'Like a treasure chest'

December 10, 1990|By Sara Engram

WIDER THAN THE SKY: Poems to Grow Up With. Collected and Edited by Scott Elledge. Harper & Row. 358 pages. $19.89.

SOME CHILDREN are lucky enough to have an uncle or aunt or other friendly adult who pays attention to a part of growing up that exhausted parents often overlook: a child's need to marvel at the world.

Scott Elledge is such an uncle. Some years ago Elledge, biographer of E.B. White and a retired English professor, spent a summer collecting poems to present to his 10-year-old niece. "When I came across a poem I liked and thought she would like," he recalls in the preface to this book, "I photocopied it on a sheet of good bond paper, and at the end of the summer I bound the sheets in bright-blue buckram, had her name printed in gold on the cover, and sent it to her in time for her birthday."

He added some comments in which he noted the lack of illustrations, usually a staple of children's books, and expressed the hope that the lack of visual distraction would help her focus attention on the enchantment that words can produce all by themselves.

He also pointed out the random order of the poems, "following one another haphazardly, like the faces of people coming up out of the subway or down the escalator at the airport." In other words -- not to worry, this was not a textbook.

It was something much better, a kind of treasure chest to delve into for a few minutes or a few hours, something a young person could ignore for weeks or months and that would still welcome her back time and again.

With the publication of this anthology as "Wider Than the Sky," Elledge is spreading the magic beyond his family circle. For many other children he now becomes the uncle bearing a delightful, serendipitous gift -- not the flashiest present under the tree, but the one that lasts.

This a book designed for children, but it's one that plenty of adults will covet as well. There's no age limit on enjoying the fun of language, the way a rhyme trips off the tongue, the way a poem gives words to familiar but unspoken feelings or the way a poet spins gold from wisps of ordinary life. These encounters with familiar words in unfamiliar ways are the kinds of experiences that keep us "growing up" all our lives.

Elledge encourages readers to enjoy the sound of a poem before worrying about its meaning. But fortunately he can't t resist the urge to include a few explanatory notes in the back of the book.

Thus, when a reader comes upon Nikki Giovanni's "Kidnap Poem" and reads "if i were a poet/i'd kidnap you/put you in my phrases and meter/you to jones beach/or maybe coney island," she can easily discover that Giovanni is referring to a public beach on Long Island and an amusement center in Brooklyn. Or that, in a Wordsworth poem, the word "jocund" means "merry."

The randomness of this 220-poem collection is refreshing. William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe mingle with A. R. Ammons and Gwendolyn Brooks. Edward Arlington Robinson's stark "Richard Cory" tells of the quiet suicide of "a gentlemen from sole to crown," while in more flowery language Arthur Hugh Clough urges us, "Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth."

Like a treasure chest of playthings, there's a poem here for every mood, and they come in delightfully various lengths and styles.

Here's one of my own new treasures, John Updike's "August":

The sprinkler twirls.

The summer wanes.

The pavement wears

Popsicle stains.

The playground grass

Is worn to dust.

The weary swings

Creak, creak with rust.

The trees are bored

With being green.

Some people leave

The local scene

And go to seaside

Bungalows

And take off nearly

All their clothes.

Like the buckram-bound book Elledge sent his niece, this collection is unadorned with illustrations. It's just words printed on good paper. That's all you need to make the imagination soar.

Sara Engram is deputy editor of The Evening Sun editorial pages.

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