Books that entice youngsters to try their own hands at verse. A well-kept secret in America's schools

Devon McNamara is a writer who has worked for some years in Artists-in-the-Schools programs in the Midwest and Appalachian states. She travels throughout the school year, reading published poems to students and encouraging them to write their own. What, we asked, were some of her favorite collections -- old and new? Here's her answer. A RUNCIBLE spoon. If you're dining on mince and slices of quince, nothing else will do.

But where are those runcinate spoon-forks these days, curved as a Piggy-wig, toothy as dandelion leaves, for serving up the essential feast of the world's poetry to America's young people?

The work of our living poets -- Gwendolyn Brooks, Wendell Berry, Galway Kinnell, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, and Etheridge Knight, among others -- is often as thrillingly accessible to the hearts and minds of kindergartners and primary-schoolers and second-graders as are Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, or the atmospheric and saucy Victorians.

But in many American schools this is often a secret. So how to serve up the poetry that's leaping off the major presses -- and from the more than 2,000 independent publishers? Good question.

Traveling around for a decade or so through five Midwestern states and portions of Appalachia, encouraging children (and their relations and accomplices) to write poetry, has taught me that childhood is not an inferior form of adult sensibility. A good poem by a nine-year-old is a good poem. Period.

To towns with names like Custer and Marble Rock, as well as Toledo, Dayton, and Des Moines, I have brought poems by well-known writers and by some not-so-well-known but equally powerful poets -- Louise McNeill, Irene McKinney, Grace Butcher, Hale Chatfield, Maggie Anderson. Often I've found young writers less encouraged by ``juvenile poems'' than surprised into writing by some of the best poems I know: the marvelous moral prose poems of Jim Heynen, in ``The Man Who Kept Cigars in His Cap'' and ``You Know What Is Right'' (North Point Press, Berkeley, Calif., 1985), in which boys help pheasants and a girl with six toes becomes popular. Then there's Kinnell's ``Crying,'' from ``Mortal Acts, Mortal Words'' (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1980), to which everyone from second grade to beyond retirement has responded with poems on how sorrow turns to joy, and mourning to dancing.

At a workshop in a state training school for young offenders in the Midwest, Hale Chatfield's ``Ruby Church,'' from the book ``What Color Are Your Eyes?'' (Konglomerati Press, Gulfport, Fla., 1978) brought line after stirring line from girls doing time.

The mysteriously ordinary ``We Buried the Car Today,'' by B.Finlay, who published in the Hiram [College] Poetry Review in 1976, and Louise McNeill's lyrical ``First Flight,'' from ``Paradox Hill: From Appalachia to Lunar Shore'' (West Virginia University Press, 1972), opened up rural and urban high school students to ritual and aspiration in their own lives. And recently, Czeslaw Milosz's poem ``On Angels'' (``Selected Poems,'' the Ecco Press, New York, 1980) drew from a first-grader a lament for the Midwestern farm, for he beheld an angel on a John Deere, riding in the rain, across his family fields.

If you can't distribute 25 shiny paperbacks to school-age people, how do you serve up the best? Mirabile dictu, some of the old stuff resonates. A fourth grader in Lima, Ohio, recited -- and felt -- all of Robert Frost's ``Nothing Gold Can Stay.'' Lewis Carroll's ``Jabberwocky'' always works, and so do Rosetti and Stevenson.

Recently I read to some sophisticated sixth-graders in Iowa ``The Owl and the Pussy-cat'' from ``Talking to the Sun,'' a sumptuous anthology edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell. In this book, poems are juxtaposed to paintings and photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which produced it (with Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York) in 1985. The sixth-graders had never heard Edward Lear's jouncy rhyme, and they loved it. What's more, they wrote that sometimes ``a silly-seeming poem can inspire a serious feeling, like the desire to sail far, far away.''

No doubt they were enticed, in part, by the accompanying reproduction of John Frederick Kensett's Lake George, with its subtle blue echoes of far shores and the flicker of unknown boats, possibly pea-green. A Matisse appears beside a song from ``The Tempest,'' Steinlen's cats' frolic with Christopher Smart's ``For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey'' and William Carlos Williams's cat-over-jam closet poem. Line illustrations from Hokusai's sketchbooks revolve around the haiku of Basho, Issa, and Ryota (translated by Koch), and a startling Stieglitz photo glows silver below James Schuyler's shopping-list poem. Poet-editors Koch and Farrell are not inviting so-called ``kid poetry,'' but also concrete, luminous mental images that work on the feelings and demand strong writing.

``Talking to the Sun'' is organized around the history of poetry and begins with hymns to the sun from African and American-Indian cultures. It ranges through the work of some of the strongest poets who have written in any language -- Dante, Leopardi, Rilke, Lorca, and Li Po -- and closes with a Frank O'Hara poem from which the book takes its title. The section ``Come Live With Me and Be My Love'' I found delightful, with its evocative juxtaposition of the yellow jasper head of Queen Tiye of Egypt with L'eopold Senghor's ``I Want to Say Your Name.'' For some, however, the occasional graphic crowding may resemble the Metropolitan Museum's Christmas catalog. Also, I missed poems by women of our time. Still, I recommend this book because it says, ``You come, too.''

Now for some new titles to add to the poetry shelves. Barbara Juster Esbensen's Words with Wrinkled Knees (Thomas Y. Crowell, New York, $11.95) gives us under this charming title a slim collection of animal/word poems: a bat, ``a short word covered with fur'' who hangs upside-down in the card catalog under B, or a dinosaur, who closes the book, its copyright expired, a pile of out-of-print bones. In the game with typography, we sometimes lose the animals' selves in favor of the conceit -- a kind of laboring that may be reflected in the illustrations. There might even be a vein of distancing dislike in the poems about crow, mosquito, spider, and centipede - not that horror is without a certain felicity for young readers.

Similarly, Earth Songs, by Myra Cohn Livingston, poet, and Leonard Everett Fisher, painter (Holiday House, New York, $14.95; 32 pp.), gives us full-page land forms, weathers, and spacescapes in bold brushstrokes of muted colors, with poems spoken by the earth itself superimposed on the textures in a kind of recitative of global vastness. Earth's mysteries don't seem particularly warm, however, though they're meant to appear powerful. It's an evocative tribute to elemental forces, which perhaps could never feel personal. One can't help thinking, however, of the Hottentot chant from ``Talking to the Sun,'' in which God collects stars in a basket, like a woman collecting lizards, and piling them into her pot ``until the basket overflows with light.''

Then there's Jamichael Henterly's newly illustrated A Fairy Went A-Marketing, Rose Fyleman's rhyme that originally appeared in Punch in 1918 and now has been done up in rich colors and lovingly worked designs (Dutton, New York, $10.95).

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