Spotlight on NCTE Poets: Lilian Moore, with Lee Bennett Hopkins
“I try to tell the truth.“
Welcome to the seventh 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.
This installment brings us to a woman with a deep love of language who dedicated much of her writing life to creating stories and poems accessible to beginning readers.
A prolific writer of over 60 picture books, easy readers, and poetry collections for children, in 1985 Lilian Moore became the seventh recipient of the NCTE award.
Moore started her writing career during the Great Depression when she worked as a reading teacher for truant children. Seeing the dearth of good material for her students, she set out to create it herself and eventually saw her first storybook, Old Rosie, The Horse Nobody Understood, published in 1957.
She went on to write dozens of easy readers and became known for her simple but engaging language that touched on themes important to children.
It would be another ten years before Moore dipped her pen into the inkwell of children’s poetry, and I’m here to say that we are lucky she finally did. Published in 1967, I Feel the Same Way introduced readers to Lilian Moore’s inimitable poetic style.
As she said in an interview, Moore strove to “tell the truth” with her poetry, and worked tirelessly to hone every word and every nuance until she felt that truth had been told.
(Click on all graphics to enlarge and read.)
I didn’t know much about Moore’s work before my interview with Lee, and what has struck me most is the elegance with which this poet tells her truths. Her language is deceptively simple, yet beautiful and profound and — yes — true.
Her work gives me what Lee often describes as the “Ah” moment — that moment when you know what you’ve just read is exactly right. The sea does breathe in and out upon a shore…and why have I never noticed it before?
Moore was born and raised in New York City and is particularly known for her city poems, or what she called her “subway poems” — those written on the train on her way to work. Published first in I Thought I Heard the City in 1969, many of these poems have been anthologized and collected in books like the vibrant Mural on Second Avenue. Again, the spare language draws you into this “city hushed by snow.”
Of all her city poems, none affects me quite so deeply as “Foghorns,” a short but searing poem that is nothing if it isn’t the truth. Is there anything as lonely as the sound of a foghorn? And has anyone ever captured that loneliness quite like Moore?
Gah! It amazes me what twenty-two words can become in the hands of a master — this writing is transcendent. As Lilian once said in an interview,
“Poems should be like fireworks, packed carefully and artfully, ready to explode with unpredictable effects.”
Lee’s reflections on Lilian Moore reveal a sensitive, profound thinker who cared deeply about children’s language development, the craft of poetry, and how those two things could come together to make fireworks.
LEE BENNETT HOPKINS on LILIAN MOORE
From city to country, Moore was a versatile poet and, like many writers, found much inspiration in her natural surroundings. Sam’s Place: Poems from the Country was a result of Moore’s move out of the city to her husband Sam Reavin’s farm in Kerhonkson, NY. If you watched the video, you’ll know how enthusiastic Lee is about the poem “Encounter,” and for good reason.
Of all the poems by Moore that I read for this post, “Forsythia Bush” from I Thought I Heard the City is one of my favorites for its subtle rhyme, its gentle cadence, and its marvelous, startling ending. It’s an image that stays with me and springs to mind whenever I see a shock of color on my nature walks.
Part of the joy of doing this NCTE series is seeing what treasures Lee will rustle up for each new post. He has thick files full of his correspondence with every children’s poet ever, including postcards, letters, emails, and photos, not to mention the thousands of books, books, books in his vast poetry library.
And so we leave you with one of these many treasures — a poem from Lilian to Lee from her place in the country.
In Her Own Words: Lilian Moore on
“Do you know who helps the most? Other poets. When I need a response, I turn to my friends—Judith Thurman, or Eve Merriam. I would ask Valerie Worth if she lived closer. We know each other only through letters. Poets help each other wonderfully. For instance, we’d been through a severe dry spell here and the line came to me, ‘Roots have forgotten the taste of rain.’ I told a poet friend, ‘I’m really stuck on this line. I can’t go forward.’ She said, ‘Why don’t you back into it?’ I said, ‘Of course!’ And that’s what I did, backed into it. It worked as the last line of ‘Dry Spell.’ That’s how poets help one another—by listening seriously and taking seriously the problems in structuring a poem.” From the NCTE profile on Lilian Moore, by Joan I. Glazer
What does Ms. Moore see as the outstanding characteristic of her work? “I try to tell the truth.” From the NCTE profile on Lilian Moore, by Joan I. Glazer
“There is, of course, junk food in the world of children’s poetry. It has its place, first to amuse or relax. But if we want children’s taste to develop, the smorgasbord of poems that we offer must include nutritious fare. Rhymes and jingles may serve a good purpose, but one hopes there will be real poems, poems with muscle, poems that touch feelings, poems that offer ideas and language.” From correspondence with Lee Bennett Hopkins
“To hear young children as they explore experiences—everything being observed and responded to for the first time—well, it’s like the morning of the world.”
More about Lilian Moore
Dates: b. 1909 in New York City; d. 2004 in Seattle, WA
Education: Hunter College, Columbia University
Occupation: Poet, teacher, reading specialist, editor; first editor of Scholastic’s Arrow Book Club
Recognition: NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, 1985
Known for: “…a charming simplicity while making profound statements about the human condition” (School Library Journal)
First book published: A Child’s First Picture Dictionary (Grosset & Dunlap, 1946)
First book of poetry published: I Feel the Same Way (Atheneum, 1967)
WINNERS of the NCTE AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN POETRY FOR CHILDREN
(First links go to NCTE articles about each winner; second links go to NWR video posts)
(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 | See John’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1981 – Eve Merriam | See Eve’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1980 – Myra Cohn Livingston | See Myra’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT 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: ARNOLD ADOFF
Irene has the roundup at Live Your Poem!
You’d like to receive my weekly posts in your inbox, you say? Well, just sign up in the sidebar then!
See more poems in my poetry video library.
All poems © Lilian Moore. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved.
Video and post content © Renee M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved.