Essay on Children's Poetry

Dragons Pulling Wagons

The Children's Poet Laureate on Karla Kuskin's children's poetry.
Introduction

As the first ever Children's Poet Laureate, Jack Prelutsky is turning the high-beam from all the publicity on other fine poets writing for children today. Each month during his tenure, he'll tell you a bit about a poet he admires, and then select a few favorite poems and books by that author.

When the Poetry Foundation named me the first Children’s Poet Laureate, I was delighted and astounded. I’d never expected anything like this. I was delighted because of the recognition for my work, and astounded because there are so many other fine poets writing for children today.

Once the news sank in, I wanted to find a way to share these poets and their poems with everyone. Every month during my tenure, I’ll select a poet whose work I admire and enjoy. I’ll tell you a bit about them, feature several of their poems, and list some of their books. I expect that I’ll enjoy this, and hope you do too. –Jack Prelutsky



In 1964, I showed my first children’s poems to an editor named Susan Hirschman (who remained my editor for more than 30 years). Even though she recognized my talent, she told me flatly that my first efforts were not ready for publication and showed me several books by Karla Kuskin. She said, “This is what you should aim for.” I took her words to heart and read everything of Karla’s that I could find, captivated by her delightful imagery.

Her poems, deceptively simple, are largely based on personal experiences, especially those of her childhood. She writes about things as diverse as hugging bugs, dragons pulling wagons, and a radish rising in the nighttime sky. Karla makes every word stand out in sharp relief. Some of her poems have fewer than ten words, and the way she compresses her thought makes you look carefully at each word, as if it’s as valuable as a diamond.

Karla was born in New York in 1932, and started writing poetry when she was a child. She was fortunate that her parents and teachers appreciated her aptitude and encouraged her. She’s written more than 50 books, and since she’s also a gifted artist, she has illustrated quite a few of them herself.


Here are three poems by Karla Kuskin. You will find all of them in Moon, Have You Met My Mother? The Collected Poems of Karla Kuskin, published by HarperCollins in 2003.

The terrible cat of black velvet fur
will leap at your legs
with a thunderous purrrr
flash through the air
to a lap
or a chair
nibble your dinner
and probably stare
at your face and your frown
as she daintily tears
the chop you were eating
and swallows it down.

* * * * * * * * * *

Write about a radish
too many people write about the moon.

The night is black
the stars are small and high
the clock unwinds its ever-ticking tune
hills gleam dimly
distant nighthawks cry.
A radish rises in the waiting sky.

* * * * * * * * * *

A bug sat in a silver flower
thinking silver thoughts.
A bigger bug out for a walk
climbed up that silver flower stalk
and snapped the small bug down his jaws
without a pause
without a care
for all the bug’s small silver thoughts.
It isn’t right it isn’t fair that big bug ate that little bug
because that little bug was there.

He also ate his underwear.

* * * * * * * * * *



What I Like About These Poems

“The Terrible Cat of Black Velvet Fur” — The structure of this poem mirrors both the quickness and the deliberateness of a cat’s movements. The poem is shaped like the antics of a cat — longer lines juxtaposed with two short three-word lines in the middle of the poem. The rhyme scheme uses simple words in a seemingly random order that mimics the unpredictable actions of a cat: fur/purr, air/chair/stare, frown/down. It’s not easy to take a commonplace subject, such as a black cat, and within a few lines imbue this creature with a personality of its own . . . but that’s what very good poets do.

“Write About a Radish” — Karla is making a little joke about sentimental poetry that flogs hackneyed phrases, such as the image of a “moon in the sky.” She breathes new life into this overused conceit. Even though she surrounds the moon in this poem with typical associations, such as stars, an unwinding clock, dark hills, and night-flying birds, she provides her moon with an unexpected metaphor by calling it a “radish.” It makes you look at the moon in a new and surprising way, as if you just “got” the punch line of a joke.

“A Bug Sat in a Silver Flower” — Karla is having lots of fun in this poem. First of all, she relies on short, mostly one-syllable words that evoke little bugs: “a bug sat in a . . . ,” “. . . bug out for a walk . . . ,” “for all the bug’s small . . . ,” “it isn’t right it isn’t fair that big bug . . . ,” and so forth. Notice that when she describes the “bigger bug” eating the smaller bug, she employs words that are longer in length, which reinforces the larger presence of the “bigger bug.” I also love all the “b” sounds she uses in the poem. Poets are quite aware that the sound of words in a poem is often just as important as rhyme and meter. That’s why poetry should be read out loud or heard in recitation.


All poems from Moon, Have You Met My Mother? The Collected Poems of Karla Kuskin. (HarperCollins, 2003) Copyright by Karla Kuskin.

Related

  • Jack Prelutsky is a creator of inventive poems for children and adults alike. He served as the Poetry Foundation’s Children’s Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2008. Prelutsky grew up in the Bronx, and when he was young he studied classical music; though he gave up pursuing a career as an...

Essay on Children's Poetry

Dragons Pulling Wagons

The Children's Poet Laureate on Karla Kuskin's children's poetry.

Related

  • Jack Prelutsky is a creator of inventive poems for children and adults alike. He served as the Poetry Foundation’s Children’s Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2008. Prelutsky grew up in the Bronx, and when he was young he studied classical music; though he gave up pursuing a career as an...

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