Commentary Magazine


The New Oxford Book of Children's Verse, edited by Neil Philip

The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse
edited by Neil Philip
Oxford. 371 pp. $27.50

Of the making of anthologies there is no end—especially in the case of Oxford University Press, which has in print nearly 200 collections entitled The Oxford Book of. . . . Among the most recent entries is The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, edited by Neil Philip, a British compiler of over a dozen children’s books. The “New” in the title apparently signifies that this volume is meant to replace Iona and Peter Opie’s 1973 edition of The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse and Donald Hall’s The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse in America (1985), although at present both older anthologies remain in print, as does an illustrated paperback edited by Edward Blishen, entitled The Oxford Book of Poetry for Children (1987).

It is astonishing that Oxford, with all its experience in publishing such books, should stumble as badly as it does here. The making of an anthology requires, in the first place, wide learning. But Philip, who intends “the poems in this book to speak to today’s children,” repudiates the burdens of scholarship, declaring that he has included no poem “simply for its historical importance.” This is a risky ploy, and one which makes the book’s success turn entirely on Philip’s own judgment and taste; these, in the event, turn out to be regrettably untrustworthy.

Of the 200 poets represented here, half were born in the 20th century—a radical tilt away from the Victorians and Edwardians who developed and perfected the genre of children’s verse. True, Philip does include some classics: William Blake’s “The Tyger” (1794), Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” (1855), Eugene Field’s “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” (1892). And there are a handful of nice surprises: the rarely anthologized sixteen pages of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (1862) and an infrequently seen pair of lyrics by the Edwardian A.E. Housman. Among living poets, Philip has also made real discoveries: Douglas Florian’s “Send my spinach / Off to Spain” (1994) and Jack Prelutsky’s marvelous “Mother Goblin’s Lullaby” (1990):

Go to sleep, my baby goblin, hushaby, my dear of dears, if you disobey your mother, she will twist your pointed ears.

But Philip’s selection also manifests frequent lapses, and these are not merely reducible to the many poems he has omitted. Philip seems unwilling to accept, for example, that one reason we read poetry to children is to hand on a deposit of words and phrases, the investment of prior generations in the language. There is a purpose in putting lines like “young Lochinvar is come out of the West” in children’s anthologies—and “’Twas the night before Christmas” and “what is so rare as a day in June?” and “I hear America singing” and “Under a spreading chestnut tree” and all the rest of the Victorian parlor classics, together with the most hackneyed, overquoted lines from Shakespeare and Dryden and Pope and Keats, none of which is present here. The person who is not given these references as a child will be deprived as an adult, lacking old memories around which the language can thicken.

Nor is this the only illustration of Philip’s failed intuition. Another reason we read poetry to children has to do with what can only be called magic. Heavy meter and insistent rhyme are a kind of sorcery, through which words achieve unity not only with their meanings but with the things they represent. To put it another way, meter and rhyme confirm children’s deeply conservative desire that the world make sense in all its parts.

Philip, however, seems suspicious of heavy meter. He does give us A.A. Milne’s famous stressed imitation of Latin meter—“James James / Morrison Morrison / Weatherby George Dupree”—but leaves out Milne’s other rhythmic exaltations like “Roundabout and roundabout and roundabout I go” (perhaps the only successful use in English verse of the meter known technically as a paeonic dactyl). He includes some work by David McCord, but not McCord’s most oddly compelling rhythm from the 1950’s:

Isabel Jones & Curabel Lee
Lived on butter and bread and tea,
And as to this they would both
  agree:
Isabel, Curabel, Jones & Lee.

What Philip admires instead is shaped, or “concrete,” poetry: verse whose printed form mimics the look of snakes slithering, or coyotes howling, or bottle-rockets exploding. Some of these selections are clever—the technique itself dates back at least to George Herbert in the 17th century—yet I do not believe they actually work as children’s verse. They rely for their meaning on being seen rather than being heard, and thus offer only a thinnedout, visual imitation of the aural magic conveyed by meter and rhyme.

_____________

 

But the general thinning-out of which Philip is guilty extends beyond matters of form to matters of substance. Even given his skewed time-frame, where is the verse about heroes and villains, about frenzy and weeping and death? All the best children’s poetry manifests an awareness of the titanic waves of emotion that mark a child’s life: the wild excitement, the oceanic sadness. Lewis Carroll’s verse (sparsely represented here) would consist mostly of bad puns and logic games for adults were it not that he, more than any other poet, conveys the ecstasy and madness of childhood. Kenneth Graham, the author of The Wind in the Willows, edited a 1916 collection of children’s poems in which he wrote, mockingly but truly, that “The compiler of Obituary Verse for the delight of children could make a fine fat volume with little difficulty.” But there is a rightness to sorrow in children’s verse, as Edgar Allen Poe knew when he wrote “Annabel Lee” (1849, not here) and Robert Louis Stevenson knew in nearly all of A Child’s Garden of Verses.

What Philip substitutes for all this is a political and social correctness so exhausted and mechanical that one could weep; even the index dutifully enumerates the race, nationality, and gender of each poet. Everything wrong with the editor’s judgment and taste can be seen in his decision to include a poem like “Incident” by Countee Cullen:

Now I was eight and very small
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked
  out
His tongue and called me,
  “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December,
Of all the things that happened
  there
That’s all that I remember.

This is a powerful little piece by an early 20th-century African-American poet; but it is not a children’s poem. It is, in fact, an anti-children’s poem, one that exploits the form of children’s verse to make, with brutal irony, a point about how a child’s innocence can be poisoned by an encounter with racial hatred. Although it is hardly the only example in this book of Philip’s seeming inability to tell the difference between poetry for children and poetry about children, it may well be the most egregious.

“Incident” resorts to the pedagogic technique of teaching a falsity in order to correct it, an inherently suspect maneuver: one immediate effect of this poem might be to give its listeners the soul-poisoning use of the word, “Nigger.” But even if we succeeded in making children understand what the poem is doing, what would we have achieved? Nothing more than forever destroying—in the name of teaching the hatred of hatred—the innocence that for children makes such poetry work.

Neil Philip may be right that The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse is the anthology for today’s children, if today’s children are those who find poetry a dead or deadening thing. Parents who would have their children learn to love poetry should buy the older Oxford collections before they pass out of print.

_____________

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