“We want a bucket of marbles:” An informal tour of children’s poetry anthologies with interjections for and from the children.
Over the River and Through the Wood: An Anthology of Nineteenth Century American Children’s Poetry suggests that not all children’s poetry in America in the nineteenth century was didactic in purpose. The editors note that “poems [written for children] are contact zones between adults and children: they register agendas, mixed motives, and competing desires.” Contemporary children’s poetry continues to struggle to break away from the edifying qualities that mark the tradition. It is this zone of mixed motives and agendas that I hope to illuminate as I document here my experiences reading children’s poetry anthologies with the four and six year old of my household.
Before I begin, and to contextualize further, I’ll make the claim:
Children’s poetry lives in a very specific level of hell in the minds of most poets who write for adults. And, I implicate myself here as one of those, even though it’s through the reading of children’s poetry that my personal aesthetics have broadened. Prose written for children seems to garner more respect, but children’s poetry is often dismissed by many for the same reasons Kenneth Koch articulates in Rose Where Did You Get That Red? when he describes the poetry he finds in his fifth grader’s textbooks:
“Everything was reassuring and simplified, and also rather limited and dull. And there was frequently a lot of rhyme, as much as possible, as though the children had to be entertained by its chiming at every moment.”
Maybe my children agree. I begin the night with the oft’ anthologized: “The Owl and the Pussy Cat went to sea/” but before I even get to “in a beautiful pea green boat/” I’m informed it is “the most boring poem ever written.”
I bring them books, and I also discover, I bring an agenda. “Books are candy,” I think to myself. “Books are medicine,” says the four year old revising my unspoken thought aloud.
The 2007 publication of the anthology Kindergarde (black radish books) is worth noting in the context of my thoughts here. Most of the poems found within were originally published for adult audiences. Some of the poems were written for the anthology itself or for a particular child. The introduction directly addresses children and the large format size matches our copy of Robert Louis Stevens’ A Child’s Garden of Verse exactly. In her introduction, editor Dana Lomax says that the poems selected are ones that “take risks” like so much of the writing done by children does, which echoes Koch’s sentiments in Rose, Where Did you Get That Red?. Lomax shows supreme trust and respect in children’s imagination and their readerly capability by including poems like, Douglas Kearney’s “The Word: Play” and Elise Ficarra’s “Counter-Spell to Inflect Fear” which are typographically interesting pieces that can accommodate multiple readers and readings.
Despite the reputation of children’s poetry among the adult poets that I mentioned earlier, what this anthology showcases is a nostalgia for it. Much of the work references or builds off of fairy tales, mother goose rhymes, and light verse. In the end, I couldn’t help but feeling this book wasn’t really created for children to read at bedtime, but for poets like me, poets who are inspired by or create avant-garde work and also teach K-12 audiences or have children themselves. Pieces like CA Conrad’s “Somatic Poetry Exercises” and Juliana Spar’s “Everybody’s Performance Art: Ten Possible Reenactments” certainly have a more teacherly use.
The large format size, the inclusion of black and white illustrations, and an invitation to readers to use the extra white space to write their own poems are all visual ways this anthology references a kind of book like Stevens’ classic. However, thick blocks of text often dominate and from a purely visual perspective the book is not competitive with other children’s poetry anthologies on the market. The work is so rich that any one of the pieces included in this anthology could have been made into a children’s book of its own, though that’s not the point of this anthology project.
I crave the commercial, mass-market rendering of a book like Kindergarde, while I recognize what makes it special is its stance that is counter to popular culture.
I pick through many a book of children’s poetry that feels droll, cliché, overly sentimental, raunchy. My populist hopes for what could be an audience for poetry--even if just a captive, school-based audience--never quite mesh with the books I find. My expectations are built in part by the nostalgia for my own reading as a child--the tenor that felt so palpable in Kindergarde. It runs through teachers and students expectations, and certainly, it plays a role in the development of their own tastes. I call it vintage, and it is tinged with trend, not just history.
In contrast to Kindergarde, is Jack Prelutsky’s The 20th Century Children’s Poetry Treasury (Knopf, 1999) unlike some of the other anthologies I’ll mention here its title calls attention to the fact that it is “children’s poetry” that is collected therein. But some “adult poets” are invited too: Gwendolyn Brooks is here as is Langston Hughes, Richard Wilbur, Frost, Cummings, Roethke. But these poets are exceptions and are lost to the likes of children’s giants Seuss, Silverstein, Lansky, Adoff, Kuskin. Narrowing the field to the 20th Century helps Prelutsky avoid some staid choices like Dickinson’s “I am nobody/who are you?/” and all of Louis Carroll. The poems are packed like sardines: five to a page with illustrations by Meilo So squeezed in between.
