American poetry for children has long suffered from neglect, and occasional abuse, from scholars, teachers, and, indeed, from poets themselves. Judging from my own college students, I suspect that few American children [End Page 401] ever move far beyond the joyous nonsense of Shel Silverstein or Jack Prelutsky in their elementary classroom experiences. In teacher education, the study of more serious poetry seems to have been largely neglected in favor of prose fiction and nonfiction. And students of children’s literature in search of critical works on children’s poetry realize the dearth of the available research. Consequently, Joseph Thomas’s study is a welcome addition—and we can only hope it is just the beginning. At the end of this little book, Joseph Thomas reveals his threefold purpose in writing it: “to suggest the complexities of contemporary poetry for children written in the United States, to situate the competing traditions of U.S. children’s poetry in their larger social and poetic contexts, and to propose several avenues for continued research” (106). Poetry’s Playground succeeds admirably in all three goals.
In his introduction, Thomas recalls the famous feud (if I may call it that) between Kenneth Koch and Myra Cohn Livingston, both accomplished poets and both dedicated to promulgating the study and appreciation of children’s poetry. Koch argued that poetic sensibility was innate in childhood, that children were natural poets, whereas Livingston maintained that poetry was an art form demanding discipline as well as talent. She insisted that not everything that rhymes is poetic and not everything that appears in short lines on the page is a poem. Thomas does not seek to resolve these differences, but he sheds much light on both approaches. The book is not, by any means, comprehensive, and some may find Thomas’s choices quirky. Its five chapters are devoted to Robert Frost and what Thomas refers to as the school poets; Randall Jarrell; Playground Poetry; “Urchin Poetry” and modern children’s poets (e.g., Roethke, Silverstein, and Prelutsky); and visual poetry. Thomas claims in his first chapter that, in fact, American children’s poetry was thrust into prominence in the mid-twentieth century by such figures as Robert Frost (Thomas makes much of Frost’s appearance at the Kennedy inauguration), John Ciardi, Randall Jarrell, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Carl Sandburg. Thomas’s contention is that two dominant modes of children’s poetry exist side by side: the “official school poetry,” so called because it is deemed appropriate for explication in the classroom (think Robert Frost); and “a rather defanged poetry of the playground” (perhaps most famously the poetry of Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein).
Thomas points out that Frost, over forty years after his death, still retains his role as the preeminent “school poet,” as evidenced by the ubiquity of his poems in all the standard children’s anthologies. Frost’s popularity with the establishment is unsurprising, since his poetry appears conservative, safe, uncontroversial—and, Thomas posits, white and middle class. Of [End Page 402] course, the purveyors of children’s literature have always been conservative, guided (or misguided) by the conviction in the innocence of childhood and the sanctity of social values. The argument is convincing, however, readers looking for any literary analysis of Frost’s work will be disappointed. Perhaps Thomas feels that ground has been sufficiently ploughed.
In the second chapter, Thomas expands his discussion of “school poetry,” which he describes as being dominated by “voice poetry”—the dominant form of all contemporary American poetry. Voice poetry is exemplified by the omniscient narrator, the narrator with wise and eloquent observations about life—again, like Robert Frost’s poetry. Thomas contrasts this poetry with that of a poet he greatly admires, Randall Jarrell. Jarrell, he contends, does not write voice poetry; rather his works are close to conversation—although not, Thomas observes, so loud as the Beats. In The Bat Poet, Jarrell weds the two opposing forces of mid-twentieth century poetry— the cooked and the raw, or the poetry of form and restraint and...