Each issue of Signal Approaches to Children’s Books* contained articles about aspects of children’s literature, including poetry. From 1979 to 2001 each May issue published articles on the annual Signal Poetry Award, a prize that highlighted current poetry published for children. A single volume of all the Signal Poetry Award articles has now been published. Brian Alderson discusses its unique contribution to thinking about poetry for children.
Were you to turn, gentle reader, to the recent backpage article in BfK (July 2009) on Michael Rosen’s Mind Your Own Business you would find a note on the annual Poetry Award that was given by the magazine Signal from 1979 to 2001. I said there that the Award ‘happily charted’ the course of the publishing of children’s poetry over a very busy period, thinking in particular of the magazine’s unprecedented custom of printing at length the (usually two) judges’ reports on how they arrived at their decisions and their reasons, on two occasions, for withholding the prize. By so doing, Signal gradually built up a twenty-year critical commentary on a vital genre of children’s literature, voiced by what grew to be a comradely team of authoritative judges among whom Jan Mark, Neil Philip, and Alan Tucker were outstanding.
If I had had more space I would have gone on to regret the loss of this commentary which (like so much sage and entertaining writing on children’s books – think especially of the words of Naomi Lewis) is buried in journal numbers beyond exhumation except by the most dedicated delvers. However – all unbeknownst – remedy was at hand. A few weeks on, just after Michael Rosen’s two-day poetry thrash at the British Library, Nancy Chambers of the Thimble Press, the erstwhile publishers of Signal, brought out a complete reprinting of these Award statements: 447 pages, begirt with notes on contributors, an introduction by Peter Hunt, an annotated list of ‘Other Articles about Poetry’ that had appeared in the journal and an index which was also neatly made to serve as a bibliography of the books discussed in the (substantial and handsomely-printed) commentaries.
A conversation about poetry
What this amounts to is a sum greater than that of the parts. For what we gain is not just a series of comparative essays, setting the qualities of commended books against the shortcomings of their competitors, but also what Peter Hunt aptly calls ‘a conversation about poetry published for children’ which cannot help but include issues related to the malleability of its end recipients and the changing circumstances in which they – and participant publishers – found themselves as the years rolled on from 1979 to 2001. With over half the contributors being connected to Education (towards the end we begin to meet with the Literacy Hour and Key Stage Two) it is unsurprising that the practicalities of bringing poetry to children by means of ‘the school bag’ get a lot more attention than what may, or may not, happen at home (where most Victorian children’s poetry found itself).
If, amid much supplementary critical discussion, the Award judgments centre on a single issue then it is that adumbrated by Aidan Chambers, one of three judges for the first award which went to Ted Hughes for his Moon-Bells and Other Poems, published by Chatto & Windus in their very uneven ‘Chatto Poets for the Young’ series. ‘At the outset’, says Aidan, ‘we agreed that priority must be given to single-poet collections’, adding, rather tortuously, that ‘Poetry is about individual poets: about what they have to say to us through the artifice of language used in the special ways poetry allows’, and he went on to contrast with such volumes the prevalence of ‘what one might call editorially manufactured anthologies’.
In stressing the single-poet collection, Aidan was, inadvertently, returning us to the moment over three hundred years ago when what some people still see as the rather bizarre genre of ‘children’s poetry’ came into being. It did so quite specifically in 1686 as A Book for Boys and Girls; or, country rhimesfor children, written by John Bunyan as a set of emblems which he could interpret for the benefit of both adults and children. It’s all a bit contorted, as you might see from the start of his ‘Meditations upon an Egg’:
The Egg’s no Chick by falling from the Hen;
Nor man a Christian, till he’s born agen…
but that did not impede its popularity. Along with Isaac Watts’s DivineSongs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children of 1715 it became a portent of much that would occur in some classic ‘single-author collections’ in the centuries to follow.
Models for the publishing of poetry
Their salient feature is to set a model. Bunyan’s book continued in print until the middle of the nineteenth century and Watts’s till about 1902 and their pattern of combining evangelical doctrine with moral adjuration was imitated by lesser practitioners times without number. Later on, with the publication of the Taylor/O’Keeffe sequences of Original Poems for Infant Minds in 1804 and 1805, the model of the poem of domestic incident is set: scenes of home and rural life with lightly touched-in moral lessons, or the more directly drastic cautionary tale. And the trendsetters continued: Kate Greenaway’s Under the Window (1879), Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden (1885), De La Mare’s Peacock Pie (1913), A A Milne’s When We Were Very Young (1924), each volume successful enough in itself to encourage many imitators to cash in not just on its poetic mode but very often on its physical characteristics too. (For my presentation at the British Library conference last June, I was able to display some twenty volumes appearing between 1924 and 1933 which more or less directly imitated both the manner and the illustration of When We Were Very Young.)
