Part of growing up and growing old is having to shed some of the dreams and desires that are just flat out unattainable. There just comes a point where you realize that going to art school was not the proper choice for becoming the first astronaut on Mars, or when the people you looked up to and admired passed on before you had your opportunity to have a nice little private cafe sit.
It’s taken me a number of decades to understand what it is I (think I) should be doing, and it gets more confusing when it is bound up in childhood memories that are difficult to limn.
Okay, here’s what I’m dancing around. I don’t consider myself a poet, or at least not a serious one, which you can take any way and would probably be correct. While I enjoy all sorts of poetry, it’s the humorous and nonsensical poetry of my childhood that I am drawn to. Every once in a while a thought flits through my brain like a passing butterfly that somewhere amid all this other writing I’m doing, just once, I think I’d fancy putting out a book of poetry like those I grew up on.
Mind you, it isn’t just poems, its the poems we don’t tend to see as much of anymore. I’m talking subversive poetry, and semi violent poetry, the kind of stuff Shel Slverstien wrote in his salad days while he was still on staff at Playboy. Not only poems, but those whose illustrations are no less controversial. I have an image in mind of a particular poem in a collection edited by William Cole that is illustrated by Tomi Ungerer that shows a very Victorian-looking gentleman about to whip a small girl with a cat-o-nine-tails while she grins slyly. There is an odd danger in that illustration that caught my attention when I was 10 that holds it to this day.
But the poetry I see today for children, while much of it is very, very good, all feels a bit too… safe? Humorous, yes, playfully illustrated, of course, but lacking that edge that, that devilishness that gave me as a young reader the feeling I was looking into the forbidden world of grown-ups. I knew the poets weren’t children, nor were the illustrators, and in writing and illustrating these books I had the sense of not being treated as a child but as someone who could handle realities (albeit humorous and twisted ones) of the world as seen in verse.
But who is doing anything like that today? Who are the dangerous and subversive writers and artists working today? Has it all just gone out of style, am I horribly living in a false memory? I fear (or worry, perhaps) that were I to set out to write a book of poetry, aside from falling far from the mark, that there would be no one to illustrate it, no publisher willing to touch it.
I want to see these books of poetry that are as dangerous as they are vital, to see a generation grow up as I did, finding playful peeks into the world through wordplay. Am I wrong in this? Where did this idea come from that everything written and produced for children should be safe? Is Disney to blame? Is this just another piece of childhood killed off by the realities of getting older?
Who are the dangerous-in-a-good-way writers, illustrators, and poets today? I’m seriously asking. I’m drawing a blank.