Essay

Poetry, Pickled

The enduring charms of a crowd-sourced kids’ anthology.
Black and white image of a man in the distance standing in a row boat on a lake.

Can a book of poems resemble a jar of pickles? A carefully contained preservation of something concrete and worth conserving, to take off the shelf after long time? Perhaps an acquired taste, but well worth acquiring?

I never considered this poetry-pickle comparison until recently, when I was introduced to an anthology of poetry for middle and high school students called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…and Other Modern Verse. First published in 1966, the anthology is truly idiosyncratic, once wildly popular and these days too little-known. I don’t have children, and I don’t teach the age group at which the book aims. But I’ve been recommending it widely—not just to those who teach or have young readers in their households—but also to anybody who likes short poems that make sense. It strikes me as an impressive and enduring anthology, even a half a century after its initial publication.

Part of the anthology’s long-lasting allure stems from who put it together and how. The editors Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith compiled the book by what today we would describe as crowd sourcing. In the early 1960s, the editors perused hundreds of recently published poetry collections, literary journals, and magazines. They chose 1,200 potential poems, then winnowed it down to 300, and began to test market; they shared this narrowed-down set with junior high students from across the country. The kids weighed in and chose half of the book’s final 114 poems.

The lineup is such that heavy hitters like E.E. Cummings, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Carl Sandburg, and William Carlos Williams appear alongside such lesser knowns as Robert P. Tristram Coffin, John Fandel, Judson Jerome, Phyllis McGinley, and Rosalie Moore. You encounter witty light verse such as “Earth” by John Hall Wheelock:

“A planet doesn’t explode of itself,” said drily
The Martian astronomer, gazing off into the air –
“That they were able to do it is proof that highly
Intelligent beings must have been living there.”

You also get semi-clunkers like “April” by Marcia Masters with such quatrains as:

It’s the hobo at the corner
With his lilac-sniffing gait,
And the shy departing thunder
Of the fast departing skate.

Often, the more sentimental and arguably dated or weaker poems are as provocative of discussion as the canonically superior ones.

In “The Forecast,” for instance, Dan Jaffe must be referring to televisions, not smartphones when he writes, “Perhaps our age has driven us indoors” and that “[w]e sprawl in the semi-darkness.” Yet the poem, on the nose as it is, remains apt, concluding that, “If the earth shakes, it will be on a screen.”

Black and white photographs run alongside many of the poems, some of them literal—a lion behind bars to accompany John Ciardi’s “Why Nobody Pets the Lion at the Zoo”—others arty and abstract—a kaleidoscopic window-like pattern to accompany Gerald Raftery’s “Apartment House.” Designer Donald Marvine strews the small poems around the pages with plenty of white space. Flipping through the anthology gives a sky-like sense of openness and freedom, an impression encouraged by such poems as “Swallows” by Thomas Hornsby Ferril. “The prairie wind blew harder than it could,” it begins, “Even the spines of cactus trembled back.”

The editors arranged the poems by topic, by seasons, and by contrasting views of the same subject matter, such as a bunch of poems about animals that invites the reader to compare Ruth Herschberger’s take on bats to Theodore Roethke’s. All these features conspire to offer incisive points of entry that any teacher, student, or general reader could use.

Now in its 15th printing with more than 45,000 copies sold and counting, the book struck me as oddly fresh and playful: clearly aimed at young readers but free of condescension and possessing enough vitality to captivate adults.

“The anthology was an instant hit with critics, youth, and the public at large,” Aletha K. Helbig writes in Constructing the Canon of Children’s Literature (2004). It “gives its readers credit for intelligence and a rapacious curiosity desiring aesthetic (albeit loose) form.” It was one of the first poetry anthologies to do so, “to open the... imaginations of children to a poetry they can call their own.”

Watermelon Pickle received the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, was included in the Horn Book Fanfare list of best children’s and young adult books of the year, and was cited as an ALA Notable Children’s Book. Professor Emeritus of English Education at Columbus State University James Brewbaker, writing for The ALAN Review in 2013, recalls how “radical” and “new” the “pickle book” seemed. What had attracted kids and adults alike: “The fact that the editors had selected modern poems, many by living poets, and that each poem had room to breathe on the page.” In the 50 years since its publication, Watermelon Pickle has been a go-to text in junior high and high school classrooms.

