Friday, October 16, 2009

Poetry Friday: Worthy Poems

If I could only have one book of children's poems by a single author in my library—well, of course that's an obnoxious question. Why limit yourself? But I do know the answer: the book would be All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth, with the added bonus of pictures by Natalie Babbitt.

The truth is, collections of poems are a lot like short story collections, which are typically comprised of a couple of clunkers, several average entries, and two or three successful pieces. In the same way, even the best poets tend not to have books simply packed with breathtaking poems; they will give us books with a number of very nice poems along with a handful of stunners. I find this is true even of books of selected poems—because who can possibly keep up the pace for page after page?

Valerie Worth's book is the exception to the rule. So many of the poems feel like miniature planets of meaning, making you sit back in your chair and smile, sit back and dream. Remember learning about the "platonic ideal" of an object? Worth can make you see the most ordinary objects as whole and new and true. What's more, she accomplishes this in a calm, quiet way, without resorting to theatrics. Her table of contents, wisely set entirely in lowercase letters, sounds like its own kind of poem, an ode to simplicity. It begins like this:


Let's read Poem #3 together:


Zinnias, stout and stiff,
Stand no nonsense: their colors
Stare, their leaves
Grow straight out, their petals
Jut like clipped cardboard,
Round, in neat flat rings.

Even cut and bunched,
Arranged to please us
In the house, in water, they
Will hardly wilt—I know
Someone like zinnias; I wish
I were like zinnias.

Besides a tidy description of the flower itself, Worth gives us a wry portrait of a particular person and even some insight into the poet's personality, which is not at all zinnia-like. (For that "someone," I'm picturing a precise and pompous zinnia woman, are you?)

"Sun" is often anthologized, as is one of the most perfect poems ever written, "Magnet," along with "Dinosaurs," "Tiger," and perhaps "Safety Pin," but some of her less well-known poems deserve our attention, for instance, "Crab."


The dead crab
Lies still,
Limp on dry sand,

All strength to crawl
Gone from his
Hard shell—

But he keeps a shape
Of old anger
Curved along his claws.
These poems are mostly descriptions, but they make you feel like no one has ever looked more closely at a thing. For example, Worth tells us that "Turtle" is "Shawled/In the shade/Of his shell." Or look at her horse:


In the stall's gloom,
His back, curved
Like a high sofa,
Turns on unseen
Legs, looms closer,
Until his long
Head forms above
The door, his face
Of thin silk over
Bone: to be stroked
Carefully, like
Fine upholstery
On a hard chair.
Aside from her surprisingly apt furniture analogy, note how the horse's legs are unseen, his head "forming" above the door in a way that is absolutely accurate but made newly mysterious by the way the poet presents it to us. Worth's "Dog" is another elegantly delineated portrait, and her "Rosebush" manages to be bleakly philosophical in just nine lines. Or consider the chicken and her egg, which you may never think of in quite the same way after reading this poem:


Somehow the hen,
Herself all quirk
And freak and whim,

Manages to make
This egg, as pure
And calm as a stone:

All for the sake
Of a silly chick,
Another squawking hen.
Valerie Worth's small poems remind me of Emily Dickinson's work in that at first glance they might appear slight, mere fragments of thought. But each one contains much more than the hen's egg contains, the way this book contains far more than you might expect.

Poems are quoted from All the Small Poems and Fourteen More, Valerie Worth and Natalie Babbitt, A Sunburst Book from Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1994. Valerie Worth was born in 1933 and died in 1994.

Today is Poetry Friday! To see more poetry posts, visit host Laura Salas's blog.


Anamaria (bookstogether) said...

I think I'm going straight out to buy a copy of this book on the strength of this review; thank you!

Susan Taylor Brown said...

Thank you for the closer look at this book. I can see it needs to be on my shelf.