LIKE salt and pepper or crackers and cheese, poetry and children are a natural combination. From early infancy on (some say even before birth, through the familiar rhythm of the mother's heartbeat), children soak up poetry through nursery rhymes, games, and songs. More than just a natural part of childhood, though, poetry also serves the important function of introducing children to the delights of language.
``Poetry is the most succinct form of literature,'' says Myra Cohn Livingston, a poet, teacher, and anthologist. ``[It] deals with the beauty of language, with essential rhythms, and with an emotional outlet for people.''
``Poetry is the music of language,'' says Jack Prelutsky, whose humorous, light verse has made him a favorite with the younger set. ``I think we're all born with poetry inside of us - we have internal rhythms - which is one of the reasons poetry makes sense to us.''
With the current boom in children's books, Ms. Livingston says, ``There are many more good poets writing [for children] than there ever were before.'' But, she cautions, ``since there are more people writing, [there is also] some very bad stuff coming out.''
Children today are fortunate, Mr. Prelutsky says, because contemporary poets ``have a better idea of what children really are.'' Consequently, their work is more in tune with real children and real concerns than years ago, when much of poetry fell into two categories: the didactic and the maudlin.
``Poetry was punishment when I was a kid,'' he recalls. ```Under the spreading chestnut tree ...' - I had to learn that in grade school. It didn't mean anything. I was an urban kid growing up in the Bronx, what did the village smithy mean to me? A gas station maybe, but not a blacksmith shop.
``When I write for children now,'' he says, ``I try to write about the things I wish that I had heard when I was a kid. Outer space, weird people, kids like themselves, sibling rivalry, animals - the sorts of things that children care about.''
If poetry itself has changed over the years, unfortunately the manner in which it is generally taught has not. Livingston calls the practice she observes in many schools ``deadening.''
``To pull a poem apart for a young child just destroys it,'' she explains. ``Children love poetry up until around the fourth grade, and then it's pulled apart for meaning and pulled apart for the commas, and the nouns, and the verbs, and so naturally they end up hating it. ... You can ruin something when you make it a servant of the language arts.''
Her answer? ``With young children, I don't believe in pulling [poetry] apart and analyzing it, like the basals [textbooks] do,'' she asserts. ``I believe in just reading poetry and enjoying it.''
For those interested in starting a home bookshelf, and in helping their children appreciate and enjoy poetry, Livingston suggests a couple of steps.
First of all, she advises, ``I think every home should have its own Mother Goose. Mother Goose and nursery rhymes [serve as] the child's introduction to the [concept of] story, but it's done in that wonderful rhythm that children need and feel very keenly,'' she says.
There are numerous Mother Goose collections on the market to choose from. ``Tomie de Paola's Mother Goose'' (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $17.95) and ``Wendy Watson's Mother Goose'' (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, $19.95) are two particularly fine contemporary collections, each bursting with cheerful artwork sure to appeal to the very young.
The next item on Livingston's list is an anthology. Besides providing a good overview and a solid introduction to poetry, an anthology is a logical choice for those on a budget, or for someone who may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of poetry volumes in a bookstore or library.
Before purchasing an anthology, Livingston suggests, be sure to look carefully through the index. ``If your anthologist is a person who really knows how to select,'' she explains, ``[the book won't be] just padded with all sorts of anonymous things or public-domain work. That's very important.''
BOOKSTORE and library shelves contain a wide variety of anthologies. ``Sing a Song of Popcorn: Every Child's Book of Poems'' (Scholastic, $16.95), an exuberant collection of verse from poets such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Langston Hughes, Eve Merriam, and David McCord, is a solid choice for those who have advanced beyond Mother Goose on through the late elementary grades. The poems are divided into nine sections, each illustrated by a Caldecott medalist.
``A New Treasury of Children's Poetry: Old Favorites and New Discoveries,'' selected by Joanna Cole (Doubleday, $16.95), is another option. It contains a thoughtful selection of poems, well-balanced between old favorites and more contemporary verse, and is geared not only for young listeners and readers but also for slightly older children.
Finally, Livingston offers the same piece of advice to parents and teachers that she gives to her students at the University of California, Los Angeles: ``Once you find a poet that you like, investigate the books of that poet.''
In doing so, however, Livingston cautions that it is well to beware of getting swept away by illustrations. It's all too easy, she says, to ``buy on the basis of an attractive cover, rather than what's in the book.''
In a world tending more and more to the visual, children's poetry books are increasingly being packaged with lavish artwork. ``But what are publishers going to do? They know that pictures sell,'' Livingston laments. While this is certainly fine for the very young, she says, and for helping spark the interest of a nonreader or reluctant reader, she feels it can be ``an injustice to the child, after a certain age.''
``Children's imaginations today are atrophying,'' Livingston asserts. ``They're so used to seeing pictures that they say `Do the picture for me.' A good poem should make its own picture.''