Poetry for Children & Natalie Merchant

A fascinating anthology of children’s poetry set to music (from The Horn Book)

Leave Your Sleep. By Natalie Merchant. All Ages. Nonesuch Records. 2 CDs (26 songs) with accompanying booklet of poems. $28.98

While marketed as a two-disc music compilation with an accompanying booklet, Natalie Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep might be better understood as a fascinating anthology of children’s poetry accompanied by biographical notes and two CDs on which each of the twenty-six poems is set to music. But it is even more than that. Leave Your Sleep epitomizes a certain contemporary sensibility and style of parenting. It is as much a work about childhood as it is a work for children.

A gifted vocalist, Natalie Merchant is a tastemaker whose songs have provided a soundtrack for our times. In 1987 with the band 10,000 Maniacs and their terrific album In My Tribe, she introduced what might be termed Yankee Grunge; everything about it seemed to say Northampton and English Major. Then, in Tigerlily (1995) and Ophelia (1998), Merchant embarked on her solo career and, as these titles suggest, turned to feminism; the album photos of Merchant even seem to present reincarnations of Emily Dickinson. Her next phase came in 2001 with Motherland and in 2003 with The House Carpenter’s Daughter. Now, after a seven-year hiatus and with a seven-year-old daughter, Merchant has released this work of lullabies and children’s poems.

“witches and fearless girls, blind men and elephants, giants and sailors and gypsies, floating churches, dancing bears, circus ponies, a Chinese princess and a janitor’s boy.”

More Robert Louis Stevenson (A Child’s Garden of Verses) than Shel Silverstein (Where the Sidewalk Ends), Leave Your Sleep is, as Merchant says, full of stories about “witches and fearless girls, blind men and elephants, giants and sailors and gypsies, floating churches, dancing bears, circus ponies, a Chinese princess and a janitor’s boy.” If you hear calliope music at this point, you’re not far off; the sounds that fill this album include dulcimers, fiddles, uilleann pipes, concertinas, and penny whistles. In truth, however, the work is a Whitman’s Sampler of styles (Celtic, Klezmer, Cajun, reggae, ragtime, bluegrass) and performers (Lúnasa, the Klezmatics, Wynton Marsalis).

For the most part, the poems here are not au courant, though there are a few twentieth-century selections: E. E. Cummings’s “maggie and milly and molly and may” (where the poet takes delight in the euphony of those names), Jack Prelutsky’s street chant of flavors in “Bleezer’s Ice-Cream” (which owes a debt to Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”), and Rachel Field’s “Equestrienne” (which recalls William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” in the poem’s imagistic fascination with “the girl in pink on the milk-white horse”). In the main, however, Merchant’s chosen poems comfortably reside in the nineteenth century, and the accompanying small hardcover book, containing the complete texts of the poems, features author photos of men with handlebar mustaches and women with three names (such as Lydia Huntley Sigourney). Theirs was an era when Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” was considered childhood reading.

While apparently miscellaneous, this collection also reveals a specific taste: in the shorthand of reviews, “Christina Rossetti meets Mother Goose.” Here are Gilded Age poems that tell stories (Charles E. Carryl’s “The Sleepy Giant”) and specimens of nonsense (Edward Lear’s “Calico Pie”) as well as five poems by that remarkable writer Anon. — who, as Pamela Travers once observed to me, has an amazingly uniform style.

Equally interesting are the biographical accounts of the authors that appear in the book. We learn that Robert Louis Stevenson visited a leper colony in Hawaii and decided to give them the piano he was bringing to his Samoan destination, and that Albert Bigelow Paine (“The Dancing Bear”) had a bear-sized crush on Mark Twain. Most interesting is the story about child prodigy Nathalia Crane who, at the age of eleven, published “The Janitor’s Boy” — the poem that inspired Merchant’s best song in the collection:

Oh I’m in love with the janitor’s boy,
And the janitor’s boy loves me;
He’s going to hunt for a desert isle
In our geography.

A desert isle with spicy trees
Somewhere near Sheepshead Bay;
A right nice place, just fit for two
Where we can live alway.

Oh I’m in love with the janitor’s boy,
He’s busy as he can be;
And down in the cellar he’s making a raft
Out of an old settee.

He’ll carry me off, I know that he will,
For his hair is exceedingly red;
And the only thing that occurs to me
Is to dutifully shiver in bed.

The day that we sail, I shall leave this brief note,
For my parents I hate to annoy:
“I have flown away to an isle in the bay
With the janitor’s red-haired boy.”

Taken altogether, this offering by Natalie Merchant evokes a special mood and vision of parenting. Even as I write this, in early June in Southern California, the air is brisk with the smells of September — and somewhere in rural New England, a mother and her young daughter, in matching OshKosh overalls, stand on a stone or wooden floor, stirring lentil soup while Celtic tunes play in the background.

This essay originally appeared in The Horn Book (September/October 2010). For a short period of time — she was retiring and I was a new hire — Nathalia Crane (the child prodigy and poet) was a colleague of mine at San Diego State University.

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03. June 2016 by
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