Apr 6, 2017

A Poetry Throw-Back-Thursday: Edward Lear

I plunged into this series of poetry posts with some personal notes. In that post I mentioned childhood memories of the limited and outdated poetry section of my public library. The meager offerings in the  children's fiction and nonfiction sections held little temptation for rereading. Not so for the poetry "section". I must have signed my name on the check-out line of some of those poetry books a half-dozen times or more. The few shelves of poems were filled with collections by long-dead or aging poets, but  the life in their words generated smiles and tickled my ears even after multiple readings.

I also enjoyed collections by Ogden Nash but, by far, my favorites were those of Edward Lear. I recently purchased a tattered copy of a compilation of Lear's nonsense poems, including his original A BOOK OF NONSENSE (1846). His humorous limericks and comical line drawings were hugely popular when first published. I found them every bit as appealing more than a century later as I sat, knees near chin, on a tiny,splintered, hard-wood chair under buzzing fluorescent lights in the corner of the library allotted to children. 

Thankfully, even by the mid-fifties, the children's versions were reprinted in bi-color with larger print and  illustrations enlarged to reveal the intricacies of what should not be seen as incidental detail. Each decade that followed enhanced and colorized Lear's collections further. Kids DO judge books by their covers, and the updates allowed them to find and explore these classics across countless generations.

Limericks were Lear's specialty. His prolific offerings were published in a variety of collections, emphasizing everything from the alphabet to botany to music. 
Perhaps his most famous limerick is "There Was An Old Man With a Beard." It has been re-illustrated and recited in countless ways, and still elicits giggles from children who hear it for the first time. 
It's hard to imagine any illustrator surpassing the appeal of his original work:

Lear's work remains popular and invites reinvention and interpretation in contemporary publishing, more than two hundred years after Lear's birth. 

THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT by Edward Lear ,with pictures by James Marshall offered a delightful approach in 1998. It includes an thoughtful afterward by Maurice Sendak. Perhaps because of my exposure and early dedication to Lear's original style, I tend to prefer his clever line drawings above the more recent adaptations. Yet some, like this one, are unquestionably winners.


Another even more recent reinvention (2011) comes in the form of HIS SHOES WERE FAR TOO TIGHT by Edward Lear, masterminded by Daniel Pinkwater and illustrated by Calef Brown. I wrote about this magical intersection of three geniuses in one of the earliest posts on this blog, here.

The centuries-long endurance of Lear's poetry appeal, in original states and in reinterpretations across decades, is a testament to their value. Anyone who wants to "hook" readers on poetry should consider starting with Lear, whose wry humor, witty word choices, and musical meter set a high bar for all who followed, including kids' favorites like Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky.

If you have LLear favorites or memories, please share them in the comments.

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