In 2012, the New York Times asked Nicholson Baker, “Who inspired you to write?” and he responded: “In seventh grade, my English teacher told me to read a poetry collection called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle. There’s a poem in there about a burro sent by express that ends, ‘Say who you are and where you’re going.’ There’s also a bit by Robert Francis that goes, ‘Or tell me clouds / Are doing something to the moon / They never did before.’ That poem really got to me.”

Me too. The Francis poem, “Summons,” is one that I dog-eared, as is the burro one, “Advice to Travelers” by Walker Gibson.

The 2002 Young Adult Poetry: A Survey and Theme Guide attributes the book’s longevity in part to how “all selections speak in a straightforward manner without obscurity or classical references that might inhibit understanding.”

Take “Lost” by Carl Sandburg, which begins: “Desolate and lone / All night long on the lake / Where fog trails and mist creeps.”

Wisely, Dunning and crew save the title poem until the end—a kind of climax to close the collection. Direct and narrative, John Tobias’ “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity” first appeared in New Mexico Quarterly in 1961. The speaker reminisces—just this side of too sweetly—over boyhood summers spent “Far above and away / From the softening effects / Of civilization,” eating watermelons and spitting “The black bullet seeds” with and at his friends. The final stanza depicts him enjoying these memories as they are evoked in his adult present, for:

…in a jar put up by Felicity,
The summer which maybe never was
Has been captured and preserved.
And when we unscrew the lid
And slice off a piece
And let it linger on our tongue:
Unicorns become possible again.

That said, not unlike the jar of pickles in its title, so too can the book feel dusty at times. In the early 1990s, Naomi Shihab Nye was brought in to work on the second edition. “One of their biggest issues was the original book was very white and very male,” she says. “There wasn’t really a multicultural presence in it.”  When Dunning and Lueders approached her, she knew the original book and “was not in love with it.” Initially—because of other commitments and parenting a small child—Nye felt inclined to say no. Then, an odd thing happened.

While she and the original editors were corresponding, William Stafford died. “He had been my mentor and a dear friend to me and to my family,” Nye says. “As we were negotiating about the anthology, he appeared to me in a dream, and told me that I should go ahead and just say yes. It was so strange and honestly like getting advice from your hero from beyond the grave. So I told them, ‘I’ve changed my mind.’”

Subsequently, she and another new editor, Demetrice Worley, worked closely with Dunning and Lueders to renovate the book. “We had way, way too much,” she says of the troves of poems they brought to the literal table they sat around to conduct the proceedings. “We were also in the slightly unsavory business of kicking out poems. Poems we felt were not appropriate in the expanding-consciousness culture, and that maybe didn’t ring right to us.”

In the end, the new edition, which appeared in 1995, did not have remotely the reach of the first. “I thought a little sadly, later, that I guess people didn’t like our book, or maybe it was past its moment. It had been a big hit when it first came out, and maybe that was enough,” Nye says. “I’d say that book existed in its time period and that’s what it’s for and that’s it. Maybe revising a classic anthology is not something worth doing.”

Nye remembers being very touched by the older poets: “They really, really cared deeply about that book. It was made with love. And the feelings that we had after working with the two of them were pure love and a greater, deeper, and widened love for poetry.” That depth of pure love shines from the pages of the original anthology.

In an article called “Why Poetry?” in The English Journal of the National Council for Teachers of English published the same year as the anthology, Dunning concedes that “We have failed, by and large, to convince our students to be readers of poetry,” but asserts that “were each teacher to answer the question, ‘Why teach poetry?,’ our teaching of poetry would improve.”

His fourth and admittedly “half-formed” response echoes in my mind when I try to explain why the unorthodox Watermelon Pickle remains invaluable. Dunning observes that this reason may have as much to do with adolescence as with the genre, because “when students are taught poetry successfully, they are given high-caliber ammunition for their battles against conformity and faddism. We may owe poetry to those students who want to fight the good fight—even though adolescents often seem adequately armed for idiosyncrasy and rebellion.” Any reader who has ever felt the need to rebel or to resist, no matter their age, seems likely to find something resonant in these pages.

Originally Published: November 27th, 2017

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...