Musical, truthful poetry for children

Children’s poetry shouldn’t be hammy, condescending or “artificially sweetened,” writes Robert Pinsky in Slate.  In addition to praising Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, Pinsky lists (and reads aloud) poems by Edward Lear, Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter de la Mare that exemplify musicality and truthfulness.

Their poems are tough, not cloying. Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane” associates illness with imagination in a way that’s disturbing or mysterious as well as engaging. The change from past to present tense in the last stanza — “I was” the giant who “sees”—evokes the imaginative or delirious trance of an extended moment. De la Mare’s grotesque “John Mouldy,” “Miss T,” and “Jim Jay” engagingly conjoin the comic and the sinister.

Edward Lear’s “How Pleasant To Know Mr. Lear” inspired an adaptation by T.S. Eliot. The wildly playful, reckless, insouciant, and what-the-hell quality of Lear’s limericks have also been widely adapted or imitated—but rarely matched.

Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses was one of my favorite childhood books. I still have my copy.  Pinsky quotes:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

 These poets “respect the imagination, including its elements of mystery and dread,” Pinsky writes.


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  1. I’m been a fan of Pinsky for years.

    Here is one poem of his that my students especially like:

  2. Diana Senechal says:

    Thank you for pointing out Pinsky’s excellent piece. Yes, indeed, the best poetry (for children and for adults) is tough and beautiful; it does not condescend.

    I love Pinsky’s discussion of nonsense:

    “In poetry, Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ is often cited, correctly, as a masterpiece of the nonsense genre. I’m inclined to quibble with ‘nonsense’ as a term: The nature of all language is to combine meaning with its opposite. Everything we say or write has a component of sense and a component of nonsense. It’s the proportions that vary, the kinds of meaning and nonmeaning. When Shakespeare has King Lear say the word never five times to make a line of blank verse, part of the repetition’s power comes from the arbitrary or accidental nature of a word’s sounds: the nasal N at the beginning, the upper teeth at the lower lip on the V, the R lengthening the final vowel. These sounds are part of the meaning, and part of Lear’s agony, not intrinsically but as a physical part of the word—a bodily, potentially inert accident made meaningful by the playwright’s art, including the repetition that intensifies and conveys the word’s ‘nonsense’ along with its ‘sense.'”

    That reminds me of how, in childhood, I enjoyed repeating a word over and over until it seemed to lose its meaning; it worked without fail. As soon as the sounds took over, the word seemed to be all sound.

  3. My students read Pinsky’s Inferno translation. He has a FABULOUS but very technical manual on sound in poetry that I love, as well (but don’t teach to high school students).

    I’ve always read “adult” poetry to my daughter. When she was three, I caught her crawling sideways up and down the hallway. When I asked her what she was doing, she told me she was a crab scuttling across the floor of the silent sea. Poor kid skipped old Shel Silverstein and went straight to William Carlos Williams.

  4. “…By at the gallop he goes, and then
    By he comes back at the gallop again.”

    Sounds like one of my idiot neighbor kids on his motorized scooter.

  5. BadaBing says:

    When I was in college, I was lucky enough to be introduced to good poetry through a text written by Lewis Turco. I still have that book and thumb through it from time to time. The thing I like about Turco is his emphasis on prosody, i.e., the forms into which good poets are able to mold their words. I don’t know if you remember Rod McKuen, but his touchy-feely poetry was popular at the time. Needless to say, my poetry professor didn’t care for McKuen.

  6. BadaBing, thanks for recommending Turco. I’ll give him a look.

    At a local used bookstore where I live, they have a shelf labeled American Poetry, another labeled British Poetry, another labeled Spanish Poetry, etc. At the far end there’s a shelf labeled Not Quite Poetry. McKuen’s books are the only ones there.

    I wonder how and why McKuen sold so many books. Was it just marketing?

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    When you have a lot of white space on the page, it means you’re deep.
    And when you reinforce the artificial angst of the undergrad, you can’t lose.
    Plus, when you don’t rhyme and scan, you encourage others to think this poetry biz isn’t so hard.

  8. Robert Louis Stevenson was the first poet I fell in love with; Rod McKuen was the second. At thirteen, he made me fall in love with poetry as well as with himself. My poetic tastes eventually hungered for more than McKuen had to offer, but I hold him dear to this day for drawing me into poetry at an age when most others were declaring it boring. I know better–and my life has been the richer for it!


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