John Ashbery is not often thought of as a kid-friendly poet — to be honest, he’s not always thought of as an adult-friendly poet. But surely there are elements of his work that would appeal to children — the strangeness and surprise of his images, the wordplay and slang, the mystery and the absurdity (what kid wouldn’t get a kick out of lines like “In a far recess of summer / Monks are playing soccer”?).
In the September issue of Poetry, the children’s author who writes under the name Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) has assembled a delightful portfolio of poems that children might enjoy, but that were expressly not written for children. Explaining why he chose poems for children that were actually written for adults, he writes:
In general I am suspicious of anything written specifically for children. It is, of course, acceptable to write something to a specific child — “Dear Elizabeth, I have reason to believe this cake is poison, so please leave it alone and I’ll take care of it later” — but things written by someone who is thinking only of children far too often have an unfortunate tone. If you have ever seen an adult hunch over and begin talking to a child in the high-pitched voice of an irritating simpleton, then you know the tone I mean. It is a tone that takes the fun out of everything, even everything fun.
Snicket has put together a well-chosen array of appealing poems, by poets ranging from Carl Sandburg and Lorine Niedecker to Eileen Myles, Ron Padgett, and Sherman Alexie, and has appended some irreverent and quite funny comments to each poem. About Myles’s poem, “Uppity,” he writes “‘Uppity’ refers to someone who acts as if they are more important than they are, as in the sentence ‘Is it uppity of Lemony Snicket, who is not a poet and knows very little about poetry, to edit his own poetry portfolio?’
Snicket also includes a short poem by Ashbery entitled “This Room,” which ends:
We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
Of this poem, Snicket writes:
A quail is a small bird. Like many small birds, it is said to taste like chicken. “Induced” is a word which here means “persuaded, usually through trickery.” Some people think John Ashbery is one of the greatest poets in the world. Other people don’t understand his work at all. I count myself in both categories.
As Kenneth Koch argued so persuasively in his famous books about “teaching great poetry to children,” kids can enjoy and appreciate a much wider range of poetry than what they are usually exposed to. We do a disservice to kids when we shield them from the strangeness, the surrealism, the leaps and gaps, the linguistic pyrotechnics, of poetry written for grown-ups, since they already inhabit a world of imaginative play and verbal creativity. As Koch found, kids can find great pleasure and fun in reading adult poems, and usually write much more interesting and imaginative poems of their own, once they are exposed to poems by the likes of Donne and Hopkins, Dickinson and Stein.
It’s a pleasure to see Lemony Snicket put Koch’s idea into action with this charming gathering of poems. And it’s not hard to imagine children finding many of these poems — like these lines which open Ashbery’s “This Room”– strange and alluring:
The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.