11/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

America's Other Poet Laureate

I loved reading Shel Silverstein as a kid. His poems stirred my imagination more than anything else I remember reading back then. Sure they could be a little creepy:

But this afternoon by the lion's cage
I'm afraid I got too near.
And I'm writing these lines
From inside a lion,
And it's rather dark in here.

But that was part of the fun. For many in my generation (and quite a few other generations), Silverstein's work was our introduction to poetry, and he made a great first impression. He made us want to come back and revisit the art.

The Poetry Foundation seems to understand the importance of that first impression. They named Mary Ann Hoberman the new children's poet laureate this past week, and I think her philosophy of children's poetry is dead on:

"Poetry is pleasure. I don't like it when a four-line poem of mine is in a teacher's manual, and there are three pages on how to use it across the curriculum and it's analyzed to death. That's not what poetry is for. It's for joy."

And how could a kid not love a book called All My Shoes Come in Twos. That makes me smile.

Hoberman will serve a two year term as the laureate. At 78 years old, she's had a very prolific career, having written more than 45 books. One of them, A House Is a House for Me, won the National Book Award. Here's an excerpt:

A hill is a house for an ant, an ant.
A hive is a house for a bee.
A hole is a house for a mole or a mouse
A house is a house for me.

Hoberman's predecessor as children's poet laureate, Jack Prelutsky (the first person to hold the position) while similarly embracing joy, is more fantastical. He has some obvious similarities to Silverstein though Prelutsky has downplayed the comparison: "He tended to be a little grosser than me. He went for the jugular." You need only read some of "Ballad of a Boneless Chicken" to see how he, like Silverstein, engages the imagination.

I have feathers fine and fluffy
I have lovely little wings
but I lack the superstructure
to support these splendid things.

It's terrifically silly. And here's one of my favorites, "Mother Ogre's Lullaby":

Hush baby ogre, stop raving and rest,
Slumber, sweet savage impossible pest.
Stifle your tantrum, no kicking, don't bite.
Close your red ogre, good night.

On his website , Prelutsky says that as a kid he "developed a healthy dislike for poetry due to a teacher who 'left me with the impression that poetry was the literary equivalent of liver. I was told it was good for me, but I wasn't convinced.'" It isn't surprising, then, that Prelutsky's poems are unfailingly fun. Elsewhere on the site, he offers up his three tips for making a funny poem:

1) Exaggerate
2) Make the Ordinary Special
3) Absurd Conclusion

It's sort of like being a political pundit.

In an interview with the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Prelutsky pointed out that while children's poetry isn't generally taken seriously by the poetry establishment, it sells a lot better than adult poetry. If the poetry establishment paid more attention to promoting poetry in schools, that might not be the case. The poetry foundation's establishment and support of the children's poet laureate position is a good move in that direction.

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