April 29, 2011  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Off the Shelf: Our Poetry Muses

The Off the Shelf series explores unique MoMA publications from the Museum Archives.

Right: Cover of A Partridge in a Pear Tree, illustrated by Ben Shahn. Second ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1951. Left: Frontispiece from 12 Fables of Aesop, illustrated by Antonio Frasconi; narrated by Glenway Wescott. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1954.

April is National Poetry Month! To celebrate the final days we thought we’d look at MoMA poetry books. MoMA has published a number of books of poetry, from the lyrically illustrated and hand-lettered A Partridge in a Pear Tree (1951), by Ben Shahn, to 12 Fables of Aesop (1954), illustrated by Antonio Frasconi and narrated by Glenway Wescott. One of my favorites is Three Young Rats and Other Rhymes, the delightfully illustrated book of 83 nursery rhymes selected by former MoMA curator James Johnson Sweeney and illustrated by Alexander Calder. Curt Valentin first published the book in 1944 in a limited edition of 60 copies signed by the artist (700 unsigned copies), each accompanied by one of the original drawings. Two years later MoMA published the second edition of 3,000 copies, and in 1966 MoMA released a more affordable, smaller-format facsimile. Yet perhaps because most of the figures are nude, or because nursery rhymes are surprisingly violent (at least this selection), the 1966 edition came with a PG-13-esque warning: “For adult readers only.” What makes the book so appealing, however, is the humorous, at times sinister or slightly risqué, line drawings—reminiscent of Calder’s wire sculptures—that illustrate each rhyme. Calder’s wonderfully composed, whimsical, and pithy drawings are faithful, almost literal renditions of the text. For example, “Lizzie Borden took an axe,/Hit her father forty whacks,/When she saw what she had done,/She hit her mother forty-one,” is illustrated by an axe-wielding Lizzie astride her mother and father, complete with missing limbs; and “The steed who bit his master/How came this to pass?/He heard the good pastor/Cry, “All flesh is grass,” is depicted by a nude man picking up his hat while being bitten in the rear by a horse.