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Poetry and Childhood


Edited by Morag Styles, Louise Joy & David Whitley


Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books, 2010. Paperback, 254 pp. £22.99

ISBN 978-1-85856-472-2


Reviewed by Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec

Université de Caen



Are literature and poetry important for democracy? Will the next generation have “literacy without literature,” to quote Michael Rosen? What poetry would you like your child to fall in love with? The field is large and perhaps untamed. Elise Paschen’s Poetry Speaks to Children (2005) is one excellent recent anthology with an accompanying CD. But there’s also The Random House book of Poetry for Children, edited by Jack Prelutsky (1983), Imaginary Gardens: American Poetry and Art for Young People, edited by Charles Sullivan (1989), Talking to the Sun: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems for Young People, edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell (1985), This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World, edited by Naomi Shihab Nye (1996), The Everyman Anthology of Poetry for Children, edited by Gillian Avery (1994), and A Child’s Anthology of Poetry, edited by Elizabeth Hauge Sword (1996, 2006). British poetry fans may prefer The Rattle Bag: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney (1982), The Hutchinson Treasury of Children’s Poetry edited by Alison Sage (reprinted 1998), Poetry by Heart edited by Liz Attenborough (2001), One Hundred Years of Poetry for Children edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clarke (2007), A to Z—The Best Children’s Poetry from Agard to Zephaniah, edited by Michael Rosen (2009), Higglety Pigglety Pop! And Other First Poems edited by Harry Horse (2009), New and Collected Poems for Children edited by Carol Ann Duffy (2009), or My First Oxford Book of Poems, edited by John Foster (reprinted 2006).

Poetry and Childhood (2010) is not an anthology, but a collection of conference papers that attempts to grapple with this material and the notion of children’s poetry. Discussing poems ranging from the 17th to the 21st centuries, it provides the panache of historical perspectives rarely found in the current anthology market. On the contemporary side T.S. Eliot is mentioned (but unfortunately not Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats), along with Ted Hughes, Fleur Adcock, Carol Ann Duffy, and Liz Lochhead, among others. Morag Styles, writing on the web page for the conference on “Poetry and Childhood,” which was jointly organised by the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge and the British Library in April 2009, noted: "The event was a first of its kind and attracted scholars and teachers from many parts of the world." That's what state-of-the-art research is about. Thus Andrew Motion (British Poet Laureate 1999-2009), who participated in the conference and foreworded the volume with three paragraphs wrote, “By helping to explain the paradoxes, and deepening our enjoyment of them, this book performs a vital function” [ix]. He notes that the book is "a volume on poetry and childhood, rather than 'children's poetry' " [xi]. And he suggests that the papers of the book "have redefined the field of children's poetry." Hurrah if that means that adults are now allowed to enjoy verse written for children. And this is good news since most of us know a few children we could be reading poems aloud to right this minute, rather than silently ingesting another book review… So, if you had the good luck to attend the conference or the exhibit, "Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat! 250 Years of Poetry for Children", please stop reading this now, and find a child to read to instead.

Poetry and Childhood is divided into five parts that: 1) define the genre of children's poetry and provide a critical approach, 2) suggest relationships between poets and childhood, 3) highlight traditions and forms of poetry for children, 4) analyze the relationship between childhood and nature, 5) speak of the relationship between children, teachers, poets, and readers. One of the goals of this book is to encourage the teaching of poetry in primary schools, where it is lacking in today's Britain [xiv]. It seeks, rather ambitiously, to answer the question "What is Poetry for?"—not only for children, but also for the rest of us [xvi]. Yet, this reviewer notes in passing that the task of giving enjoyment to children (and adults) through poetry, and encouraging them to read it, will not be made any easier by the cuts in book purchases to UK public libraries over the past decade, nor by the programmed library closings planned for 2011. Ergo, may young readers and autodidacts in these lean times beware…! But lest we lament unduly, there are still a few ways to cope (no pun with Wendy intended). One wonders why no one in this book thinks to speak of all the great poetry that can be read freely using internet (and if your children are not climbing all over your computer even as you finish reading this sentence, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle). You may even be wondering if anyone has yet created a permanent site for children’s poetry… with an interface specifically designed for them. The answer is yes! The Poetry Archive (UK) features The Children’s Poetry Archive, and this site is by far the most inviting for a child, in design and interactive features (birds’ eyes blink from the screen, poets read their work aloud, poetic forms can be explored and tested). There is still a child in most of us, and by browsing the site, you will find out if you still have contact with the child-in-you. The answer is yes if you find yourself chuckling a few times when you listen to Roald Dahl reading “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf". (1)

Poet Michael Rosen's essay opens Poetry and Childhood, focusing on the contexts that inspired his creativity, the fact that his East End immigrant parents had moved to North West London, and became teachers [3], and that he was among the 20% of that generation that attended a state-funded grammar school [5]. He is frank about the crisis of literature in Britain today:

At present, it’s no exaggeration to say that for children between the ages of nine and fourteen, books are an optional extra. It’s literacy without literature. Literature can be reduced to an extract on a worksheet where the questions asked are about facts, chronology, and logic. [14]

Rosen shares one of his own poems, called “The Two Poems,” to illustrate the proximity of poetry to children’s real concerns, and the knack of the teacher that can allow the connections to happen:

…The poem sat down and one child said,

‘You remind me of when my auntie died.’

