Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Poem in my Pocket

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day
The Swing
by Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,
     Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
     Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
     Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
     Over the countryside—

Till I look down on the garden green,
     Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
     Up in the air and down!

“You know that swing out in front?” I know the swing well; Gram and the kids and I sit on it every time we visit her. It’s the kind that is self-enclosed, two benches that face each other which you move by pushing on the floor with your feet. The neighbor kids had a smaller version on their swing set when I was a girl. “Well, I still swing on it,” Gram told me a few days ago, “I swing as high as I can. Some people like to just glide back and forth, but I go as high as I can on it.” I have no doubt this is the case, and that I love that about her.

My grandma is a spunky woman, to say the least. She is 97 and a half, and probably very close to passing from this world, but the idea of being on a swing still makes her eyes shine. It was only 3 or 4 years ago that she shocked me and my mom by leaping off a swing at a playground after swinging alongside my daughter, behaving as though there weren’t a 90-year span between their ages. She landed unscathed, and on both feet, but I remember thinking at the time that maybe it’s worth jumping off a swing just one more time, even if you do get hurt.

All three of my children went through a stage where if you asked them how much of something they wanted, like a snack, or a treat, their answer was “Too much.” Come to think of it, that’s still my favorite amount of good stuff, too. And I’m guessing that my grandma never let go of that childlike way of embracing the good things in life. I like to imagine that she’s taken that swing in front of the senior center so high the feet were in danger of lifting out of the ground. That whoever is in charge of upkeep has scratched his head in wonder that he has to keep shoving the poles deeper into the ground every month or so.

I saw Gram get on a swing every time she had the chance, and listened to her recite Stevenson with reverent joy just about every time. Her voice is forever joined in my mind with the rhythm of the poem and the motion of a swing. Especially that moment when you swing too high and the chains slacken a bit and your stomach drops, right before you get pulled backward and down, only to go flying up in the air again. I think it’s time to head for the playground and continue the legacy—swing as high as I can.  Maybe even too high.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Notes from the Children’s Literature Festival, a Poetry Kit, & Project OpenBook

I got to take my son to the Children’s Literature Festival at Truman State University recently. I’ll admit—I had been looking forward to the day for an entire year, as soon as the festival ended last year. Twelve authors and illustrators visited the campus and gave talks to local 4th-6th graders, followed by a book-signing and a dinner. It was a fantastic experience. Hearing people share their stories, their work and their passion was exhilarating.

We went to three author sessions. Jane Kurtz talked about growing up in Ethiopia, the list of 100 greatest children’s books her mother used to supply reading material for her children, and how her family helped her become the author and person she is today. Ben Mikaelsen spoke about the merciless bullying he endured growing up, how he realized he might as well do what he loved instead of try to fit in since he was going to be harassed by peers either way, and how his first English professor recognized that he was a born storyteller even though he could barely write when he started college. Oh—and my son’s favorite thing about him is that he lives with a 750-pound bear! Brad Sneed spoke about the process of illustration, from manuscript to sketches to the final product, and gave some insight into what it’s like to collaborate on a picture book.

We met several authors during the book signing. What a friendly bunch of people! Jill Esbaum, author of Stanza, which I wrote about in this post, was lovely. She passed along a link to this poetry kit, which has activities and downloads for Stanza as well as other Houghton Mifflin Harcourt books. The writing tips for how to make a jingle look really fun!

This is very cool, too: Brad Sneed is co-founder of Project OpenBook, a community-built book of poetry for children. Visit the blog at Marblespark to read and vote on submitted poems, or submit your own poetry or artwork. The readers choose what ultimately goes into the book, and the proceeds will go to Room to Read to free a young girl in Nepal from indentured service. Fantastic idea!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Love, Tears, and Laughter

