The poems contained in this children’s poetry portfolio are not made for children. Poetry is like a curvy slide in a playground — an odd object, available to the public — and, as I keep explaining to my local police force, everyone should be able to use it, not just those of a certain age.
In general I am suspicious of anything written specifically for children. It is, of course, acceptable to write something to a specific child — “Dear Elizabeth, I have reason to believe this cake is poison, so please leave it alone and I’ll take care of it later” — but things written by someone who is thinking only of children far too often have an unfortunate tone. If you have ever seen an adult hunch over and begin talking to a child in the high-pitched voice of an irritating simpleton, then you know the tone I mean. It is a tone that takes the fun out of everything, even everything fun.
Speaking of fun, some time ago I found myself locked in the basement of the Poetry Foundation building. It is a handy place to hide from the authorities, a horrible place to forage for snacks, and a wonderful place in which to get some reading done. The basement is crammed with the efforts of poets living and dead, famed and forgotten, terrific and terrible. There are books of poetry everyone knows, and little pamphlets no one has heard of. There are anthologies, a word which here means “a book containing a bunch of poems gathered together, often for no good reason,” and there are loose pages, scrawled and printed and typed with sestinas and epithalamiums and forms of poetry that have yet to be given names.
By the time it was safe for me to emerge, blinking, onto the streets of Chicago, I had gathered together the poems you now find here. I asked my associate Chris Raschka to provide some illustrations, and I have added a few notes which may or may not be appreciated. There are poems by men and women, living and dead, familiar to millions and unknown to everybody. The only things that all the poems have in common is that they are all strange in some way, because all great literature is strange, the way all good slides are slippery.
If you are a child, you might like these poems. Of course, you might not. Poems, like children, are individuals, and will not be liked by every single person who happens to come across them. So you may consider this portfolio a gathering of people in a room. It does not matter how old they are, or how old you are yourself. What matters is that there are a bunch of people standing around in a room, and you might want to look at them.
“Knocks on the door”
Knocks on the door.Who?I sweep the dust of my lonelinessunder the rug.I arrange a smileand open.tr. by Khaled Mattawa
An open door says, “Come in.”A shut door says, “Who are you?”Shadows and ghosts go through shut doors.If a door is shut and you want it shut,why open it?If a door is open and you want it open,why shut it?Doors forget but only doors know what it isdoors forget.
Starting to read something, such as a portfolio, is like opening a door, so I thought it would be interesting to start with two poems about doors written by two very different poets. Maram al-Massri is a Syrian woman who now lives in the city of Paris, France. Carl Sandburg is an American man who doesn’t live anywhere, due to death.
The Witch Has Told You a Story
You are food.You are here for meto eat. Fatten up,and I will like you better.
Your brother will be first,you must wait your turn.Feed him yourself, you willlearn to do it. You will take him
eggs with yellow sauce, muffinstorn apart and leaking butter, fried meatslate in the morning, and always sweetsin a sticky parade from the kitchen.
His vigilance, an ice pick of hungerpricking his insides, will meltin the unctuous cream fillings.He will forget. He will thank you
for it. His little finger stuck every daythrough cracks in the barswill grow sleek and round,his hollow face swell
like the moon. He will stop dreamingabout fear in the woods without food.He will lean toward the mawof the oven as it opens
every afternoon, sighingbetter and better smells.
“Yes, I live inside the piano”
Yes, I live inside the piano,but there is no need for youto come and visit me.tr. by Alexandra Büchler
I’m in the house.It’s nice out: warmsun on cold snow.First day of springor last of winter.My legs run downthe stairs and outthe door, my tophalf here typing
Sometimes a poet gets very interested in some story or event we’ve all heard many times but never thought much about. Haymon’s poem is from a book called Why the House Is Made of Gingerbread. “Vigilance” means “waiting alertly.” “Unctuous” means “trying very hard to please someone in a way that is often irritating.”
In the poem by Ron Padgett I know exactly what he means. In the poem by Katerina Rudcenkova I have no idea what she is talking about. I’m not sure which I like better.
If I would be walking down the roadyou told me to imagine and I would and finda diner kind of teacup sitting on its saucerin the middle then I would feel so goodin my life that is just like mineI would walk right up and look into my faceeclipsing the sky in the tea in the cupand say, “Thank you, I have enjoyedimagining all this.”
“Eclipsing” is a word which here means “blocking the light from,” as the moon sometimes does of the sun, and vice versa. One of the things I like about this poem is how polite it is.
In the Low Countries
They are building a shipin a fieldmuch bigger than I should have thoughtsensible.When it is finishedthere will never be enough of themto carry it to the seaand already it is turningrusty.
“The Low Countries” refers to an area in Europe, near the coast. “Sensible” is a word which here means “full of common sense.” Poetry usually isn’t.
For Burn Construction Company
When you were building the i-10 bypass,one of your dozers, moving earthat the center of a great pit,slipped its thick blade beneaththe water table, slicing into the earth’swet palm, and the silt moistenedbeneath the huge thing’s tires, and the crewwas sent home for the day.Next morning, water filled the pit.Nothing anyone could do to stop it coming.It was a revelation: kidney-shaped, deepgreen, there between the interstateand the sewage treatment plant.When nothing else worked, you called ita lake and opened it to the public.And we were the public.
“Silt” is a kind of dirt. “Revelation” refers to when something is revealed, like a secret or another dangerous idea.
