so who can blame the publishers for trying? Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's Science Verse is neither good science nor good verse, and yet it has won a Parents' Choice Award and has been named a New York Public Library Title for Reading and Sharing and an American Library Association Notable Book. It does feature a version of Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" that is a marked improvement on the original:
I think that I ain't never seen
A poem ugly as a spleen,
Funny, yes; irreverent, true; but why the second line doesn't read "A poem as ugly as a spleen" escapes us. Perhaps the goal is to make the meter as ugly as the spleen. However, if the rest of the book is any indication, it's just sloppy. But it does come with its own CD (as did several of the books—including the wonderfully titled but ultimately disappointing When Cats Go Wrong, written and performed by Norm Hacking: "Life with a naughty kitty / Isn't very pretty / So I sing this mournful song / About when cats go wrong" [n.p.]).
Some of the books are so bad that they're good. Limericks from the Heart (And Lungs!), for instance, did not make our short list. But it is, nonetheless, one of the most delightful—sometimes confusingly so—books of poetry we received, a mammoth collection of 335 anti-smoking limericks by former wrestler Lanny Poffo. The book is terribly ugly. The cover features a cartoonish band of bodily organs dressed in Renaissance costume (though one is, oddly enough, holding a turn-table) as they walk away from a castle and toward a sign that reads, "Welcome to Ye Hamlet of Freshaire / ‘no butts about it.’" The poems inside the book are just as tacky as the cover. What makes the somewhat hit-or-miss limericks so interesting, though, is their shameless morbidity. Poffo revels in the suffering of smokers, gleefully describing their slow, painful deaths:
A smoker could not pay his rent,
His habit took every last cent.
The money this whacko
Has spent on tobacco
Has bought him an oxygen tent.
It's enough to make you reach for a cigarette.
The amount of bad children's verse published in 2004 has us worried that publishing operates according to Gresham's law (the bad drives out the good), and we are quite certain that it operates according to Sturgeon's law (ninety percent of everything is crap). Much of the innovative poetry for adults—poetry like that championed by Lyn Hejinian—is published by small, independent, or university presses. Unfortunately, few small presses publish children's poetry. As a result, the most important small press distribu- tor (aptly named Small Press Distribution) does not even distribute children's poetry. As our list of honor books suggests, the best books of children's poetry, too, often come from independent houses or employee owned and operated houses such as Candlewick: Lawson's The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask is published by Pedlar Press; Myers's Here in Harlem is produced by Holiday House; Wolf's New Found Land is a Candlewick book; and Nelson's Fortune's Bones is one of Front Street's always impressive creations.
The judges this year tend to privilege musical poetry, poetry that feels good in the mouth, on the tongue, and in the ear. Lawson's The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask is eminently satisfying, more musically pleasing than anything else we received, although Nelson's verse has a subtle music that works to a different effect. Lawson's poetry demands to be read aloud, like the best (and most whimsical) poems by John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons and James Tate. But there is also the music of a less frenetic Dr. Seuss, a less outrageous Edward Lear—though the latter's touch of melancholy is still there—coloring the verse darker shades of purple. The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask (especially its animal poems) is reminiscent of classic mid-century American children's poetry, and of Theodore Roethke and John Ciardi, in particular. The book even looks like a mid-century collection; many of the poems have no illustrations, and those that do are tastefully complemented with Sherwin Tjia's simple yet bold line drawings.
"The Purpose of the Porpoise," for instance, needs no illustration, for it is as lovely a little poem as you can imagine, its name recalling Ciardi's first book of children's poetry, The Reason for the Pelican (1959). The language, too, suggests the craftsmanship and playful energy of Ciardi, particularly in its comic use of alliteration, assonance, consonance, and rhyme. It's a veritable case study of aural effects:
The purpose of the porpoise?
Its preposterous propensity
for spinning on its nose odd props,
regardless of their density.
This preposterous, nose-spinning beast immediately calls to mind a creature from Ciardi's Someone Could Win a Polar Bear (1962): the "Hairy-Nosed Preposterous" that "looks much like a Rhinosterous." (52). The lineage is direct, as Ciardi's "Rhinosterous" anticipates perfectly Lawson's "Rhinostrich." Similarly, "To Catch a Witch" recalls Roethke at his most devilish. In "Some Remarks on Rhythm," Roethke quotes his favorite nursery rhyme:
Hinx, minx, the old witch winks!
The fat begins to fry!
There's nobody home but Jumping Joan,
And father, and mother, and I.
