THIS JINGLE is my tribute to Karla Kuskin: Dogs & Dragons, Trees & Dreams the countryside of poems gleams by starlight, sunlight, icy steams in lilt and rhyme of autumns, springs with myriad strange and common things to tilt a child's imaginings
Kuskin's stated purpose in Dogs & Dragons, beyond delighting children with her own charmingly illustrated verses, is to encourage young readers to write poetry. "No imagination is freer than a child's, no eye is sharper," she writes in her introduction. As for ear, the one with me since childhood -- tuned to the cadence of speech of rhythm of song, to assonance, consonance, rhyme -- is satisfied by Kuskin's poems. Her appealing ideas, her quirky observations of nature and her original juxtapositions of the ordinary and the bizarrd strike chords of memory -- mostly happy, occasionally melancholy -- echoing for me now as a chant or a chime.
Variety, wit and unfailing sensitivity mark the words and drawings through which Kuskin addresses children. Her subjects are trumpets, turnips, witches, glue, parties, gray days, snakes and yarn. She instructs not by assignment but by suggestion and example. Above about half the poems is an elementary observation or two on her own writing of them. Example: "A poem is made of words. A very simple poem may be a very few simple words": I am very fond of bugs. I kiss them And I give them hugs.
Example: "As you read a poem aloud listen to the sounds of the words. They have infinite variety . . . short, brittle sounds, soft rolling sounds, stuttering sounds and the sibilance of many S's . . . Tongue twisters use words this way": Thirty thirsty thistles Thicketed and green Growing in a grassy swamp Purple-topped and lean Prickly and thistly Topped by tufts of thorns . . .
A vivid poem about a black night with a white moon is prefaced by the observation that words are like colors put together with care to make a painting. A poem that surprised the poet and "wrote itself" begins "Write about a radish./-Too many people write about the moon." We are reminded that rhythm alone may be strong enough to hold a poem together, as in this poignant, unrhymed evocation of the wind: Days that the wind takes over Blowing through the gardens Blowing birds out of the street trees Blowing cats around corners Blowing my hair out Blowing my heart apart Blowing high in my head . . .
Kuskin may not be the best poet who passes his craft on to children (in case you play "Botticelli," his initials are also KK -- Kenneth Koch), but Dogs & Dragons, Trees & Dreams works nicely.
Nikki Giovanni, "America's favorite best-selling poet," claims the blurb, is much less satisfying. The poet writes first-rate stuff for her peers, second-rate for children. Is she self-conscious with them, or smug about her position among them even though she has an 8-year-old son? Has she abandoned her childhood ear, or is it just different from mine? I was often irritated to see that lines didn't parse or scan or sing, that rhymes were haphazard or "wrongly" placed.
Take this, from "The Sun": Sunsets are so pretty the clouds and colors leap Across her deep red belly As she flutters off to sleep
Does "her" refer to sunsets? Do sunsets flutter? What a lame rhythm the poem has.
Or take "Masks": "Sis wears a mark/when she makes a scene/Dad wears a mask/when he is mean/I wear my mask/when it's Halloween/But Mom wears her mask/for beauty purposes." Is this satire? It's cute, arch. Eight-year-old humor that I wouldn't let my 8-year-old get away with on paper.
But Giovanni is a good poet (that's why I demand so much) and many of the thoughts, images and stanzas in Vacation Time ring appealingly true. A child watching bubbles in the bathtub or telling us why he likes chocolate and scary movies is familiar to us. Little girls tiptoeing through a strawberry patch call up nostalgia. We echo the lament of the little boy who cannot climb the sky: "And others steer the rainbow past/While I just hang around."
Nikki Giovanni is at her best describing real experiences in a simple "unpoetic" way, not striving for fantasy or conventional rhythm and rhyme. The accompanying drawings by Marisabina Russo are skillful and appropriately expressive.
Myra Cohn Livingstone, in No Way of Knowing, presents us with poems in a very different mode. Another voice, another place, a time that is changing if not already gone. Dedicated to a friend from Turtle Creek, the black neighborhood in Dallas where the author lived in the '50s and '60s, the volume is not aimed at children, though editor Margaret McElderry must have decided that young readers would enjoy them. I did. The poems are moving in their simplicity, capturing with admirable accuracy the language patterns of a South not too different from the one Faulkner evoked. These gentle, unjudgmental citizens going about their business in Turtle Creek -- Samson and Missy, Old Simon and Mr. Sally, Mama and Lettie's baby, and Honey in her sorrow and Ola dancing -- are all brought to life for us; by the poet's friend, Arzetta Brown. Through her quiet voice we are led to reflect on Jesus and on the Devil, on Martin Luther King and on the assassination of John Kennedy in Dallas.
Brown-Livingston's understanding of the nuances of Black American emotion is beautifully communicated: Mattie, she says long ago Black folks full of hurt and woe. Bravo. Times have changed now, so she said. Mattie crazy in her head. CAPTION:
Illustrations 1 and 2, From "Dogs & Dragons, Trees & Dreams"