This excellent book collects 26 essays from the conference on Poetry and Childhood held at the British Library in 2009. It is much less of a ragbag than that might suggest, for the three editors have imposed a strong structure on the collection that gathers the disparate voices into five coherent sections: What Is Children’s Poetry?, Poets and Childhood, Traditions and Forms of Poetry for Children, Childhood and Nature: Changing Perspectives, and Children, Teachers, Poets, Readers. There is very little jargon, and many of the authors allow themselves to breach the rules of academic distance to share their own experience with the reader. Right at the start, Michael Rosen speaks movingly on the way the intellectual world of his parents, the educationalists Harold and Connie Rosen, provided the personal and theoretical forces that shaped him as a writer and as a reader. He also writes interestingly about the centrality of performance to his poetic practice. There are some outstanding essays on individual poets: Bunyan, Stevenson, Milne, Graves, Causley, Hughes, though nothing on Kipling, whose dazzling interweaving of poetry and prose in his children’s books has never been adequately assessed. The importance of the spoken word alongside the written is foregrounded in many essays, as different authors approach the question of orality and literacy from different perspectives. And at the end there is a quite delightful essay by Virginia Lowe, author of Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two children tell (Routledge, 2006), which discusses her own two children’s experiences of poetry, and the way it informed their imaginations and enriched their enjoyment of language. I would have liked to find more on children’s poetry outside Britain; many of the important American children’s poets, such as David McCord are still far too little-known over here. But the editors were restricted to the papers they were offered, and no such work can cover every angle. If there is one area where the book falls down, it is the lack of material on children as poets. Nothing on the extraordinary child poets of the 1920s, Hilda Conkling and Nathalia Crane; nothing on the methods of the great teachers who summoned first-rate poetry from whole classes of children, such as Hughes Mearns, Charles Causley, and Jill Pirrie. But there is a penetrating analysis of that most inspiring of all poetry primers, Ted Hughes’s Poetry in the Making. In that book, Hughes sought to immerse children and teachers in the elements of their own imaginations, vocabularies, and fields of vision, so that they could embrace poetry as a natural gift. Lissa Paul quotes his dictum that, ‘Every child is nature’s chance to correct culture’s error.’ The way poetry can enlarge the world and charge the smallest things with significance may be demonstrated in one of Hilda Conkling’s childhood poems, written when she was about seven, ‘Gift’:
This is mint and here are three pinks
I have brought you, Mother.
They are wet with rain
And shining with it.
The pinks smell like more of them
In a blue vase:
The mint smells like summer
In many gardens.
Here is the essence of poetry as it is brought to children by the great poets for the young: a bunch of fresh-picked flowers, ‘wet with rain and shining with it’.