Similar rhythms and subjects come easily to Lawson, who writes
To catch a witch,
first make a wish,
then quietly go put a dish
of dandelions in a ditch.
Rub some ashes on your chin,
tie a feather to your shin.
Draw a circle with some chalk
(that will give a nasty shock
to any witch who wishes to
cast a nasty spell on you!).
Invite her for a glass of sherry
then offer up a magic cherry.
When she eats it, take her shoe
and give it to a dog to chew.
Roethke insists that "some words, like hill, plow, mother, window, bird, fish, are so drenched with human associations, they sometimes can make even bad poems evocative" (71). Lawson has learned this lesson well—and if words like these can make a bad poem better, imagine what they do throughout Lawson's understated and suggestive book of poems.
This book, more than any of the others, seems like it was written for children (as opposed to for or about some reductive construction of "the child"). It evokes in us the exhilaration we still find in reading Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). But The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask is not a step backwards; its rhythmic certainty, lyric playfulness, and magical associations give the book a freshness that selfconsciously "contemporary" poems will never have. We hesitate to use the word "timeless," but there is something of the folk-rhyme in Lawson's verse. He's definitely listened carefully to Mother Goose and to the rhymes and chants of the playground.
Helen Frost's Spinning through the Universe is also a wonderful example of craft. Yes, it's an ugly thing (though take off the somewhat garish dust jacket, and underneath is an elegant little black-bound book), but the verse is excellent, and the voices ring true. It is not as good her wonderful Keesha's House (2003), but Spinning through the Universe is definitely one to keep around. We did notice what might be characterized as a too-easy approximation of the adolescent voice (along with distracting tricks like double punctuation: "!?"), but in many of the poems Frost manages original characters who speak distinctly, and she uses traditional poetic craft to give those voices depth and complexity. In the unfortunately titled, but otherwise wonderful, poem "Crying," Natalie rails against adult euphemisms for death:
Mrs. Williams told us, Monique lost her father. What?!
You don't lose a person, like Ryan lost his cat.
Monique's dad got killed, is what happened.
She continues, insisting that
I'd rather say things straight out. […]
I don't even
Want to talk about it.
These lines contain a rich irony, as the poem is an acrostic, spelling out "MY MIND WORKS THAT WAY" down the left edge. Despite her insistence, Natalie is not saying "things straight out." The enjambment above gives us the line "Want to talk about it," suggesting that Natalie does in fact want to talk about it, despite her words to the contrary. After all, she is talking about it, or we wouldn't have this poem to read. Many of the poems in Frost's book contain these multiple levels in which she sharply describes the ambivalence and contradiction that mark us as human. Finally, the notes on form at the end of Frost's book are also quite good, resisting as they do the condescension usually found in such explanations for children. These notes encourage readers take another look at the poems, to explore how form might inform and complicate their initial reading. Thankfully, these are not models for writers, but rather explanations for readers.
Walter Dean Myers's Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices is similar to Spinning through the Universe, as it is a collection of persona poems, each spoken by a different character, in the explicitly invoked tradition of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1916). It is almost entirely successful: the voices ringing true, the form of the poem and the tenor of the voice working synergistically. But sometimes it does fall a little flat. The book picks up toward the end; the high point is a series of poems by veterans, beginning with "Homer Grimes, 83 / Blind Veteran?" The precision of language in these poems is striking, and they are all quite moving. "Lemuel Burr, 81 / Veteran" is perhaps the most powerful, opening with the image of soldiers freshly home from combat,
Full of ourselves, bursting with pride
We had Red-Balled across Europe
And had triumphed, not merely tried.
The poem turns in the third stanza, when a white girl, noting that she's "glad the Negroes did their part," (77) kisses the appropriately named Homer, who becomes Lemuel's tragic muse. The understatement with which Myers describes the outcome of this encounter crystallizes a moment of horror and crushing spiritual defeat:
We had saved the world from Hitler
But on that dark road they snatched our prize
They pounded away Griff's courage
And they tore out poor Homer's eyes
"What can you see?" the Negro doctor
Asked as he tried to ease the pain
Homer said he'd been away awhile
Now he saw he was home again
Like Here in Harlem, New Found Land does not begin in an especially compelling manner; indeed, the first dozen poems left us a little cold. However, it works differently than most books of contemporary poetry, and certainly it works differently than our other runners-up. New Found Land works like a fugue, building in complexity as you read. It is certainly not compression (the tome is a hefty five hundred pages long) that makes the book desirable, nor is its success due to the musicality of its language. Rather, New Found Land is most impressive in terms of its thematic development, and it is more of a novel than most "novels-in-verse." Its narrative scope is impressive, as is its use of multiple registers of language and multiple types of text: dramatic dialogue, an academic glossary, maps, a bibliography, narrative poetry, lyric poetry, and embedded prose of various kinds, including historical writing, diary entries, and epistles. Like most Candlewick books of poetry, New Found Land is an attractive book. It does lack energy and linguistic play. That is, as poetry, the texture of language (or even the absence of that texture—perhaps willful prosiness) just isn't engaging. For instance, the lines of verse Wolf fashions for Sacagawea come across as flat:
Yet here I do not belong.