Another child said,

‘I like the way you say things

over and over again in a sing-song sort of a way.’

. . .

Another child said,

‘I’m going to find some more poems like you.’

Soon the room was full of poems. [15]

Peter Hunt asks whether children’s poetry is not simply “light verse” [17], and cites Peter Hollindale’s remarks on poetry anthologies for children which demonstrated “a corporate uncertainty on the fairly fundamental question of what a children’s poem actually is” [qtd. 19]. Stephen Miles extolls Isaac Watts’s defense of poetry for children: “What is learnt in Verse is longer retained in Memory, and sooner recollected…” [26]. Indeed, Watts’s “furniture for the mind” has often been exploited by advertising jingles, much to the furniture’s and the mind’s disadvantage!

Pat Pinsent’s essay defends the wit of John Bunyan and his use of the emblem poem in A Book for Boys and Girls or Country Rimes for Children (1686). Louise Joy focuses on Wordsworth’s glorification of childish knowledge: “since it accompanies us at birth and therefore comes with us from another world, is closer to ‘glory’ than any knowledge we acquire on earth. Adult thought... merely corrupts and distorts…” [59]. Shaun Holland explains how Stevenson shows in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) that good play is more a state of being than a state of doing [63]. Hence a child’s aesthetics, resulting from incompleteness, would conform to “art for art” [65].

A.A. Milne, is both attracted to the Romantic ideal of childhood and moving towards “the uncertainties of Modernism” writes Jean Webb [74]. In Now We Are Six (1927), Christopher Robin is a mere step ahead of his soul-mate: “Pooh is always a little more confused than the boy, yet there is a truth about his seemingly simple responses.” [78].

According to Michael Joseph, Robert Graves’s The Penny Fiddle: Poems for Children (1960) makes a case for the notion of poetic truth and expresses similar views on poetry that Graves presented in lectures and essays of the 1950s, including the Clarke Lectures he gave in 1954-1955 [83]. Graves and Blake operate in a similar ontology where “the notional Child inhabits a space if not outside of history then at a tangent to it” [86].

Charles Causley admitted, “When I write a poem I don’t know whether it’s for a child or an adult” [qtd. 91]. Debbie Pullinger shows that critics have as much difficulty in their classification of his poems. The essay ends cleverly with another quotation from Causley: “If, say, 80 per cent of a poem comes across, let us be satisfied. The remainder, with luck, will unfold during the rest of our lives.” [qtd. 98].

Nursery rhymes and their derivatives (such as Michael Rosen’s Hairy Tales and Nursery Crimes, 1985 and Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, 1982) are “far from confined to the British Isles” in part because the “internationally-familiar aural qualities of nursery rhymes may obliterate language and cultural barriers”, writes Olga Holownia [101]. Britain’s Poet Laureate Duffy and Iceland’s Eldjárn both produced quantities of nursery poetry in the 1990s, and are indebted to prior nonsense from Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Halfdan Rasmussen and Lennart Hellsing [101-2]. Duffy’s inspiration for such poems came after her daughter was born in 1995, and “motherhood gave her access to early memory and imagination, which she describes as ‘re-being a child’ ” [103]. David Rudd’s essay treats the use Lewis Carroll makes of the Humpty Dumpty Nursery Rhyme.

Using the work of Alistaire Clarke, Karen Coates postulates on the humour inherent to rhyme, and along the way confronts limerick, anti-limerick, and Ogden Nash [123]. She also pleasantly reminds the reader: “In life,... as the country song goes, sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug...” [124]. Coates favours the way Charles Gruner presents the humour of competition, winning and losing that is close to Hobbes.

Victor Watson covers poetry published in Britain’s Children’s annuals. Contributors to Allsorts included Stevie Smith, Anthony Thwaite, Elizabeth Jennings, Michael Frayn, Alan Brownjohn, D.J. Enright, Vernon Scannell, George MacBeth, Peter Porter, and Ted Hughes [146]. Yet the earlier annuals, such as Atlanta, that ran from 1887 to 1898, were more literary, including critical pieces on Coleridge, Scott, Lamb, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, E.B.B. Browning, E. Gaskell, and Longfellow [148]. Although “paternalistic” [149], annuals were effective “literary educators to three or four generations” [149].

In the section called “Childhood and Nature: Changing Perspectives”, Lorraine Kerslake contributes a chapter on Beatrix Potter. Telma Franco Diniz writes about children’s poetry in Brazil, where “poetry for children was strongly related to the context of schooling. As a result, children’s poetry remained didactic and laudatory, advising young readers to be good citizens and extolling the virtues of the country” [172]. Diniz makes a rather convincing point that the better poems are those that “leave room for mystery, in order to afford opportunity for young readers to perceive things for themselves” [175]. Angela Sorby’s essay suggests that Mary’s eating her little lamb may have affected not only the way children viewed animal rights, but also a “public sympathy for the cause of children’s rights” [186]. David Whitley also explores animals in children’s poetry, noting the exemplary ethics of John Clare [188] and the delight of Robert Burns’ “To A Mouse” [189].

