Saturday, April 11, 2015

National Poetry Month—Eve Merriam, the Feminist Poet for Children

Eve Merriam.

Eve Merriam, a poet who dedicated herself to writing for and inspiring children while challenging adults to see injustice through children’s eyes, died on this date in 1995 at the age of 75.  A life-long feminist and radical, she was the prolific author of 85 books, many of them deceptively simple and charming picture/poetry books for young children.  Although many of her books came to be well loved introductions to the delights of reading and writing verse, one, The Inner City Mother Goose became for nearly a decade the most banned book in America.
Born Eva Moskovitz in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 1916, she was entranced by the sound of verse read aloud and began writing her own poetry by the age of 8.  She published in her High School newspaper  and literary magazine she attended Cornell University and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937 and then went to New York City, her adopted home for the rest of her life, for graduate studies at Columbia University. 
Moskovitz abruptly and restlessly quit her graduate studies to get on with her “real life”.  She found work easily as an advertising copywriter and then in 1939 went to work for the CBS Radio Network where she penned documentaries, some of the in a creative breakthrough, narrated in verse.  It was during that time that she began to write under the name Eve Merriam. 
After leaving CBS, Merriam hosted a weekly program featuring contemporary poetry on radio station WQXR from 1942-’47 while contributing freelance poetry and prose to a number of publications.  In 1945 she had a daily column in verse in the short lived radial New York daily newspaper PM which also had on its staff as an editorial cartoonist Theodore Geisel a/k/a Dr. Seuss.
Merriam’s first book of poetry, Family Circle  was selected by Archibald McLeish to win the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1946.  She then did a stint as an editor at the fashion magazine Glamour, an experience she would draw upon for her devastating but witty critique of the fashion industry in her 1960 book Figleaf with a glossary of garment industry jargon that defined exclusive as “a product offered to the broadest possible mass market” and timeless as “a style that remains fashionable for more than one season.”
Merriam continued to publish admired poetry for adults—Tomorrow Moring in 1953, the chapbook Montgomery, Alabama, Money, Mississippi, and Other Places in 1957, The Double Bed from the Feminine Side in 1958, and The Trouble with Love in 1960.  These books reflected her passion for Civil Rights and placed her as a second wave feminist in advance of Betty Friedan.  They also reflected her turbulent personal life.
She was married and divorced four times, including to Leonard C. Lewin, author of controversial novel  The Report from Iron Mountain  which was cast as a secret government report which concluded that  if a lasting peace “could be achieved, it would almost certainly not be in the best interests of society to achieve it.  Merriam’s marriage to her second husband Martin Michel produced two sons, Dee and Guy Michel.  Her final marriage was to formerly black listed Hollywood screen writer Waldo Salt, who won Academy Awards for his work on Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, lasted until his death in 1987 and made her the stepmother of actress  Jennifer Salt.
In the ‘50’s Merriam also turned to production of books for young readers, many of them drawing on her experience writing historical documentaries at CBS beginning with the Real Book of Franklin Roosevelt and including  The Voice of Liberty: The Story of Emma Lazarus.  All together she would pen 44 volumes of non-fiction for children and young adults covering everything from simple counting and alphabet books to jokes and riddles to books that challenged gender stereotypes—Mommies at Work, Boys and Girls, Girls and Boys, and Daddies at Work.
It wasn’t until the1960s that Merriam’s two passions—poetry and juvenile lit—came together in the first of her acclaimed books of  verse for children, a trilogy published by Anatheum Press including There Is No Rhyme for Silver in 1962, It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme in ’64, and Catch a Little Rhyme in ’66.  In all she produced 20 more volumes published in her life time and four more issued posthumously.  Among her notable books of children’s verse were Independent Voices (biographical sketches in verse form), I Am a Man: Ode to Martin Luther King, Jr., Rainbow Writing, and The Singing Green: New and Selected Poems for All Seasons.

An illustrated page from the first edition of Inner City Mother Goose.