The Mandans and Hidatsa are a tall people
and their skin is fair.
I am small. My skin is dark.
And my heart is broken forever.
Nevertheless, the book is an achievement. At times it is a real joy to read, not only because of its bold combination of prose and poetry, but also because of the comprehensive historical vision its generic inclusiveness makes possible.
The poems in Marilyn Nelson's Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem are perfect for reading aloud and profoundly moving. As short as it is, it achieves the scope New Found Land is aiming for. The language is textured, the poems are formally compelling, and the content is politically, historically, and socially relevant. It's accessible to the engaged child reader without being condescending; and, external to the poetry, the book is wonderful to handle. It's a beautiful book, with archival photographs from the Mattatuck Museum exhibit dedicated to the skeleton that inspired the requiem, intelligently and clearly annotated by Pamela Espeland. Simply put, it's an excellent book of poetry.
What sets Fortune's Bones apart from the rest of the verse published in 2004 is its music. The verse itself is distinguished; Nelson is an excellent poet whose work for children and adults has won many other well-deserved awards. But this particular poem, inspired by the poet's listening, in the days after September 11, 2001, "to classical composers' requiems … on public radio," adapts elements of the "traditional funeral mass," the requiem, and combines them with the joy of manumission—the freeing of the slave. As Nelson puts it in her author's note, the poem sets "grief and joy side by side" (9). She likens the music of the poem to a "New Orleans Jazz Band Funeral," which begins as a dirge on the way to the funeral and ends with the jubilance of the "second-line parade" on the way back. This seeming paradox is brilliantly echoed in the construction of the book itself. Helen Robinson's stunning book design combines Pamela Espeland's notes and illustrations from the Mattatuck Museum's exhibit, verso, with the uncluttered text of the poem recto. How heartening it is to have such a multi-layered book that still manages to respect the text. On page eight, for example, is a tiny reproduction of a page from the preliminary score for the poem, composed by Ysaye Barnwell (a noted composer and member of Sweet Honey in the Rock). While we very much hope that a recording of this setting becomes available, the music of the poem is apparent from the language and construction of the poem itself.
The shape of the overall poem—the movement between the sections—also has a musical structure. The table of contents specifies the roles of choir and soloists. The "Preface" is scored for spoken word and is written in some of the most skillful blank verse we have ever seen in writing for young people; indeed, it is accomplished poetry for any audience:
Fortune was born; he died. Between those truths stretched years of drudgery, years of pit-deep sleep in which he hauled and lifted, dug and plowed glimpsing the steep impossibility of freedom. Fortune's bones say he was strong; they speak of cleared acres, miles of stone walls. They say work broke his back: Before it healed, they say, he suffered years of wrenching pain.
The metrical integrity of this opening verse paragraph is rare in children's verse. Many poems that purport to instruct young people about form are usually clueless about the way English meter works. Nelson's verse, however, is above reproach. Nelson's first line (a blank verse line with a trochaic substitution in the first foot) establishes the metrical pattern while at the same time syncopating that music with two well-placed caesurae. "Fortune was born; he died. Between those truths" prepares the reader for a kind of no-nonsense, factual, at once halting and emphatic speech with a minimum of rhetorical flourish. The grammatical connection between "born" and "died" sets up a binary that resonates throughout the book, even to the title—a requiem for the dead, and manumission for one about to be freed. Death is a sort of freedom, and through the poem Fortune is reborn, albeit only in the imagination.
The second line's shift in tone surprises, as the oration becomes more poetic in the second metrically regular line: "stretched years of drudgery, years of pit-deep sleep." "Pit-deep sleep" seems plausible as speech, but it also strikes us as an original turn of phrase. Notice how it anticipates the internal rhyme two lines later: "the steep impossibility / of freedom"—lines that also demonstrate Nelson's command of effective enjambment. The poem's use of irony and understatement chills. The litany of facts ("His wife was worth ten dollars"), conjecture ("A white priest painted water on his head / and Fortune may or may not have believed"), and the stark admission that we know very little about Fortune ("His bones say only that he served and died, / that he was useful even into death, / stripped of his name, his story, and his flesh.") provides a kind of ostinato over which the choir and soloists will take flight in the later sections.
