J. Patrick Lewis / Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation
As I learned from a podcast yesterday, the Poetry Foundation has named J. Patrick Lewis the new Children's Poet Laureate, a role he will fill for the next two years. (He was preceded by Jack Prelutsky and Mary Ann Hoberman, whose speculative stuff I love reading to my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.) The poetry excerpted in the podcast had immediate appeal for me – as it apparently does for kids as well, once it makes its way past those whom Sylvia Vardell calls the "adult gatekeepers in between" – but what really caught my attention was Vardell's description of Lewis as a former "professor of economics in Ohio and a scholar of Russian history as well." It turns out that several of Lewis's books for children have been inspired by Russian folklore, including At the Wish of a Fish, an adaptation of the classic tale По щучьему велению (As the Pike Wishes). In his scholarly days back in the 1970s, Lewis also helped to compile a volume called The USSR Today : Current Readings from the Soviet Press. This is clearly a man of great talent and wide interests!
One of Lewis's best known poems seems to be this one, "One Cow, Two Moos" (you can also watch him read it here), though he admits in the podcast that sometimes younger children find it bewildering:
We used to have a single cow,
We called her Mrs. Rupple.
But she got struck by a lightning bolt,
And now we have a couple.
She's walking sort of funny now,
Oh pity her poor calf.
Old Mrs. Rupple gives no milk,
She gives us half-and-half.
As a reader of poetry, Lewis says, "I am always looking for that ‘ah ha!’ moment, and I like to bring that to children as well." I think that the 'ah ha!' moment must come in this poem with the rhyme-word "couple," which seems to me a fine example of Lewis's technical proficiency and sense of timing. Pushkin would be satisfied. In fact, if someone wants to make a connection between Lewis's Russophilia and his calling to write children's poetry, as Curtis Fox and Sylvia Vardell tried half-heartedly to do in the podcast, this just may be it: while the vast majority of Russian poems are formal, what audience is there in mad-for-free-verse America for that sort of thing? Children may be the only ones left.