The poet Michael Rosen has been appointed the fifth Children’s Laureate and his term of office will run until the summer of 2009. What are his priorities? Morag Styles reports.
Michael Rosen has come up with a range of lively ideas for his Laureateship. They include:
- an interactive YouTube-style site where poets and children can share the performance of poetry.
- planning an exhibition on the history of children’s poetry at the British Library where he hopes to ‘plunder its archives’. With a little help from Booktrust, he thinks it will become a model for museums and libraries all over the UK to follow, creating their own children’s literature trails.
- working with Booktrust and the Hay Festival to get a Poetry Roadshow up and running. Diverse Verse: an A-Z from Agard to Zephaniah will involve a team of poets performing for children in small groups up and down the country.
- launching a Funny Prize through Booktrust and ‘lending as strong a shoulder as (he) can to “The Big Picture” where they’re promoting the joys of the picture book’.
Booktrust are also launching a webpage on How to create a poetry-friendly classroom based on Michael’s introduction to A Year of Poetry (edited by Myra Barrs, CLPE). ‘I want teachers to come onto the site and add their thoughts,’ he says.
Literature and education
Michael is unhappy about recent developments in the teaching of literacy. His views are influential and he’s written and lectured about it in many different arenas:
‘The core idea of literature is that we can re-present our lives and imaginations and that’s much more important than the business of getting letters right. The stuff going on in schools is denying the basis of what literature is for – the shared conversation about who we are or might be, what we think, what we imagine, what we feel…’
Michael speaks convincingly of literature’s role as a humanising experience. He reminds us that Roland Barthes, sometimes thought of as a dry and dusty theoretician, wrote about the pleasures of the text being libidinous – reading as a sensual experience involving other people as we draw them in to share the texts that matter to us. Michael also resents the separating out of reading, writing, speaking and listening which he believes are intimately connected.
He loathes the current trend to privilege phonics in the early stages of reading at the expense of other strategies and lovely books. ‘Our orthographic system has phonic elements to it, but the big lie is to say that phonics solves all. You only have to think of cough, though, through and thorough – or youth and your; south and sound…’ And, as he points out, pronunciation varies all over the country, ‘Laugh, calf and bath are near rhymes in southern England, but it doesn’t work further north!’
On poetry and performance
‘In the cab going past the Mumbles in Swansea, I got this great wave of feeling for Dylan Thomas. I can remember the little EP going on the turntable – “and death shall have no dominion”. I’d no idea what it meant, but I loved that incredible voice saying something dangerous about death. He wanted to have a conversation with a listener.’
Michael goes on to mention rereading The Odyssey recently and how stunned he had been at how modern it felt – how brilliantly Homer used little asides and varied narrative voices within the main storyline 3000 years ago:
‘Poetry – it’s such a strange way to use language … it can simultaneously be outside looking at the picture and inside into what the person is thinking with no more than a hint or an image … its own linguistic shape and rhetoric and formal discourse – you never know what’s next. It might be a form that’s been around 400 years or a weird montage. Take Adrian Mitchell – one minute he’s talking about what it was like to feel sexy as a teenager, then compassion fatigue during the Vietnam War, then a great big funny dog. There are not many forms of artistic expression with that variety and texture.’
Voices in their heads
If anyone can shake children’s poetry out of the doldrums, it’s Rosen. With his boundless energy and exuberant personality, his belief in children and teachers, his enthusiasm for poetry in all its guises, his powerful conviction in the vitality of this art form and his own dazzling poetry performances, I’m sure his Children’s Laureate stint will make a difference. Whatever else he does, putting that ‘shared conversation’ back at the heart of education will be his prime ambition:
‘I think the most important thing any teacher can do is to create a repertoire of poems that a class or group have read. So they have some voices in their heads from those poems.’
Morag Styles is a Reader in Children’s Literature and Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.