Essay on Children's Poetry

Listen to This

An appreciation of the tongue-twisting and incantatory mix in a new anthology of children’s poetry.

“When I was eight,” says poet and anthologist Elise Paschen, “my parents gave me a poetry anthology. There was a magician on its cover, a raven, a cauldron swirling with stars and smoke, and,” she says, “it included Blake’s ‘The Tyger.’ I was so taken by the poem—its cadence and the imaginary picture I had of the tiger’s eyes—that I memorized and recited it—a lot.” She laughs. “And from that day I was hooked on poetry. I devoured it. I was in that world, absorbed by its mystery and completely under its spell. I started this project because I wanted to create a book that might have that same effect on other children that my book had on me.”

That book is Poetry Speaks to Children (Sourcebooks), the offspring of the popular adult poetry anthology Poetry Speaks. The children’s book is attractive, in a polished first-day-of-school-bulletin-board kind of way: satisfying, but planned. But the contents reveal a nicely nonstandard selection of children’s poems, and—the real prize—recordings of many of them. To hear the spare, echoey voice of Tolkien quietly march out as if it were alone in an empty theater, and Mary Ann Hoberman’s appealing and teacherly preface to her poem “Brother,” which she reads once and then a second time in a rapid, incantatory, tongue-twisting rush, is a spontaneous, joyful pleasure that defies packaging or the decorator’s palette. Langston Hughes prefaces his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by describing the moment he wrote it: on a train as a young man, just out of high school, after seeing the Mississippi for the first time. He remembers being so moved that he wrote it on the only paper he had: the back of an envelope. Hughes’s description of the river and its personal, social, and historical significance has the quality of a transcendental revelation. He summons the freight of feeling that moment produced—and when the moment appears, his voice gives us the poem, too.

It’s a wonderful way for a child to encounter a poem, and it’s one of many such moments on the CD and in the book’s pages. Many of the poets chosen do not typically spring to mind when one thinks of children’s poetry. There are authors one recognizes as children’s writers, such as A.A. Milne, Jane Yolen, and Mary Ann Hoberman, but Paschen also includes Stanley Kunitz, Sylvia Plath, W.D. Snodgrass, and Maxine Kumin—great contemporary adult poets. “I wanted to introduce kids to our great poets throughout the ages, even those poets whose appearance in a children’s anthology is unexpected,” she says. “I wanted those names to be familiar, relevant, and interesting. I want this early experience with poems to be one that can continue, so that as children grow older, their love of poetry can deepen.”

It’s a smart, conscious agenda for cultivating future poetry readers, and it’s appealing for adults too. Readers of contemporary poetry may know some of C.K. Williams’s thoughts about mortality and love, but—really, how does he feel about flatulence? As she reads her poem “Sneeze,” Maxine Kumin’s serious voice moves steadily toward the inevitable a-choo! with the brisk confidence of a mother rinsing dinner plates—a reassuring presence that knows all about sneezing and other vulnerable moments of self-surrender; a voice that knows it belongs to the grown-up world and so, unapologetically, stays there. The poems are not patronizing or blandly sweet, and they don’t sacrifice fun.

There is a lot of word and sound play in these poems that gives them a friendly texture, a lot of raucous meter and momentum, and there is silliness and sympathy. The poems come from a world that seems to be a large, complicated, beautiful, and mysterious place.

That’s some inclusion criteria, but Paschen also acknowledges that her choices were governed by luck, too. “I spent weeks in the basement of the Library of Congress going through their recordings, looking for poems that came from a variety of cultures, and for things that I knew would appeal to my own children: chocolate, balloons, dinosaurs, staying up late. I happened upon some recordings through friends—Ogden Nash’s granddaughter Fernanda Eberstadt is a friend, and her family had a recording of him reading. On vacation I visited the Michigan City Public Library and discovered their remarkable collection of audio recordings. And I sent out a call for submissions to poets and got a lot of wonderful poems back. Poets were extremely generous about recording themselves for this project, and we used NPR studios around the country. And, of course, there were poems I wanted but couldn’t get—because I discovered them too late, because of permissions, etc. —that I’m hoping to include in the next edition, due out in spring 2007.”

The end result is the kind of work and reward you’d expect from a bake sale—best at its most homespun moments, community-minded, friendly, authentic, sincere, and full of treats.

Originally Published: May 31st, 2006

Susan Hutton is the author of On the Vanishing of Large Creatures (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2007).

  1. November 26, 2008
     roxanne williams

    It's interesting to know that both Ogden Nash's daughter's became writers ( Isabel Nash and Linell Smith) and that Linell's daughter, also named Linell, became a writer and that both Isabel's children became writers (Nicholas Eberstadt and Fernanda Eberstadt)!