Piping Down the Valleys Wild

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

Piping Down the Valleys Wild possesses virtually everything that younger audiences cite as their poetry preferences. In addition to the musical qualities of rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, and other sound effects, many of the poems in the anthology are about familiar experiences. David McCord’s “Kite” speaks of the thrill of flying a kite in different kinds of weather—from sunny to cloudy to dark, windy, and gray. Patricia Hubbell’s “Concrete Mixers” compares the machinery of her poem to ponderous pachyderms that move, bellow, and spray with their trunks as they raise a city. Although it offers unique insights into the ordinary, the language is everyday, never obscure, and easily comprehensible to the urban and suburban audiences for whom Larrick intended her book.

Three sections are devoted to animals, also a favorite topic among children. The verses range from the lighthearted descriptions of a puppy’s antics in Marchette Chute’s “My Dog” to the gentle, poignant, and sometimes humorous characterizations that Carmen Bernos de Gasztold gives her animals as they offer special prayers to God and simultaneously hold up a mirror to human thoughts and wishes. None except those with hearts of stone could fail to be touched by the request of the Old Horse who, with threadbare coat and stiffened legs, asks God for a gentle death after long years of labor.

Another preference to which this collection caters is the strange and fantastic. The poems on people feature characters such as Beatrice Curtis Brown’s poor old Jonathan Bing, who cannot remember the appropriate attire for his visit to the king. Karla Kuskin’s Catherine serves up a special blend of mud, water, weeds, nuts, gravel, bark, thistle, and sand as a “most delicious chocolate cake,” while the beneficiary of her concoction insists on having it with ice cream. Indeed, an entire chapter on the supernatural is included, encompassing ghosts and ghouls along with elves, wee folk, and other creatures from fairy lands.

Throughout the book are dozens of humorous poems, a further favored category. Some of these will be found amusing because of their wordplay. In “The Squirrel,” an unknown author describes the “whisky, frisky,” “whirly, twirly,” and “furly, curly” features of a squirrel. Other poems will inspire humor because of their content. In a manner reminiscent of Mother Goose, Dylan Thomas creates nonsense when Johnnie Crack and Flossie Snail put their baby in a milking pail and serve it “stout and ale.” In the “Adventures of Isabel,” Ogden Nash describes an unflappable girl who, when confronted with a ravenous bear, calmly washes her hands, straightens her hair, and turns the tables by eating up the bear. In addition to Nash, readers will find such other stalwarts of light verse as Lewis Carroll, John Ciardi, and Shel Silverstein. No collection for young readers would be complete without a smattering of limericks. Edward Lear makes one perfunctory appearance, but the best are those penned by “Anonymous.”

A final appealing component of this anthology is its widespread incorporation of narrative. Audiences will enjoy story poems such as James Reeves’s “The Old Wife and the Ghost,” a humorous tale of a woman living alone who is so deaf that she thinks a poltergeist to be such “tidy big mice” that she fetches a “tidy big cat” to rid herself of the pests.

For readers whose taste is not with the majority, Larrick has other offerings, including occasional bits of free verse and stray haiku. Pieces from the Bible, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Asian authors can be found among these selections. Yet, not one poem is marred by the indecipherable images that frequently turn poetry into a riddling sphinx—something that, as the choices herein make evident, it need not be.

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