Thursday, August 27, 2009

Poetry Friday: Remembering Karla Kuskin

When you read a lot of children's poetry anthologies, certain names show up over and over: Eve Merriam, David McCord, Lilian Moore, Myra Cohn Livingston, Bobbi Katz, Nikki Giovanni... And Karla Kuskin. Last Thursday, August 20, 2009, Karla Kuskin passed away at the age of 77. As I host Poetry Friday today, let me begin by honoring her.

Kuskin is probably best known as a poet, or as a writer of poetic picture books. I think her most memorable work in recent years might be The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, a book that looks at a concert by showing the musicians getting ready (illustrated by Marc Simont, 1982). Did you know that Kuskin was also an illustrator? Her first book, Roar and More, evolved from her senior art project at Yale University (1956, revised and republished 1990). According to her website, Kuskin wrote and illustrated 28 picture books, illustrated 15 books for other writers, and wrote 18 that were illustrated by other artists. I know I bought a book she wrote, Green as a Bean, for our school library not long ago (2006). Kuskin illustrated a book by Paula Fox, Traces, that came out in 2008. The book shows how the faintest images and fleeting moments make up our lives. One reviewer called it a fitting book for someone who has suffered a loss. Though that was not the book's original intent, it seems an appropriate thought about what has turned out to be Kuskin's last published work.

But quirky humor, not elegiac sadness, is the best tone to use when talking about Karla Kuskin. Her poems show us the wry yet child-like way she looked at the world. Like Shel Silverstein, Karla Kuskin was a little subversive and more than a little off the wall.

I happily reread her collected poems, Moon, Have You Met My Mother? (HarperCollins, 2003) over the last few days. The poem that strikes me as most often having been anthologized is the one about "a witch who knitted things" (only knitted them badly). That and the poem about a little bug sitting on a silver flower—who gets eaten by a big bug. The tongue-in-cheek tragedy concludes, "It isn't right/it isn't fair/That big bug ate that little bug/because that little bug was there." Then, after a solemn pause, we get a final line: "He even ate his underwear."

And don't forget Kuskin's Halloween witch poem, one of the best ever written (and quite a few children's poets have tried). Here's how it starts off:

Over the hills
where the edge of the light
deepens and darkens
to ebony night,
narrow hats high
above yellow bead eyes,
the tatter-haired witches
ride through the skies....

There are other poems that have been anthologized quite a bit, like the one about a little kid stuffed into some dozen layers of clothing for winter. Or the one about spring that starts out, "I'm shouting/I'm singing/I'm swinging through trees...." But now I'll share some of the less-anthologized pieces that stood out as I was reading. It's very clear Karla Kuskin loved—and carefully observed—cats. Here's part of a cat poem:

Examining the breeze.
A package neatly wrapped with tail
flicks a whisker

Upon the stair.
Taking the air.
Unquestioned owner
of the comfortable chair.

Napping everywhere
stretched in the sun
as if the sun were hers
awash in warmth
and furs.

"As if the sun were hers"—I like how that captures not only a cat's penchant for sunning herself, but also her arrogance!

Now see how strangely Karla Kuskin remakes something like a tree:

...with small spring leaves
like small green dimes
that cast their shadows on the grass
a thousand separate times
with round brown branches
like outstretched sleeves
and the twigs come out as fingers
and the fingers hold the leaves....

Or notice how she has the snow describe itself:

I am softer
and colder
and whiter than you.
And I can do something
that you cannot do.
I can make anything
train tracks
an old fence
I can make anything

Where one person would have taken a first or second creative step, Kuskin took a third, and then a fourth:

If you could be small
would you be a mouse
or a mouse's child
or a mouse's house
or a mouse's house's
front door key?

A superb craftswoman, the poet once wrote a poem about how a poem is made. Of course, it is also about a cat. I think this is my very favorite, maybe because it is reserved, mysterious, and assured, yet nevertheless just a little silly (hmm, kind of like a cat!):

Take a word like cat
and build around it;
a fur room over here
a long meow
floating from the chimney like a smoke tail.
Draw with words.
Balance them like blocks.
Carve word furniture:
a jar of pussy willows,
catkins, phlox,
milk in a dish,
catnip pillows,
a silver bell,
a plaster bird,
and eaten fish.
When everything is perfect in its place
step back to view the home
that you have built of words around your word.
It is a poem.

In one clearly autobiographical poem, bookworm Karla tells of loving the rain because when she was a child, it meant the grown-ups didn't try to make her go outside and play. On dry, ordinary days, they did interrupt her reading:

...while one's elders,
tall and grey,
said, "Darling, do go out and play."
And Darling shot them such look,
from over some beloved book
that Mother, or some timid aunt
would turn,
without a word indeed,
to darn a sock, deadhead a plant
and leave me be
and let me read.
Rain was my ally and salvation
defending me from confrontation....

