Attracting children to poetry

By , Steven Ratiner, a poet, teaches in the Massachusetts Artists-in-Residence program.

A good anthology is a fine way for a child, parent, or teacher to sample at one time a large number of poets and diverse styles. Writers like Eve Merriam and X. J. Kennedy, Nancy Larrick and Lee Bennett Hopkins, have edited consistently high-quality selections. The emphasis on rhyme for very young readers is not surprising; well-crafted formal verse can enchant the child with its incantatory powers or simply tickle the tongue with its rhythmic designs. But as a reader's skill develops, there are other qualities, in formal or free verse, that must be present to attract and challenge the child. Authenticity and surprise are perhaps the most vital.

The new Random House Book of Poetry for Children (edited by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Arnold Lobel; Random House, New York, $13.95.) is certainly one of the better collections to have been released in a while, impressive for its size, nearly 600 poems, and the diversity of its poets. The anthology, edited by Jack Prelutsky, the popular children's poet, will earn high marks as a resource for home or school.

Yet it is far from perfect; it almost completely ignores free verse as a medium, and concentrates too single-mindedly on the goal of entertaining its readers. I would rate it a ''B'' for its attention to the best of the older children's authors, although most of the masters are represented by only one or two titles. The selection of contemporary writers is somewhat better, but heavily weighted on the side of humor.

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There is an overabundance of poetry that is above the level of mere doggerel but far below the originality and quality of the finest verse.

This sort of popular poetry is aimed at winning over the Saturday-morning-TV-cartoon generation. I don't believe that it provides a lasting literary experience or that these poems will lead on the reader to explore the great poets as years go on. My objection then is to the proportions Prelutsky has chosen for his anthology.

One recent trend that is quite positive is the reissuing of work from the finest modern poets - selections that are accessible if not expressly written for a young audience, and published in handsome, well-designed books. There have been titles by Frost, Sandburg, and D. H. Lawrence in recent years, and now we have Hist Whist and Other Poems for Children, by E. E. Cummings (edited by George J. Firmage, illustrated by David Calsada; Liveright, New York, $10.95). Cummings is an ideal poet for children because of his playful cadences, imaginative use of language, and exciting imagery. He will be difficult, I'm sure, for some children to explore on their own; but if a parent or teacher will read the poems aloud and help the discovery process along with questions and suggestions, I'm sure that young people will find a true kinsman in Mr. Cummings.

The detailed line drawings by David Calsada are not quite in keeping with the poet's spirit of invention but are attractive all the same. Not only will ''Hist Whist'' sing in the ear and dance in the mind, it will point readers toward poetry that merits their most careful attention and rewards their deepest wonderings.

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