Grousing About the Poetry Foundation

Today the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation announced its second annual “Children’s Poet Laureate” award. The recipient, Mary Ann Hoberman, is certainly deserving. Her poetry has just the sort of life and joy and—perhaps more importantly—inventiveness and surprise that I found missing in the work of last year’s winner.

So why am I grousing?

Well, first, the term “poet laureate” denotes recognition by a government—whether that be national, state, or local—not by a privately funded organization. So I’m irritated at the Poetry Foundation’s audacity in using the term. It’s rather like my having Popcorn Press declare someone “Children’s Governor” of Wisconsin.

Second, it still irks me that last year’s declaration of the first “Children’s Poet Laureate” came on the very same day that the president of the Poetry Foundation posted to its Web site an essay explaining why works such as “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (listen to it here) are not true poems, but “merely” verse. That essay casts popular works as less worthy than the “art” of true poetry, and therefore not to be posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Web site.

And then—on the same day, remember—they had the nerve to choose Jack Prelutsky as their first “Children’s Poet Laureate”? His work is the very definition of popular! And, I’d argue, of predictability. Here’s a test: Read pretty much any Prelutsky poem and see how often you cannot predict what’s coming next—especially with end rhymes. Shel Silverstein he’s not.

Emily Dickenson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I’m pretty sure she meant surprise at the language and content. Unfortunately, for the past year I’ve felt the top of my head lifted with irritation about this “Children’s Poet Laureate” award.

I suppose having said my piece now, and mollified by the respectable selection of Ms. Hoberman, I should just get over it, move on with my life, and wish the Poetry Foundation well.

(But secretly, I still prefer the Academy of American Poets: www.poets.org.)

2 Comments

  1. Polyhedras

    Thanks for the comment. Reviewing the verse/poetry article, I’d say you’re right: It is a lot more balanced than I recall. However, I still find irksome the thought of a private organization announcing a Children’s Poet Laureate award. And I still believe their choice of first recipient was more popularity contest than promotion of quality in children’s poetry. While I wish Mr. Prelutsky no ill will, I cannot in good conscience recommend his work to anyone as a model of even expert craftsmanship.

  2. bh

    After reading this entry, I immediately googled the Poetry Foundation essay that you mentioned (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/feature.html?id=178645) – fully expecting to be offended by yet another poetry snob. I was pleasantly surprised that it was more focused on the question of finding more precise definitions for poetry and verse, and that Barr actually seemed to rise to Service’s defense.

    That being said, I completely understand your point, and can’t stand the snobbery of someone who uses the art versus craft distinction as a way of putting others down. On the other hand, having seen what “passes for art these days” maybe its better to be an expert craftsman. (I’ll take a few Rockwell paintings over some entire wings at the Art Institute in Chicago).

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