For this week’s poetry selections I’ve dipped into my wonderful Minneapolis library’s stacks of vintage books where I’ve found some sweet treasures.
The poems in these first four slim volumes have a number of things in common:
they’re all quite, quite short
they’re infused with lightness and freshness
they observe small, ordinary bits of life
they’re illustrated with grace
More Small Poems
Still More Small Poems
Small Poems Again
all written by Valerie Worth and illustrated by Natalie Babbitt
published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1972, 1976, 1978, and 1986
Such charming volumes, from their trim size, to the delicious colors of their covers, tender font, elegant layout, exquisite ink line drawings gracing each page, and, in my copies, well-worn, slightly-yellowed pages carrying that lovely old library smell. Mmmmm!
Acclaimed poet Valerie Worth has written small poems about the small things that carry an outsized weight of beauty and meaningfulness in our homey, ordinary lives. Her subjects range from raw carrots to soap bubbles, honeycomb to kaleidoscopes. Many attend to flora and fauna common to most North American children.
Using free verse, she strips away all excess word-chaff, leaving polished, sophisticated, perceptive lines:
The spotted cat hops
Up to a white radiator-cover
As warm as summer, and there,
Between pots of green leaves growing,
By a window of cold panes showing
Silver of snow thin across the grass,
She settles slight neat muscles
Smoothly down within
Her comfortable fur,
Slips in the ends, front paws,
Tail, until she is readied,
Arranged, shaped for sleep.
Such pleasing rhythms, words, patterns, sounds, images. Brilliant!
For reading with young children, these poems that draw our hearts to the wonders of the world and the elegance of words are a dream. Each volume contains a couple dozen poems.
There are also two volumes of Worth’s poems, collected and published more recently with illustrations by talented paper collage artist Steve Jenkins. They should be readily available if you are unable to locate the older titles:
Pug: And Other Animal Poems
illustrated by Steve Jenkins, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007 and 2013
Another poetry book with a somewhat similar feel is:
Flashlight and other poems, written by Judith Thurman, illustrated by Reina Rubel
published in 1976 by Atheneum
Once again, there are about two dozen poems small poems here. The collection contains a few subjects set in rural locations — a mare, a campfire — but many of Thurman’s poems center on urban life which will make this volume especially pertinent to some of you.
Even a poem entitled “Zebra” finds us not on the African savannah, but squarely in the city:
grazing like a zebra
outside my window.
Full of felicitous surprises, these poems beg to be read aloud with young children, bringing them the magic and wonder of seeing with new eyes.
Moving along, this little gem wears my hands-down-favorite cover. So charming!
The Rose on my Cake, written and illustrated by Karla Kuskin
published in 1964 by Harper & Row
A prolific and award-winning children’s writer, Kuskin’s ability to see life with childlike freshness, vitality, and wit found its way into stories and poems buoyant with gladness, juicy interest, immediacy.
These poems, a bit longer than those in the other volumes today, have a stronger child’s voice to them and will suit even very young children who need a bit more concreteness to entice them.
Here is the title poem:
The Rose On My Cake
I went to a party,
A party for Pearly,
With presents and ice cream,
With favors and games.
I stayed very late
And I got there quite early.
I met all the guests
And I know all their names.
We sang and we jumped.
We jumped and we jostled.
We jostled and rustled
At musical chairs.
We ate up the cake
And we folded the candy in baskets
We folded in squares.
We blew up balloons
And we danced without shoes.
We danced on the floor
And the rug and the bed.
We tripped and we trotted
In trios and twos.
And I nearly balanced myself
On my head.
Pearly just smiled
As she blew out the candles.
I gave the rose from my cake
To a friend,
In her black patent sandals.
The trouble with parties is
All of them end.
Finally, an exceedingly quirky book of poems from the pen of Carl Sandburg. This was not published until 1999. Just look at that pop art vibe on the cover expressing the untamed vitality of Sandburg! The poems were found among his papers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and apparently were written in the ’30s. This volume was the first time they appeared in print.
Poems for Children Nowhere Near Old Enough to Vote, by Carl Sandburg, illustrated by Istvan Banyai
published in 1999 by Alfred A. Knopf
Sandburg and Lewis Carroll would likely have gotten on fine given the wildly imaginative, humorous bent to their poetry. If you, as an adult, do not simply let yourself be carried away by the whimsy, the odd observations, the inscrutable connections between one thought and another in Sandburg’s work, you will miss a whale of a lot of fun.
A number of these poems are reminiscent of Ruth Krauss’s work in A Hole is to Dig, as they both set about defining things in a remarkably childlike manner — unpredictable, blithe, keenly original, with a sense of processing vital new understandings about the astonishing world we live in. A number of Sandburg’s definition-poems center on body parts. For example:
Toes are to wash when you take a bath.
Toes are to count to see how many.
Toes are five on each foot when you count right.
Right foot toes belong on the right foot.
Left foot toes belong on the left foot.
The big toe is the thumb of the foot.
All the other toes worry about the little toe.
The big toe likes itself very well.
The design throughout by Hungarian illustrator Banyai is as off-beat and surprising as Sandburg’s commentary. Full of smiles and humor for a rainy day.
You can find gobs more volumes of poetry reviewed previously on Orange Marmalade here.
I’ll be back again next week with more poetic delights!