Fun follows form: fine verse for children

The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America, chosen and edited by Donald Hall. New York: Oxford University Press. 319 pp. $18.95. The criteria Donald Hall used to pick poems for his anthology are ingenious; indeed, his introduction serves as an essay on the child in America over the years. But I will leave all that for scholars to discuss.

When I read these poems, I don't think about the child, in America or anywhere else. I think, if I think at all, about matters of form. Many of the poems collected here are simply fine poems. And there are all kinds: fables, limericks, ballads, dramatic monologues, songs, light verse, and some graffiti. Here's a graffito: ``It's such a / Bore / Being always / Poor.'' (Langston Hughes, ``Ennui'').

I wish I had written that.

Hall is happy to have discovered, as he read through the children's magazines that supplied him with most of his material for this anthology, a poet named Marian Douglas. And I am happy he did discover her: She knows the four-line hymn stanza, long and short, inside and out. Notice the way the third line of this, the penultimate stanza of ``The Snow-Man,'' causes the heart to race a little: ``Proud triumph of the school-boy's skill!/ Far rather would I be/ A winter giant, ruling o'er/ A frosty realm, like thee . . .''

There are those who consider the use of an archaism like ``o'er'' unforgivable. Some of these self-conscious modernists choose to write in free verse instead of traditional forms. But very few of these poems were written by such poets. And so I'll return to this book again and again, whether or not I have a child on my knee.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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