Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

30. Poetry

 

Morag Styles

 

‘Country rhimes’ and ‘fingle-fangles’: what is poetry for children?

 

‘Country rhimes’ and ‘fingle-fangles’ both come from John Bunyan’s (1628-88) book of verse for the young which had a complicated publishing history and was variously titled Divine Emblems, A Book for Boys and Girls and Country Rhimes for Children (1686). The notion of ‘country rhimes’, which comes from the title, and ‘fingle-fangles’, which comes from the Introduction, usefully signal two debates within children’s poetry. First, I would argue, the fact that the title for what was probably the first single poetry collection for children in England should locate itself in the countryside is not a coincidence; most verse for the young was set in either a rural landscape or a magic space (such as the land of make-believe) until the advent of social realism in poetry in the second half of the twentieth century. As for ‘fingle-fangles’,

 

I do’t to show them how each fingle-fangle,

On which they doating are, their souls entangle

 

these are the pretty gewgaws of life which Bunyan wished to show his readers were worthless snares and delusions in comparison to the bigger, spiritual scheme of things and the good of their immortal souls. Some critics would argue that contemporary poetry for children is dominated by material which could be characterised as frothy and shallow, featuring fingle-fangle fripperies rather than quality verse of substance to cherish. There is, indeed, a great deal of lightweight verse for children published today. But wasn’t it ever thus? In the end, the cheap and tawdry will sink by the wayside and only poetry with lasting qualities will survive, although some of it, like A. A. Milne’s verse, Lear’s songs and nursery rhymes themselves, is certainly quite ‘light’.

 

Anthologists - the gatekeepers of the canon

I am tempted to say that there is no such thing as poetry for children. There is plenty of poetry about children and some of the best poetry ever written is about childhood. In addition, a significant proportion of the so-called ‘canon’ of children’s verse was never intended for the young at all, but was poetry for adults which was considered suitable for children. The gatekeepers of the canon are the anthologists.

Of course, many poets have written specifically for children, some choosing to divide their time between different audiences (Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, Ted Hughes, Charles Causley, Roger McGough, Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay to name but a few); others specialise in poetry for the young (for example, Michael Rosen, Allan Ahlberg, Tony Mitton). Both groups have, however, been marginalised by influential editors. Coventry Patmore, for example, writing in The Children’s Garland (1862, subtitled ‘From the Best Poets’) firmly states, ‘I have excluded nearly all the verse written expressly for children and most of the poetry written about children for grown people’ (Patmore 1862: n.p.). In the preface to A New Treasury of Poetry Neil Philip wrote in 1990: ‘I have also been cautious with poems written specially for children, preferring on the whole work which makes itself available to a young reader without any sense of talking or writing down’ (Philip 1990: 15).

Such views are not uncommon. Until recently, poets of the past who did not choose to write for children (such as Burns, Wordsworth, Cowper, Goldsmith, Keats, Pope and Scott) have been collected more frequently in anthologies for children than work by the Taylor sisters, Lear or Rossetti. Look at prestigious anthologies of the nineteenth and twentieth century and consider the omissions. Where are the poets writing for children? Where are the women? And, until very recently, where are black and Asian poets? Many anthologies of the past are testimonies to the preferences of elite groups of academically educated men.

The tension between the improving instincts of adults and what children choose to read is nowhere more keenly demonstrated than in the anthologising of verse for the young. A large body of the poetry actually favoured by children (so the evidence would suggest) has been ignored by anthologists. On a more positive note, some of the poetry for adults which has an established place in the children’s canon appears to have been adopted by young readers themselves, a healthy trend which shows the powerful drive children have to shape their own literature. Kaye Webb’s I Like This Poem (1979), a collection of the declared favourite poems of children (although, perhaps, a privileged group), includes much that was written before the twentieth century. Traditionalists do not have much to worry about; children today simply seem to like a varied diet. See, for example, Michael Rosen’s video, Count to Five and Say I’m Alive (Rosen 1995)^ where children from a wide range of ethnic groups in schools all over the British Isles perform raps and gutsy playground rhymes in standard English, various dialects and other languages; read out poems they have written themselves; enjoy performances by published poets; and recite from memory their favourite poems by Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Tagore et al.

