Friday, January 23, 2009

Reader's Diary #440- Michael Rosen (editor) and Paul Howard (Illustrator): Classic Poetry

Michael Rosen's Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection is a pretty decent anthology of poetry. While Rosen acknowledges that his selections were originally written in English, and this gives the book a Westernized skew, the poems themselves are still, for the most part, great poems. There were some of the old standbys that I never get tired of reading (Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son," and more), and he even managed to throw in a few surprises such as Banjo Paterson's "Waltzing Matilda" which I've only ever considered as a folk song, not a poem. Another interesting choice, and also from Australia, was Judith Wright and her poem, "Full Moon Poem." She was the only poet in the entire collection still alive when Classic Poetry was published (1998, though she died two years later). I wasn't familiar with her or her poetry and, though I enjoyed the selection, wonder why she made the cut over so many other contemporary poets.

The book was very well put together. With an introduction, biographical information about each poet, notes about particular poems and forms, it has all the special features I love from an anthology.

It also has illustrations. I quite enjoyed Howard's illustrations, and while they weren't always adventurous, they fit the moods of the poems they accompanied. It's perhaps because of these that the publishers and Rosen himself seem to consider this a children's book. On the dustjacket it says, "what [Rosen] has chosen to include are all poems he knows firsthand that children appreciate." Of course he included "Jabberwocky". And yes, "Waltzing Matilda" was a great choice. But if I was aiming a collection of poetry at children, I'm not sure I'd include Thomas Hood's dreary plight of the working class poem, "The Song of the Shirt":
Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
and still with a voice of dolorous pitch,--
Would that its tone could reach the Rich!--
She sang this "Song of the Shirt."

Rhymes and illustrations are not the intellectual property of kids, are they? It's not that I think children need to be sheltered from hardships, per se, but the above example is the last stanza in a four page poem and I would think that such a long and melancholy piece as this, with such adult themes, would do more to turn kids away from poetry than foster an appreciation. Likewise with Ella Wheeler Wilcox's classic "Solitude." "Laugh and the world laughs with you/ Weep, and you weep alone..." Ooops, there goes the bell! Time for recess, kids.

I'm reminded of the Poetry For Young People series which publishes volumes of poems by Robert Browning, William Shakespeare, William Carlos Williams, and many other classic poets and aims them at kids. I'm not suggesting they haven't chosen a stellar selection of poets, but I don't think all of their poetry was intended for kids. I don't mean offensive, either. I just mean they're topics that would appeal more to an adult, usually told in a way adults would appreciate more than a child. It doesn't have to be all nursery rhymes and silliness for children, but nursery rhymes and silliness could certainly help build a child's interest.

Anyway, I enjoyed Rosen's Classic Poetry, even if I wasn't the intended audience.

I'll leave you with a poem by Emily Dickinson taken from this collection. It reminds me of something a friend recently told me about a court case he'd gone through. Once an event happens, he said, you never get the reality of it back. Witnesses remember things in different ways, there are different interpretations, and no one can quite capture the truth. I think this could be Dickinson's argument to the contrary.
A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.


laurasalas said...

Enjoyed your funny review, John. And (gulp) FOUR pages? A single poem in a children's anthology that's FOUR pages. I'm biased, because I love short poems. But that does seem extreme in a children's anthology.

Still, I'm going to have to check this one out.

Wanda said...

"Ooops, there goes the bell! Time for recess, kids."
And they all cheered and ran out the door? lol, too funny John!

"Ring Around the Rosie" is about the Bubonic plague. Who among us didn't chant that as a child? Scarry and depressing stuff! Ah to be young again, think I liked it better when... ;)

jama said...

Enjoyed your review, John. I imagine the longer, more somber poems were included in the name of balance. Editors like that sort of thing.

Author Amok said...

John -- I had a third grade "Poets' Tea" today. I recommended that the teachers read your review.

I usually find these larger poetry anthologies overwhelming, especially for kids. Thanks for pointing out some of the favorites to look for in this book.

tanita✿davis said...

A four paged poem!? Whoa/woe... Definitely time for recess!

Glad there are some good ones in there.

Anonymous said...

That was a very amusing review, John. I'll have to keep an eye out for that one!