September 30, 2013
Poetry magazine expands definition of children’s literature, publishes Lemony Snicket and John Ashbery
by Emma Aylor
The September issue of Poetry devotes twenty-odd pages to a portfolio it calls “Poetry Not Written for Children That Children Might Nevertheless Enjoy.” The section, edited and introduced by Lemony Snicket (who, elsewhere, goes by Daniel Handler), includes a wide range of poets—from Carl Sandburg to Eileen Myles, Zachary Schomburg to John Ashbery. As a whole, it broadens the concept of what can comprise “children’s poetry”:
In general I am suspicious of anything written specifically for children. It is, of course, acceptable to write something to a specific child—‘Dear Elizabeth, I have reason to believe this cake is poison, so please leave it alone and I’ll take care of it later’—but things written by someone who is thinking only of children far too often have an unfortunate tone. If you have ever seen an adult hunch over and begin talking to a child in the high-pitched voice of an irritating simpleton, then you know the tone I mean. It is a tone that takes the fun out of everything, even everything fun.
You may recognize Lemony Snicket from A Series of Unfortunate Events, a string of thirteen novels treading the line between morbid and hilarious. Here, Snicket continues to use the well-loved tone he developed throughout the series, explaining “anthology” as “a word which here means ‘a book containing a bunch of poems gathered together, often for no good reason.’” He footnotes poems with information he finds pertinent to the reader: for example, “Carl Sandburg is an American poet who does’t live anywhere, due to death.”
My question was, at first, which actual children would see Snicket’s portfolio. Luckily, Jeanette W. Stickel, a speech-language pathologist for elementary schools, recently wrote about sharing the issue with her class of five- to seven-year-olds to pretty delightful effect. By the end of Franz Wright’s poem “Auto-Lullaby,” she writes,
my students wanted to try their own hand at writing poetry. Actually, they voiced their poetry. Their writing skills are still in the primitive stage so they dictated their attempts and I scratched out the words as fast as I could, trying to keep up with the words pouring out from students all around my speech-room table. They were inspired.
The students’ resulting poem, sort of an exquisite corpse exercise in spoken poetry, romps through Wright’s rhythm with a full cast of pastries and random animals. In the last stanza, a boy named Zayd extended and altered the metric of the final line; the students noticed, “but no one wanted to change a word. They felt it was perfect just the way it was”:
Think of a dog
who writes a blog
and when he’s done
he wakes his dad up and drinks a glass of cold milk.
This rule-bending creativity is exactly why poetry written by children creates such an open mind in its reader. The experience is reminiscent of Hannah Gamble’s blog post for the Poetry Foundation earlier this year, in which she reproduces lines of poetry written by third- through fifth-graders. My favorites:
[Writing about a family member’s recent death:]
“My brother went down/ to the river
and put dirt on.”
“I have provisions. Binary muffins.
It’s an in/out/in/out kind of universe.”
Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry, published jointly by McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation, showcases similar experiences. In her essay for the book, Matthea Harvey quotes several children: a third grader who wrote, “Poetry is an egg with a horse inside”; another whose entire poem reads, “Sadness is a sky blue / mountain / in the house”; a friend’s son who called her “Matthea quesadilla!”; an unidentified “My heart reads red science books.” And, for a teenage perspective, Jack Collom cedes to a tenth-grader on the subject of the mind: “Like an empty skull / it pulls the sea.”
This is the art of the typo, the mishearing, the accidental perfection that’s blindsiding. “Give them poems that invent other worlds,” Harvey advises. “The poet’s job is to forget how people do it,” Gamble says; and the child’s magic, in writing poetry, is to remind us of a life built of not-knowing.
Snicket ends his introduction with this paragraph, one of both respect and permission:
If you are a child, you might like these poems. Of course, you might not. Poems, like children, are individuals, and will not be liked by every single person who happens to come across them. So you may consider this portfolio a gathering of people in a room. It does not matter how old they are, or how old you are yourself. What matters is that there are a bunch of people standing around in a room, and you might want to look at them.
Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.