Friday, March 09, 2007


Poetry Friday: Avast, Ye Poetry Snobs!

So in the Feb. 19-26th issue of The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear gave us a portrait of the happenings over at the Poetry Foundation since Ruth Lilly gave them lots and lots of money. The portrait was, in a word, unflattering. Apparently, the Poetry Foundation has made significant efforts to make poetry commercially viable -- mainly by encouraging poetry that is more accessible to mainstream readers -- and you can just feel Goodyear's disdain for it, particularly in her description of the new Children's Poet Laureate prize, created by the Foundation:

In September, the foundation announced the latest of a group of prizes intended, Barr says, "to throw a spotlight of recognition on under-illuminated corners of the poetry world," and named Jack Prelutsky America's first Children's Poet Laureate. Prelutsky, who has published more than forty books of children's poems, is, you might say, the ultimate example of a poet who keeps his audience in mind. "I Have a Pet Tomato," from "It's Raining Pigs and Noodles," reads:
     I have a pet tomato,
it doesn't have a stem.
My friends have pet asparagus--
why can't I be like them?
The Children's Laureate was Penny Barr's idea. "I'm not a poet," she told me. "I'm not versed in poetry, but I am versed in bringing up children. It's a natural for me. The adult poets have never heard of Jack Prelutsky. The big secret is that these people are making a lot of money!"
Wow, I had no idea that Jack Prelutzky was rakin' in the dough.

When Prelutsky was first announced as the first winner of this prize, there was a general feeling of "Really? Really really?" in the kidlit world. I don't know what bothers me more, the fact that the creator of the prize openly admits that she doesn't know anything about children's poetry, or the obvious fact that Dana Goodyear doesn't, either. She uses an out-of-context snippet of Prelutsky's poetry to snipe at the mission of the Poetry Foundation, and you gotta admit, that's kinda low.

I'm gonna bet that a lot of poets my age or a little older may not recognize Jack Prelutsky's name, but they'd remember with a wistful sigh The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. Or It's Valentine's Day. Or the scads of other Prelutsky works that, because child readers often have trouble remembering authors' names into adulthood, continue to be underappreciated.

What Goodyear obviously forgets is that without poets like Prelutsky, Douglas Florian, or Naomi Shihab Nye, a lot of kids would miss out on poetry -- most kids I know love the stuff! And without kid poetry enthusiasts, you're unlikely to have very many adult poetry enthusists. There's nothing wrong with rewarding the hard work and effort that goes into the task of bringing kids to poetry, regardless of its economic power.

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