- The Quick and the Dead:The 2016 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
Calef Brown. Hypnotize a Tiger: Poems about just about Everything. Henry Holt and Co., 2015.
Marilyn Nelson. My Seneca Village. namelos, 2015.
This year we had a record number of submissions from dead people. Don’t get us wrong. Some of our favorite poets are dead people. But the volumes of poems submitted by the heirs and/or editors of dead poets just don’t qualify for this year’s award for excellence in North American poetry. Because the poets are dead, you see.1 Harper Lee was still alive when Go Set a Watchman came out, but she’s dead now, and the fact that she once wrote a canonical text doesn’t mean that her other stuff is necessarily any good. The same goes for Margaret Wise Brown’s posthumous Goodnight Songs: A Celebration of the Seasons, illustrated by no less than twelve “Award-Winning Picture Book Artists,” and accompanied by a twelve-song CD. The press—Sterling— has clearly put a lot of work into this book, presumably under the assumption that people will buy it for purely nostalgic reasons. A sequel to Brown’s posthumous Goodnight Songs published in 2014, which Roger Sutton described as “repetitive and carelessly developed sprouts of whimsy,” these pallid lullabies might best have remained buried in her sister’s attic.
We received books by two other eminent dead people: Langston Hughes’s Sail Away and Charlotte Zolotow’s Changes: A Child’s First Poetry Collection. Three posthumous submissions are rather a lot for competition that [End Page 329] is supposed to foreground and celebrate the new. And while we like at least some of the works of Hughes, Brown, and Zolotow, there isn’t much we can say about them to help us map the future of original verse for children—the project at the heart of these award essays. Further, publishers’ penchant for the safely dead speaks to a consistent tendency in the children’s book business toward nostalgia, a desire for the familiar. Still, setting aside the entries from the dead poets’ society, we saw some serious and seriously playful candidates this year. Although we received over thirty books, many of them worthy of consideration, our decision to select co-winners, Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village and Calef Brown’s Hypnotize a Tiger, was relatively easy—and unanimous. The books are very different, but both are excellent.
Since the founding of the award in 2005, Lion and the Unicorn judges have honored several verse novels, complained about others, and ignored the rest. There are children’s literature critics, such as Mike Cadden, who argue that verse novels are not in fact poetry as critics usually understand it, but a different sort of beast altogether—a hybrid genre—and Karen Coats has argued that judging children’s poems as poetry (or, indeed, making aesthetic judgments about children’s poetry at all) is either inherently elitist or, borrowing Maria Nikolajeva’s unfortunate term, “aetonormative.”2 Since the mid-nineties, children’s literary and cultural criticism has narrowed its focus to ideological and cultural concerns while “largely—but not entirely—elid[ing] the tricky issue of aesthetics and the ideological roots of the same” (Thomas 5). Indeed, among certain critics, any foray into aesthetics is likely to be characterized as elitist. In their forthcoming “Apologia” for this award, past judges Michael Joseph and Joseph Thomas note that we are engaged in an unfashionable and perhaps quixotic project when we invite readers “to think about poetry for children, at least for a moment, not as cultural symptoms, but, instead, as works of art that have the potential to produce that singular experience we’ve come to call, for lack of a better word, the aesthetic.”
In their essay, Michael and Joseph describe the deliberately hyperbolic, “theatrically overwrought” qualities of the negative criticism in some of our past essays where we have deliberately exercised “verbal athleticism . . . through irony, parody, absurdity, overstatement, and other distancing devices within and along with our venomous barbs” (Joseph and...