Rhyme flies when you're having fun: why poet stanza 'bove the rest
Annie Ho firstname.lastname@example.org
As children, poems are our first introduction to language and story. Nursery rhymes and many of the best-loved books for babies and preschoolers tell their stories through poetry's rhythms.
I'm not sure how it happens, but at some point in our adolescence, many of us lose touch with poetry. Beyond school years, poems seem to be confined to two stereotypes: highbrow verses of contemporary poet laureates whose works most of us have never read and sappy verses in store-bought cards for occasions such as Valentine's Day.
I loved poetry in school, but have not since explored further than re-reading my decades-old copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Reciting poetry from heart is a talent I lack but dearly covet. I sometimes have trouble recalling the title or poet of even my favourite poems.
On the other hand, an astounding selection of Mother Goose nursery rhymes which I have not revisited for more than 30 years pours easily from my lips when I'm playing with my children. To this day, I still remember the Shanghainese children's rhyme that my grandmother taught me.
This Valentine's Day, rather than send your child a card that starts with 'Roses are red, violets are blue...', I suggest picking up a copy of Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, a beautiful collection of poems illustrated with his signature pencil drawings.
In the United States, it is often cited as the book stolen most from school libraries.
Where the Sidewalk Ends stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for a record 186 weeks when it came out in 1974. By then, Silverstein had already published half a dozen collections of poems and stories, and he went on to publish another half a dozen books. Every Thing On It, which came out last year, more than a decade after his death, is among several wonderful books that were published posthumously.
The first was Runny Babbit, which, in addition to being a 'very billy sook', took the technical difficulty of poetry-writing to a higher level, with Silverstein transposing the first letters of two words in each line or stanza throughout this collection.
I discovered Silverstein in my late 20s when a girlfriend gave me Falling Up for my birthday. At an age when single girls were giving bookish gal pals dating guides or cooking manuals, I curiously examined this collection of eclectic poems.
I flipped to a random page, read one very short poem called Stone Airplane, let out a huge guffaw and was instantly hooked:
I made an airplane out of stone ...
I always did like staying home.
When I became a parent, I witnessed how the young could also enjoy Silverstein's works. Once, my daughter, barely aged three, asked for his rhythmic A Giraffe and a Half to be read aloud over and over again.
I have become such a fan I now have all of Silverstein's children's books in both English and Chinese. Taiwan Interminds Publishing fortunately had the interest and conviction to translate these books into Chinese and I am impressed that they skilfully retain the humour and style of the original poems.
He wrote about the subject of Valentine's Day, too:
Ricky was 'L' but he's home with the flu,
Lizzie, our 'O', had some homework to do,
Mitchell, 'E' prob'ly got lost on the way,
So I'm all of love that could make it today
Accompanying this simple poem from Where the Sidewalk Ends is a pencil drawing of a child holding a 'V' placard.
If only schools would allocate more of their curriculum to reading and writing beautiful poetry and a little less to the complex tasks of factoring polynomials and binding protons with electrons, then perhaps bookstores could finally have a long aisle of books in a new section called 'Poetry for Adults'.
Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a charity organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them and providing easy access to the best children's books for underserved communities across Hong Kong.