The Pick of New Poetry - From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

FOR the younger set, animals are always a popular subject. A trio of recent collections, all illustrated, run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime. Deliciously ridiculous is A Hippopotamusn't, by J. Patrick Lewis (Dial, $12.95), a collection of mostly nonsense verse. The title poem includes the inspired couplet: ``A hippopotamusn't roll in gutters used by bowlers. / A hippopotamusn't fail to floss his hippopotamolars.'' Victoria Chess's cheeky illustrations provide the perfect complement.

More nonsense pervades Jane Yolen's Dinosaur Dances (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $14.95), sure to be a hit with fossil fans. The poems celebrate such mythical creatures as Twinkle Toes Triceratops, the Dinosaur Hard Rock Band, and a light-footed allosauraus: ``When the allosaurus / Goes out dancing / Is romancing / Her intention / Or enhancing / Reputations / As the dinosaur / Astaire?''

Ed Young, this year's Caldecott medalist, lends his dreamy, impressionistic illustration style to the third book, Mice Are Nice (Philomel, $15.95). Here, anthologist Nancy Larrick presents an affectionate selection of ``mouse'' verse from such poets as Christina Rossetti, John Ciardi, A. A. Milne, and Edward Lear.

Middle graders are especially fond of humor, and those in the market for light verse will be happy to find two popular poets back with new collections. Jack Prelutsky's latest compendium, Something Big Has Been Here, (Greenwillow Books, $14.95), is filled with poems with intriguing titles like, ``Who Pulled the Plug in My Ant Farm?'' and ``The Disputatious Deeble.'' Studded with puns and appetizing words (``Bats cavort in soaring cliques, / sounding ultrasonic shrieks''), it's easy to see why his poems find an enthusiastic audience. James Stevenson's sprightly black-and-white drawings are sprinkled throughout.

X. J. Kennedy is also back, this time with Fresh Brats (Margaret K. McElderry Books, $12.95), illustrated by James Watts. A sequel to ``Brats,'' this slim volume is a further collection of outrageously witty verse about such rotten kids as Drexel: ``Drexel on the ballroom floor / Drizzled Vaseline galore. / Now each dancer who advances / Out on it invents new dances.''; and Abner Abb: ``Ocean-bathing, Abner Abb / Down a shark's throat made a grab / For a beach ball it had swallowed. / All the rest of Abner followed.''

Older children need something more substantial, and they'll find it in Myra Cohn Livingston's latest subject anthology, If the Owl Calls Again: A Collection of Owl Poems, (Margaret K. McElderry Books, $13.95). Drawing on a diversity of sources and cultures - American Indian, Elizabethan, Persian, and Japanese, for example - Livingston has assembled a soaring collection of verse celebrating these beautiful, slightly mysterious birds. Antonio Frasconi's distinctive woodcuts grace the title page of each of the five sections in the book.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Emily Dickinson's first published poem comes A Brighter Garden (Philomel, $17.95), a collection of the New England poet's seasonal verse. Karen Ackerman has grouped the poems into four categories: Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring, and while Tasha Tudor's gentle, pastoral watercolors have a decidedly old-fashioned flavor that may not appeal to all tastes, they do give readers a sense of the time in which Dickinson lived.

Part anthology, part autobiography, The Place My Words are Looking For (Bradbury Press, $13.95), selected by Paul B. Janeczko, is an inspired and inspiring collection of poems and brief statements by 39 leading American poets for children. Verse is interspersed with quotations from the poets themselves on topics such as where they get their ideas, why they choose to write poetry, and how they would define poetry. It's an indispensable book for aspiring young poets (and interested adults).

Finally, a magnificent new collection from a British author and illustrator team for serious poetry fans, A New Treasury of Poetry (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $25), compiled by Neil Philip, is well worth the steep price. A repository of some of the finest poems in the English language (W. B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, Dylan Thomas, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost), the volume's selections were made not necessarily on the basis of whether they were written specifically for children but rather on their inherent appeal to children - through sheer beauty of language, perhaps, or appealing subject matter. The collection is weighted toward British poets, but does include some Americans. Most of the poems in the book are those that have stood the test of time rather than more contemporary works. As a resource book, as a reference book, and as a delight to dip into time and again, it's a stellar collection. It's also a joy to hold. From its striking endpapers to John Lawrence's elegant woodcuts to its sturdy binding, it's a beautiful piece of bookmaking.

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