Side Dishes Feb. 28
Shining a Light on Science Books

Poetry for the Fronts of Tote Bags?

Last night while Junior read four books to himself (not that I'm counting, but hallelujah, we have worked hard to get to that point), I caught up on a bit of the New Yorker's anniversary issue, including Dana Goodyear's look at the Poetry Foundation and the effect of Ruth Lilly's enormous financial gift ($200 million) to the group. The piece goes a long way toward portraying the organization as rudderless in a sea of too much money.

I know the Poetry Foundation only through its terrific web site. Given that its budget is a million dollars a year, it's bound to be good. Goodyear writes about the site, "It's a boon to poets—and to best men."  Hmm. I think that's supposed to be funny, but instead seems condescending.

As part of the careening, overloaded money ship image, Goodyear points to the creation of the children's poet laureate post, underwritten by the Poetry Foundation.  She quotes from Jack Prelutsky's "I Have a Pet Tomato," which does look really silly right there in the New Yorker, and notes that Prelutsky has published some 40 books. (Press pause for deconstruction:  lotsa books + bad verse = something not too hard to do = 0.)

The captain chairman of the board, a businessman poet,  comes off as particularly naive, and that's putting it kindly. (Showing a poem written in some sort of Caribbean dialect to a national reporter is, well, ill-advised.) Many of the people now involved in the Foundation now come from business backgrounds.

The Foundation has its detractors, as one can imagine. The most scathing cannon (or should I say "canon"?) shot at the wayward vessel belongs to the poet J. D. McClatchy, editor of The Yale Review. He told Dana Goodyear,

"The aura of mediocrity has settled like a fog over the business of the foundation. The new awards, for example. It's not the winners who trouble me, it's the categories. Children's poetry? Funny poetry? If those are a way for the foundation to carve a niche for itself, it's a shallow one and too low down on the wall. It signals a lack of ambition and seriousness that may ultimately be fatal. Ironically, they risk marginalizing themselves by appealing to people who think of the 'Prairie Home Companion' as high art. It's the culture of sidebars, poems suitable for the fronts of tote bags. The foundation seems to want to promote poetry, the way you'd promote cereal or a sitcom."

To get the full context of the material I've been quoting, you need to read the article, which I found fascinating, if somewhat slanted. Then come back and tell me what you thought of "The Moneyed Muse," which ran in the Feb. 19 & 26 issue of The New Yorker.

The Poetry Foundation responded here.


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The Yale guy needs to have someone help him remove his head from his posterior. Children's poetry and funny poetry are both worthy categories, although certainly some sort of gatekeeping as to what within those categories merits serious attention needs to be done. Funny is hard to write well, and so is children's poetry.

And promoting the reading of poetry, even children's or funny poems, might just make the whole field of poetry a bit more relevant to the general populace, which can only be a good thing. Mr. McClatchy's pomposity has thoroughly pissed me off.

But thanks for sharing the article, anyway.

Having just received Prelutsky's latest book for review, this really speaks to me. What a yawn-fest.

Wendy, you think Prelutsky's book is boring or the New Yorker article?

In general I like Prelutsky's work, although I wasn't overly interested in The Bold Umbrellaphant. The New Yorker article was pretty condescending about Pretlutsky, I thought. I'd have chosen "A Turkey Shot Out of the Oven" to show what fun the poet can be. But fun children's poetry wasn't part of the article's purview.

I give major props to the writer for getting that snobby quote from McClatchy. He didn't use the word bourgeois, but that's clearly what he meant with the Prairie Home Companion reference.

I meant the Prelutsky book. I'll try to have a review for poetry friday tomorrow, though it's going to be hard to write about a book so very bland. Even Raschka's illustrations can't save it.

It's a curious fact of timing that I was just re-reading an old edition of _The New Read-Aloud Handbook_, and Trelease talks about how much children love poetry and how much adults don't. He writes that it's a disgrace that people like Silverstein and Prelutsky (whose books are, supposedly, regularly stolen by children from school libraries) aren't recognized by their poetry peers.

Maybe children just have bad taste in poetry, but I think it's pretty darn amusing that, in the minds of Yale professors, The Prairie Home Companion crowd (now THERE'S a huge demographic) is considered too coarse and lowbrow for "real poets" to worry about their opinions.

Obviously the NASCAR folks shouldn't be part of poetry's audience at ALL. Snort.

(BTW, I think a little Prelutsky goes a long way, but his best work completely enthralls my children.)

Jody, that Prairie Home Companion slam struck me, so to speak, as odd. PHC is entertainment. McClatchy's reference to promoting poetry like cereal is, I think, a dig at the poet (and head of the National Endowment for the Arts) Dana Gioia, who used to be an exec at General Foods.

My son likes Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein a lot, too. Recently he's also digging John Ciardi, similarly fun. (Not that he knows the names of any of them...just likes the silly fun of the poems.)

This all begs back to poetry being too good for the common man type notion, an attitude that has plagued poetry for too long. While Prelutsky can be a yawn (although I have great fondness for The Dragons are Singing Tonight) there is something to applaud about a poet being accessible - and in the case of children that can be silly rhymes and silly themes. We don't have to be highbrow to show children the music of rhyme, the joy of language, the sheer fun of combining words and ideas. Besides, my seven year old's idea of a good poem would be anything that rhymed with "poop". Captain Underpants as poetry anyone?

Ah yes, my five year old has written quite a few odes on the "poop" theme. You should check out the end of the new book Flush.

I find it hard to even put Prelutsky and Silverstein in the same sentence, but I'm guessing I haven't seen any of Prelutsky's best work.

But you have to see the cat-tay from the NY Times Book Review yesterday:

I really agreed with the Times, though I think it was snitty that he dredged up issues with Goodyear's own poetry.

Abbi, I saw it! This is the story that goes on and on, isn't it?

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