JUST AS parents should read to their kids every day, so some of what they read really ought to be poetry. After all, "The Highwayman" and "Paul Revere's Ride" are a lot more satisfying than the moralizing adventures of the Berenstain bears or the halfwit exploits of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. With luck, a poem, like a prayer, may even stick with a child all his or her life, providing amusement, consolation, refuge. The real problem for most parents is where to begin, how to match poems to kids. Here are several general collections of poetry, three of them just out this fall, with brief descriptions of their contents and character.
For the very young: Any good gathering of nursery rhymes will do. Choose one by an illustrator you enjoy. My favorite is that by Raymond Briggs (of The Snowman fame), but nearly all are fine; two perennial best sellers are The Real Mother Goose and The Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes, the latter edited by those notable children's scholars, Iona and Peter Opie. Of course, nursery rhymes work best when memorized: They should be recited to, and eventually with, the kids while stuck in traffic or doing household chores.
Ages 4-8: Sing a Song of Popcorn (1988), compiled by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, Eva Moore, Mary Michaels White and Jann Carr, is the collection for this age. It showcases a lot of playful nonsense, as well as pictures by several of the giants of contemporary illustration (including the Dillons and Maurice Sendak). Do not miss Ogden Nash's "The Adventures of Isabelle," the blood-curdling saga of a little girl and her encounters with a bear, a witch and a giant. At this age you should also try such contemporary masters of children's verse as X.J. Kennedy, Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky (whose latest collection of silliness, out this fall, is Something Big Has Been Here, with illustrations by James Stevenson).
Ages 6-up: The best anthology I know is The Golden Treasury of Poetry (1959), selected by Louis Untermeyer, with illustrations by -- don't snicker -- Joan Walsh Anglund (known for those little keepsake albums of flowery sentiments popular in the late '60s). Untermeyer includes almost everything a youngster really should know, from such nonsense as "What's Your Name? Puddintame. Ask me again and I'll tell you the same" to the great narrative warhorses: "Lochinvar," "The Loreley," "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix," "Paul Revere's Ride," "Barbara Frietchie," and many others. He also includes proverbs, the verses of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Christ's Sermon on the Mount, funny tombstone epitaphs and epigrams like Prior's "Sir I admit Your general rule/That every poet is a fool/But you yourself may prove to show it/That every fool is not a poet." He even closes with the corny, but ever-stirring, "Invictus" -- "I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul." Unaccountably, this book is out of print; I check it out from the library every so often, and keep hoping to find a copy in a second-hand bookstore. If Untermeyer had included the complete lyrics to "Abdul Abulbul Amir," it would be perfect.
Just as The Golden Treasury -- hefty, boisterous, containing multitudes -- is a deeply American book, so Edward Blishen's attractive Oxford Book of Poetry for Children (1963) seems veddy British. This well-honed selection emphasizes ballads, anonymous lyrics, cat poems, the work of Edward Lear. It's a very good book, though a bit literary and best suited for a 9 or 10-year-old who already likes to read. Brian Wildsmith's illustrations here display a degree of realism unusual for this artist.
Ages 8-up: Look for The Looking Glass Book of Verse (1959), edited by Janet Adam Smith, a well-chosen selection of traditional work, with "no poem . . . that has not been liked by children." Smith tends to eschew anonymous work, folk lyrics and poetry designed for kids, aiming instead to stock young minds with appealing high-spots of English verse: Tennyson's "The Eagle," (with its thriller ending "And like a thunderbolt he falls"), Goldsmith's witty elegy about the mad dog ("The dog it was that died"), Robinson's "Miniver Cheevy," Blake's "Jerusalem," a piece of Wordsworth's "Prelude," numerous poems of love and death.
