The first time I met Jack Prelutsky was in the aisle at a book publisher's exhibit. He invited me to hear some of the "zaniest new poetry" on the market.
Accompanied by wild cavorting (Jack never stands still), he chanted (Jack's voice is a mixture of modulations in song) his own new poetry book, "The Snopp on the Sidewalk." (Jack is not shy!)Nowadays, promoting his own books is done in a more programmatic way. Prelutsky, who was in Salt Lake City last weekend for a conference sponsored by the Utah Council of the International Reading Association, is in great demand for school and library visits, with much autograph signing. His poetry is still considered "zany and new." Add to that "scary," "realistic," "to the point," "full of verve and irreverent," "flamboyant" and "humorous."
Humor. That is most likely the hallmark of Jack Prelutsky. His poetry is to be giggled at and his antics of poetry-reader, storyteller and songmaster hinge on the edge of being a "court jester."
Sitting wide-eyed, children adore poems like this, from "Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep":
And they dance in their bones,
. . . with the click and the clack
and the chitter and the chack
and the clatter and the chatter
of their bare bare bones. . . .
They sing along with "Jilliky Jolliky Jelliky Jee, three little cooks in a coconut tree . . . ," and erupt in smiles anticipating "Homework! Oh, homework! I hate you! You stink! I wish I could wash you away in the sink."
Jack Prelutsky comes to this showmanship by way of a multifaceted career as a cab and meat-truck driver, busboy, photographer, artist, furniture mover, fruit peddler, potter and folksong entertainer. He has done translations of poetry in German. He is and has been - no pun intended - a jack-of-all trades!
At 10, he was asked to sing at weddings, and was considered a vocal prodigy and given free voice lessons by the choir master of the Metropolitan Opera. But his compulsion to be "the best" at whatever he did was never realized on the operatic stage.
While he readily sold his photos and sculpting, it was only when he decided to write poetry from the human experience that he found his calling.
He says there were two kinds of poetry: sappy, greeting-card verse and patronizing rhymes from the Victorian era, and he hated both. "We were told poetry was good for us, but most of us enjoyed it as much as taking out the garbage."
Prelutsky relates to the funny-bone in children - playing with your food, kids who talk all the time, bullies on the playground, poems to keep you awake, playing under the covers when your parents think you are asleep. There's nonsense like boneless chickens that lay scrambled eggs and a wash-and-wear wolf.
"Poetry is the music of language," says Prelutsky, and he does much to instill the love of poetry as he picks up his guitar, pulls a funny face and squeaks:
My baby brother is so small,
he hasn't even learned to crawl.
He's only been around a week,
and all he seems to do is bawl
and wiggle, sleep . . . and leak."