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Poetry report card: grades from A to C. Collected poems

IN visiting elementary schools, too often I meet students, and even teachers, who approach the subject of poetry with what I call the ``cooked-spinach orientation'': It tastes awful, but it's good for you, so eat it and don't complain. Poetry is considered a cultural mainstay - part language skills, part intellectual dexterity, frosted over with the fine and impressive dust of history. But poetry remains one section of the public library or school library bookshelves that never needs straightening, chiefly because, with only rare exceptions, it goes virtually untouched.

Though many publishing houses feature new poetry titles each year, they have not successfully cultivated a broader audience among young readers, largely because they haven't kept pace with the times. Visually, these books and anthologies offer attractive and often sumptuous illustrations to accompany the text. The artists' works become more daring and imaginative each year.

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But the literary content frequently falls into one of two safe categories: nothing new (certified classics and old chestnuts), or nothing substantial (unrestrained doses of slapstick and silliness). Reading these selections (which is more than most children do), one might be left with the impression that the last seven or eight decades of modern poetry never occurred. Authenticity of language and experience, the sense of playfulness and discovery - these are central qualities of contemporary poetry and, sadly, they appear more frequently in writing by children than in writers for children.

The challenge for publishers is to discover new poets and poetry that will speak to young people's experience of the world, that will be both fresh and genuine enough to grip their imagination. Using this as a criterion, here is a report card on some recently released titles.

Sing a Song of Popcorn: Every Child's Book of Poems, selected by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, et al., (Scholastic, New York, $16.95, 142 pp., all ages), is an ambitious project. Scholastic offered nine Caldecott Medal recipients a free hand to create artwork for this poetry anthology, and much of the work seems to have been sparked by the imaginative challenge. The styles range from the bright and whimsical cartoonlike worlds of Arnold Lobel and Maurice Sendak to the moody and magical watercolors of Marcia Brown, and the stained-glass simplicity of Leo and Diane Dillon.

But it is a telling detail that the artists' names are displayed prominently on the book's cover, while the writers who selected the texts appear as a smaller addendum. It's as if the poetry selections are merely an excuse for the beautiful pictures. ``Sing a Song of Popcorn'' is actually an updated version of the 1969 anthology ``Poems Children Will Sit Still For,'' a book of sure-fire hits for the busy classroom teacher. The book contains more rhymes than poems, however, and a preponderance of sugary and antiquated material. The musicality of poetry is the overriding focus here, and very young children will enjoy hearing such selections out loud.

But will the work make a lasting impression? Will it inspire them to read or perhaps write poetry? Despite the best intentions, the answer is no. I'd give this project a B-minus on the poetry report card.

The Land of Nod (Henry Holt, New York, $16.95, 51 pp., all ages) is a new raid on Robert Louis Stevenson's lush garden of verses, selected and illustrated here by Michael Hague. Hague has gained quite a reputation as the revisionist illustrator of many children's classics such as ``Wind in the Willows'' and ``Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.''

Despite his technical skill as a draftsman, this is not his freshest work. Too many pages are lifeless. And despite the ``certifiable classic'' status of the poems, I am left with one overwhelming question: Why, every two years, must some publisher bring out still another edition of Stevenson's verses? Is the demand so great for his lovely but sentimental lyrics? Or is it just less risky than making the editorial commitment to new writers and fresh material? A grade of C here would be more than generous.

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Robert Frost's Birches (Henry Holt, New York, $13.95, unpaged, all ages) is another safe poetry selection, but this volume, illustrated with the spirited watercolors of Ed Young, is a much more satisfying achievement. The publication was surely inspired by the successful edition of ``Stopping by Woods...'' released a few years ago. ``Birches'' is not as easily accessible a poem for young readers, but it contains an ample supply of powerful images and provocative questions, anchored by Frost's rich and distinctive voice. Rather than attempt a literal interpretation of the poem, Young traveled through the poet's New England countryside and captured its simple elegance and darker mysteries. We are presented with a walk through the autumn and winter woods as Frost's poem slowly unfolds. A well-deserved B-plus for this one.

Though each of the final two selections contains its share of rough spots, they come closest to the freshness and intensity that you would expect in grade-A children's poetry. Under the Sunday Tree (Harper & Row, New York, $12.95, 32 pp., all ages) is perhaps the more unusual of the two, pairing the naif paintings of Bahamian artist Amos Ferguson with the childlike verses of Eloise Greenfield. The life of the island's black community is the subject of the book, and both writing and artwork take an approach that is direct, personal, and intriguing. The familiar figures and everyday events take on the special grandeur peculiar to a child's perspective.

Despite a few stilted rhyming passages, the poems are playful and full of feeling. With Ferguson's dazzling color combinations and flattened perspectives, the result is a world of innocence that children will relate to, and one that will make them take a closer look at ``home.''

Myra Cohn Livingston is perhaps better known as an anthologist than a poet. Space Songs (Holiday House, New York, $14.95, 32 pp., all ages) is her fourth collaboration with illustrator Leonard Everett Fisher, expanding their attention outward from sea and earth to the sky, and now beyond the limits of the clouds. The poet's free-verse style is vivid and musical, her imagery dramatic, and her language highly charged. Clearly she is writing up to her reader's potential; she shares her awe of our place in the galaxy, not teacher to student but friend to friend. A few of the poems are overfilled with facts and end up with a curious flatness, but most are sure to excite young people's natural fascination with the mysteries of space.

Fisher's paintings have the bold colors and spectacular sense of proportion necessary to entrance an audience raised on ``Star Wars'' cinematography. This book will provoke long and wondering examinations of the borderless night sky. Steven Ratiner, a poet and critic, teaches in schools throughout Massachusetts in the state's Artist-in-Residence program.

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