Sunday, October 14, 2012

Real Poems

     In today's issue of The New York Times Book Review, Holly Black considers Lies Knives and Girls in Red Dresses, Ron Koertge's book of poems that retell familiar fairy tales in a decidedly modern voice.  Any review is a good thing.  Any review in the Times is a very good thing.  (A good thing for the ego, anyway.  An editor told me that a Times review doesn't usually sell many books, but I think it's good for the writer's reputation, and it certainly feels good.)  This review of Ron Koertge's new book of poems, however, exemplifies the frequent condescension to children's literature in American commentary on the arts.
     Last year, in a New Yorker essay about Paula Fox's oeuvre, Joan Acocella, dispensed with the Newbery Medal winner's "twenty-two children's books--actually they are 'young adult novels,'" with two sentences.  "[T]hese, less daunting to write than regular fiction, may have interfered with her work on novels."  By that last word, Acocella means Fox's six novels for adult readers--that is, her real novels, as if her children's fiction were a dirty little secret, a vice she practiced to avoid actual work.
     This sort of false distinction makes Paula Fox's One-Eyed Cat and The Slave Dancer; Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales; T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats; and Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories something less valuable than their authors' other work, merely by virtue of the usual audience's age.  On the contrary, all of these works, including Ron Koertge's Lies Knives and Girls in Red Dresses, are worthy of adult interest and professional literary criticism, by people who can distinguish blank verse from their hind quarters.
     I do think that much of the socalled poetry that is published for children is ignorable. Koertge's poetry, however, is anything but that kind of doggerel.  Contrary to Black's broad description of them as blank verse, these diverse poems demonstrate his supple practice of various poetic forms.  Black might have said more about the poems' acid humor, too, and the Swiftian satire on contemporary society, and the ironic mockery of conventional romantic blather. 
     Of course, we should cut Black some slack.  Undoubtedly the Times editor  gave her a skimpy word limit.  We must be grateful, in these dark days, that a book of poems for any audience, especially such a tart and serious book, should be noticed at all.


  1. Go get'em, Jane! If I were the Times, I'd be trembling in my journalistically slight boots!


  2. Linkety-link for fans of Ron and of Holly Black (who's written some good children's books herself) who want to see the review:

    (If it doesn't offer you a hyperlink, then copy and paste the address in your browser window.)

    I'm glad Ron got space in the NYTBR since they aren't too good about reviewing children's lit.

    When some goofball frowns over his glasses at children's lit, I always wonder: Where do these people think their readers come from? Are there mothers out there who birth full-grown literary snobs? Boy that would hurt.

  3. Thank you, Jane. And while we're on the subject of the NYT Book Review, let's hear it for Mary Logue, who also received a nice notice on that same page. Hooray for Ron and Mary! Also: has a YA novel EVER had front page placement in the NYT Sunday BR, previous to this week? I was pleased to see Lois Lowry's new novel, SON, receive that coveted spot, and thought it might be a hopeful sign for our field. Perhaps someone at the Times is aware that children's and YA authors write "real" novels?

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  5. I wonder what you all feel about Robert Bulter's comments about entertainment writers (and all other writers but literary ... is my interpretation) not being artistic writers. He states in his book FROM WHERE YOU DREAM, that "the nonartist knows exactly the effect they wish to have on their readers ... and so they construct an object to produce them." verses the "artist does not know ... what she knows about the world until she creates the object." An example Bulter mentions, is that Stephen King knows he wants to scare his readers. and therefore knows what he will write. Is this a punch in the gut, to say that we are not artists? That weaving words to create meaning, is not art unless it's done a certain way? Is it wrong, that when I begin a novel I am not sure where it is going, or what it is about, until I've scratched out the vibrating force pushing through my mind. Does not our burning brain juices creating worlds, and inspiring readers to go beyond their own realm, a form of art? Do I not understand?

    I apologize for my tangent, but I felt it was relevant. I'm curious to hear what you all have to say.

  6. Liza, I did not see that review for Mary's book! But Google knows all!

    Nina, I think Art with a capital A is hugely subjective. When you follow the blogs about who will win the Newbery this year, or listen to a bunch of literary snobs sniffing disdainfully at children's lit, or read an award-winning book and find yourself left cold by it (or read a non-award winning book only to cry WE WERE ROBBED!), the mind is boggled at all the range and variances in what we love and hate and what we think is art. I think there's plenty of room for all kinds of art. You don't have to be Dante to be an artist, which is a very, very good thing on so many levels.

  7. I think, of course, it is a good sign that "we" artists, the ones who write literature-- for children and adults-- are in the New York Times. (Well not me, yet.) It's also a good sign that so much YA seems to make the big screen too. It's just the opposite opinion of Jane's reference may be more frequently held today. If a book sells well, then let's turn it into a million different applications, people say. The stories transform into excelsior, bubbling ever upward. Stories go beyond the white space, the cotton page, the sleek, amazon-endangering-magazine page. They go everywhere. Children's and YA stories run around in people's mind like the white rabbit. They influence everything we do, and how we understand things. And the oldest stories stick around forever-- and turn into Ron's poems, and mine too,I hope. (I can't wait to read this book, Ron. Will you write my titles for me? How much per word?) Anyway, if anyone has been following the new technology craze, most of it seems inspired from literature as well, and fantasy at that. I lately feel guilty when I use the wii remote. Guilty because it's really a magic wand isn't it? And guilty because it's out of date. The newer versions don't need a remote at all. We've passed the magic wand stage in real life. And so my question is not at all about if we writers for the lowly "children" have really done great work. That's already been proven. My question is more about what do I want my children to dream about? Because eventually they will bring it about.