Somewhat ironically it was a book of nursery rhymes for adults that got her in trouble with censors across the country.  The first edition of Inner City Mother Goose was released in 1969 and sold over 100,000 copies. It was illustrated with black-and-white photography by Lawrence Ratzkin.  It employed classic nursery rhyme forms to describe the daily experience of life in the urban Black ghetto and did  so as an impartial observer neither passing judgement on what is seen or preaching solutions or panaceas for the social ills uncovered.  The book included powerful, sometimes raw language including the N word, other racial epithets, and common curse words which could be heard on any street corner.
Censors freaked out on the assumption that this was a book intended for children which would expose them to harsh realities from which they would better be protected.  Of course the bulk of the criticism came from whites who wanted to deny racial disparity in the country, but some came from middle class Blacks who felt stigmatized by identification with urban slums, crime, and poverty.  The Knights of Columbus called it “obscene and degrading.”  An outraged Baltimore official charged it was “part of a nationwide plot to just cause this nation to disintegrate.”  Still others saw it as an “incitement to violence and insurrection,” as if Black readers were somehow unaware of the conditions she described.  Most hung all of their objections on the opening verse, taken straight from Mother Goose with one amended line:

Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon does shine as bright as day;
Come with a hoop, and come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all.
Lose your supper, and lose your sleep,
Come to your playfellows in the street;
Up motherfucker against the wall.

But one suspects that other verses without the naughty words caused just as much consternation:
    Hey, diddle diddle,
    Hem haw and fiddle;
    How do we integrate?

    A jot and a tittle,
    Too late and too little,
    That’s how we integrate. 
Inner City Mother Goose became the most widely banned book in America.
The creative team behind the Broadway production of Inner City--composer Helen Miller, director Tom O'Horgan, and librettist/lyricist Eve Meriam.

Merriam went on to collaborate on a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Inner City which ran in 1971 and’72.  Later a second musical adaption, Sweet Dreams produced a decade later.
After her introduction to the theater via Inner City, Merriam turned to other dramatic efforts as a playwright.  Her Obie Award-winning musical The Club was staged by Tom O’Horgan in 1976. And portrayed men in a private club making degrading remarks about women.  In a twist, women were cast as the misogynistic men. Out of Our Fathers’ House, she portrayed of prominent American women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  A production was presented at the White House in 1978 and shown on Public Television’s Great Performances series.
In addition to all of this prodigious output, Merriam found time to lecture widely and to produce volumes of social criticism including Figleaf: The Business of Being in Fashion, After Nora Slammed the Door: American Women in the 1960s—The Unfinished Revolution, and Man and Woman: The Human Condition.  She also edited and wrote the introduction of the classic Growing up Female in America: Ten Lives, originally published 1971, reissued, by Beacon Press in 1987.
When Merriam was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she faced it openly, frankly, and with pen in hand, in one poem after noting various euphemisms for what was happening to her, she concluded that it was, “As the Elizabethans called it, death.” 
Merriam died on April 11, 1992 in Manhattan from colon cancer. Her final collection of verse dealing with her experience was published posthumously in 1995 as Embracing the Dark: New Poems.

Morning is
A new sheet of paper
For you to write on.

Whatever you want to say,
All day,
Until night
Folds it up
And files it away.

The bright words and the dark words
Are gone
Until dawn
And a new day
To write on.

—Eve Merriam

How To Eat a Poem

Don’t be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
    may run down your chin.
    It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.

    You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
    or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

    For there is no core
    or stem
    or rind
    or pit
    or seed
    or skin
    to throw away.

—Eve Merriam

Catch a Little Rhyme

Once upon a time
I caught a little rhyme

I set it on the floor
but it ran right out the door

I chased it on my bicycle
but it melted to an icicle

I scooped it up in my hat
but it turned into a cat

I caught it by the tail
but it stretched into a whale

I followed it in a boat
but it changed into a goat

When I fed it tin and paper
it became a tall skyscraper

Then it grew into a kite
and flew far out of sight...

—Eve Merriam

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