What sort of poetry is offered to children? Robert Hull surveys recent poetry publishing for young readers and finds the choices surprisingly limited. Is this to do with the influence of the ‘totalitarian curriculum’? And why is there so much jokey verse?
‘What hope for children’s poetry?’ might seem an odd question, when so much poetry is being published for children. Nice stuff, like almost the first poem I read, ‘Yawn’, from Christopher Reid’s All Sorts:
You have no control over it,
so be warned:
you don’t do the yawning,
it’s the yawn that yawns you.
You are yawned.
But there are books, and books in use. A teacher writes to me: ‘Teachers don’t like to “do” poetry if it’s not planned. What’s more, they don’t like anyone in the school to “do” a poem thay have planned to do, and so many books in the school library are “reserved” for specific years. Given that there aren’t that many poetry books, most teachers “may” use just a handful in any given year. Very often, poems are reserved because they have a particular form or fit in with a theme…’
Since children’s poetry is largely the story of what books are chosen, how they’re read, re-read, or neglected, that junior school teacher’s view of (not many) books in use can serve as cautionary preface to this survey of many books waiting for readers – a sample of 100 or so, published either in 1999 or 2000.
What poetry is on offer here? One answer is lots of anthologies, about 70% of the whole, a third from a handful of anthologists. Only 30 titles are single-author collections – from 24 authors, six in collected or selected editions. There’s a handful of verse picture-books. A striking feature is the preponderance of jokey humour, especially in paperback anthologies – about 30 of these – but also in single-author collections. Remarkably, there is only one ‘straight’ single-author collection from a new writer – new to me. Most new work is from the most familiar names, whose editors could here and there – and here and there too – be fiercer. Much.
And when writers one admires, like Adrian Henri and Faustin Charles, can offer – respectively in Robocat and The World’s Your Lobster, and in Teacher Alligator and Once Upon an Animal – a couple of books apiece which are truly lightweight, strong mainly on febrile whimsy and dead easy rhymes, it is simply puzzling.
There are several ‘first’ books of ‘Traditional’, ‘Brilliant’ or ‘Fantastic’ verse. Fiona Waters’ Time for a Rhyme is splendid. For older children there are many safe and sumptuous books that look much the same as last year’s and the year before’s. Many lay claim to some definitiveness – One Hundred Years of Poetry for Children. Some, circumspectly adventurous, have a faintly might-be-useful-for-GCSE-later feel.
If I were buying expensive gifts I’d be enthusiastic, sort of. If I were a teacher of 7 to 12 year olds in a state school I’d be far less so. Many of the anthologies and writers I want aren’t there. Too many books are there that I don’t much want.
It’s very hard to find anthologies for 7 to 11 years that stretch categories and strike out new directions for children. I’d get Véronique Tadjo’s Talking Drums, because, despite Judith Gleason and others, African poetry seems not to be much read. I’d have Roger McGough’s Poems about Love, for its liberating round-the-world, across-centuries feel. And Hugh Lupton’s cross-cultural The Songs of Birds – with prose and poems (too few!) assembled to investigate something. And Anne Harvey’s Shades of Green, which is engaged, pulls things in from everywhere, and risks William Barnes. And Tony Bradman’s Werewolf Granny for its poems by children.
I think I wouldn’t afford most staid if appealing-looking hardback collections destined for school libraries, with their sometimes cloned feel and limiting view of what kind of poetry children might read. Perhaps ‘significant’, ‘established’, and ‘classic’ have got at them, nibbling away at risk. The same poems turn up, you’re likely to be regularly arrested loitering by woods on a snowy evening. One’s somewhat yawned.
The bloom of paperback anthologies offered as humorous – crazily fantastically rib-ticklingly – may be good news or not. Quite a few poems in funny books are quite funny, some skilfully so. I searched back in Never Stare at a Grizzly Bear for Nick Toczek’s ‘Getting a Goldfish’ –‘a very cold-to-hold fish / On slow patrol / Around its bowl. / I’m told it’s quite an old fish.’But far more often I’ve found myself spending a lot of time not laughing at poems that are hysterical, whacky, and side-splitting.
Could it be one’s sense of humour? I’ve always found Emily Dickinson’s lines, ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul’– twice seriously featured here (in The Poetry Book and in Heaven in a Poem) – hilarious.
