Spotlight on NCTE Poets: Myra Cohn Livingston, with Lee Bennett Hopkins
“…the untold mystery
Welcome to the fourth 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 (so far) seventeen amazing people, and, as Lee says in his David McCord video, appreciating the poets and their work by “reading it and loving it from the heart.”
For this installment, Lee speaks from a very personal place about a woman who was not only his dear friend for thirty years, but also an accomplished children’s poet and mentor to many of our best poets today:
Myra Cohn Livingston
In 1980, Myra Cohn Livingston became the fourth recipient of the NCTE award. She wrote and/or edited over 80 books for children on an amazing array of subjects. Her first book, Whispers, was written in 1946 and published in 1958 under legendary editor Margaret K. McElderry — twelve years after being rejected by the same Ms. McElderry.
….tickle through your ear
….telling things you like to hear.
….are as soft as skin
….letting little words curl in.
….come so they can blow
….secrets others never know.
-Myra Cohn Livingston
Like Lee, Myra was a prolific anthologist, conceptualizing and bringing to fruition myriad themed collections on topics ranging from cats, music, and whales…
…to owls, mothers, limericks, and holidays.
Sadly, all but one of Myra’s books are out of print, and I found very few of her poems online. Those I did find, however, struck me with their combination of thoughtfulness and simplicity of language. With a few masterful yet accessible turns of phrase, Myra creates vibrant images that speak to a child’s interests, desires, hopes, fears, and experiences. As Myra said herself, “. . . what more can one offer to the very young . . .[in poems] than a touchstone to deal with the early daily experiences of feelings, sights, and sounds…?”
I especially love this poem from the LBH anthology Good Books, Good Times:
Give Me a Book
Give me a book
and long, tall grass.
There will I look
as the hours pass.
To other places
I can see,
to other faces,
strange to me.
In black and white
they fill my head
with men and women,
Of hope and fear
and wish and need.
The world stands still.
I, breathless, read.
And in their history I see
the untold mystery of me.
–Myra Cohn Livingston
Poems like that make me really wish I could easily get my hands on all these books!
In 2007, Holiday House issued Myra’s poem “Calendar” in picture book form, with beautiful, colorful illustrations by Will Hillebrand. This is the only book by Myra that is currently in print.
March blows off
the winter ice,
April makes the
May is hopscotch lines.
deep blue swimming,
Picnics are July,
September whistles by.
for roller skates,
the best because
and Santa Claus.
Besides poetry, Myra also wrote several professional books including the classic Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry. Intended for use by students, this poetic how-to is also a great resource for adult poets and anyone else who needs to brush up on the mechanics of poetry.
Despite all her wonderful poetry and collections and anthologies, I can’t help but think that Myra’s greatest contribution was in her role as educator. In her twenty years teaching a master class in poetry at UCLA, Myra trained and mentored many of today’s most noted children’s poets.
In an interview with Elaine Magliaro at Wild Rose Reader, Janet Wong speaks about her experiences studying with Myra at UCLA, where her classmates included Alice Schertle, April Halprin Wayland, Ann Whitford Paul, Kristine O’Connell George, Tony Johnston, Deborah Chandra, and Joan Bransfield Graham, to name a few. Wow! Janet also shares some of the writing exercises Myra had her students do, so hie thee thither!
The more I discover about Myra’s class, the more I’m convinced that Myra and her students lived in the Golden Age of Children’s Poetry — a fitting name given the Los Angeles location. Oh, to be a fly on that wall…and we can be with the anthology I Am Writing a Poem About….
From Kirkus Reviews:
Inspired by a magnetic-word poetry set, Livingston explains in an introduction how she launched students in her master class in poetry on a fascinating study of how disparate words could be connected in coherent, artful ways. This delightful collection features works by Alice Schertle, Janet Wong, and Tony Johnston, among others. Each student was given one word, then three, then six that had to be included in a poem. The possibilities are endless, as shown in the diverse styles and range of the pieces: Some are brilliant and touching, others are humorous, some are silly. Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
Go on! Try the exercise! And feel free to share your masterpiece in the comments! To get you started, here is Janet Wong’s ring-drum-blanket poem from the anthology (via Wild Rose Reader):
The little squirt,
begging for boiled eggs and toast,
circles me like a wrestler in the ring,
bouncing on my bed,
and when I try to hide my head,
he dives under the blanket,
to drum my stomach
until it surrenders
Although I think we are all thankful to Myra Cohn Livingston for the many gifts she left us, I can’t help being sad that such a rare and dedicated mentor has passed out of our grasp. If any of her students read this, we would love to hear your anecdotes in the comments.
Lee’s stories about Myra are full of affection, admiration, and truth. We hope you enjoy our fourth episode of the series.
LEE BENNETT HOPKINS on MYRA COHN LIVINGSTON
If there were a poetry star in the sky, that star would surely be named Myra Cohn Livingston. –Lee Bennett Hopkins
In Her Own Words: Myra Cohn Livingston on
“Poetry is a place where we are not expected to define or analyze or answer questions. We can simply laugh or cry or wonder, or turn the page until we find a poem that sings the tune we wish to hear. It’s as easy as that.” From an interview with Lee Bennett Hopkins
Teaching Poetry to Children
“I have become convinced over a period of years that early adulation does more harm than good . . . many years of teaching have convinced me that making this learning process (of writing poetry) an end in itself does ultimate harm to the child’s growth. At an age when children should be striving to improve by profiting from error, their work is accepted as complete, finished, perfect. As John Ciardi says, ‘Education is not possible without failure’.”
More about Myra Cohn Livingston
Dates: b. 1926 in Omaha, NE; d. 1996 in Beverly Hills, CA
Education: Sarah Lawrence College
Occupation: Poet, educator, anthologist; musician (French horn); personal secretary to Dinah Shore and violinist Jascha Heifetz
Recognition: NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children (1980); Kerlan Award (University of Minnesota); National Jewish Book Award
Known for: “using a variety of techniques to express the realities and wonders of a child’s everyday world and experiences” (Jewish Women’s Archive)
First book published: Whispers (Harcourt, 1958)
Extensive biography on Jewish Women’s Archive
Profile of Cohn Livingston for NCTE, by E. Jane Porter
A Peek Inside Myra’s Master Class via an interview with Janet Wong at Wild Rose Reader (highly recommended!)
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
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: EVE MERRIAM
Tabatha Yeatts has the roundup over at The Opposite of Indifference.
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See more poems in my poetry video library.
“Whispers,” “Give Me a Book,” and “Calendar” © Myra Cohn Livingston. “Oh, Brother!” © Janet Wong. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved.
Video and post content © Renee M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved.