When read to, young children are as likely to hear sounds as adults are to hear ideas, concepts, meaning. The difference can be as dramatic as between a deaf listener and one who loves Mozart. I’m not jettisoning the denotative worth of language, and the ideal adult reader/listener holds sound and sense in fructive balance, but kids unashamedly revel in lexical abandon.
In honor of Richard Wilbur’s ninetieth birthday on Tuesday, though without announcing it to anyone (librarian, teachers, kids), I read some of the poems Wilbur has written for children to a group of kindergarteners. Call it an exercise in applied criticism. In his introductory note to Collected Poems: 1943-2004, in which he includes his five volumes of children’s verse, Wilbur says: “They are, as I have sometimes said in subtitles, `for children and others.’”
Placing these poems in suitable genres can be perplexing. They might qualify as “light verse,” much-maligned by sophisticates. They are not “nonsense verse,” in the cloying sense, and don’t resemble most of the thin gruel marketed as poetry for children. Wilbur’s art, even in its most casual or recreational manifestations, makes sense, however silly. I read six poems to the kids, reading for maximum rhythmic impact and jokiness. This one from More Opposites (1991), a volume dedicated to Wilbur’s granddaughter:
“The opposite of kite, I'd say,
Is yo-yo. On a breezy day
You take your kite and let it rise
Upon its string into the skies,
And then you pull it down with ease
(Unless it crashes in the trees).
A yo-yo, though, drops down, and then
You quickly bring it up again
By deftly pulling on its string
(If you can work the blasted thing)."
My only preface was to ask if everyone knew what a kite was, and a yo-yo. I also showed them Wilbur’s Thurber-esque drawing of a monstrous little girl holding a kite string in one hand and a yo-yo string in the other. Most had stories about botched kite-flying adventures with family. The final line was popular because, like me, not one kid can get a yo-yo to operate properly. Next up was this from A Few Differences:
“You don’t confuse a cake of soap
With other sorts of cake, I hope.
Were you to eat a helping of
Camay, or Ivory, or Dove,
I think you’d have digestive troubles
Caused by a stomach full of bubbles.
“How horrible! But the reverse
Confusion might be worse.
Be careful, if you please: I’d rather
Not see you bathe in mocha lather,
Or watch as you shampoo your head
With angel food or gingerbread.”
By far, this was the most popular of Wilbur’s offerings with the five-year-olds, confirming what I already knew about children: food and “grossness” rank high in the kid pantheon. Put them together and you have a hit on your hands. One little girl with a perfect Prince Valiant coif rubbed her fingers on her scalp as though lathering up, and said:
“I dream of gingerbread!”