Humorous verse that’s crafted stands out – for instance Lindsay MacRae’s How to Avoid Kissing Your Parents in Public, and Georgie Adams’ Pumpkin Pie and Puddles, both with serious poems too. But humour is in vogue. In the unwittingly comic Literacy Strategy (a limerick has 88668 syllables, a syllable is a beat, free verse is poetry which is not constrained, etc), there is much about humour. Children of eight or so must explain ‘how words create humour’. How do they?
A kitchen boy turns the heavy spit,
the cook hurls pots at mice.
Before the great hall’s roaring fire
the dogs scratch at their lice.
‘Mm,’ hums Sir Percy,
‘isn’t this nice.’
This verse from Dave Calder’s ‘Safe at Castle’ (Hysterical Historical Poems, Middle Ages) is comic for me because the beautifully timed rhyming short line at the end slaps down the picture that’s been built up in previous lines. A matter of craft.
Other writers show that the comic needn’t drive off the poetic, either. In Gerda Mayer’s ‘Old Mrs Lazibones’ (Join In…Or Else!):
Came a prince who sought a bride,
Riding past their doorstep,
Quick, said Mrs Lazibones,
Girl, under the watertap.
Similarly, the Caribbean voice and manner of Valerie Bloom’s richly funny ‘Sandwich’ is that of other fine poems in her The World is Sweet, like the beautiful ‘Two Seasons’.
But more often, committed jokiness seems willing to relinquish even modest crafting, with the result that – as here, somewhat at random, from Who Left Grandad at the Chip Shop? – much writing doesn’t aspire beyond doggerel:
A larva is a marvel
but take the ‘r’ away
it then pours from volcanoes
when spelled l-a-v-a.
Doggerel isn’t confined to comic genres. Poems with Attitude combines plenty of it with grimly showy attitudinizing on ‘problem’ topics:
It was way back in the sixties:
A right was battled and won,
By women who fought for freedom of choice
Beyond that of mother or nun.
Why is there so much doggerel clumping about? Why are so many poems eager, desperately, to be funny? Is it because Literacy Hour is crazy about shape poems, concrete poems, kennings, list poems, rap, chants, action-poems, tongue-twisters, cinquains, calligrams, limericks, ballads, sonnets, riddles, tanka, haikus, renga, riddles, nonsense rhymes, wordplay, more cinquains, acrostics, nonsense rhymes, performance poems? (What real poem isn’t words performing, a voice – whatever other performance is context for it?)
Is ‘poetry for children’ morphing into ‘crazy verse for kids’? Certainly the image of the poet hovering over some books seems to wear the manic rictus of the children’s tv presenter, hyper-performancing for the child as intellectually stationary dolt.
Potentially the child’s imagination is subverted, if much jokey verse, non-commital, emotion-free, allows the poet to hide the adult self from the child – in pretending to be one. And to the extent that this whacky paradigm is dominant, children might to some degree be being refused entrance to ‘realities’, the real-life world of animals, history and so on, and to their own empathising vision and understanding of them. Instead, often, stereotypes of trolls, dragons, monsters, pirates, parents, teachers, creatures, which – like this creature from Gordon Snell’s ‘The Aardvark’s Battle (The Thursday Club) – neither writer nor reader need ‘believe in’:
The aardvark hasn’t much claim to fame
In fact, he wouldn’t be missed
Except that he’s always the very first name
In the alphabetical list.
Believable creature fictions are different – Kit Wright’s delicious picture-book Dolphinella, for instance. There’s a brilliant cinematic moment in Sandy Brownjohn’s ‘Roll Play’ (In and Out the Shadows) when two weasels tangle. From the same collection her ‘The Pigeon’s A to Z of London’ are real too – as the craft is, not a dislocated idiom in sight, no short cuts, respect for the language. Causley’s axiom comes to mind: ‘A children’s poem has to work for the adults and the child as well.’
Carol Ann Duffy’s do, all through Meeting Midnight. Children roll a giant snowball:
It groaned as it grew
The size of a sleeping polar bear.
The size of an igloo.
by the time we turned the corner
into the road where I lived,
of a full moon –
the three of us astronauts.
