Myra Cohn Livingston
Both through her poetry and her teaching, Myra Cohn Livingston inspired children to explore the music of language. Livingston began writing poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and had her first poem published in 1946. In 1958 she began teaching and published her first collection, Whispers and Other Poems. She eventually wrote more than twenty collections, as well as several books on writing poetry. She edited collections of poetry, publishing poems in their original language with the accompanying translation. In her own poetry, she explored a variety of forms, from cinquains and haikus to free verse. After returning to California, she served as Poet in Residence for the Beverly Hills Unified School District and founded the Children’s Literature Council of Southern California.
Myra Cohn Livingston, poet, musician, critic, educator, anthologist, and author, respected the true craft of writing poetry. She experimented with form, never compromising, and was noted for using a variety of techniques to express the realities and wonders of a child’s everyday world and experiences. By passing along her standards and sharing her expertise during over twenty years of teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles, she also brought numerous new talents into the field of children’s literature.
Early Life and Career
Born Myra Cohn on August 17, 1926, in Omaha, Nebraska, the older daughter of Mayer Louis (Bud) Cohn and Gertrude (Marks) Cohn, she moved with her family, which included younger sister Hannah (now Hannah Pakula, a biographer), to Southern California when she was eleven. As a child, she studied French horn, which she began playing professionally in 1940. However, she began writing poetry while a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and her first published poem, submitted at the urging of a professor, appeared in a magazine in 1946. Returning to Southern California, she wrote book reviews for Los Angeles papers and in 1950 accepted a position as personal secretary for entertainer Dinah Shore. She later filled a similar role for violinist Jascha Heifetz, whose biography she was writing at the time of her death.
Myra Cohn married Richard Roland Livingston in 1952 and for twelve years the couple lived in Dallas, Texas, where their three children, Joshua, Jonas, and Jennie were born. In 1958, Livingston resubmitted a complete collection, Whispers and Other Poems, to Margaret K. McElderry at Harcourt, who had previously encouraged her to keep writing, and her first book was published. The relationship between Livingston and McElderry continued and resulted in over twenty-five additional volumes, including B is for Baby: An Alphabet of Verses (1996) inspired by her first grandchild. In 1958 Livingston also began to serve as an instructor in the Dallas Public Library and Public School systems.
In 1964 the Livingston family moved to Los Angeles where Myra became Poet-in-Residence for the Beverly Hills Unified School District from 1966 to 1984. Beginning in 1975, she acted as poetry consultant to various publishers and taught classes in writing and sharing poetry for the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and other organizations. A prolific poet, her numerous collections on special topics varied, for she said, “It is the force of what I say that shapes the form.” As an example, Sky Songs (1984) contains fourteen pieces about varied aspects of the sky, each in a fifteen-line, three-stanza cinquain form, while Festivals (1996), centering on celebrations around the world, contains a wide variety of verse forms, cinquain, free verse, haiku, and even a playlet.
Besides the many volumes of her own work, Livingston was an outstanding anthologist, producing many unusual collections, some containing the voices of many nations. In her first such collection, A Tune Beyond Us (1968), she chose to have many of the translated poems printed also in their original languages so that those with the ability to do so could enjoy their intended rhythm and music.
Later Works and Legacy
Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry (1991) is a gift Livingston devised for young writers, but which can be recommended to anyone who yearns to try this form of creation. A handbook of the mechanics of poetry, Livingston saw it as a synthesis of her thirty years of experience in teaching and conducting poetry workshops throughout the country and said it took about four years from inception of the idea to completion.
“I was spurred on [to write this book] because of the constant contact with children,” she said. “I wrote two earlier books on the subject of children writing poetry, When You Are Alone/It Keeps You Capone: An Approach to Creative Writing for Children (1973) and The Child as Poet: Myth or Reality (1985), which are for adults...To my knowledge, Poem-Making is the first book for children on the subject of poetry that is written by someone who is both a children’s poet and teacher.”
Livingston won many awards, among them the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota and a 1980 award from the National Council of Teachers of English for Excellence in Poetry for Children. She died of cancer on August 23, 1996, at her home in Beverly Hills, California where she had so often welcomed personalities from every artistic field.
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Hopkins, Lee Bennett. “Myra Cohn Livingston.” Teaching and Learning Literature (January/February 1997): 57–60.
Livingston, Myra Cohn. “The Voice of the Poet.” The Advocate 3, no. 1 (Fall 1983): 28–48.
“Myra Cohn Livingston; Children’s Poet, Anthologist.” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1996.
“Myra Cohn Livingston Obituary.” Dallas Morning News, August 29, 1996.
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