Just as good in its way is Scott Elledge's newly published Wider Than the Sky (Harper & Row, $19.95). Elledge, a retired Cornell professor of English and the author of a life of E.B. White, admits that his book started off as a sheaf of photocopies of favorite poems intended to please a 10-year-old niece. They are quite simply things he liked, from "Cockles and Mussels" to Dr. Seuss's "Too Many Daves" to Reed Whittemore's delightful "The Tarantula" to Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Elledge favors "real" poems over children's verse, and includes much work by contemporaries such as A.R. Ammons, Frank O'Hara and Richard Wilbur, as well as many African-American poets: Alice Walker, Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall and others. All in all, a terrific anthology. No pictures, by choice.
Ages 10-up: The Golden Journey (Contemporary Books, $9.95) offers outstanding value for money, even with its ugly library binding. This acclaimed anthology, edited by Louise Bogan and William Jay Smith, first appeared in 1965; for this reissue Smith has added some 20 new (mostly contemporary) poems. The introduction is superb, quoting both an African description of poetry ("to speak like rain") and Robert Frost's lovely definition: "a momentary stay against confusion." Bogan and Smith admit no translations, no excerpts, nothing anonymous. Qualifications? The poems chosen tend to be good ones by good poets, rarely great ones by great poets. For me, too many pages dwell on animals and nature, but young people may eat them up. Among contemporary poets represented are David Wagoner, James Tate, Derek Walcott and Karl Shapiro (check out his delightful piece about manhole covers: "Like Mayan calendar stones, ineffable, undecipherable"). A fine if slightly uneven collection, but a real bargain.
By contrast to the cheapness of The Golden Journey, Neil Philip's just published A New Treasury of Poetry (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $25) comes stunningly packaged. This is certainly the most attractive poetry anthology around, due largely to the publisher's careful production values and John Lawrence's winning wood engravings. (Still, he misunderstands Christina Rossetti's poem about a ferryman: He pictures a Venetian gondolier rather than Charon conveying souls across the river Styx.) Philip's inclusions, though, are somewhat special: For him, Thomas Hardy is the greatest 20th-century poet in English, and his anthology consequently resembles a a juvenile version of Philip Larkin's Oxford Book of 20th-Century Verse. Both emphasize a very English tradition in poetry -- John Clare, Christina Rossetti, Hardy, Charlotte Mew, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, traditional seasonal poems, nature lyrics, a certain philosophical weightiness and a slight touch of gloom. There's a lot of harvesting going on in these pages. But A New Treasury of Poetry is, for the right moods, for the right readers, a magical book. I will treasure my copy, and hope my children will too.
Ages 14-up: The Cherry Tree (1959), edited by Geoffrey Grigson, is well worth searching for: It's the best collection around for older children. The works chosen by this distinguished poet and critic all manage to fit their words "into patterns of sound and meaning, each of which, by its rhythm does not easily wear out and will bear, and insist upon, being read again and again." This is a massive volume, but should last not only an adolescence but a lifetime. The section entitled "Creatures of the Air" includes, for instance, Yeats' "Wild Swans at Coole," Keats' "To a Nightingale," Swinburne's "Itylus," John Crowe Ransom's wonderful "Philomela" and the traditional "Old Grey Goose," among many others.
But what of Walter de la Mare's Come Hither (1928)? Though ostensibly intended for young people, I find its selection of poems quirky. On one double page you can read work by H.H. Bashford, Frances Davidson and Anthony Munday -- hardly household names. The whole book exudes a slightly dated, Georgian air, more a work by de la Mare than a work for children. Still, the poems included are often quite appealing and the notes (some 300 pages of them) provide lively personal commentary and a good short course on appreciating poetry.
For a more contemporary version of Come Hither, try The Rattle-Bag (1982), an alphabetically arranged collection of poems, gathered by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. Nothing here is positively obscure, much of it is unfamiliar (charms, translations) and almost every page is memorable. A young person lucky enough to enjoy this book will be ready for that most attractive of all general poetry collections, W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson's five-volume Poets of the English Language. Michael Dirda is children's book editor of Book World.