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  • The Balkanization of Children's Writing*
  • Phillip Lopate (bio)

When I first began teaching creative writing to children, I was frightened enough that I ran to the library to read everything I could on the subject. I discovered that there was no serious criticism of children's writing as a branch of literature. But there were books of methods; and the more I read these books, the more my skepticism increased. Each seemed to be founded on an absolutely different version of what children were like or what constituted good literature.

I came across manuals dating from a century ago to the present, on teaching children to write. The oldest books appear to have featured piety and holiday verse. A manual dating from 1872, by John S. Hart, is especially fascinating because it makes a point of encouraging whimsy. Its wonderfully copious list of writing suggestions includes: Rural Happiness. Moonlight at Sea. Religion Tends to Make One Cheerful. The Duty of Confessing One's Faults. The Difference Between Beauty and Fashion. The Rainbow. Evils of Public Life. The Every-Varying Beauty of the Clouds. Dreams. The Uses of Ice. What Kind of Popular Amusements are Desirable. Modes of Burial. A Visit to Greenwood Cemetery. A Visit to the Cave of Aeolus. A Ride Across the Atlantic on a Cloud. Gossipping. Nursing Sorrow. The History of A Pin.1

At that time, creative writing and, above all, poetry were clearly seen as vessels for the reception of elevated moral attitudes. Some fancy was allowed, of the doggerel-limerick variety. Children confess wanting to play hooky or go fishing—the stuff of Our Gang comedies, innocent amusements, reflecting perhaps the fondness of an adult remembering his golden youth, more than the actualities of childhood. Local banks put out advertising newssheets which occasionally included a column of children's verse. The state would sponsor a contest on a broad ideal, like "The Value of Commerce" or "The Purpose of a Good Education," and award prizes to children who wrote the "best" compositions supporting this philosophy. [End Page 98]

This historic phase in children's writing could be called the era of the "Goody-Goody" and the "Cute," which has survived intact to the present day. Indeed, it may still be the dominant approach.

Most children's verse in the 1920s and 1930s was still written with rhyme and meter. For two reasons: 1) the innovations of Whitman and Pound and the modern school continued to be resisted by schoolteachers as not really poetry; 2) children's first introduction to verse usually occurred through rhymed jingles heard in the street or at school. The use of rhymes as a phonics device to teach reading reinforced the idea of poetry as something that had to rhyme. Little children are in fact drawn to rhyming as a nonsense game. But the influence of jingle phonics readers kept them (still does) at a cat-bat-rat level of poetry that could not keep step with their more complex thoughts.

Then writers like Flora Arnstein began calling for the introduction of free verse into the curriculum. In her pioneering book, Children Write Poetry (1946), there are many examples of children's poems in a new mode: condensed diction, jagged and irregular lines, sound that is based more on alliteration and onomatopoeiac imitation of nature, and subject matter of a pantheistic bent. The influence of Imagism and Carl Sandburg is very strong in poems by her students:

The dismal foghorns are sad today.They are crying so drearily, so mournfully.What is your sorrow, foghorn?Have you lost a friend,Or are you just moaning all your troubles    To the world?2

This is a very specialized and—I don't know what to call it—Impressionistic idea of poetry. Evocation of mood, the elements, the eternal ebb and flow, with each detail softened and generalized to the point that it loses its particularity. If the poems in Arnstein's books seem dated to me, it is probably because I am willing to trade some of their gossamer timelessness for a few hard if perishable facts: this man named John, that detergent box of All, a town called Paterson...


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