BREATHES THERE a man with soul so dead he can't remember what his parents read aloud to him before he went to bed? If the answer is "yes, alas," don't worry; an expedient antidote is newly at hand. The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America, like so many other excellent works intended primarily for children, has a hidden adult agenda. Laced with the strong flavor of childhood -- our own and our nation's -- the book brings out the kid in any of us, effortlessly making the point that a true source of poetry, and maybe the truest, rests in the child's capacity for savage innocence and eternal wonderment. What's more, the whole category of children's verse enables us to suspend our sense of irony and thus recovers for us poets and poems that would otherwise get the back of a good modernist's hand: the Longfellow of "Paul Revere's Ride," the Whittier of "In School-Days."
In performing such adult functions, The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America never forgets its primary aim: to provide, in one handy volume, some expertly-chosen recitation pieces to requite a child's bedtime craving or charm away a rainy afternoon. Something about the Oxford label on an anthology promises a degree of definitiveness that one can't get anywhere else, and editor Donald Hall doesn't let the good name down. Just about all one's favorites are here; there are no glaring omissions, and Hall offers plenty of direction to guide further reading. Look under Poe and you'll find the tightly controlled hysteria of "The Raven," with its insistent internal rhymes and its haunting refrain: "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.'" Under Emily Dickinson there's this gem:
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do
If bees are few. Ever heard of Ernest Lawrence Thayer? Probably not, but chances are you know his phrases by heart. Hall aptly calls Thayer "one of our most eminent one-poem poets," his singular claim to fame being the immortal "Casey at the Bat." From that great ode to disappointment (or is it a dirge for the death of hero-worship?), it's only proper to turn to the confident notes struck by Emerson in "A Fable." This is the report of a quarrel between "the mountain and the squirrel," with the latter getting in the choice last word -- and thereby striking a formidable blow for children and other little people everywhere: "I'll not deny you make/ A very pretty squirrel track;/ Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;/ If I cannot carry forests on my back,/ Neither can you crack a nut."
Children of the 19th century appear to have had a strong fascination with the morbid, and "Request of a Dying Child" by Lydia Huntley Sigourney is only one of a number of affecting, if shamelessly sentimental, poems about the death of a child. But nonsense, too, traces its birth to the 19th century, and in the prolific career of Laura E. Richards, Hall has found a notable practitioner -- as well as a monument to longevity. Here's the last stanza of her "Antonio," a poem made up of limerick building-blocks: "Antonio, Antonio,/ He uttered a dismal moanio;/ Then ran off and hid/ (Or I'm told that he did)/ In the Anticatarctical Zonio." Richards picked up her pen before the Civil War began, and she was still at it when the British narrowly escaped disaster at Dunkirk in 1940 -- the subject of one of her last poems.
THE HISTORY of children's verse in America, writes Hall in the volume's introduction, involves us in radical shifts of sensibility. We start with Puritanism, patriotism, and piety. "Xerxes did die/ And so must I," declares The New England Primer, 1768 version, in sober anticipation of the central theme in Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." What Hall calls "the era of the poetess, the time of the ladies with three names" overlaps with the heroic period of Poe and Longfellow, when "popular verse" was anything but a contradiction in terms. In our century, however, high art and wide audiences haven't mixed, and we've seen children's poetry become an off-shoot of light verse. "Nonsense and humor have replaced everything else," says Hall. "It is the revenge of Mother Goose on Cotton Mather."
What is lost in loftiness is made up for in technical brilliance and sheer high spirits in the best recent children's verse. A didactic intention survives, but it takes the form of playful celebration. Here's how "August" identifies itself on John Updike's calendar:
The trees are bored
With being green.
Some people leave
The local scene And go to seaside
And take off nearly
All their clothes. And here's an enjoyable lesson in antonyms, from "Some Opposites" by Richard Wilbur:
What is the opposite of riot?
It's lots of people keeping quiet.
The opposite of doughnut? Wait
A minute while I meditate.
This isn't easy. Ah, I've found it!
A cookie with a hole around it. Gertrude Stein and Robert Frost, in nearby entries, appear to engage in a good-natured debate about the nature and name of the rose. "The theory now goes/ That the apple's a rose,/ And the pear is, and so's/ The plum I suppose," Frost lightly laments. "I am Rose my eyes are blue," cries Stein, defiantly. "I am Rose and when I sing/ I am Rose like anything".
Why is it that children's poetry doesn't seem to work in free verse? Perhaps it's for all the traditional reasons. Children respond to meter and rhyme not only because these elements help make a poem catchy and easy to memorize, but also because they are traditional -- they signify, loud and clear, that the words are of a different order from common speech. There may be a lesson in this for the practicing poet, for surely it's a minor scandal that so few of our esteemed contemporaries seem willing or able to summon up the musical levity that has always held a mighty appeal for children.