After a bit more about the joys of curling up with a book in a thunderstorm, Kuskin concludes slyly:

Then picture this,
come Armageddon,
quite undisturbed
she sat and read on.

Another poem advises children how to behave:

Do not jump on ancient uncles.
Do not yell at average mice.
Do not wear a broom to breakfast.
Do not ask a snake's advice....

"Average mice"? Kuskin was not an average thinker! She offered this poetic counsel regarding the creative process:

Write about a radish
too many people write about the moon.

Then she proceeded to write soulfully about the radish rising "in the waiting sky."

Funny as she was, the poet could paint a picture of sadness using just a few words:

It is grey out.
It is grey in.
In me
it is as grey as the day is grey.
The trees look sad
and I,
not knowing why I do,

I'll conclude with this poem, which I think describes what Karla Kuskin did with her own life:

People always say to me
"What do you think you'd like to be
when you grow up?"
And I say "Why,
I think I'd like to be the sky
or be a plane or train or mouse
or maybe be a haunted house
or something furry, rough and wild...
or maybe I will stay a child."

Note: The poems and parts of poems quoted above are all from Moon, Have You Met My Mother? (Laura Geringer Books, HarperCollins, 2003, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier)

Poetry Friday

Browse this gathering of poetic blog posts! Posted throughout the day...

--A Year of Reading introduces us to a book of poems by young people, Tastes Like Chocolate.

--Laura Salas brings us a couple of David Harrison's bug poems and a collection of 15 Words or Less Poems about what happens when flames and flowers meet aerogel.

--Andromeda Jazmon of A Wrung Sponge shares her back-to-school poem, written for this week's Monday Poetry Stretch at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

--Bildungsroman shares a nursery rhyme Lewis Carroll used in one of his books.

--Diane Chen at SLJ's Practically Paradise shares Mary Ann Hoberman and Linda Winston's collection The Tree That Time Built.

--Laura Shovan of Author Amok posts Gary Snyder's "How Poetry Comes to Me," one of the poems she uses as a model in her poetry workshops.

--Shelf Elf reviews a fun back-to-school novel in verse, Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston.

--Liz Scanlon has written a poem on a dare. Check it out at Liz In Ink!

--April Halprin Wayland shares a brief, but powerful, George Ella Lyon poem at Teaching Authors.

--Wind Spirit Girl has created a striking visual poem inspired by Andy Behrman's Electroboy, a memoir about his struggle with bipolar disorder.

--At On Point, Lorie Ann Grover is celebrating her daughter's Sweet Sixteen in haiku, "Two to Sixteen". And over at readertotz, she gives us "Dreams".

--Online Color is featuring her friend, January O'Neil, whose debut collection of poems for grown-ups, Underlife, is coming out in September.

--Write Time's Linda Kulp has written an original poem about an abused dog, "Trooper."

--Sally of Paper Tigers reviews a collection of poems chosen by children for children in aid of The International Year of the Child, I Like This Poem.

--Massachusetts writer Martha Calderaro shares an anonymous poem about differences of opinion, "Corners on the Curving Sky," in honor of Senator Ted Kennedy's passing earlier this week.

--Barbarah of Stray Thoughts shares a religious poem about Jesus Christ, "My Advocate" by Martha Snell Nicholson.

--Librarian Jone MacCulloch recommends This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World, edited by poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Today she shares a Tunisian poem from the collection, "Pen." (I own this book and heartily concur!)

--Also in remembrance of Senator Kennedy, Random Noodling's Diane Mayr has posted a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox called "My Grave."

--Beth Brezenoff of the Stone Arch Books Blog reminds us that Emily Dickinson is "always a good thing" with this poem.

--Tricia of The Miss Rumphius Effect fame chose a poem by Ted Kooser, "A Spiral Notebook."

--Read Write Believe's Sara shares some Lyle Lovett lyrics, "If I Had a Boat"; she also provides a link for hearing him sing them!

--Librarian Kurious Kitty reviews a collection of poems for grown-ups about devastating Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith. The poem she shares is "Katrina."

--Jama of Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup is "asking everyone to confess their food sins," tempting us with a poem called "Eve's Confession," by Diane Lockward. (Ooh, apple fritters!)

--Author Mitali Perkins tells us, "On my blog, an American teen from Ghana expresses joy and strength in a prize-winning poem about dance."

--Kelly Polark has posted an original poem about sailing titled "The Dream" on her blog.

