A First poetry book , a collection which originated in Great Britain, offers 98 light, practical verses that do not much try for insights. Rather, they treat, straightforwardly, and mostly with humor, subjects ranging from cars and photo albums to quarrels and fear of the dark, everywhere reflecting what they believe a child would say himself if he chose to do so. The publisher claims that the book "does not aim to instruct in poetic forms," and this is evident. It contains very little poetry, despite its title, but rather gives us verse, and at that, verse that very often fumbles its scansion and sometimes reaches wide to accommodate rhyme.
But the publisher also says: "Its purpose is enjoyment. Its aim is excitement." And some of the verses included are enjoyable indeed, from such writers as John Ciardi, Eleanor Farjeon, Hilaire Belloc, and even one from Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as a host of other poets less well-known in America.
The pictures, which are plentiful, have been made by three different illustrators, and some of them are very nice -- there are watercolor painting, pen and ink, and straight cartoon. As a rule a single illustrator makes for a less bumpy visual trip from cover to cover, but here, where the text is made up of such a variety of subjects and styles, perhaps the trio system serves better.
One hesitates to pick a quarrel with the Oxford University Press, a wise and venerable institution that seems here to have made its selections because it honestly believes they are the sort to appeal to the young. But I can't help wondering why there is the widespread assumption that enjoyment, and true poetic forms (including well-scanning verse), are mutually exclusive. I can think of poets who can give us both at once with results that are far and away more satisfying than the majority presented here. This collection is very "child"-conscious, and that often means the reader's potential has been undervalved. Poets exist who give children fun, insight, sharing and beautiful form all rolled into one. It can be done if one is not so saddled with fears of losing the audience that one loses quality instead.
The final section of a verse from this book, one dealing with a child's having forgotten to give water to the family parakeet, will demonstrate my point: "He's there in the kitchen now/ like any bird on bough,/ the whole house he fills/ with his wonderful trills;/ glad to be home with us,/ he does not grumble or fuss." I feel sure that Oxford would have been choosier with a collection for adults.
Lee Bennett Hopkins' Elves, Fairies & Gnomes is something esle again. Here we have 15 selections -- some free verse, some rhymed -- plus two clips from James M. Barrie, to open and close the book, which are simply poetic prose. Christopher Morley is here, and Rachel Field, and the prolific Anonymous, as well as a few others, including a scrap for Hopkins himself. Most seem carefully selected for quality as well as appropriateness to the subject at hand. So far, so good. And Rosekrans Hoffman's pencil drawings are very effective; soft and fittingly fey, but humorous and inventive, too, and just odd enough.
The only problem here is that the collection seems too shot through with moonbeams. It ignores -- purposely, I presume -- the livelier half of fairy lore: their dangerous capriciousness, casual cruelty, gusto, mystery, all those robust qualities that make Mollie Hunter's tales so fine. This collection is cotton candy, the wishful adult's concept of a child's fancies.
But, it doesn't patronize its audience's capacity to enjoy good poetic form, it doesn't stick at "hard" words, it doesn't sacrifice precise meaning for the sake of rhyme. It respects everything about its audience except that audience's need for fare more realistically suited to its appetite.