Saturday I’ll begin my hour of reading poetry at the Missouri Literary Festival by discussing how I became a poet. I’m cutting and pasting my prepared remarks below this note. If you write poetry, or think you might like to one day, maybe you’ll find some of this of interest. If you would like to share your own experiences, I hope you’ll post them or join in a conversation about how writers of any genre become writers.
As a young editor in 1963, I was given a book called A Prosody Handbook co-authored by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Karl Shapiro. I read the book twice and loved it. I promised myself that one day I would write poetry. But not yet. Then I was writing stories; reading Hemmingway and Steinbeck, Vonnegut and Friedman, Updike and Caldwell. I kept a copy of The Elements of Style on my desk. E. B. White was my inspiration, my model for elegant application of our language. Poetry could wait.
It waited twenty-five years. In 1988, I picked up A Prosody Handbook again and remembered my old promise to myself. Tentatively, I began to write poetry. I was no longer a story writer. I had evolved into a children’s author. I approached poetry with Shapiro whispering in my ear, but the poems that came out were for children.
I experimented with free verse. I experimented with verse, getting the heft of various patterns of rhythm and rhyme. Some poems turned out better than others. Some were hardly worth the energy to crumple and toss. I wrote poem after poem for a year, then a second year, then a third. By 1990 I had kept 100 poems, some of dubious quality. When I was invited to submit my poems to a publisher, I did so without high expectations.
The publisher said he liked my poetry and proposed to bring out three to five books. By fishing around in my box of poems, an editor identified certain themes such as school and family. We agreed to begin with a book of school poems, which we called Somebody Catch My Homework.
In the twenty-one years since 1988, I’ve written many poems. This year two more collections have been published, bringing the total to fifteen. Shapiro has been joined on my bookshelf by other poets — Collins, Kooser, Simic, Angelou, Missouri’s own poet laureate Walter Bargen . . . Sometimes I read the works of children’s poets, but generally I find my muse elsewhere.
A poem for children should share most of the characteristics of a poem for adults though children’s poetry tends to be more accessible and spontaneous in the reading. Kids live in the same world we do and feel the same human emotions. Writing with their level of experience in mind is not the same thing as writing down to them or winking over their heads. Finger wagging and tsk-tsking drive them off every time.
Children’s poets use words to bridge the gulf of years that separates us from our readers. Children don’t want us to become children again. They want us to be grown up and wise. But they ask us to acknowledge their right to be kids and to respect them as they are. Childhood is their world. We knock at the door and wait. They decide if we’re worthy of admittance.