A Praise Poem
Poetry anthologies for children too often contain the favourite and the familiar. In this new occasional series, Robert Hull selects an individual poem that has not (to best of our knowledge) been published in a selection aimed at children and suggests ways it might be used with children. Here he presents a praise poem from the oral tradition of the Dinka people.
In this piece from Judith Gleason’s Leaf and Bone , an anthology of African praise poems, a Dinka herdsman is speaking:
My bull is white as silvery fish in the river
white as the egret on the bank
white as new milk.
His bellowing is as the roar of the Turk’s cannon
from the distant shore.
My bull is dark as raincloud accompanying storm.
He is summer and winter
half of him dark as thunderhead
half of him white as sunshine.
His hump shines like the morning star.
His forehead is red as the ground hornbill’s wattles –
like a banner
seen by the people from afar.
He is like the rainbow.
I shall water him at the river
and drive my enemies off with my spear
Let them water their cattle at the well;
for me and my bull, the river!
Drink, O bull, of the river;
am I not here with my spear to protect you?
The three dazzling images of whiteness at the start of the poem, dancing as they do across the herdsman’s vision, might lure any listener into empathy with him as he drives his cattle along the river, which is where – by the time we’ve heard these few lines – we’ve already unconsciously placed ourselves.
First beauty, then power: in the bull’s bellowing, the metaphoric roar of the Turk’s cannon from the distant shore – placing the sound spatially again, and drawing it out, so it reverberates across the river.
Next, the supreme value of this superstar creature, articulated in images that sum up the herdsman’s world in microcosm: the bull is ‘dark as rain cloud’, ‘dark as thunderhead’; he is ‘summer and winter’, the beneficence of sun, the promise of the dawn star. The herdsman in fact ‘thinks the world’ of his bull.
Then images of redness shift the poem towards aggression; the ‘I’ comes into the poem to perform it. The herdsman’s enemies’ cattle are contemptuously invited to water at the well, as finally, rather magnificently, he addresses his bull: ‘Drink, O bull.’
A poem for children? Absolutely. And everyone else. A poem suitable for a children’s anthology? I’ve not seen it in one, not even in the manifold ‘Works’ of Macmillan.
Praise is a primordial emotional posture. Youngsters immediately catch what’s happening here and bring to it their own admirations, their own experience of creatures, pets, animals in fields and zoos, and so on. For that reason, I think it’s a fertile ‘teaching’ poem.
What seems crucial is to stay with the emotional truth of the piece, the reverence, almost, of the praise. Working in pairs, the class can make a short list of creatures they might praise, and jot down one or two things they might say, or have said. This can lead into small group – then whole-class talk, about whatever children identified as praise-able. They’ll have beautifully apposite stories, anecdotal fragments, moments of insight and empathy. The stories are the ‘materia poetica’ of what’s to come.
One might think of widening out the idea of praise to include people and objects, but it’s easy that way to miss the opportunity of drawing on the peculiar potency of the particular poem, or genre – in this case animal praises.
One can then bring forward the idea of writing by trying a ‘communal’ start for a piece, using the bull poem as model, reminding the children how, apart from the one sound image, down to ‘rainbow’ it’s mainly a poem of straightforward statements involving visual comparisons, with ‘big’ cosmological images – sun, cloud, thunder, rainbow, and the brilliantly unexpected ‘hump shining like the morning star’.
The class can try out similar statements about an animal they feel the attraction of – an elephant, say – first choosing a colour to stay with for three lines, grey maybe: ‘The elephant’ – or ‘My elephant’ – ‘is grey like…’ They could try out a ‘big’ image. With a few experimental lines written, each pair can finish off in their own manner. That might be a good time to perform some lines aloud. And then they can go back to ‘their’ creatures, and using the notes and jottings they’ve made, the stories and fragments they’ve offered, start writing ‘their own’ poems.
Let’s say one’s teaching has worked so far, and the class is engaged. I’d see that as a beginning, not an ending; the animal praise poem is still a new thing. If now the children read more of them, they see increasingly clearly what’s going on in these dramas of celebration, they acknowledge the unselfconscious reverence of tone, especially, of those who praise. In a deep sense, like an actor settling to a role, they ‘get it’.
Stay with it, in short, read and read, and children will write and write. And once the teacher has – maybe – produced an anthology of the class’s original animal praise poems, then’s the time to widen out. And celebrate.
Leaf and Bone , edited by Judith Gleason, is published by Penguin US (978 0 14 058722 7). The source of the poem cited here is ‘Captain S I Cummins, “Sub-tribes of the Bahr-el-Ghazal Dinkas”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society 34 (1904)’.
Robert Hull , a school teacher for 30 years, is the author of two collections of poems for children, Stargazer (Hodder) and Everest and Chips (OUP). His Behind the Poem (Routledge) is a detailed study of children writing poems.