We are told that children have never been more involved in poetry, poets a plenty visit schools and stimulate wonderful writing, any poetry competition is hugely over subscribed. Talk to any child about poetry and they are full of enthusiasm and excitement and sparkle.
And yet poets are having to resort to self publishing as publishers pull back from children’s poetry, with the honourable exception of Macmillan who continually delight with both the range and attractiveness of their poetry selections, and their determination to include new and unknown poets as well as the tried and tested and much loved. Children’s booksellers say poetry does not sell and even book fairs which take the books right to the children in school are recording declining sales.
Yet poetry is really important as part of the child’s developing literacy, and there are reasons aplenty. Poetry is a perfect way for children to deal with their own emotions, thoughts and aspirations
‘Children can feel, but they cannot analyse their feelings; and if the analysis is partially effected in thought, they know not how to express the result of the process in words.’ Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre.
So why not let someone else’s words do it for you? As easily as a picture paints a thousand words so a poem can capture a whole adventure in a few spare lines. Poetry is less daunting than a whole novel or even a short story, it comes in easily digestible portions – just right for first thing on a winter’s morning when all the class is brimming with excitement over the first fall of snow, or a hot Friday afternoon when all the class, and the teacher, are just longing for release for a weekend of outdoor exploits. ‘Poetry is the shortest way of saying things’ said John Betjeman. And poetry can come in many really exciting forms – haikus, kennings, acrostics, shapes. No other written genre has such freedom, anything goes. As with all stories poetry was originally both an aural and oral experience and it was only the desire to preserve the record of the sequence of words that made us begin to write it down so the words could then live on long after the troubadour had moved to the next village. Rhyme and rhythm became important as a way of cementing the story in the mind.
Do you remember how you first encountered poetry? Probably through nursery rhymes, in themselves examples of how poetry can live on down through time. For me it was anything rhyming that I happened to come across,
They come as a boon and a blessing to men
The Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley pen
In my hunger for words I still find myself reading and re-reading adverts as I travel – thank goodness for the Poems on the Underground, the inspired idea of Judith Chernaik, Cicely Herbert and Gerard Benson.
How can others find this hunger?
According to Adrian Mitchell (Poems 1964), ‘Most people ignore most poetry
Because most poetry ignores most people’.
I am sure Adrian Mitchell did not entirely have his tongue in his cheek for he had very vigorous views about the teaching of poetry but do those three lines still hold true today? I would doubt it now even though poetry itself has been liberated from the rigours of Victorian teaching methods which were still in place when I was at school, the endless rote learning of dreary verse when there was so much out there which would have utterly captivated me had I been exposed to it. But the grey beards had decided that children should not be exposed to so called adult poetry for fear of goodness knows what. It was left to me to do my own exploring with the wonderfully illuminating Come Hither compiled by Walter de la Mare and first published in 1923. With the subtitle of A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages, this hefty anthology contained poems by Shakespeare, Chaucer, William Blake, WB Yeats, Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost – and I am sure it was this generous collection, and also hearing The Lady of Shalott read aloud on the radio that hooked me on poetry for life. I don’t believe a regular child of 2014 would have the same reaction if confronted with all 800 pages of Come Hither, but times have changed and so must we.
So what is going wrong? Perhaps it is the apparently one dimensional nature of a book? Is poetry seen as a ‘live’ thing rather than viewed as plain black and white print? To be declaimed, shouted out with shrieks of laughter. To be heard quietly with eyes pricking, even without the understanding that this is the result of a huge emotion.
‘Some children, however, are less successful than others in discovering a track through the waste of written material that overwhelms us.’ Margaret Meek in On Being Literate
In this age of constant visual stimulus is the poetry book too confining for the child? Is it all about the computer generated experience? Now you, Dear Reader, most certainly know that books, far from being confining, are the most liberating tools we have to release our imagination and you know you are never alone with a book as huge character after mysterious being after terrifying beast after towering hero after beautiful princess after talking animal leap off the pages, leaving you transported and often even breathless. A young reader who encountered one of my own anthologies at an early age recently wrote to me about his experience of poetry as a very young child.
was all colours and creatures. It was beautiful. All the colours, the creatures were a derivative of the poems he had read.’
This thrilled me as it really is just what poetry can do. And it is why we must never give up on poetry for children. Perhaps we need Poemcraft as well as Minecraft? Now there’s a thought!
Fiona Waters is Editorial Director of Troubadour, The Travelling Book Company.