Skill, virtuosity and technical soundness
So it exists, the poetry which Chukovsky said ‘must have the skill, the virtuosity, the technical soundness of poetry for adults’, and which must also ‘bring the child within reach of our adult perceptions and thoughts.’ Writers like Michael Horovitz, John Mole, Gerda Mayer, Irene Rawnsley, and others, whose poetry for children I see less of here than I’d like, engage both child and adult. So does Christopher Reid, whose All Sorts – my favourite book of the hundred-odd and, I now discover, winner of the Signal Poetry Award 2000 – is a book that every in-service gathering ought to read through out loud twice:
Three years old, she left the house
as quietly as a thief,
having packed her pram
with her favourite doll,
an orange and a handkerchief.
They caught her up at the end of the road,
lost, but far from beaten
with her doll still snug,
her hanky folded
and only the orange eaten.
But is this accomplished writer ‘known’? Probably not. It’s troubling, meeting teachers, what a short list of the same known poets many carry with them. Though how much new reading do hard-pressed teachers get time for, once they’ve found out what ‘regular poetry’ is, and learned that ‘poetry is a text that uses features such as…’ and grasped the difference between rhyme and rime, phonemes and graphemes, tanka and renga, onsets and offcuts. Not much, would be my guess.
What hope then for children reading poems, muscled by the state towards the ‘classical’, then towards ‘forms’ – many of which are a-musical or, like limericks, rhythmically restrictive, mainly armature, forms to fill in? All the time ‘identifying typical features’. Another teacher writes, ‘Pupils are desperate to be able to label – alliteration, onomatopoeia etc,’ but ‘unable to use these devices in their own writing’. Thurber would have recognised this world: ‘The fierce light that Miss Groby brought to English Literature was the light of Identification.’ Mental Literature. ‘It is hard for me to believe that Miss Groby ever saw any famous work of literature from far enough away to know what it meant.’ Or as the teacher first quoted put it: ‘Children will know 1001 forms and yet never know a poem.’
The Works is a nice fat inexpensive winner of a collection which contains ‘every kind of poem you’ll need for the Literacy Hour’. I’d like the book a lot, if it didn’t perfectly illustrate the conveniently symbiotic bond between totalitarian curriculum and publishing project. The full English Literacy breakfast, accompanied by a set of utterly classic poems chosen by someone’s great-grandmother. A lot of good and very good stuff, a lot that’s not so good, a lot that’s missing – poems from the rest of the world and the far past, poems in translation, poems by children.
But like many others, it’s a necessary book, because children must ‘develop their use of poetic devices’, ‘use simple poetry structures’, ‘draw on their experience of a range of poetic forms’. There’s the trouble. Elizabeth Bishop, one of the greatest 20th-century poets, writes to an aspiring poet: ‘I don’t know what “poetic tools and structures” are, unless you mean traditional forms. Which one can use or not, as one sees fit.’ ‘As one sees fit’?! Heavens!
Children writing poetry
A glance through any collection of poems written by children themselves – how few there are here, and no collection – shows them brilliantly finding forms of poetic musical expression which owe nothing to ‘forms’, and everything to the curve and inflection of their own voices, in poems which are to be judged, Ted Hughes emphasises, ‘by the highest artistic standards’. ‘A creative mood,’ he suggests, ‘can be induced in a group, just as a demoralized or destructive mood can.’ It’s worth asking whether children are not being bullied away from richer reading and out of their own potentialities by the pedantic obsessions of Literacy. And whether its dehumanizing regimen isn’t debilitating to creative wealth, which – unlike the standardized performance (euphemised as a ‘standard’) – is local, idiosyncratic and far less planned for.
‘Read the great poets of our own century,’ Bishop said, ‘ – Marianne Moore, Auden, Wallace Stevens – and not just two or three poems each, in anthologies – read ALL of somebody.’ Children might read – and re-read – not just two or three poems each, in anthologies, but lots of poems by someone – Christopher Reid, Carol Ann Duffy, John Mole, Jenny Joseph, Irene Rawnsley, Gerda Mayer, Valerie Bloom …
It would be nice to think of children learning to ‘inhabit’ poetry that way, as Ann Stevenson puts it, exploring anthologies that take risks, caught up in the ‘creative mood’ of classrooms. A realistic hope? ‘There is less emphasis on poetry in Year 8 and especially in Year 9, which is increasingly being wasted on SATs preparation, with poetry bunged in in case one comes up … Poetry is being driven out.’
