- “from brain all the way to heart”: The 2008 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
Linda Sue Park, Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems). Pictures by Istvan Banyai. New York: Clarion, 2007.
Jay M. Harris. The Moon Is La Luna: Silly Rhymes in English & Spanish. Pictures by Matthew Cordell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Carole Boston Weatherford. Birmingham, 1963. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong, 2007.
In a recent New Yorker cartoon, Roz Chast imagines a new publisher’s imprint, Why? Books; its titles include Teach Yourself to Eat Canned Oysters in Thirty Days and How to Live on One Hour of Sleep Per Night. Chast’s point is: Why? Children’s poetry might well be subject to the same test: Arctic science poems? Guinea pig poems? Spanglish pun poems? Why? Sometimes a raison d’etre emerges for these titles, and sometimes it does not. Our winner, our honor books, and many other notable titles have this in common: they work as books of poetry, rather than as history lessons or science textbooks manqué. Moreover, they remind us that poetry is sometimes (not always!) the perfect medium for the message.
In contrast to past years, we find few shameless groaners among our contestants. Most of the books we received are competent, but some remain mired in mere competence because they don’t justify their choice of the verse medium. The trouble with a book such as Polar Bear, Arctic Hare lies, not in its good intentions (which are evident) but in its lyric execution. The book thanks Dr. David R. Klein, emeritus professor of [End Page 344] wildlife ecology, for reviewing the text, but clearly no English professors (and apparently no poets) were consulted. The result is a set of poems that simply conveys information:
If you should awaken Arctic walrus, be prepared for quite a flap. Usually a peaceful fellow, nothing makes him fuss or bellow like an interrupted nap.(Spinelli 17)
Like much (but not all) didactic-science poetry for children, this collection fails the “why poetry?” test because it does not work as verse. Poetry has not been an informational genre since the eighteenth century—and one wonders if, even in the eighteenth century, the lives of bees and the circulation of blood were topics best described in couplets.
Other books pass the “why poetry?” test, only to fail the “why bother?” test. An example of this is John Grandits’s Blue Lipstick, a mess of juniorhigh “concrete” poems that strain the eyes and fatigue the brain. Grandits twists his saggy prose into the most obvious shapes imaginable, giving us lazy visual poetry in the voice of young people who exist only in the minds of adults. One speaker, for instance, after a visit to the Art Institute, insists, “Mondrian . . . totally rocks!” (n.p.). And if we never read another “mirror” poem involving mirrored text, it will be too soon. Ultimately, Blue Lipstick suffers from the same problem as Grandits’s previous book of visual poetry, Technically It’s Not My Fault: namely, that its author appears almost willfully ignorant of visual poetry’s rich traditions and techniques. Judge Joseph Thomas has discussed visual poetry for young people in his book Poetry’s Playground, where he argues that this ignorance is prevalent in the world of children’s visual poetry. Grandits’s Blue Lipstick traces (or blotches) led us to wonder why children’s editors and poets do not take more seriously what others have done with the form historically, why they do not interact with visual poetry’s complex traditions.
While Karen Jo Shapiro’s I Must Go Down to the Beach Again is certainly informed by at least one set of literary traditions, it really doesn’t make very good use of them. Like her earlier and equally forgettable volume Because I Could Not Stop My Bike (“It kindly stopped for me”) these knockoffs offer “apologies to” the originals. For instance, “My Mouth Closed Twice” appears “with apologies to Emily Dickinson, ‘My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close.’” Unfortunately (or fortunately), this method made us want to bolt...