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Eve Merriam’s works include fiction, nonfiction, plays, and poetry. She wrote extensively for both children and adults, but has received the most recognition for producing excellent children’s poetry. Her contributions to many poetry anthologies and many respected magazines have made her an influential voice in children’s literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood Filled with Poetry
Merriam was born on July 19, 1916 in Philadelphia, the youngest of three girls and one boy. Her parents, who owned a chain of women’s dress shops, both emigrated from Russia as young children and grew up in small Pennsylvania towns. According to Merriam, the family joke about her parents’ shared occupation was that the women’s wear business was the only way they could afford clothing for all three girls. Her lifelong interest in fashion would eventually inspire a book-length study of fashion in America, Figleaf: The Business of Being in Fashion (1960), but Merriam’s greatest passion was always poetry.
As a child, Merriam loved to read narrative and dramatic poems, and light verse in particular. She was enthralled by the sound of words and their musicality. She loved family trips to see Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, and enjoyed chanting the tongue-twisting verses. She was equally entranced by the poetic quality of language in her favorite childhood books, the classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Swiss Family Robinson (1812), as well as fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, English and irish folk tales, and Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. Her childhood love of poetry was also nourished by reading aloud poems printed in the Philadelphia Bulletin.
As an adolescent, Merriam wrote serious poems for her high-school magazine and contributed light verse and political poems to the school’s weekly newspaper. Merriam attributes her love for ”the richness and the ambiguity of words” to ”one very irascible, difficult, tendentious old Latin teacher.” She also remembers an English teacher who encouraged her efforts as a writer. However, as a teenager, Merriam never planned to be a writer—she just wrote poems because she felt the need to write them, as if she could not live her life without writing them.
A Love of Fashion and Writing Combine
Merriam received her undergraduate education at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1937, she did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University. In 1939 her writing career began as a copywriter for Columbia Broadcasting System, where she worked on radio documentaries and verse scripts. During World War II, she conducted a weekly program on modern poetry for station WQXR in New York and wrote a daily verse column for PM.
After World War II, Merriam began working for fashion magazines. In 1946, she became feature editor for Deb, then fashion copy editor for Glamour from 1947 to 1948. During these years she also published her first book of poetry, Family Circle, in the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets.
Becoming a Children’s Poet
Merriam continued to write well-received poetry throughout the 1940s and 1950s. She received the William Newman Poetry Award in 1957 and a CBS grant to write poetic drama in 1959. It wasn’t until she was in her mid-forties, however, that Merriam turned to the genre that would make her most famous. Her first book of children’s poetry, There Is No Rhyme for Silver, was named a Junior Literary Guild selection, an encouraging beginning for a neophyte in that field. With impressive regularity, she published book after book of children’s verse for the next three decades.
Like other poets at the time, Merriam began to focus on more serious topics in the late 1960s and 1970s. She shifted her concerns to those facing modern children: anxieties, alienation, racial and social injustice, war, inhumane technology, and struggles of urban life. She also published sixteen juvenile books as well as several volumes of poetry and nonfiction for adults. Merriam continued to publish children’s poetry throughout the 1980s, and died of cancer in New York City, in April 1992.
Works in Literary Context
Merriam’s poetry has given her readers a better appreciation for the varieties of a child’s experiences. Her philosophy concerning how children should approach poetry has greatly enhanced the ability of parents and teachers to help them enjoy it. By inviting two generations of readers into her world of words, Merriam has greatly enriched the genre as a whole.
A Delight in Sounds
Merriam’s poems are meant to be spoken aloud rather than to remain mute on the printed page. Because of this, her imagery is alive, her diction is colloquial, and every word is significant. Breaking the established rules of children’s poetry—which typically demand rigid meter and regular exact rhyme— Merriam delights in playing with the visual, aural, and intellectual effects of words.
Poetry’s repetition and musicality are unequaled by any other genre, she believes. Consequently, these rhyming verses prove the special magic of poetry. She has discussed rhyme in critical essays on poetry, calling it ”the chime that rings in time… like the little bell at the end of a typewriter line.” This ”bouncy-bouncing quality” of rhyme, however, is not essential, for even without rhyme, other poetic elements such as rhythm, assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia (a word that imitates the sound it is describing, such as “woof” or ”bang”) provide the reader with the special musical effects of poetry. There Is No Rhyme for Silver, a collection of fifty-one poems, demonstrates Merriam’s special delight in the sound of words, even words that have no rhyme. She invites children to leap right into the rhymes for ”all seasons and all times.” In fact, her title poem, ”There is No Rhyme for Silver,” concludes with this invitation to participate in the medley of rhymes: ”Rhymes to whisper, rhymes to yell, / Rhymes to chime like a swinging bell. / Rhymes like a jump rope, now let’s begin: / Take a turn and jump right in.”
Socially Aware Poetry
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Merriam began to develop into a more socially aware poet. Poems about nature, animals, family, and the everyday experiences children encounter never disappeared from her children’s books, but she stretched beyond these traditional sensibilities of childhood to explore the inner emotional conflicts and stark realities of the world facing children. Hence, there is a noticeable transcendence of the safe, socially acceptable poems of Catch a Little Rhyme (1966) to bolder statements of social and political realities in Finding a Poem (1970). The social awareness in her poetry did not change her basic beliefs about writing verse, however. While her style often changed to reflect her subjects, her poetry always exhibited a continual improvisation and experimentation with language.
Works in Critical Context
Throughout her career, Merriam has been praised by critics and given various poetry awards and grants. The most significant of these was the 1981 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children (1981). This award verified the high regard the teaching profession had for Merriam’s contributions to children’s poetry, and the recognition gave her added credibility as both a poet and a critic. Following the award, she was often quoted in scholarly journal articles about children’s poetry and in textbooks used in courses on children’s literature in colleges and universities.
Beginning in the late 1960s, critics noted Merriam’s turn towards more socially relevant topics in her poetry, along with the use of social satire. According to critic Judith Saltman, for example, Merriam’s work in Finding a Poem and Rainbow Writing (1976) demonstrates a ”dexterous handling of metered verse, free verse, and verbal nonsense . . . allied with social satire and a fierce conscience.” According to Saltman, Merriam is considered one of the best writers of popular ”sophisticated urban poetry” children enjoy. Her exuberant rhymes and her use of dialogue are not only perfect examples of the oral tradition of children’s literature but also excellent illustrations of the contemporary tastes of young readers.
It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme
Barbara Baskin and Karen Harris praise Merriam’s use of imagery in It Doesn’t Always Have to Rhyme, describing it as ”sometimes startling.” They note the way Merriam works carefully with language in order to evoke a particular response from her readers. The entire collection is designed to teach children with its ”remarkable sensitivity to the playful possibilities in language.”
- Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Books for the Gifted Child. New York: Bowker, 1980.
- ”Eve Merriam Is Named Winner of NCTE’s Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.” Language Arts (May 1981): 590.
- Bosworth, Patricia. ”She Ain’t Finished Yet.” Working Woman (March 1982): 136-137.
- Hopkins, Lee Bennett. ”NCTE Poetry Award Winners on Nonprint Media.” Language Arts (September 1982): 615-616.
- Saltman, Judith, ed. The Riverside Anthology of Children’s Literature, 6th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
- Sloan, Gina. ”Profile: Eve Merriam.” Language Arts (November-December, 1981): 957-64.
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