Hills Gleam Dimly: Karla Kuskin (1932 – 2009)

I put it down and I begin to understand it better. Karla Kuskin.

Karla Kuskin died in late August, 2009. I was away on vacation at the time, off the grid, not even looking at newspapers, so I missed it. I’d like to spend a few minutes today in appreciation of Karla Kuskin, to note a poet’s passing with due respect. At a time when much of children’s poetry aspires only to imitate Dr. Suess, here was a woman who wrote with sophistication and depth — feeling, heart, soul, and wit. Poems for children, yes; but she did not pander, she was not writing down; she lifted up.

I interviewed Karla many years ago, almost decades, for a profile that was eventually collected in this book, which I gather you can still find in some dark, dank corners of cyberspace. Worth checking out, I think: dated somewhat, but with golden nuggets inside. Awesome insights directly from Vera B. Williams, Aliki, Cynthia Rylant, Kevin Henkes, Eric Carle, Tony Johnston, Carlotte Zolotow, Barbara Park, James Marshall, and many, many others (75 in all). Anyway, I liked Karla immediately. She was unpretentious, yet serious about her craft; easy to talk to, genuine and funny. My highest compliment: She was a true artist.

The main challenge of the book was that my editors at Scholastic wanted the short profiles to work on two levels. For adults, as well as for children. In remembrance of Karla, here’s an excerpt from that book:

Though sense and silliness, bouncy rhymes and flowing rhythms, Karla shares her love of poetry with young children. A mood, a memory, a sound — anything can spark a poem. And anyone can write one, Karla believes. “Poetry can be as natural and effective a form of self-expression as singing or shouting,” she says.

Karla has always loved listening to the rhythm of words. She states, “I am a firm believer in reading aloud because, I suppose, I loved it so much as a child.” Grateful for a childhood in which reading was an everyday family activity, Karla believes that “when you are exposed to poetry when you are little, it stays with you for the rest of your life.

“When I am working on a book of poetry,” Karla says, “I jot down everything on any scrap of paper at hand; I pay attention to what’s going through my head. I’m much more aware of language, words, rhythm, description. I try to hang on to these ideas, because if I don’t write them down, they’re gone forever.”

It is Karla’s hope that readers of her poems will, in turn, write poems of their own. As she says, “If you read, you write.” Karla realizes that most children will not grow up to become professional writers. “The important thing about writing is that it helps the writer discover his or her own thoughts and feelings.

“In difficult times,” Karla confides, “I’ve always found that to write out what I feel is very helpful. I put it down and I begin to understand it better.”

Nice, right?

The New York Times ran a leisurely obituary, it wasn’t in hurry to be over, and it touched on highlights obvious and some less so. They concluded with this untitled poem by Karla, from Near the Window Tree, and I loved it.

Write about a radish

Too many people write about the moon.

The night is black

The stars are small and high

The clock unwinds its ever-ticking tune

Hills gleam dimly

Distant nighthawks cry.

A radish rises in the waiting sky.

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