What Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter de la Mare, and Edward Lear teach us about writing poetry for kids.

What makes them great.
July 20 2010 6:53 AM

Wild Child

The best poems for kids aren't the soft and saccharine ones.

What can we learn from children's verse?Click image toe expand.
What can we learn from children's verse?

As the most bodily of literary forms, poetry appeals to children. It also has a certain appeal for adults who read to children. For one thing, good writing in verse helps make one a more amusing or engaging reader vocally: The rhythms effectively coach us to read aloud well. Such bodily appeal should not entail hamminess or indicate intellectual or moral condescension; good verses don't need to be artificially sweetened. This month, I've compiled work by three poets whose writing meets those dual ideals of musicality and truthfulness.

I have heard the superb writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak say that he does not set out to make works for children: He tries to make good stories and pictures. As someone who has read aloud to children many times, I feel grateful to Sendak and to Margaret Wise Brown and Dr. Seuss and other writers who have rescued me from the shallow stuff marketed as "for children" that I sometimes have found myself reading aloud.

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."

Conversely, "Jabberwocky" conveys its narrative meaning—the "sense" of its adventure story—quite clearly. (Carroll first published a fragment of the poem as "A Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.")

Worthy of presentation along with Carroll's famous poem are these by Edward Lear (1812-88), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), and Walter de la Mare (1873-1956).

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.

All three of these poets do not approach the experiences and interests of childhood with a knowing chuckle or a tidy closure of reassurance. They respect the imagination, including its elements of mystery and dread.

"The Land of Counterpane"

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,          
And all my toys beside me lay          
To keep me happy all the day.          

And sometimes for an hour or so      
I watched my leaden soldiers go,     
With different uniforms and drills,   
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;    

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets; 
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about. 

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.    

.................—Robert Louis Stevenson

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read "The Land of Counterpane." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes..

"Windy Nights"

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.

.................—Robert Louis Stevenson

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read "Windy Nights." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes..

"John Mouldy"

I spied John Mouldy in his cellar,
Deep down twenty steps of stone;
In the dusk he sat a-smiling,
….Smiling there all alone.

He read no book, he snuffed no candle;
The rats ran in, the rats ran out,
And far and near, the drip of water
….Went whisp'ring about.

The dusk was still, with dew a-falling,
I saw the Dog-star bleak and grim,
I saw a slim brown rat of Norway
….Creep over him.

I spied John Mouldy in his cellar,
Deep down twenty steps of stone;
In the dusk he sat a-smiling
….Smiling there all alone.

.................—Walter de le Mare

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read "John Mouldy." You can also download  the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes..

"Miss T."

It's a very odd thing—
….As odd as can be—
That whatever Miss T. eats
….Turns into Miss T.;
Porridge and apples,
….Mince, muffins, and mutton,
Jam, junket, jumbles—
….Not a rap, not a button
 It matters; the moment
….They're out of her plate,
Though shared by Miss Butcher
….And sour Mr. Bate,
Tiny and cheerful,
….And neat as can be,
Whatever Miss T. eats
….Turns into Miss T.

.................—Walter de le Mare

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read "Miss T." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes..

"Jim Jay"

Do diddle di do,
Poor Jim Jay
Got stuck fast
In Yesterday.
Squinting he was,
On cross-legs bent,
Never heeding
The wind was spent.
Round veered the weathercock,
The sun drew in—
And stuck was Jim
Like a rusty pin ...
We pulled and we pulled
From seven till twelve,
Jim, too frightened
To help himself.
But all in vain.
The clock struck one,
And there was Jim
A little bit gone.
At half-past five
You scarce could see
A glimpse of his flapping
Handkerchee.
And when came noon,
And we climbed sky-high,
Jim was a speck
Slip-slipping by.
Come to-morrow,
The neighbours say,
He'll be past crying for;
Poor Jim Jay.

.................—Walter de le Mare

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read "Jim Jay." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes..

"How Pleasant To Know Mr. Lear"

"How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!"
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few find him pleasant enough.

His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big;
His visage is more or less hideous,
His beard it resembles a wig.

He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
Leastways if you reckon two thumbs;
He used to be one of the singers,
But now he is one of the dumbs.

He sits in a beautiful parlour,
With hundreds of books on the wall;
He drinks a great deal of Marsala,
But never gets tipsy at all.

He has many friends, laymen and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.

When he walks in waterproof white,
The children run after him so!
Calling out, "He's gone out in his night-
Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!"

He weeps by the side of the ocean,
He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotion,
And chocolate shrimps from the mill.

He reads, but he cannot speak, Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger beer:
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!

.................—Edward Lear

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read "How Pleasant To Know Mr. Lear." You can also download  the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes..

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read "There was an Old Man with a beard." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be joining in discussion of these classic children's poems this week. Post your questions and comments on the poems, and he'll respond and participate. You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems.

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