Give us a tune, thing with feathers.
Robert Hull ’s collection for children, Stargrazer (Hodder), was short-listed for the Signal Poetry prize in 1998 and his West African Stories (Wayland) for the 1999 Kurt Maschler Award. His fifty or so titles for children include many anthologies. For teachers, his excellent Behind the Poem is OP but perhaps available on libraries. He is a regular visitor to schools.
Books referred to or quoted from:
All Sorts, Christopher Reid, ill. Sara Fanelli, Ondt and Gracehoper, 0 9522370 1 6, £7.50 pbk (161 York Way, N7 9LN)
Dolphinella, Kit Wright, ill. Peter Bailey, Scholastic, 0 590 13355 1, £4.99 pbk
Heaven in a Poem, ed. Lois Rock, ill. Christopher Corr, Lion, 0 7459 4259 8, £10.99 hbk
How to Avoid Kissing Your Parents in Public, Lindsay MacRae, ill. Steven Appleby, Puffin, 0 14 130551 7, £3.99 pbk
Hysterical Historical Poems, Middle Ages, ed. Brian Moses, Macmillan, 0 330 37714 0, £2.99 pbk
In and Out the Shadows, Sandy Brownjohn, ill. Oliver Gaiger, Oxford, 0 19 276246 X, £3.99 pbk
Join In…or Else!, ed. Nick Toczek, ill. David Parkins, Macmillan, 0 330 48263 7, £2.99 pbk
Meeting Midnight, Carol Ann Duffy, ill. Eileen Cooper, Faber, 0 571 20120 2, £4.99 pbk
Never Stare at a Grizzly Bear, Nick Toczek, ill. David Parkins, Macmillan, 0 330 39121 6, £2.99 pbk
Once Upon an Animal, Faustin Charles, ill. Jill Newton, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3865 4, £3.99 pbk
One Hundred Years of Poetry for Children, Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark, Oxford, 0 19 276190 0, £12.99 hbk, 0 19 276258 3, £6.99 pbk
Poems About Love, ed. Roger McGough, ill. Chloë Cheese, Kingfisher, 0 7534 0337 4, £5.99 pbk
Poems with Attitude, Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, Hodder Wayland, 0 7502 2848 2, £4.99 pbk
The Poetry Book, ed. Fiona Waters, Dolphin, 1 85881 387 5, £5.99 pbk
Pumpkin Pie and Puddles, Georgie Adams, ill. Selina Young, Dolphin, 1 85881 718 8, £3.99 pbk
Robocat, Adrian Henri, ill. Wendy Smith, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3863 8, £3.99 pbk
Shades of Green, ed. Anne Harvey, ill. John Lawrence, Red Fox, 0 09 925521 9, £4.99 pbk
The Songs of Birds, ed. Hugh Lupton, ill. Steve Palin, Barefoot, 1 84148 044 4, £12.99 hbk
Talking Drums, Véronique Tadjo, A & C Black, 0 7136 5397 3, £9.99 hbk
Teacher Alligator, Faustin Charles, ill. David Wojtowycz, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4760 2, £3.99 pbk
The Thursday Club: Animal Poems, Gordon Snell, ill. Anthony Flintoft, Dolphin, 1 85881 831 1, £3.99 pbk
Time for a Rhyme, selected by Fiona Waters, ill. Ailie Busby, Orion, 1 85881 695 5, £10.00 hbk
Werewolf Granny, ed. Tony Bradman, ill. Colin Paine, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4486 7, £3.99 pbk
Who Left Grandad at the Chip Shop?, Stewart Henderson, Lion, 0 7459 4412 4, £8.99 hbk
The Works, ed. Paul Cookson, Macmillan, 0 330 48104 5, £4.99 pbk
The World is Sweet, Valerie Bloom, ill. Debbie Lush, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4750 5, £6.99 hbk
The World’s Your Lobster, Adrian Henri, ill. Wendy Smith, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3864 6, £3.99 pbk
Elizabeth Bishop, One Art, Pimlico
Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen, Faber
Kornei Chukovsky, From Two to Five, Univ. California
Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, Faber
James Thurber, The Thurber Carnival, Penguin