--Elaine Magliaro goes all out with a review of J. Patrick Lewis's new poetry collection, Countdown to Summer: A Poem for Every Day of the School Year at Wild Rose Reader; a 1956 back-to-school poem for the Miss Rumphius Effect Poetry Stretch that's "a tad dark" at Political Verses; and a poem by Ron Koertge titled "First Grade" at Blue Rose Girls.

--Karen Edmisten shares some poetic words from St. Augustine on her blog in honor of his feast day.

--Gavin of In a Heron's Eye offers us a poem by Bridget Pegeen Kelly called "The Leaving."

--Tarie reviews Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat at Into the Wardrobe. (This is another book I really like!)

--Heliodora's husband left a magnetic poetry haiku on the fridge this morning...

--Tabatha A. Yeats gives us an original poem titled "Nighttime Symphony"; she also shares some of Basho's haiku and links us to a bunch of zombie haiku parodies with an example from "Robert Frost." Very fun!

--Julie Larios commemorates two heart-wrenching anniversaries, first reminding us that Emmett Till was murdered 54 years ago today. She provides a link to an interview with Marilyn Nelson, author of the award-winning book of poems titled A Wreath for Emmett Till. In addition, tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Julie shares her poem, "Flood," as well as providing a link to a documentary about the aftermath of the disaster in the poorest neighborhoods of New Orleans.

--The Write Sisters offer up "The Centaur," a poem by May Swenson.

--Father Goose has written a fall poem called "Something Silent in the Air."

--At Picture Book of the Day, Anastasia Suen highlights a story in rhyme, Wake Up Engines by author Denise Dowling Mortensen and illustrator Melissa Iwai. She also provides a writing lesson to go with it.

--Sherry of Semicolon celebrates the birthday of John Betjeman, Poet Laureate of England from 1972 till his death in 1984, quoting to us from his poem "Verses Turned."

--Melissa Wiley over at Here in the Bonny Glen reminds us of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire with Robert Pinsky's poem, "Shirtwaist."

Thanks to everyone who participated in this week's Poetry Friday--what a great selection of thoughts and voices and verses! Sometimes I feel like I'm the only "poetry person" around, and this event reminds me that there's a wonderful poem-minded community out there.


Author Amok said...

Thanks for the post. I love "The Philharmonic Gets Dressed."

I'm prepping for my fall poetry workshop. One of the model poems we'll be working on is Gary Snyder's "How Poetry Comes to Me."

Shelf Elf said...

Hi! Thanks so much for hosting today. I'm in with a fun back-to-school novel in verse, ZORGAMAZOO, by Robert Paul Weston.

Have a great Friday!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Karla Kuskin... what a loss. So grateful we have her books left behind. Thanks for the post and for hosting!

I have an original poem today at

Carmela Martino said...

Hi Kate,
Today April Halprin Wayland shares a brief, but powerful, George Ella Lyon poem at See:

And thanks for hosting!

windspirit_girl said...

Thanks so much for the tribute to Kuskin--and particularly for sharing her less anthologized poems. I want to go and read more! For Poetry Friday I'm sharing a visual poem I created inspired by Andy Behrman's Electroboy, a memoir about his struggle with bipolar disorder. Thanks so much for hosting!

windspirit_girl said...

p.s. I couldn't get my livejournal address to work when I posted, so I used my google account--I do not have a blog there, though--it's at live journal--the http address I gave. Thank you so much!!!

Lorie Ann Grover said...

Thanks for hosting and the Karla tribute!

Today at On Point I'm celebrating my daughter's Sweet Sixteen in haiku, Two to Sixteen.

And over at readertotz, we have Dreams.

Color Online said...

Thanks for hosting. I only learned about Kuskin with her passing. Thanks for this post.

I'm featuring my friend, January O'Neil. She has a debut collection publishing in September.

Linda said...

Thanks for hosting. I'm in today with an original poem at

Sally said...

Thanks for hosting! Sally here at PaperTigers posting for today at:

Anonymous said...

What a great tribute. I always just feel better when I read Karla Kuskin. And thanks for hosting today. I have "Corners on the Curving Sky" at my site:

Kate Coombs said...

I double-checked the links and found that a few of them weren't going through. They should be fine now!

Anonymous said...

What delightful poems! I had not heard of this author before.

I'm in today with a moving poem called "My Advocate" by Martha Snell Nicholson portraying Christ defense of the believer from the accusations of Satan because He Himself paid the penalty:

Diane Mayr said...

In remembrance of Ted Kennedy I'm posting a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox called "My Grave" at Random Noodling.

Beth Brezenoff, Assistant Editorial Director said...

Thank you so much for hosting! At the Stone Arch Books blog, I have some Emily Dickinson (always a good thing!)

Tricia said...

I'm in today with Ted Kooser's poem A Spiral Notebook.