Immediately following the preface, the contralto lament by Fortune's widow, Dinah, employs iambic pentameter abab stanzas, with subtle African-American Vernacular English inflections. Nelson deliberately avoids ballad or blues stanzas here; her metrical choices connect "Dinah's Eament" to the "Preface" and lend power and dignity to Dinah's understated outrage as she is compelled to clean her husband's skeleton:
To dust the hands what use to stroke my breast;
to dust the arras what hold me when I cried;
to dust where his soft lips were, and his chest
what curved its warm against my back at night.
Through every season, sun-up to star light,
I heft, scrub, knead: one black woman alone,
except for my children. The world so white,
nobody knows my pain, but Fortune bones.
Here, we need to interject a word about line integrity. In too much of what passes for young people's poetry, the line breaks bore: prose is chopped into lines unimaginatively, usually according to phrase. Nelson, who published her first collection, For the Body in 1978, understands the importance of the poetic line (and how to break it). Consider this brilliant bit of enjambment: "I heft, scrub, knead: one black woman alone, / except for my children. The world so white." Dinah, who has been imagining Fortune's flesh, the muscular body she used to knead/need and love, is now alone: "except for my children" because of "The world so white." Nelson's attention to line integrity reinforces that sense of a black woman alone doubly. The scrubbing also eerily recalls the bleached and boiling bones—the horrifying "thought of boiling human broth"—earlier in the poem.
As Nelson moves to Dr. Porter's baritone solo, she employs free verse as he describes his dissection of Fortune, with utter disregard for Fortune's humanity:
Herewith begins my dissection of
the former body of my former slave,
which served him who served me throughout his life
and now serves the advance of science.
The ironic refrain of this poem is haunting: "And I am humbled by ignorance / humbled by ignorance." In contrast to Dinah's memory of her husband as a flesh-and-blood human, Dr. Porter's automatic assumption that Fortune is a thing that exists only to serve him demonstrates a profoundly willed ignorance. The Frankensteinian hubris of the poem's final stanza ("In profound and awful intimacy, / I enter Fortune, and he enters me") is so close to Dinah's memory of physical intimacy that it makes us uncomfortable to be privy to this unspeakable violation. The doctor—a wholly believable persona—speaks of this unspeakable violation unaware of its ideological implications. Nelson suggests that the racist is often ignorant of his racism, just as we—her contemporary readers—may be ignorant of our own.
The Kyrie eleison continues in this ironic vein (and it is appropriate that Dr. Porter sings the first stanza), as Fortune's bones become ever more divorced from the human person that was Fortune. They are playthings in the attic, museum curiosities. As with the refrain in the previous poem, the prayer for mercy stands in stark contrast to the soloists' account of the bones:
We played in the attic on rainy afternoons:
Parcheesi, checkers. Or we took the skull
out of its wooden box, and with a leg
rolled it around the dusty floor.
Oh, Lord, have mercy.
Gentle Jesus, have mercy.
Have mercy, Lord.
"The high point of my requiem," Nelson writes, "is ‘Not My Bones,’ which I imagined Fortune singing in his own voice" (9). As successful as the whole poem is, Nelson's command of music reaches its high point in this section ("not part of the traditional funeral mass") in which Fortune's song becomes a true manumission, his freedom occurring not in the moment of death, but in what transcends his "brief incarnation":
We are brief incarnations,
we are clouds in clothes
We are water respirators,
we are how earth knows.
I bore light passed on from an original flame;
while it was in my hands it was called by my name.
But I am not my body.
I am not my body.
Formal, yet deftly syncopated, this is verse of impressive technical skill. But technical skill does not by itself make poetry. This is fresh language: the brevity of our common corporeal existence is made fresh in unsentimental metaphors: "We are clouds in clothes"; we are "We are water respirators." Fortune's song of joy is all the more effective because of his freedom as his soul "roams the night sky's / mute geometry" to sing a joyful song out of what is essential:
You are not your body,
you are not your bones.
What's essential about you
is what can't be owned.