In his introduction, Prelutsky says,
“Until this century, most children’s poetry was either syrupy sweet or overblown and didactic, and tended to talk down to its readers. Contemporary children's poets have thrown all that condescension and moralizing out the window, and write with today’s real child in mind.”
But I can't believe this claim, nor do I see this idea further developed from the poems Prelutsky puts forth as proof. It’s Nikki Giovanni’s Hip Hop Speaks to Children: a celebration of poetry with a beat (Sourcebooks, 2008) that could sell me on this idea, but she doesn’t offer up this claim up in her introduction. And, she can’t because much of this work wasn’t originally written for children. The book features mostly hip-hop artists and songwriters like Kanye West, Common, Sugarhill Gang, A Tribe Called Quest, Lauryn Hill, Tupac Shakur, Queen Latifah mixed with children’s poets like Walter Dean Myers (who isn’t anthologized enough in my opinion), Eloise Greenfield, and classic poets writing for adults like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, and Lucille Clifton. The musical excerpts included on the disc are short leaving out the parts that must be left out for a book marketed for children, and ends with an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. It’s a fresh, contemporary, and very thoughtful mix of artists and locates hip-hop as a subgenre of poetry, a relationship that many adults have been reluctant to acknowledge in the past.
Paul B. Janeczko’s most recent anthology project The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects takes its title from a Billy Collins poem by the same name and attempts to do exactly what the subtitle suggests. Janeczko avoids the “reassuringly simplified” and includes an assortment of poems that complicate his chosen theme of objects while illuminating the history of poetry. To learn this history lesson every poem in this collection will need to be read, or at least the table of contents. And, oddly, there are no children’s poets in this collection edited by a children’s poet.
It is from this book I read as my children keep correcting Yeats. It isn’t “The Cat and the Moon” he has written, it’s “The Cow Jumped Over the Moon, Mom.”
They refuse to consider Plath’s “Mushrooms”: “disgusting!”
And to Mary Oliver’s questions from “The Summer Day”: “Who made the world/?” I learn: “the builders!” “two stars!” “the dog!” Maybe they meant that last one spelled backwards?
And finally, the poignant question, but for only the parents in this household: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?/”
I am informed they plan to buy a lot of toys. “I agree with the marketers!” one says, as the inky watercolor illustration of a grasshopper by Chris Raschka runs the other way.
If you sometimes wonder deep in the night, as I do, ‘why isn’t children’s literature written by children?’ perhaps Naomi Shihab Nye’s anthology projects would satisfy. There are many to chose from, but I’ve dipped into Salting the Ocean: 100 Poems by Young Poets (Greenwillow, 2000) frequently and am curious about the promise the jacket copy makes, “these poets are not famous…you have not read their poems before.”
Unlike some of the other anthologies I’ve mentioned here, Salting the Ocean cannot sell history, tradition, trend. It promises the future, the unfamiliar and so while it aligns with my curiosity and a quest for poignancy as only children could define and deliver it, I read it less, for now at least.
During our reading of poems from The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems (2006) we squabble over whether we will read “The Walrus and the Carpenter” or the “Lobster Quadrille.” But really, they say, “just the last two lines, please.”
These particular poems were not read to me as a child. I don’t regret this. Yet, I’ve found I keep trying to capture something by returning to the Louis Carroll over and over and over again. Finally I realize, I’m trying to remember a feeling I never had—perhaps this is the conceit of nostalgia.
What is it about the mayonnaise of the young child’s brain, capable of understanding how breakable (but not broken) our language is that makes me want to slather it on my own petrified rock lolling around in my skull?
What desires do these children voice through reading that may be easy to dismiss as silence, recalcitrance, fatigue?
I can’t entirely answer.
When my daughter was 6 months old, I used to watch her sleep, eyes fluttering in and out of REM patterns. I wondered what her dreams looked like. Did she see my face? Was there a sequence of events or just a series of colors, textures, smells? Was there language? Sound? I can never inhabit the dreams of my children, and, I’m embarrassed to tell you but, I try. I am skeptical of poignancy as defined by adults and then neatly packaged for children, of nostalgia that preferences particular eras, movements of poetry, poetic twangs.
The children in this house are for the book that emphasizes poetry as a collaborative, communal endeavor stretching back centuries. The book that admits that poems are never precious enough to be added to the common song of the neighborhood. The children want the book that emphasizes automatic, associative thought, improvisation and intuition.
I believe in this literature written by children. Edited, marketed, sold, produced, critiqued, discussed, denounced or lauded by children. I believe in the poem, crowd sourced by 8 year olds. I long for the children to return to the streets and add their songs and stanzas to a bigger, broader poem. I believe that this literature may already exist, but that I am blind to it on my high horse.