My hatwas run overby a trolleyyesterday.This morningmy coat took a walkto some placefar away.This afternoonmy shoeshappened to get assassinated.— I’m still here?that’s justi t.tr. by Johannes Göransson
O beautifulwas the werewolfin his evil forest.We took himto the carnivaland he startedcryingwhen he sawthe Ferris wheel.Electricgreen and red tearsflowed downhis furry cheeks.He lookedlike a boatout on the darkwater.
My favorite part of the Parland poem is the space between the letters of the last word.
My favorite part of the Brautigan poem is the title.
My mother sends me a black-and-whitephotograph of her and my father, circa1968, posing with two Indian men.
“Who are those Indian guys?” I ask heron the phone.
“I don’t know,” she says.
The next obvious question: “Then whydid you send me this photo?” But I don’task it.
One of those strange Indian men ispointing up toward the sky.
Above them, a bird shaped like aquestion mark.
The One About the Robbers
You tell me a joke about two robbers who hide from the police. One robber hides as a sack of cats and the other robber hides as a sack of potatoes. That is the punch line somehow, the sack of potatoes, but all I can think about is how my dad used to throw me over his shoulder when I was very small and call me his sack of potatoes. I’ve got a sack of potatoes he would yell, spinning around in a circle, the arm not holding me reaching out for a sale. Does anyone want to buy my sack of potatoes? No one ever wanted to buy me. We were always the only two people in the room.
— Zachary Schomburg
A “bestiary” is a book of beasts. Alexie is of Native American, or “Indian,” descent.
“Joke” is a much more difficult word to define.
Think of a sheepknitting a sweater;think of your lifegetting better and better.
Think of your catasleep in a tree;think of that spotwhere you once skinned your knee.
Think of a birdthat stands in your palm.Try to rememberthe Twenty-first Psalm.
Think of a big pink horsegalloping south;think of a fly, andclose your mouth.
If you feel thirsty, thendrink from your cup.The birds will keep singinguntil they wake up.
The Twenty-first Psalm is a song in the Bible. The Bible contains some fantastic poetry, although I’ve always preferred Franz Wright’s.
This is a world where there are monstersThere are monsters everywhere, racoons and skunksThere are possums outside, there are monsters in my bed.There is one monster. He is my little one.I talk to my little monster.I give my little monster some bacon but that does not satisfy him.I tell him, ssh ssh, don’t growl little monster!And he growls, oh boy does he growl!And he wants something from me,He wants my soul.And finally giving in, I give him my gleaming soulAnd as he eats my gleaming soul, I am one with himAnd stare out his eyepits and I see nothing but whiteAnd then I see nothing but fog and the white I had seen before was nothing but fogAnd there is nothing but fog out the eyes of monsters.
"A monster owl"
A monster owlout on the fenceflew away. Whatis it the signof? The sign ofan owl.
The word “monster” automatically makes a poem more interesting.
5am: the frogsask what is it, what is it?It is what it is.
And the Ghosts
they own everything.
Many, many poems are too long; hardly any are too short.
The room I entered was a dream of this room.Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.The oval portraitof a dog was me at an early age.Something shimmers, something is hushed up.
We had macaroni for lunch every dayexcept Sunday, when a small quail was inducedto be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?You are not even here.
A quail is a small bird. Like many small birds, it is said to taste like chicken. “Induced” is a word which here means “persuaded, usually through trickery.” Some people think John Ashbery is one of the greatest poets in the world. Other people don’t understand his work at all. I count myself in both categories.
Roads around mountainscause we can't drivethrough
That's Poetryto Me.
“Uppity” refers to someone who acts as if they are more important than they are, as in the sentence “Is it uppity of Lemony Snicket, who is not a poet and knows very little about poetry, to edit his own poetry portfolio?”
“Knocks on the door” by Maram al-Massri, translated by Khaled Mattawa is reprinted by permission of Bloodaxe Books and Copper Canyon Press. “Doors,” from Wind Song, is copyright © 1957 by Carl Sandburg, and renewed 1985 by Margaret Sandburg, Janet Sandburg, and Helga Sandburg Crile, reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. “The Witch Has Told You a Story” by Ava Leavell Haymon is reprinted by permission of Lousiana State University Press. “Yes, I live inside the piano” by Katerina Rudcenkova, translated by Alexandra Büchler, is reprinted by permission of author and translator. “Poem” by Ron Padgett is reprinted by permission of Coffee House Press. “Trust” by Liz Waldner is reprinted by permission of Liz Waldner and the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. “In the Low Countries” by Stuart Mills is reprinted by permission of Rosemary Mills. “Burn Lake” is copyright © 2010 by Carrie Fountain and used by permission of Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (usa) llc. “My hat” by Henry Parland, translated by Johannes Göransson is reprinted by permission of Ugly Duckling Presse. “A Boat,” from The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disasters by Richard Brautigan, is copyright © 1965 by Richard Brautigan, reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. “Bestiary” by Sherman Alexie is reprinted by permission of Ugly Duckling Presse. “The One About the Robbers” by Zachary Schomburg is reprinted by permission of Black Ocean. “Auto-Lullaby” by Franz Wright is reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. “Monsters” by Dorothea Lasky is reprinted by permission of the author. “A Moster Owl” by Lorine Niedecker is reprinted by permission of University of California Press. “Dawn” by Campbell McGrath is reprinted by permission of the author. “And the ghosts” by Graham Foust is reprinted by permission of the author. “This Room,” from Your Name Here, is copyright © 2000 by John Ashbery and used by arrangement with Georges Borchardt, Inc. “Uppity” by Eileen Myles is reprinted by permission of the author.