Posting may be sporadic here for a while. My grandmother, 97 years old and as strong a woman as ever, has decided she’s gotten as old as she needs to get. An illness took her to the hospital last week, and she decided over the weekend that she wanted her I.V. out. A large portion of her family gathered to be with her on Monday, and I have to say, it was very much like a party. She was weak, but completely herself, and loving seeing everybody. What a blessing to get to honor her and celebrate her life while she is still living! I am home for a few days right now, but am going back on Friday, and don’t know what to expect from there, beyond love, tears, and laughter.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,--
Sailed on a river of misty light
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,”
Said Wynken,
And Nod.
                     -From “Dutch Lullaby”, by Eugene Field
A Child's Book of Poems
I love this poem. I tell myself I shouldn’t—I’m sure it’s overly romantic, cliché, sentimental. My kids don’t really like it. I think I started reading it to them too late in life—the magic isn’t there for them. But it is for me. This was in the first book of poetry I ever owned; I can still hear my mom’s voice reading it. It’s one of the poems that taught me that the sound of it was right up there with the meaning, and probably one of the reasons (among many) that language and music are so connected in my head.

Then there’s the visual connection. I was a kid entranced with the idea that the sun on a breezy day made Lake Harriet glitter like a million diamonds. I loved misty light and seas of dew, even if I’d never seen them. And I stared at Gyo Fujikawa’s illustration so many times, it is part of the poem.

I found this beautiful version with illustrations by Johanna Westerman a few years ago and gave it as a birthday present. I always intended to get it for my own kids—maybe it’s not too late for my youngest.

Wynken, Blynken, & Nod

I don’t care if this is a sentimental poem. It’s a part of me.

Monday, April 12, 2010


StanzaStanza by Jill Esbaum, illustrated by Jack E. Davis, Harcourt Children’s Books, 2009

Stanza is a trouble-causing dog who secretly writes poetry after his brothers go to bed. He’s afraid if Dirge and Fresco find out what he does all night he will be tortured mercilessly. When he enters a jingle-writing contest, though, he risks being found out in the hopes that he will win first prize.

This book keeps the self-realization theme light, even as it touches on Stanza’s yearnings to write and the hard work he puts into it. I appreciate Esbaum’s balance. And while School Library Journal calls it “a welcome addition to a collection or unit about self-esteem and self realization”, what strikes me is what it says about being a writer. So I peeked over at Jill Esbaum’s website and was really touched by her background—how she was full of stories as a child, but locked them up inside until she had children of her own and started reading to them. Oh, how I can relate! Well, except for the published author of seven picture books part. Anyway, if you enjoy reading author bios like I do, go over and take a look.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Seeing the Light

“Mommy, what’s that dwow?” My three and a half year-old followed me into the kitchen in her usual pre-breakfast state of high demand. She still struggles with the pronunciation of several letters, and once in a while a particular combination stumps both of us. Sometimes I can figure things out by context, but not in this case. She was insistent about the “dwow”, however, and practically dragged me back out of the kitchen to show it to me. In the middle of the back hallway a brilliant shard of light hit my red robe, making one spot glow. Aha—glow; I was impressed by the word she chose, even though it was hard to pronounce. We followed the path of light and discovered that the early morning sunshine was coming through a window at the end of the hallway and hitting the edge of another window in the door to the stairway, concentrating into a brilliant shaft that flashed onto my robe when I walked past. It was completely worth interrupting breakfast preparations on a hectic morning to see that light. That glow.

I love that she’s at the point where her vocabulary is so far ahead of her pronunciation. In her mind there’s no limit to what she is able to say. The only limit is in what the people around her can understand, and that’s their problem. Sometimes she comes up with hard-to-decipher pronunciations, but other times she finds astonishing ways of expressing herself, combinations of words I wish I’d thought of. Her vocabulary is rich, enhanced by her limitations and her newness with language. She doesn’t know many clichés yet.

