Poetry by Sheila Dalton

32 pages,
ISBN: 0385257013

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Children`s Books
by Allison Sutherland

Why, oh why, do people insist on putting things into verse when writing for children? Admittedly, children are inveterate users of verse, especially if female, and skipping, ball-bouncing, or doing things with long ropes of elastic bands knotted together. But in those cases verses are tools, used for a purpose. Most children find versification a barrier to enjoyable reading, rather than otherwise. Only if it is of top quality, like Kipling or A. A. Milne or some parts of Dr. Seuss's oeuvre, does verse enhance pleasure. Yet people keep on gratuitously versifying what they write for children, usually dubbing it "poetry".

Dalton's book of verse about different kinds of cats is no more than adequate doggerel. Technically there is nothing gruesomely wrong; it fairly neatly rhymes and scans, although it couples singulars and plurals ("boots/hoot", "big as plates/ congregate", "tricks/stick") and one often has to read a line several times to be sure of its stress patterns. The problem is that almost-adequate verse results in very bad books. It's as if the energy that could have produced decent writing (and Dalton's diction is interesting, as is the concept in a derivative T.-S.-Eliotish sort of way) has been focused on syllable counts and rhyme rather than content.

Street cats, deadbeat cats

that loaf in the sun

Queer, insincere cats

and cats on the run

If Dalton had explored the idea of lots-of-different-kinds -of-cats in prose a happy synthesis of word and picture might have been achieved.

Even a "real" poet can go badly wrong, as Sylvia Plath did in The Bed Book. Written for her children, it is embarrassingly condescending, redeemed only by occasional flashes of genius, spurts of inventive nonsense, and mildly surrealistic irruptions. Compare it-and even more so this book-to Ted Hughes's Moon whales, or even to Walter de la Mare's writing, and you can see what happens when the real thing is convincingly produced. 


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