If the poem ended here it would be incomplete. As magnificent as "Not My Bones" is, to end with this poem would be to end on a false note. The brief, but necessary, final poem, "Sanctus," combines the hard-nosed observation, "Each and every one of us is Fortune / for a brief, mortal time. / Then we are compost" (29) with the calling home. What could be a falsely transcendent moment in a lesser poet's hands becomes a moving appeal to the "Eternal source of all identity." (29) Such an abstract concept succeeds—Nelson avoids its obvious potential for grandiosity—because she uses concrete and unsentimental imagery that is specific and compelling:
Magnetic center of the universe,
make us iron filings.
is juxtaposed with a more organic metaphor:
be to us what south is to autumn geese.
Bones, body, voice, and soul. Even "autumn" is right, a time for harvest and a sign of approaching winter—approaching death—a call to migration, a move to warmer climes. Through the poem, Fortune is no longer "stripped of his name, his story, and his flesh," (13) while all the time the poet acknowledges that he was stripped of these things in life as much as in death. Such a deeply ambiguous and ambitious poem is refreshing and inspiring. It shows us—readers, poets, and, hopefully, publishers of children's poetry—just what a book of children's poetry can be: a delight to the ear, the eye, and the mind. It reminds us that children's poems can be works of art. And that is no small accomplishment.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
Ciardi, John. Someone Could Win a Polar Bear. 1962. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills, 2002.
Frost, Helen. Spinning through the Universe: A Novel in Poems from Room 214. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
Frost, Robert. "The Prerequisites." Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays. Ed. Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1995. 814-6.
Hacking, Norm. When Cats Go Wrong. Vancouver, B.C.: Raincoast Books, 2004.
Hejinian, Lyn. Introduction. The Best American Poetry 2004. Ed. Lyn Hejinian and David Lehman. New York: Scribner, 2004. 9-14.
Lawson, JonArno. The Man in the Moon-Fixer's Mask. Toronto: Pedlar P, 2004.
Myers, Walter Dean. Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices. New York: Holiday House, 2004.
Nelson, Marilyn. Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Asheville, NC: Front Street Books. 2004.
Poffo, Lanny. Limericks from the Heart (and Lungs!). Lafayette: White Boucke, 2004.
Pound, Ezra. "A Retrospect." Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1935. 3-14.
Roethke, Theodore. "Some Remarks on Rhythm." On Poetry and Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon P, 2001. 63-74.
Scieszka, Jon, and Lane Smith. Science Verse. New York: Viking, 2004.
Wolf, Allan. New Found Land: Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick P, 2004.
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. "Carroll's Jabberwocky." Explicator 46, no. 1 (fall 1987): 27-31.
Argues that Lewis Carroll's use of nonsense verse in "Jabberwocky" allows the reader to better understand the poem's innate meaning by enabling them to concentrate on its context rather than its diction.
Clark, Leonard. "Poetry and Children." Children's Literature in Education 9, no. 3 (September 1978): 127-35.
Outlines a basic standard for critical assessments of children's poetry.
Delamar, Gloria T. "Goosey, Goosey, Gander, Whither Dost Thy Wander?: A General History of Mother Goose." In Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, pp. 1-15. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 1987.
Charts the publishing history of Mother Goose rhymes.
Franke, Wolfgang. "Browning's Pied Piper of Hamelin: Two Levels of Meaning." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 2, no. 4 (October 1971): 90-7.
Contends that Robert Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamelin is simultaneously intended for children and adults, noting that Browning's intention of reaching both audiences can be seen in the poem's style and thematic subtext.
Hopkins, Lee Bennett. "Looking at Poetry for Children in Twentieth-Century America." In Children's Literature Remembered: Issues, Trends, and Favorite Books, edited by Linda M. Pavonetti, pp. 65-71. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.
Compares the dominant thematic trends in early and late twentieth-century children's poetry.
Lowery, Ruth McKoy. "Dreams of Possibilities: Linking Poetry to Our Lives." ALAN Review 30, no. 2 (winter 2003): 49-51.
Notes several classroom teaching techniques for enhancing student appreciation of children's poetry.
Lukens, Rebecca J. "From Rhyme to Poetry: Poetry." In A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature, pp. 238-59. Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon, 2003.
Offers a critical introduction to the defining characteristics of children's poetry.
Prelutsky, Jack. "How to Write a Funny Poem." Writer 103, no. 11 (November 1990): 7-10.
Prelutsky discusses his writing process, specifically focusing on how to write humorous poetry aimed at juvenile audiences. Prelutsky notes that, "If the poet uses too heavy a hand, the poem goes beyond being funny and turns into something disquieting or even grotesque."