Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Myra Cohn Livingston

I own quite a number of books on the topic of writing poetry. Most of these books were intended to be used by adults teaching poetry writing to children. Many are excellent; many helped to provide me with ideas to use with my students. If someone asked me to name the book that had the greatest influence on my teaching of poetry to my students, it would be a book written by the late Myra Cohn Livingston. Myra, an award-winning children’s poet and anthologist, also wrote critical essays and books about writing poetry with children. In addition, Myra taught a master class in poetry at UCLA. Students in that class included many of the best poets writing for children today. (Read my Interview with Janet Wong to find out more about Myra’s master class and the kinds of writing exercises she gave her students.)

Over the years, I came to trust the wise words of Myra Cohn Livingston—for whom poetry was a passion. Her book Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry taught me so much about poetry. It helped me to explore the writing of poetry with my elementary students. Myra wrote the book for children—but I consider it to be one of the most valuable resources that I have used as a writer myself.

Written by Myra Cohn Livingston
A Charlotte Zolotow Book/HarperCollins, 1991

In her introduction to Poem-Making, Myra states the following:

This book is about poem-making, how to begin to understand what goes into a poem. We don’t ask the question What does a poem mean? For if the poet has written well, we seem to know inside of ourselves what it means to us. It is better to ask, as John Ciardi has said, How does the poem mean? And the how means writing the feeling in such a special way that our listeners and readers can sense something of what we have encountered, see something they might never have noticed before, or look at something in a fresh way—the way the poet has offered.

What we hope to do is to make the image, the thought, even the sound come alive again. By arranging words, making a sort of music with these words, we create something fascinating and new.

Poem-Making is concise and easy to understand. It could serve as a beginning course for those hoping to learn about the writing of poetry. In the book, Myra talks about the voices of poetry (lyrical, narrative, and dramatic); sound and rhyme; rhythm and metrics; figures of speech; and different forms of poetry, including the haiku, the cinquain, free verse, and the limerick. But Myra doesn’t just explain the elements of poetry and its different forms, she provides examples of poems to elucidate what she is telling us. When she talks about the narrative voice, she includes excerpts from Ogden Nash’s The Adventures of Isabel, Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, and Homer’s The Odyssey. When she writes about the cinquain, she includes not only her own original poems—but also cinquains written by the woman who developed the form, Adelaide Crapsey.

In addition to being an excellent poetry-writing resource, Poem-Making is also a fine anthology. The book is no longer in print—but used copies are still available through online booksellers. Poem-Making is a book no writing teacher should be without. I give it my highest recommendation!!!


Read Sylvia Vardell's post Hail Myra Cohn Livingston! to learn more about the author of this book.


Anonymous said...

I was shocked and delighted to see Myra at your site this morning! Yes, I agree: POEM-MAKING is THE BEST book for teaching poetry.
Myra used to say, "You need to learn the rules before you can break them." Read this to learn the rules...

Elaine Magliaro said...


I got so much from POEM-MAKING. It helped me and my students learn about poetry and the writing of it. I don't know if I would have done as much poetry in my classroom--and later the library--if I had not read this book.

I remember one other thing Myra said a number of times in her essays/books. It went something like this: "The heart knows today what the head knows tomorrow."

Tricia said...

I'm so glad you posted this. I've been reading a lot of her work lately as I've been choosing books to review. In fact, I highlighted Space Songs yesterday. (I believe this was one of the books you sent me!)

I imagine taking a class with her was nothing short of amazing.

Anonymous said...

Myra Cohn Livingston was the Mother of Us All. She opened the door for me when I was just a pup (so to speak!) and kept the door open for twenty more anthologies before she passed away. She was an irrepressible advocate for quality in children's poetry.

Thank you, Elaine, for posting this homage to her great work.

Elaine Magliaro said...


I heard Myra speak at the Boston Public Library many years ago when she gave the David McCord lecture. Boy, did I learn a lot that night! She really made me think about poetry and the kinds of poems we share with our children.

It's sad that SPACE SONGS and so many of her other wonderful books are now out of print.

Elaine Magliaro said...


I think we owe Myra a great debt of gratitude for sharing so much of her knowledge and passion for poetry with the rest of us. And you're so right when you speak of her being an advocate for quality in children's poetry!

Anonymous said...

I love this book, Elaine! And I'm so jealous (isn't that awful?) of all the writers who had a chance to work with her. Kristine O'Connell George was sharing stories at the L.A. conference last year about being in Myra's class. Sounded absolutely amazing.

Elaine Magliaro said...


I'm jealous, too! I wish I had had the experience of being one of Myra's students. At least we have her books to help guide us.