Monday, August 23

Fast & Slow

Poems for Advanced Children and Beginning Parents 
by John Ciardi 
illustrated by Becky Gaver 
Houghton Mifflin  1975 

A somewhat lackluster collection of poems for children by an otherwise great American poet who might have been caught in the trade winds of children's poetry... 

I have read various collections of Ciardi's poems over the years and find him to be rather sturdy when it comes to quality, though I have to confess I have yet to come across a poem of his I wanted to quote or memorize.  Whether or not this should be a measure of a good or great poet can be debated, but I would argue that with poetry, with so much focused on the language and the phrasing, the idea of being moved by a particular passage or insight is crucial. 

In reading this collection I had a strange feeling of displacement.  Not of myself but of the poems and the poet.  This collection came out a full year after Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, a book whose poems still resonate today, and between these two titles I get the feeling there was a seismic shift in poetry for children.

Ciardi was of the old school, a more pastoral observer.  He writes poems about the differences between youth and age (the title poem),  meditations on nature ("Why the Sky is Blue"), and the nature of friendship ("What Johnny Told Me").  Some of the poems are short but many are lengthy narratives that seem more keen on telling a quirky story in rhyme as if somehow the beat and the meter will transcend the absurdities of the narrative ("A Fog Full of Apes").  On the other hand you have Silverstien's odd paeans to selling one's sibling ("For Sale"), advice on avoiding those who would stiffle your dreams ("Listen to the Mustn'ts") and the cautionary tales of children who refuse to do chores ("Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout...").  Silverstien's poems often read like short jokes and one-liners, but as subject matter they celebrate the world of the child from the child's perspective; Ciardi's poems come from a top-down world view. 

Perhaps it's unfair to compare these two, but while reading Fast & Slow I couldn't help feel that sense that I was witnessing the historical shift in children's poetry between the old and the new.  Scholars can probably define it better, for me reading Ciardi felt for the first time like I was listening to a kindergarten teacher on the edge of retirement treating her charges the same way she did forty years earlier.  There's a stodgy innocence in these poems; they aren't bad, necessarily, but neither are they bold, adventurous, or relevant.  There is a reason Where the Sidewalk Ends keeps getting anniversary editions and Ciardi's books keep turning up in the withdrawn and discard bis at the library.  It's sad to think of poetry falling out of favor, and to have it replaced with works that are newer and flashier and perhaps weaker in their poetic rigor, but I totally understand.

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