Such a practice does to some extent endorse the significance, if not the quality, of the single-poet model and you don’t get far into the Thimble Press’s Poetry for Children before you meet the phrase that ‘Mind Your Own Business has a lot to answer for’. What I think is meant by that is not so much that Rosen’s manner was imitated but that his work and its success gave carte blanche to authors and publishers to exploit contemporary social mores as subjects for verse and to do so with anything from adult irony to childish flippancy. And this they did con brio for, from time to time, the Signal judges would mutter despairingly about the amount of chaff they had to sort through in order to get at acceptable nutriment. Brian Morse moans about ‘wading through and wrestling with nearly two hundred and fifty titles’ in his three years as a judge. In 1990 Peter Holding notes how easy it had been to dismiss ‘a high proportion of the 110 or so volumes’ with which he was confronted, and a year later he says that the ‘output’ had gone up to 150 or so. (Although clearly impossible it would have been fascinating to have had documented lists of the complete range of stuff that had been submitted for consideration.)
Although the judges were co-operative in trying to hold the line over selecting single-author collections there was never much discussion of the integrity of these compilations as what might be called ‘shaped units’ existing as a complete reading experience in themselves rather than as a bundle of the writer’s latest effusions. If one looks at the great precursors one can discern an editorial effort towards this kind of unity which is not so much missing as beyond consideration in many of the dozens of modern submissions. Even among the winners one can contrast the all-through coherence of James Berry’s When I Dance with the jumble of Gareth Owen’s Song of the City, or, from an alternative point of view, the ‘completeness’ of Ted Hughes’s Moon-Bells and What is the Truth? with a kind of anonymity that descends on them in the womping pages of his recent Collected Poems for Children.
Crucial too are presentational matters, which are only intermittently attended to. Once more, among the precursors – Bunyan, Watts, the Taylors, De La Mare, and even Old Possum – it is notable how often the first editions are devoid of illustrations, give or take the occasional frontispiece, and only when the collection attains some kind of classic or popular status do publishers begin to garnish it with illustrations – the comparative study of which can offer limitless insights, sometimes into the text, more often into the taste, technology, or commercial priorities of its current begetters. Our judges do have a concern on that score, often seeing the pictures as impeding, if not swamping, what the poets’ words have to say.
The cul-de-sac of children’s poetry?
And it is this question of what is being said that is of central concern, prompting doubts about the efficacy of the single-author collections as introductions to poetry for children and indeed of the need to write such poetry at all. An argument for so heretical a point of view is floated by Brian Morse in the course of his remarks in 1986 when he and Anthea Bell gave the Award to Gareth Owen’s Song of the City. He is complaining about the ‘Milliganism’ that he finds in many of the award submissions and he contrasts the fiction written for children that can lead them to ‘serious adult fiction’ with the poems written for them that have no such connection: ‘amusing… but a cul-de-sac’.
Paradoxically Song of the City lies much closer to the Milliganisms of Jack Prelutsky, a brilliant American performance poet much reprobated by the judges (‘dismal’ says Morse), than it does to a winner like Moon-Bells and thereby forces a recognition, expounded with enviable clarity by Neil Philip in his introduction to the New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse in 1996, that children’s poetry is no homogeneous genre. Single-author collections may range through what were properly adjudged near-faultless works by Charles Causley and Allan Ahlberg (books that really were for children) to the post-Rosen skateboard stuff and the near-metaphysical ruminations of Ted Hughes.
How far one or other of these individual effusions has the capacity to re-direct children out of the cul-de-sac may well depend on the purveyors of Education (an unreliable asset according to some of our judges). Of necessity such volumes are limited to the timbres of a single voice and how many of us may distinguish and commend to readers the dozens that are to be heard? On the other hand though, an instant path beyond such limitations is to be found through anthologies, even perhaps some of those which are ‘editorially manufactured’. As Brian Morse has also said: ‘It is surprising [is it?] how much poetry written for adults is immediately accessible to children’ and it seems to me that the practical value of an Award winner like the Hughes/Heaney Rattle Bag or the highly-commended Gough Ring of Words lies in their seamless connection to the larger splendours of poetry for adults.
Many other discussions, not always directly concerned with children’s poetry, are stimulated through the noctes ambrosianae of Poetry for Children, which is invaluable also as a record of a period when there was an unparalleled energy in the publishing of the genre. (Was it in fact stimulated by the presence of the Award?) It would be instructive to know how many of its most-praised authors and anthologists have continued to sustain a reputation through the first decade of the new century and how many of the Award-winning and commended books are still in print. However that may be, it is surely a matter for regret that no conversations of the calibre of these are to be found today. We’re all off back to Key Stage Zero.
Poetry for Children: The Signal Award 1979-2001, edited by Nancy Chambers, is published by Thimble Press (978 0 903355 52 0, £22.00 inc. UK p&p).
* Published from 1969-2003, the magazine appeared three times a year. For further information and back issues, see www.thimblepress.co.uk
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.