 

Poetry about childhood

Some of the most popular themes for children remain fairly constant: nature, magic, weather, the sea, school and family life, adventure - and anything that makes them laugh. However, one of the most powerful topics has always been the exploration of childhood itself. It seems probable that many poets write for children partly because they want to understand the ‘child in themselves’, looking back with some longing at their own youth and coming-of-age. At worst, this can be self-indulgent and nostalgic; at best, it reaches the gentle self-scrutiny of Stevenson; Causley’s occasional, but revealing, unsentimental allusions to his parents’ lives and his own changing view of time as he gets older; Duffy’s moving exploration of childhood from the vantage point of a mother loving a young daughter; or Rosen’s funny and unpretentious accounts of everyday life based on observations of his children, as well as reflections on his own past. Adults will always view children through the ‘distorting lens’ of their own dreams, hopes, memories and prejudices: this has led to some of the most tender, deep and rewarding poetry ever written.

 

Changes over time

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, most poetry (indeed, most literature) for children was didactic and severe, expressed through lessons, fables, improving verse and hymns, although the latter also included some of the most lyrical literature available to the young. For those who could get their hands on it, what a contrast the rude, crude and sensational literature (including verse) available in the chapbooks to the widest possible audience must have made.

By the early nineteenth century, significant numbers of poets writing for children aspired to entertain rather than simply educate young readers. Harsh moral tales in verse began to develop into the extravagances of cautionary verse; light-hearted poems about the imaginary doings of insects, birds and small animals also became popular; nonsense verse started to flourish and the first child-centred poetry began to emerge. A sea-change occurred in the 1970s when poetry for children moved into the city, and the earlier gentle and often rural lyricism turned into something more earthy, harking back, perhaps, to the bawdiness of the chapbooks. Gone are descriptions of neat nurseries, rolling countryside and sweet fancies. Nature may still be central, but it is more likely to come in the shape of muscular poetry about animals by poets like Hughes, or hardhitting descriptions of how human beings have destroyed the environment. Humour is widespread, but serious concerns are not neglected. John Rowe Townsend called it ‘urchin verse’: ‘Here is family life in the raw, with its backchat, fury and muddle, and instead of woods and meadows are disused railway lines, building sites and junkheaps’ (Townsend 1987: 303).

As for content, there are few unmentionables left. The twenty-first century’s attitude to childhood in poetry is refreshingly robust - too much so for some tastes. Iona Opie’s work (for example, The People in the Playground (1992)), should convince more tender-hearted commentators that children are by and large hardy and resilient and require a literature which takes account of that fact. Contemporary poetry for children also favours the vernacular and tends to be informal. All the popular forms of the past are still evident; but children’s poetry also features raps, song lyrics, dub poetry, haiku, concrete verse, dialect poetry, dramatic monologues and realistic conversation poems, as well as other more traditional verse forms with regular rhyme and metre.

Another recent development is the recognition of children’s own writing. Contemporary poetry is accessible to children and encouraged by teachers, poets, community events and competitions. Publication of this poetry demonstrates the high standards that can be achieved, despite the limited stamina and developing skills of the writers.

Poetry for children, then, is defined by the age: contemporary poetry emphasises the need to love, value, amuse and protect the young, and has a liberal tolerance of their private brand of humour, whereas poetry of the Puritan age believed its function was to save the souls of children by admonishing them to virtue, godliness and obedience. Romantic ideas led to a welcome shift in perspectives on childhood, some of which are still with us today. At best, it encouraged adults to value childhood, lightened some of the worst excesses of moralistic literature for children and ushered in new ways of thinking and writing about and for children; at worst, there lingers still a desire to idealise child-hood and equate it with innocence which can lead to unhealthy and unrealistic expectations of the young. Let us examine more closely the journey of children’s poetry from the ‘garden’ to the ‘street’.