Thanks for hosting!


Today, looking back at Hurricane Katrina, Kurious Kitty is reviewing Patricia Smith's book Blood Dazzler: Poems.

Sara said...

What a lovely tribute.

I'm in today with some Lyle Lovett lyrics: "If I Had a Boat"

storyqueen said...

RIP Karla and Ted.

Philharmonic Gets Dressed has always been one of my favorites.

And I love her poem about rules.

Thanks for posting this.


jama said...

Thanks so much for this fabulous post. The Philharmonic is one of my faves too. Love all the excerpts you included!

Today I'm asking everyone to confess their food sins, with "Eve's Confession," by Diane Lockward:

Thanks so much for hosting today. :)

mbpbooks said...

Thanks for hosting!

On my blog, an American teen from Ghana expresses joy and strength in a prize-winning poem about dance.

Kelly Polark said...

Wonderful tribute! Thank you for hosting!
I have an original poem titled "The Dream" at

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for doing the roundup this week. I was so sad when I heard about Karla's death. I love her children's poetry!

At Wild Rose Reader, I have a review of J. Patrick Lewis's new poetry collection, COUNTDOWN TO SUMMER: A POEM FOR EVERY DAY OF THE SCHOOL YEAR.

At Political Verses, I have an original poem about going back to school--circa 1956--that I wrote for Tricia's Poetry Stretch this week. It's a tad dark.

At Blue Rose Girls, I have a poem by Ron Koertge titled First Grade.

Karen Edmisten said...

Hi, and thanks so much for hosting. I'm in with some words from St. Augustine on his feast day.

It's here.

Gavin said...

Kate - Thank you for hosting Poetry Friday. Here is a poem by Bridget Pegeen Kelly titled The Leaving.

Tarie Sabido said...

Hi, Kate! Thank you so much for hosting Poetry Friday this week. Here is the link to my post:

It's my review of Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat. :D

Heliodora said...

Today I posted a verse of magnetic poetry my husband left on our board. Thanks for hosting!

Julie said...

Thanks for hosting Poetry Friday. I'm a little late with this, but over at THE DRIFT RECORD I have an original poem titled "Flood" about Hurricane Katrina, which struck five years ago tomorrow. I also linked to Marilyn Nelson's lovely work, A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL. Here's the URL:

I'm Jet . . . said...

The Write Sisters offer up The Centaur by May Swenson.

Charles Ghigna said...

Thanks, Kate! Sorry to be late!
Here's my offering for this week,
a poem signaling the coming of fall titled
"Something Silent in the Air" at


Anonymous said...

Thanks for hosting! I'm in with a picture book story in rhyme: Wake Up Engines by Denise Dowling Mortensen (Author) and Melissa Iwai (Illustrator) and a writing lesson.

Sherry said...

I'm really late, but my Poetry Friday post has been up all day:

Thanks for hosting.

Lissa said...

Here's my contribution on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

Thanks much!

Melissa Wiley @ Bonny Glen

Mary Lee said...

Thanks for that great remembrance of Karla Kuskin. You captured all the reasons I love her poetry and you brought tears to my eyes with the realization that there would be no more new poems in her voice...

Kate Coombs said...


You're welcome. I'm afraid I find I take those voices for granted until they are silenced. And some voices, like Karla's, are so strong and clear and distinct! They leave a greater emptiness behind, from a creative standpoint.

Saints and Spinners said...

Thank you for this lovely post. I was privileged to meet Kuskin a couple of times. I feel sad at her passing.

Kate Coombs said...


Oh, I'm so glad you got to meet her! I'm sorry to hear about the situation with the Seattle library system, by the way. Global warming, 30 billion dead bees, and now libraries? [shiver]

Susan T. said...

Thanks so much for that post on Karla Kuskin. I'd been weighing over buying Moon, Have You Met My Mother? and now I'm sold. Yay.

Soon I hope to get my act together in time to join in Poetry Friday again. One can always hope...

Chicken Spaghetti

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post honoring Kuskin. You did a great job of showing her range. I don't love everything she wrote, but the things I do love I just find amazing--and you captured the highlights of her style and range perfectly. Thanks!

Kate Coombs said...

Susan--I think you'll be glad to own MHYMMM! And hey, I've realized that if I participated in Poetry Friday and Nonfiction Monday every week and tried to become a Cybils judge, I would either have to quit my day job or stop writing books. But this is such a dynamic community, I feel like I can be content to just soak in a lot of what's happening.

Laura--Oh, thank you! You know, it's interesting you should say that about not loving everything Kuskin wrote. I've decided she was something of a mad scientist as a poet. Certain experiments of hers didn't turn out as well as others, but the ones that did? Wow!