I’m convinced children have the hearts of poets. The whole world is new and strange, anything is possible, and nothing they learn really surprises them. They are in a state of awe much of the time if we are able to allow it. They expect magic. Little moments stand out. Small things are loaded with significance: snowflakes, sparkling motes of dust in a sunbeam, the flecks of gold on a monarch’s chrysalis. Why wouldn’t we go through a whole day singing? Why wouldn’t words have rhythm? Why would we walk when we could run, gallop, skip, crawl, or shimmy? They share all of it with me, in astonishing ways, whether I take the time to pay attention or not. I don’t have a lot of time for poetry these days. And yet, I have more poetry in my life right now than I even know what to do with. How rich can you get?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Carnival of the Animals

This is a classic for good reason. Although Camille Saint-Saens kept it under wraps during his lifetime because he thought such a frivolous piece would hurt his reputation as a “serious” composer, it has become one of his most famous works. He wrote it as sort of a musical joke that is full of quotes and references: “The Tortoise” is the “Can-can” from Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” played at an appropriately tortoise-y tempo. “The Elephant” steals a bit from the Scherzo in Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night's Dream”, and among the “animals” included in the carnival are “Pianists” practicing their scales.

One fun thing about “classics” is that people like to have a go with their own versions. Our only recording right now is a chamber version with Yo-Yo Ma. Before that we had a version narrated by David Bowie—it accompanied us on many car rides before it was stolen from the front seat in downtown Minneapolis, with our then 2 and 4 year-olds shouting out the names of the animals as we got to each movement. (They could both match pitch perfectly with the violins in “Personages with Long Ears”—it came out pretty much a shriek, so I always had to make sure we had the car windows shut when we got to that movement.)

The colorful music, animal titles and musical references just invite poetry. Ogden Nash came out with a set of poems in 1949:

Carnival of The Animals

A recording with poems by Ogden Nash

There are several children's books, some with CDs, inspired by the music:

Carnival of the Animals with CD: Poems Inspired by Saint-Saëns' MusicCarnival of the Animals: Poems inspired by Saint-Saens’ Music ed. by Judith Chernaik, illustrations by Satoshi Kitamura, Candlewick Press, 2006 (Book & CD)

Here's a video of "Tortoise", by Judith Chernaik, with illustrations from the book.

Carnival of the Animals: Classical Music for KidsCarnival of the Animals: Classical Music for Kids by Camille Saint-Saens and Barrie C. Turner, illustrated by Sue Williams

Carnival of the AnimalsCarnival of the Animals by John Lithgow, illustrated by Boris Kulikov, Simon Schuster, 2007

The Carnival of the Animals (Get to Know Classical Masterpi)Carnival of the Animals poems by Philip de Vos, illustrated by Piet Grobler, Front Street/Lemniscaat, 1998

A new book is coming out in August 2010, with poetry by Jack Prelutsky and artwork by the illustrator of Harry Potter fame.  Keep your eyes peeled:

The Carnival of the Animals (Book and CD)
Carnival of the Animals poems by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Mary GrandPré, Knopf Books for Young Readers

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Edward Hirsch on Encountering the Sonnet

Poetry counts; language mediates. I felt then—and I still feel—that poetry can embody loneliness and bring us into the human community in a fuller way. That loneliness, the feeling of solitude, can be thought through; it can be developed and delivered by a simple form that sacramentalizes a moment in time, a moment out of time—a little sound, a little song. 
From “My Own Acquaintance”, The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology
ed. By Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland, W. W. Norton & Company, 2008

The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology

Thursday, April 1, 2010

National Poetry Month

It’s here—April is National Poetry Month, and there are events going on all over the place. Sherry at Semicolon is starting her Classic Poetry Survey on Monday, April 5th. Today’s post explains how it has changed a little from the initial concept, and how things will play out starting Monday. Join her for some classics!

You can find more events and resources at the Academy of American Poets website.  Thursday, April 29th is Poem in Your Pocket Day.  Carry a favorite poem in your pocket and share it with family, friends, etc. I like that idea—simple, personal, a good project for kids that you can elaborate on (or not) if you want to.

As for me, I’m planning to keep my posts poetry-related, especially where music and poetry meet. We’ll probably join in for Poem in Your Pocket Day, and maybe some other things, too.

For now, I’ve got a question for you: What poem or poems do you remember from your childhood? What made them memorable? I can’t think about swings without hearing my grandmother recite “The Swing”, by Robert Louis Stevenson and being transported to the porch swing behind my grandparents’ house, looking out on fields and the skyline of Lincoln, Nebraska. She’s still swinging and reciting at 97, by the way.
A Child's Garden of Verses