Thursday, June 9, 2011

Laureate for the Little Ones

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.


  1. My three-year-old daughter and I are enjoying the several books by Lewis we found at the library after I read this post - thank you!

    I know Russian literature better than American and may be just uninformed, but one of my hobbyhorses is that Anglophone readers mostly abandoned poetry after rhyme and obvious meter became unfashionable. If the norm against them could be overcome, there would be a huge potential audience for new non-free-verse poems, made up of people who have spent the last several decades loving rock music, hip-hop, Broadway musicals, Dr. Seuss, and so on while ignoring new poetry.

  2. It's nice to hear that my post led you and your daughter to read some of Lewis's books. I'm glad I could recommend his work!

    As for rhyme and meter, you may be onto something. When my students first come into my Intro to Poetry classroom, they expect to read poems in traditional forms and quickly grow disappointed when they encounter poem after poem in free verse. In fact, many of them refuse to recognize free verse as poetry at all. I wouldn't go that far myself, but the preponderance of free verse in American and English poetry does become tedious. Why not write a sonnet every now and again?

    On the other hand, why does practically every Russian poet continue to write almost all the time in tetrameter quatrains? The rare Russian poem in free verse is a breath of fresh air.

  3. Fair enough. I quite like some of Mikhail Kuzmin's poems in free verse, no doubt partly because it's so unusual to find poems like that in Russian. And I see your point about tetrameter quatrains.

    I've never been in the "free verse isn't poetry" camp either, but I've come to see it as poetry for a small set of connoisseurs, for the handful of people who have an ear for the subtle formal elements it retains. That's partly on trust, as in general I'm not in that group myself. It's ironic, since I think people start out assuming that free verse is easy and formal rules are hard.