Review of the Day: Poetry Speaks To Children
Poetry Speaks To Children. Edited by Elise Paschen with Advisory Editors Billy Collins, Nikki Giovanni, and X.J. Kennedy. Sourcebooks, Inc. $19.95
You know, for someone who keeps claiming not to know a whole lot about poetry, I sure do review the stuff enough. I suppose that if I sat down and thought it through, I’d realize that poetry is a flexible beastie. It has so many shades, forms, and functions that it’s difficult to dismiss it all so casually when you keep getting exposed to its variations. Take, if you will, “Poetry Speaks to Children” as your example. I took one tiny glance at the cover and thought to myself, “Nuh-uh. Nuh-uh, nuh-uh, nuh-uh. No how, no way, no doing.” The book looked textbooky to me. Like it might *shudder* TEACH me something. You see, in many ways I’ve not progressed much emotionally past the age of nine. Still, once I started reading that cover I was intrigued. Then I opened the puppy up and found a nice swath of different styles and ethnicities represented. Last, but by no means least, I discovered the handy dandy CD tucked away just inside the front cover. The CD containing the voices of Langston Hughes, Ogden Nash, Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many many more people reading their own poems. The kicker? Roald Dahl, baby. And he reads bee-you-tifully. It’s not going to grab you by the tie when you first glance at it, but this here “Poetry Speaks To Children” may just be what the doctor ordered when you find you have a child (or class of the little buggers) looking expectantly to you to teach them what poems are all about.
“Poetry Speaks”, a collection of adult poets reading their works and the works of others, came out in 2001. Logical, really, that the creators should think to come up with an alternative for children. This new edition has come rip-roaringly to life then, held firmly under the impressive thumb of that triumvirate of luminaries Billy Collins, Nikki Giovanni, and X.J. Kennedy. Together, these living breathing poetry gods served as Advisory Editors to one Elise Paschen. The result is a collection of 96 poems that vary in terms of length and scope. Like poems are coupled together, as with one of the opening insect-laden spreads. Right in a row you get Maxine Kumin’s, “The Quarrel”, then “Letter to Bee” by Emily Dickinson, and finally “Hurt No Living Thing” by Christina Rossetti. Each poem is kid-friendly, running the gamut from silly and fun to serious and meditative. Spotted with illustrations by Judy Love, Wendy Rasmussen, and Paula Zinngrabe Wendland, the book is good at bringing together both children’s poets and the rare childish poems of adult poets, for the appreciation of all. A CD with 51 of the poems read, sometimes by their own poets and sometimes by others, round out this poetic undertaking.
Recently the “Barefoot Book of Classic Poems” was released and I had the happy job of deciding whether or not it was a worthy collection. In that particular book the poems were nice and all, but the average reader would have been shocked at how dead, white, and male the whole thing felt. Apparently “classic poems” to the Barefoot Books people means you do it Euro-centric or you do not do it at all. This, in part, is why I enjoy “Poetry Speaks to Children” a much as I do. It not only constitutes “classic” status (you’ve your “Casey At the Bat” alongside a little Poe and some Robert Frost) but it weaves in a variety of different cultures. Langston Hughes, his voice actually here and present on the CD, reads “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. After him you might find the work of an anonymous Osage poet and then later a work by Sonia Sanchez followed by Sylvia Plath. Maybe a bit of variety in the kinds of poems wouldn’t have been too out of place. A haiku, for example. As it stands, however, the editors of this book have given some thought to acknowledging poetry from somewhere other than a single continent or culture.
Some people might complain that the book offers little to no context for the works found here. A kid who picked it up wouldn’t understand that Alexander Pope, whose “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness” is featured, isn’t likely to become Poet Laureate anytime soon. No biographical information appears on this pages or pertinent facts pertaining to the poetry itself. Mind you, I do not see this as a problem in the least. If it's facts you want, you can just as easily look them up elsewhere. This book is trying show to kids the sheer variety and pleasure poetry can inspire. If you want to tack on a history lesson to boot, that’s your prerogative. This book, on the other hand, is working towards making poetry fun and accessible. No mean feat.
The editor(s) of the book knew that giving the title a single illustrator would have consisted of overkill. You may love a particular artist with all your heart, but asking them to illustrate a book consisting of 96 poems is just cruel. The art may suffer, or the readership bore of the repeating style. So the nice thing about having three artists working behind the scenes is that your eyes get a bit of a break from the same old same old. Of course, if there’s one thing that Love, Rasmussen, and Wendland have in common, it’s the cuddly-factor. These guys get seriously adorable sometimes. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. We’re dealing with poems for children. As it stands, the illustrations and poems complement one another and make the book infinitely accessible to the young browser, whosoever that might be. Still, the inclusion of someone akin to Ronald Searle could’ve pepped the puppy up a bit. Or caused preschoolers to run screaming the other way. One or the other.
Now I don’t want to go and say that the real lure of this collection lies in its accompanying CD because that is simply not true. The book has much to recommend itself. On the other hand, consider this CD quite a draw. Its recordings span time, bringing together the voices of those men and women you might not find on a single disk elsewhere. The track listings actually appear in the Table of Contents. Additionally, each poem that appears in the book AND on the CD has a useful track number placed noticeably but not gaudily at the top of that poem's page. In the back of the book lies the Print Permissions and Audio Credits, and it is here that you’ll be able to learn where each recording originated. Now, because some of these poets are not so much with, uh, living, their recordings are a little scratchier than their compatriots. It really doesn't make a difference in the end. Plus I loved that sometimes a poet could surprise you. I didn’t think that William Jay Smith’s, “Balloons” looked all that interesting on the page, but the man really ropes you in with his reading. Likewise, every poem that Advisory Editor X.J. Kennedy reads seems to purr directly into your ear. The song version of “The Ghost and Jenny Jemima” may catch you unawares (and I wasn’t entirely certain that including a song was very fair) but it’s certainly to get some attention I suppose.
The layout was really well done on this book. I just want to add that as a kind of afterthought. Many time two poems will appear on the same page and it would have been so easy for the book’s designers to just play hooky and leave both poems with similar fonts. Then the readers would have been particularly confused by which poem was which. As it is, I did have a slight beef with the fact that someone thought it a bright idea to sometimes place the title of a poem at the end of its stanzas rather than at the beginning. On the other hand, when two poems grace the same page and it looks as if they might run into one another, the font color or font itself may change to distinguish the two. Bravo, one and all.
It seems to me that if you were a teacher or just a poem-happy parent, you might do very well to pair this book with Paul B. Janeczko’s, “A Kick In the Head”. This book may have some of the big names and fun poems in it, but THAT book actually knows the difference between a sonnet and a senryu. And after all this I still haven’t even mentioned the use of Basil Rathbone reading “The Raven” or the fact that Ogden Nash had quite dulcet tones or even that there's a J.R.R. Tolkien poem lurking here. The book overflows with delicate touches. For teaching or simply pure pleasure, “Poetry Speaks to Children” is quite a get. Strong text and strong audio make for a great work of art.