Spotlight on NCTE Poets: Eve Merriam, with Lee Bennett Hopkins
“Don’t be polite.
Welcome to the fifth episode of SPOTLIGHT ON NCTE POETS! The videos in this series with Lee Bennett Hopkins are brief and personal looks at all the recipients of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
This series isn’t about analyzing the poets and their work, but rather about preserving Lee’s personal recollections, insights, and memories of each of these amazing people. Through these short interviews, we hope to foster an appreciation of the poets and their work by “reading it and loving it from the heart,” as Lee says.
For this installment, Lee speaks about his good friend and accomplished, versatile writer
In 1981, Eve Merriam became the fifth recipient of the NCTE award. She wrote over 80 books for children and adults in a range of genres. Merriam actually got her start in the adult market with the publication in 1946 of her first collection of poems, Family Circle. From there she went on to write more adult poetry…
…including her most noted collection, The Inner City Mother Goose. First published in 1969, the book was widely banned for its raw satire. A 1996 reprint features illustrations by David Diaz and an introduction by Nikki Giovanni. Here is one sample from the book; you’ll find another in the video.
But then Eve discovered writing for children and her star got even bigger. Thirty-nine of Eve’s 63 books for children are stories and biographies, the first of which was 1952’s The Real Book about Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And then came the poetry. From her first children’s collection in 1962, There Is No Rhyme for Silver, Merriam went on to write another 23 volumes of children’s poetry on a vast range of subjects. Her passion for rhythm and wordplay — and her vehemence that poetry must be read aloud — is apparent in everything she wrote, like in this delightful onomatopoeic poem from Catch a Little Rhyme (1966).
Dot a dot dot dot a dot dot
Spotting the windowpane.
Spack a spack speck flick a flack fleck
Freckling the windowpane.
A spatter a scatter a wet cat a clatter
A splatter a rumble outside.
Umbrella umbrella umbrella umbrella
Bumbershoot barrel of rain.
Slosh a galosh slosh a galosh
Slither and slather a glide
A puddle a jump a puddle a jump
A puddle a jump puddle splosh
A juddle a pump a luddle a dump
A pudmuddle jump in and slide!
“Slosh a galosh slosh a galosh” — now that’s a phrase that sticks with you! What I love about Eve Merriam’s work is that she can take you from innocent rhymes when you’re a wee one, plying you with trains (click images to enlarge)…
…and doggies and animals and friendly neighbors and and and…
…and then, when you’re a bit older, TERRIFY you with deliciously creepy poems like these, illustrated by Lane Smith…
…or make you sit up and think with poems of political and social satire that touch on issues of war, pollution, sexism, racism, and addiction to technology, like those in Finding a Poem (1970).
The Dirty Word
swallow it raw
And yet I am drawn most to her wordplay and sound-play that show her deep appreciation for the possibilities of language to allow us to describe the world in ways as changeable as the world itself. That’s why I love the invention of this poem from Eve’s second collection, It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme (1964):
Simile: Willow and Ginkgo
The willow is like an etching,
Fine-lined against the sky.
The ginkgo is like a crude sketch,
Hardly worthy to be signed.
The willow’s music is like a soprano,
Delicate and thin.
The ginkgo’s line is like a chorus
With everyone joining in.
The willow is sleek as a velvet-nosed calf;
The ginkgo is leathery as an old bull.
The willow’s branches are like silken thread;
The ginkgo’s like stubby rough wool.
The willow is like a nymph with streaming hair;
Wherever it grows, there is green and gold and fair.
The willow dips into the water,
Protected and precious, like the king’s favorite daughter.
The ginkgo forces its way through gray concrete;
Like a city child, it grows up in the street.
Thrust against the metal sky,
Somehow it survives and even thrives.
My eyes feast upon the willow,
But my heart goes to the ginkgo.
Lee’s stories about Eve reveal a passionate woman with a need to go beyond the usual orbit of subjects for children’s poetry to shed light into the black hole of “anxieties, alienation, racial and social injustice, war, inhumane technology, and the struggles of urban life” that affect modern children (Laura M. Zaidman in Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Writers for Children since 1960), but who maintained a tenderness that allowed her to write lullabies and delightfully sound-rich poems with equal passion.
