- Lively Rigor: The 2009 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
Serve as a judge on a poetry award like this for many years, and you will start to notice patterns. Most books we receive fall into several neatly-bound categories. We see books emerging from the light verse tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson: sweet, well-crafted poems, generally concerning nature and children frolicking therein; we see collections of metrical nonsense, obviously inspired by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, or, more recently, John Ciardi and his former student and later collaborator Edward Gorey; and we watch our collections of the so-called “verse novel” grow and grow. Also, much more common these days—perhaps as a result of Marilyn Nelson’s success—we find a goodly number of collections emerging from what Charles Bernstein calls “official verse culture” (246), collections composed of conventional voice lyrics that would be as at home in Poetry as they would in an anthology of children’s verse. These are MFA-school, well-wrought urns of greater and lesser quality, some suggesting what Donald Hall memorably called “the McPoem” (“the [End Page 376] product of the workshops of Hamburger University” [7, 9]), while others display a mastery of conventional poetic technique and trope that puts many mainstream adult poets to shame.
Another common group of submissions emerges from the nursery and folk rhyme traditions. These books often recast old chestnuts in slightly modified form, such as Anna Grossnickle Hines’s counting book 1, 2, Buckle My Shoe, or, similarly, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Shell! by Lucille Colandro, which knocks off without improving upon the folk-rhyme original. Neither is badly written; they’re just unnecessary. Judge Angela Sorby speaks for the rest of the judges when she says, save a tree: embrace the oral tradition! Yes, we always welcome another skillfully illustrated collection of nursery rhymes, but what we still await is a book that riffs on playground poetry to good effect, books by adult poets as daring as their child counterparts (and a publisher courageous enough to print profanity in a humorous context). Children are all too willing to shove a piece of glass right up Miss Susie’s “ask me no more questions,” but adults? We’re either too prim, too proper, or too frightened to touch the language any playground poet worth her salt wields like a master (or like a poet?). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Christina Rossetti took the nursery rhyme tradition—largely oral—and reimagined it, refigured it to work in a literary milieu. We ask: where is this century’s Rossetti, the intrepid poet who will rework the oral traditions of contemporary playground poetry into literary poetry for children? As of yet, she is nowhere to be found.1
Likewise, the horizon is dishearteningly cloudy when it comes to collections inspired by the insights of the historical avant-garde. Of course, we do have the ubiquitous “visual poem”—generally in calligram form. In fact, the last forty or so years have seen more visual poetry for children than you can shake a mouse’s tale at. Visual poetry (or “vispo” as current practitioners tend to call it) is an approach responsible for some of the most face-slappingly obvious children’s poetry imaginable (vispoo, perhaps?). Last year we called for a moratorium on mirror poems featuring backwards text—and this year, thank Apollinaire’s ghost, not a single one made its way to our mail-boxes. But visual poetry aside, there’s not much out there exploring the trails blazed by proponents of literary Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, or Lettrism, movements well-suited to the world of children’s literature (if you need evidence, check out Gertrude Stein’s unforgivably neglected children’s book To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays...