Prelutsky's 'Carnival Of Animals' Poems Meet Music

Jack Prelutsky, a well-known children's poet and editor of kids poetry collections, has written poems based on Camille Saint-Saens's "The Carnival of Animals." He will read the poems when the National Symphony Orchestra performs the music at the Kennedy Center on Sunday.

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Jack Prelutsky says when he was a child, teachers made poetry a chore rather than a pleasure. He grew up and became a poet writing verse for children, dozens of books. And this weekend, Prelutsky's poems will get some accompaniment from the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C. He talked with NPR's Lynn Neary.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Jack Prelutsky became a poet by accident. As a young man, he was a folksinger, a potter, a photographer. Finally, he settled on drawing. One night, for reasons he still can't explain, he decided to write some poems to go with his illustrations. That turned into a book which he brought to an editor at a well-known publishing company.

JACK PRELUTSKY: And she looked at what I've done and she said: You're very talented. We want to publish you. I said what?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PRELUTSKY: You want it published? Yes. We think you're very talented. I said, you mean, you like my drawings? And she looked at me, and she said: Oh, no, you're the worst artist I've ever seen.

NEARY: But she did like the poems. And Prelutsky found his life's calling. Now, he has more than 50 books of poetry to his credit. And it's hard to pick up a children's poetry collection without seeing his work. He explains his popularity with kids this way.

PRELUTSKY: I talk about the things I wish I'd heard about when I was a kid, the things they care about: monsters and dragons and dinosaurs and food fights and outer space and kids like themselves and why they don't like doing their homework.

NEARY: And at that, Prelutsky recites from memory an excerpt from his poem on the dreaded subject of homework.

PRELUTSKY: "Homework." Oh, homework. I hate you. You stink. I wish I could wash you away in the sink. If only a bomb would explode you to bits. Homework. Oh, homework. You're giving me fits.

NEARY: After being named America's first children's poet laureate by the Poetry Foundation in 2006, a whole new world has opened to Prelutsky. The San Diego Symphony commissioned a new work based on his poem "Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant." Prelutsky was the narrator at the first performance of the piece.

PRELUTSKY: I got on stage for rehearsal with the San Diego Symphony, and they played the first nine notes of "Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant," which is orchestrated for full symphony orchestra and narrator. I burst into tears on stage. I said this is the best moment of my life, and I really meant it.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "BEHOLD THE BOLD UMBRELLAPHANT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Behold the bold umbrellaphant that's not the least afraid to forage in the broiling sun, for it is in the shade.

NEARY: A CD of that piece included a performance of Camille Saint-Saens's "Carnival of the Animals," with poems written and narrated by Prelutsky. And now, other orchestras have asked Prelutsky to perform that piece with them as well. This Sunday, he will narrate the "Carnival" poems at the Kennedy Center here in Washington with the National Symphony Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: At a rehearsal earlier this week at the Kennedy Center, guest conductor Tito Munoz said in the past, "The Carnival of Animals" was often performed with poems by Ogden Nash, but he thinks Prelutsky's work brings a new life to the piece.

TITO MUNOZ: Poetry adds another dimension because, of course, it's an art form in itself. And Jack's poems are really just so funny and charming and with wonderful plays on words. And it puts you in that kind of mood and that character even more, I think, you know, when you have that added element to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "THE SWAN")

PRELUTSKY: (Reading) Though some may say she's just a swan and fairly commonplace, she's positively nonpareil at demonstrating grace.

NEARY: Prelutsky has other musical collaborations in the works as well: a children's opera, a book of lullabies. A talented singer who has always loved music, he's thrilled that at this stage of his life, he's able to return to what he calls his first love.

PRELUTSKY: My father had a collection on 78s of Caruso records, and I used to sing it along with Enrico. Who does that? But I...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PRELUTSKY: So I got to love classical music and opera when I was very young. It's sort of come full circle now.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "THE CARNIVAL OF ANIMALS")

PRELUTSKY: (Reading) In moments, all the animals will take their parting bow. We hope you'll visit us again. But say farewell for now.

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News.

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