Two years ago, I was half-watching the Disney Channel with my nephew and niece when a commercial startled me—not because a fleeting tween sensation had finally done something funny, but because I couldn’t believe they were airing a two-minute promo for poetry. Backstage at a children’s poetry slam, Caroline Kennedy was chatting about her new Disney-backed anthology, Poems to Learn by Heart, without naming a single poem in the book. Naturally, I wondered: What sort of anthology do we get from a network that exalts dancing and singing above all other human endeavors?
As it turns out, a pretty conservative one. Poems to Learn by Heart isn’t the slam-tastic book the commercial makes it out to be; instead, it’s full of traditional, anthology-friendly names: Shakespeare, Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Stephen Crane, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, Richard Wilbur—around a hundred poets in all. Adults who want poetry to be “edgy” will find the selection cautious—the wildest poet here is Amiri Baraka, whose “Ballad of the Morning Streets” won’t shock grandma—but Kennedy has less seasoned readers in mind. To her credit, she knows that while most English majors have read poems like “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, most American children (and their parents) have not. She also gets that this book’s 183 pages contain more poetry than most kids will encounter in twelve years of school, so it’s a rare chance to show them what the English language has to offer, from Lewis Carroll to Nikki Giovanni.
Even though Kennedy arranges her selections by subject (“the self,” “family,” “friendship and love,” “faeries, ogres, witches,” “nonsense poems,” “school,” “sports and games,” “war,” and “nature”), Poems to Learn by Heart doesn’t feel guided by a clear editorial point of view. Of course, that’s an adult concern; young readers who don’t yet know their own tastes may enjoy discovering Ovid, Countee Cullen, and Robert Louis Stevenson alongside a Navajo prayer, the Gettysburg Address, the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, selections from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, and Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the Socialists” speech. I appreciate breadth, and even the inclusion of lyrical prose, but is it here to foster inclusiveness, or to deflect criticism? One could easily use the table of contents to reconstruct the minutes of Disney’s fretful editorial meetings: Something for the religious? Cultural-literacy conservatives? Social-justice liberals? Native Americans? Check, check, check, and check.
Despite these thoughtful, wide-ranging selections, this book doesn’t always fulfill the promise of its title. Kennedy may be gung-ho for memorization, but I didn’t always see the mnemonic value of her selections: Is “Peace” the one Gerard Manley Hopkins poem to remember? Why learn Shakespeare’s sonnet 94 instead of one of the others? Kennedy asked a six-member poetry slam team at a Bronx high school to help pick these poems, and she devoted four pages to their own passionate free-verse poem about racism, consumerism, child abuse, and mass media. While I hope the publication credit gave their lives a hearty boost, I do wonder, perhaps heartlessly, if their work belongs here. For whom other than the teens who wrote and performed it is it a “poem to learn by heart”?
I was also baffled by the selections in a final “extra credit” section: “Young Lochinvar” by Walter Scott, “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Longfellow, “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge, Robert Service’s crowd-pleasing “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and the first 18 lines of the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. “Mostly they are old chestnuts that have fallen out of favor,” the scion of a privileged political dynasty warns us, lest she come off as a square, “but the feats of memory required to master them will impress even the most modern audiences.” Why can’t the editor of a poetry anthology write as if she actually believes that old things have value beyond their potential for self-exploration and showing off? (And who the heck drops Chaucer on kids without a pronunciation guide?)
That final section highlights this book’s major flaw: a lack of wild, wham-bang narrative. Jon J. Muth’s illustrations are beautiful, but his cover captures the overall mood: gentle, contemplative, dreamy. That’s fine for some kids, but what about action for the more rambunctious? It’s not my style to call for a book to be less intellectual (or for things Disney to be less introspective), but cripes, what about a good, gory chunk of Beowulf or Homer, or an Asian or African epic? Where are the pirates, cavemen, and ghouls of Robert E. Howard? Except in passing in its introduction, Poems to Learn by Heart forgets to teach kids that some of humanity’s best stories are told in verse—and that people proudly carry them around in their heads.
I hate to be hard on this book. For many kids, it will be their only introduction to poetry, and some, I hope, will adore it. Decades from now, if those readers fondly remember this book as adults, the Disney Channel will deserve praise for marshaling its legions of wolf-mounted marketing goblins in support of something more sophisticated than terrible sitcoms—nothing less than Octavio Paz, Seamus Heaney, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Elizabeth Bishop, and Ovid. Only then will I know if Poems to Learn by Heart has served children well or if it’s the century’s first great, unread gift book, a smart, well-intentioned effort to elevate young readers that’s (maybe) too pensive, too mousey, too nice.