The final section, “Children, Teachers, Poets, Readers,” begins with Peter Cook’s essay on Ted Hughes. Hughes on the BBC encouraged children to write poetry, and the scripts for the broadcasts were then published as Poetry in the Making (1967) [195]. Hughes enouraged the development of imagination, without using the “jargon and catch-phrases” [199] that feature prominently in the All Our Futures report of 1999 from the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education [199]. John Gordon writes about the way children hear poetry, and his essay begins with a lovely quotation from Fleur Adcock:

It was rhythm that seduced me into liking poetry in the beginning: clearly indentifiable rhythms at first, in my early childhood, when I fell for nursery rhymes and Sunday school hymns and the Georgian poets my mother read to me at bed-time . . . [qtd. 203].

For T.S. Eliot, “rhythm can bring forth an idea” [206]. Basil Bunting wrote to pupils:

Do not let the people who set examinations kid you that you are any nearer to understanding a poem when you have parsed and analysed every sentence, scanned every line, looked up the words in the Oxford Dictionary and the allusions in a library of reference books. That sort of knowledge will make it harder for you to understand the poem because, when you listen to it, you will be distracted by a multitude of irrelevant scraps of knowledge. You will not hear the meaning, which is in the sound. [qtd. 206-7]

Joy Alexander’s essay explores the decades of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s to see how orality was conveyed in poetry used in the classroom. She begins with “The Newbolt Report on The Teaching of English in England” (1921) [211], which encouraged hearing literature. Eliot’s “celebrated definition of the auditory imagination” followed in 1933 [212]. Alexander concludes with Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), noting that we are entering a ‘secondary orality’ and that teachers today should be “harnessing the possibilities of rap or of the Poetry Archive” [217].

Teresa Cremin finds that teachers who read poetry make better teachers of poetry: the remark would be banal, except that she provides the statistics to prove it, and the figures show a marked decline in elementary school teachers that read poetry regularly. In response Medwar Local Authority encouraged teachers to read poetry aloud in the classroom [221], and the teachers found themselves more interested in reading poetry for pleasure outside the classroom as well.

Two essays are chosen as “Afterwords” for Poetry and Childhood. Virginia Lowe describes her “6000 handwritten pages,” a record of her “two children’s responses to literature from birth until adolescence” [227]. This is a largely personal account, and the reader may doubt whether one child’s experiences and circumstances in an obviously privileged cultural situation may be used as an example for the majority of children. Yet, there are some gems: “At 10 Rebecca told me that ‘Poems are meant to be funny, or there’s no point to them’ ” [228]. And after the examples cited by Lowe, the reader is inclined to agree that metaphor and simile may be more “available to young children” than most educators previously suspected [231]. Philip Gross explains that twenty people spent an hour writing poetry as the Poetry and Childhood conference was taking place, and the book ends with a description of the activities that led to their writing, and sample poems from this session.

Children don’t wield much power, so someone has to speak up for them. This collection of papers does a good job, giving perspectives that are both contemporary and historical, and allowing readers to consider what has changed in method and mindset in both the teaching and reading or poetry for children. Several omissions are honestly set out in the introduction, which neglects to present a summary of the individual papers, a formality considered by Morag Styles as “unnecessary throat-clearing” [xi]. There are no specific papers about William Blake, Edward Lear, or Eleanor Farjeon [xii], but these names still come up in the essays.  There is plenty of content material, and a conference is not the easiest venue for mastering chronological balance or quantitative and qualitative range. Overall, Poetry and Childhood is very commendable. But a reviewer can always make suggestions: since the binding to my copy fell apart before I finished reading page 120, I would recommend a different binding and/or publishing house for the second edition. Possibly a joint bibliography at the end would have been useful, not only to include the bibliographies that are given after each paper, but also to list some of the more commendable anthologies of poetry for children. Nonetheless, the helpful and extensive index [245-254] allows the reader to find a poet or poem discussed quickly and easily. Finally, there is a wonderfully quirky blip in the table of contents concerning the index, to be found on page “???” [viii]. It's the kind of error a child could enjoy—so let's thank the editors and contributors for this masterful book.


(1) Other quality resources, but less directly child-friendly, also exist. The Poetry Foundation (Chicago) has a useful page of links with various approaches. The American Academy of Poets website features a page of lesson plans for teaching poetry to 13-17 year olds, "Songs My Teacher Taught Me". The Poetry Society of America has assembled a page of links, “Poetry for Children”. The Poetry Book Society (UK) offers little in the way of poetic texts on-line, but provides a descriptive bibliography of books you might want to purchase for a child, "Poetry Books for…Tiny Terrors”.









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