LEE BENNETT HOPKINS on EVE MERRIAM
In Her Own Words: Eve Merriam on
Reading and Writing Poetry
“I find it difficult to sit still when I hear poetry or read it out loud. I feel a tingling feeling all over, particularly in the tips of my fingers and in my toes, and it just seems to go right from my mouth all the way through my body. It’s like a shot of adrenalin or oxygen when I hear rhymes and word play.” From an interview with Glenna Sloan in Language Arts, as quoted on PoetryFoundation.org
“You can write poems because you must write them, because you can’t live your life without writing them. I spend weeks looking for precisely the right word. It’s like having a small marble in your pocket–you can just feel it. Sometimes you find a word and say, ‘No, I don’t think this is it.’ Then you discard it and take another, and another, until you get the word right. Poetry is great fun. That’s what I’d like to stress more than anything else: the joy and sounds of language. What can a poem do? A poem can do just about everything. From an interview with Lee Bennett Hopkins
Teaching Poetry to Children
“If we can get teachers to read poetry, lots of it, out loud to children, we’ll develop a generation of poetry readers; we may even have some poetry writers, but the main thing, we’ll have language appreciators.” From an interview with Glenna Sloan in Language Arts, as quoted on PoetryFoundation.org
“Whatever you do, find ways to read poetry. Eat it, drink it, enjoy it, and share it.” From Merriam’s article “Some Pearls from Eve Merriam on Sharing Poetry with Children” in Learning 85, as quoted on PoetryFoundation.org
“Start light. Give children the whole spectrum. Low taste can only be raised by experiencing poetry of all literary levels. Just relax. There are only two rules for poetry: A poem must be read aloud once for the sense or nonsense; then it must be read aloud again for the music. Read, enjoy, then talk about the poem. Do away with questions. Examine the poem instead, reading and rereading bits of it in turn, picking out words that start the same or sound alike.” From the NCTE profile of Eve Merriam by Glenna Stone
More about Eve Merriam
Dates: b. 1916 in Philadelphia, PA (as Eva Moskovitz); d. 1992 in New York, NY
Education: Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia
Occupation: Poet, playwright, fiction and nonfiction writer, lecturer; creative writing teacher at City College; radio writer for CBS-Radio and conductor of poetry program for WQXR, both in the 1940s; fashion editor for Glamour, 1940s
Recognition: NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children (1981); Yale Younger Poets Prize, 1946 (Family Circle); Colliers Star Fiction Award, 1949; Obie Award, 1977 (The Club)
Known for: “poems [that] exemplify her fascination with language, as evidenced by her puns and word puzzles, her concentration on the eccentricities and idiosyncracies of the English language, and her broad use of poetic devices, such as onomatopoeia, inner rhyme, alliteration, assonance, metaphor, and so forth, in addition to traditional rhyming” and the “instructive, social strain” of her poetry (The Poetry Foundation)
First book published: Family Circle (Yale University Press, 1946)
Extensive biography on Masterworks Broadway
Literary biography and bibliography at The Poetry Foundation
Profile of Merriam for NCTE, by Glenna Stone (highly recommended!)
Eve’s son Dee Michel visits The Poem Farm with his edible book for his mother’s poem “How to Eat a Poem”
How to Eat a Poem
Don’t be polite.
Pick it up with your
ﬁngers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
to throw away.
WINNERS of the NCTE AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN POETRY FOR CHILDREN
(links go to NCTE articles and interviews about each winner)
(Criteria for award)
2013 – Joyce Sidman
2011 – J. Patrick Lewis
2009 – Lee Bennett Hopkins
2006 – Nikki Grimes
2003 – Mary Ann Hoberman
2000 – X.J. Kennedy
1997 – Eloise Greenfield
1994 – Barbara Juster Esbensen
1991 – Valerie Worth
1988 – Arnold Adoff
1985 – Lilian Moore
1982 – John Ciardi
1981 – Eve Merriam
1980 – Myra Cohn Livingston | See Myra’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1979 – Karla Kuskin | See Karla’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1978 – Aileen Fisher | See Aileen’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1977 – David McCord | See David’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
NEXT IN THE SERIES: JOHN CIARDI
Keri has the roundup over at Keri Recommends.
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See more poems in my poetry video library.
All poems © Eve Merriam. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved.
Video and post content © Renee M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved.