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.