Tuesday, November 03, 2009

On Poetry and Meeting Jane

Yup. That's me sitting next to the inimitable Jane Yolen. Without completely gushing and getting all fan-girly, let me tell you that she is a lovely, lovely woman. After having her drop by to stretch with us so often, I was thrilled to finally meet her.

Okay, bear with me for a sidebar, just for a moment.
I know you've heard this before, but I work at an amazing institution. Two years ago I had the pleasure of dining with John Green and hearing him speak. He was brought to Richmond to deliver the Cathleen Mallaney Trees Lecture. Two weeks ago I lunched with Tobin Anderson and heard him speak as part of the All Henrico Reads event. Last night I had the great pleasure of dining with Jane Yolen before she delivered this year's Cathleen Mallaney Trees Lecture. The list of artists this university brings to campus is quite simply, fabulous. It is one of the best things about living and working in an academic setting. I have opportunities to see, hear and meet so many talented people that I would otherwise know only through their work.

Alright, back to Jane Yolen. First, I should tell you that we I walked to the room where we would eat dinner with some colleagues. We made some general introductions and carried on a bit of small talk. After a few minutes I gathered up the courage to reintroduce myself as Miss Rumphius. At that point I felt like I was meeting an old friend. How is it possible that this crazy thing called blogging (or social networking, whichever you prefer) allows us to feel this way?

Later in the evening, Jane gave a talk in which she focused on poetry. After beginning with a poem and an apology, she described an article published in The Atlantic Monthly on the state of poetry saying that author basically slammed the writing of poetry for children and implied that it's second-rate. I found the article, entitled Can Poetry Matter, and it isn't pretty. Here's what the author said.
And a few loners, like X. J. Kennedy and John Updike, turn their genius to the critically disreputable demimonde of light verse and children's poetry.
It is the phrase "critically disreputable demimonde of light verse and children's poetry" that Jane spent the evening carefully refuting with readings of poetry and the close examination of how much work goes into the crafting of a poem.

In addition to reading her own work, Jane read the poems of Emily Dickinson, Pat Lewis, Lilian Moore, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and David McCord. She talked of poets writing with hope (hope for the right words, hope to finish), of poets as code masters, of poems as attempts to get at the truth, and more. She described the rhythm in poems, and how reading them aloud pulls you in, pulls you forward, and then sometimes stops you in your tracks. She described metaphors as being childlike without being childish. We heard many poems she has yet to have published--animal epitaphs, sonnets on Emily Dickinson's life, a poem inspired by and about Chagall, the text of a picture book in verse, and more.

By all accounts it was a lovely evening. I can't think of better way to spend my time than to hear someone who's published more than 70 books of poetry read and talk about the craft. My thanks to Jane for once again providing me with real inspiration and a gentle nudge to keep writing.

BTW, Jane gently ribbed me about loving Pat Lewis more than her. Wherever did she get such an idea?! Let me hereby decree that I do NOT have favorites in the world of children's poetry--I love you both! And you sit at the top of a rather long list of wonderful poets, many of whom I was honored to interview this year.


  1. Oh, the look on your face! Full on Fangirl! How cute. Your University sounds SO great. Wow. All those authors!!

    At USF they put on a really excellent, intelligent and low-key conference called Reading the World, and it's all about multicultural YA/children's lit. I was there a few years ago when Jane Yolen spoke. I won't say I "met" her (well, you read my zeno, you know me), but I walked down the hall behind her and thought very kind thoughts toward her. She's a wonderful speaker, an eloquent reader, and I wish I could have been there!!

  2. Tricia,

    Jane was a featured speaker at the Keene State College Children's Literature Festival this past weekend. She talked about the same topic--children's poetry. You can imagine how happy I was to hear her speak about something so dear to my heart.

    BTW, I love reading clever light verse written for adults. To be sure, J. Patrick Lewis is a master of the genre.

    Oh--and I have lots and lots and lots of favorites in the world of children's poetry!

  3. What a pleasure reading about your meeting Jane! And your university certainly does sponsor some awesome events.

    I, too, have had the distinct pleasure of hearing Jane speak -- at an SCBWI conference many years ago. She was definitely inspiring, an experience I'll always treasure.

  4. Tricia -
    Just want to point out that the phrase "critically disreputable" lays the blame at the foot of CRITICS. Since critics don't write poetry (they write from their own demimonde of - oof - criticism) maybe they can be forgiven for having a skewed view of what poetry should be: They want all gravitas, no play. But Gioia himself knew when he wrote that essay (in 1991) that poets love light verse. Many firm friendships between poets have begun with light verse shared back and forth - a prime example is the friendship of John Hollander and Anthony Hecht, who goofed around obsessivley and divinely with double dactyls! I do think the state of poetry in this country has improved in the almost twenty years since Gioia wrote those words, though poetry still is (wasn't it always?) a sub-culture. Is it possible children's poets get the bum's rush because they publish so much & make it look a bit too casual or too easy? I'm not saying it is - I'm just saying that if a poet for adults has ten books of poetry out, that's considered a bit of an embarrassment unless he (or she) is in his 90's. Yet children's poets often publish a book every year (or more.) And from the outside, that's hard to explain.

    I'd better stop - I could go on and on. Gioia's article has produced heated responses for quite a while. I'm glad to hear that Jane is out defending poetry, and glad you got to meet her. She is a force of nature.

  5. Well, I wouldn't blame you if you liked Pat Lewis better than me. In fact there are many days I like him better than me!

    But tongue was firmly planted in cheek when I told you that. You knew it then and are playing still, but wanted to be sure your commenters do, too!

    And folks, meeting the Divine Miss R. in person was a special pleasure I hope you all manage some day.


    PS. Right, thanks, Julie, it was Gioia and I buried that name deep in the recesses of my feeble brain.

  6. Tricia, what fun! Jane is an amazing speaker--inspiring and funny (and intimidating if you spend too much time thinking of all her accomplishments, which I don't recommend!) and so gracious. You are a lucky duck. I need to stay more on top of speakers at my local universities and colleges. I'm sure there are great ones I miss out on.

  7. Very sweet photo. Thanks for sharing! I won't get this right, but I recall Charles Simic commenting on the poetry jibs and jabs and saying something about writers heading down the same street, just maybe on opposite sidewalks. Which makes me think of Halloween as a metaphor for writers -- very closely borrowed metaphor, I may add. Writers are like trick or treaters walking at night, house to house, some on the left side of the road where it's paved, others preferring to walk through the grass and leaves, but each gathering sweets for their deep sacks and the long haul before them.

  8. You are soooo lucky! What a great photo. I am hoping to meet her later this year when she speaks in Portland.