Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

30. Poetry

 

Morag Styles

 

Out of the garden into the street: contemporary poetry

 

Before the sweeping changes that were about to take place in children’s poetry in the 1970s, two very significant poets produced their first collections for the young: Ted Hughes (Meet My Folks (1961)), and Charles Causley (Figgie Hobbin (1970)).

Both are equally well known for their adult writing. Figgie Hobbin established Causley as a major writer for children, and his stature grew with every new collection: Jack the Treacle Eater (1987) is one of his best and he has both a Selected Poems (1997) and Collected Poems (2000) for children - a mark of distinction. He was also one of the finest twentieth-century anthologists: The Sun, Dancing (1984), the Puffin Book of Magic Verse (1974) and Puffin Book of Salt-Sea Verse (1978) are already considered classics by many. Causley’s range is wide, but he is most admired for his work in the ballad tradition. His poetry is difficult to pin down as it is subtle and varied. There’s the ring of the story-teller, the feel for musical language, often a hint of something mysterious or even sinister that is left unexplained. It is rooted in folklore, often deriving from his native Cornwall, and steeped in the oral tradition and the ancient magic of words.

Ted Hughes was Poet Laureate in England, an honour reserved for someone widely felt to be the most distinguished poet of his generation. He was essentially a nature poet with a numinous instinct who turned his back on Romanticism by making his readers face realities about the animal world - cruelty, harshness, sex and death, as well as beauty and awe. Hughes doesn’t compromise for the young: he gives them an honest account, as he sees it, with little held back, but delivered with ‘affection’.

 

Writing for children one has a very definite context of communication. Adult readers are looking for support for their defences on the whole ... One can communicate with children in a simple and whole way - not because they’re innocent, but because they’re not yet defensive ... Providing one moves with affection.

(quoted in Paul 1986: 55)

 

Although there is a relentless realism in much of Hughes’s poetry, some of his work is set in a mystical landscape and at times his tone can be as visionary as Blake’s. Some of his finest poetry is for children; What is the Truth? (1984) is his masterpiece, but titles like The Iron Wolf (1995) and The Mermaid’s Purse (1999) are also accessible for, or written specifically for, young readers, whereas The Thought-Fox (1995) (whose title poem is one of the most popular Hughes has ever written) is perfect for teenagers. Hughes also wrote a most original book on reading and writing poetry which has influenced many teachers - Poetry in the Making (1967). His poetry is too strong for some tastes, particularly those who prefer to apply rose-tinted spectacles to childhood, but he offers poetry of power and potency to readers who can rise to the challenge.

In 1974 a new type of poetry hit the market in the rumbustious form of Michael Rosen’s Mind Your Own Business; as a review put it at the time, ‘Here, at last, is a real book of poems for modern children.’ Employing a form of free verse close to the natural rhythms of speech, Rosen’s poetry is certainly a departure from the past. It centres on the everyday experiences of children, sometimes exaggerated, written in apparently (deceptively) ordinary language, peppered with jokes, insults and the vernacular of the street. A flurry of collections by a talented group of poets using similar subject matter to Rosen quickly followed his debut.

It is useful to consider this contemporary verse for children in the light of Bakhtin’s notion of carnivalesque texts which playfully satirise official culture in ways comparable to the work of Rabelais. John Stephens talks about carnival as: ‘grounded in a playfulness which situates itself in positions of nonconformity. It expresses opposition to authoritarianism and seriousness, and is often manifested as parody of prevailing literary forms and genres’ (Stephens 1992: 121.)

Rabelais’s mock-heroic addresses to his readers - ‘worthy people’, ‘illustrious boozers’, ‘precious poxy fellows’ - matches in tone the cheeky way that contemporary poets often address their readers, as if they were sharing a joke at the way of the world. Most contemporary poets write predominantly playful verse pitched at children’s own sense of humour, located in city streets, yet willing to explore difficult areas of life. The poetry itself is various; some writers are steeped in the traditions of English poetry, while others experiment radically with more oral, vernacular forms in free verse. Crucially, most children seem to recognise themselves and their lives in the poetry written for them now.

Michael Rosen was the first and remains one of the most popular of the ‘vernacular’ poets; the best of his many collections include You Can’t Catch Me (1981) and Quick, Let’s Get out of Here (1985), both books either commended or winners of the Signal Poetry Award. Roger McGough comes from the performance tradition of the radical Liverpool poets of the 1960s. So did Adrian Henri, with The Phantom Lollipop Lady (1986), and Brian Patten with Gargling with Jelly (1985). All use humour convincingly, but the pain and tenderness associated with their adult work is there too; so is irony. McGough’s inventive imagination and skilled word-play is on full display in You Tell Me (1979) (with Michael Rosen), Sky in the Pie (1983) and Bad, Bad Cats (1997); the last two collections are Signal award-winners.

Adrian Mitchell is also well known on the performance circuit: his combination of compassion, social concern and the comic touch makes for memorable poetry, as in Nothingmas Day (1984) and the more recent Balloon Lagoon (1997). Gareth Owen was interested in the street life of children in Salford Road (1979) and Signal award-winning Song of the City (1985); his inspiration came from having worked in education. Allan Ahlberg, also an ex-teacher, used contemporary school life in the highly successful Please Mrs Butler (1983), and equally outstanding sequels Friendly Matches (2002) and Heard It in the Playground (1990) which won the Signal award. So did Jackie Kay’s excellent debut, Two’s Company (1992), which was followed by Three Has Gone (1994) and The Frog Who Wanted to Be an Opera Singer (1998). Helen Dunmore also won the Signal award for her first collection for children, Secrets (1994), and followed it with the equally strong Snollygoster (2001). Tony Mitton’s first collection, Plum (1999), is his best so far. Sandy Brownjohn followed her popular book for teachers, To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme (1994), with her own collection, In and out of the Shadows (2000).

Most of the poets mentioned above are equally well known for their adult poetry. So are Gerard Benson (To Catch an Elephant (2002)), John Mole (The Wonder Dish (2002)), Wendy Cope (Twiddling Your Thumbs (1992)), Kit Wright (Great Snakes (1994)), Matthew Sweeney ( Up on the Roof (2001)) and many other gifted poets who seem able to write effectively for both audiences.

As we move into the early twenty-first century, Carol Ann Duffy is one of the most interesting new voices for children in Meeting Midnight (1999) and The Oldest Girl in the World (2000).

Children have never had it so good in terms of accessible, amusing, racy poetry, but it is not all light-hearted. There’s often a dark undertone in McGough which he describes as ‘the shadow round the corner’, and he is prepared to deal with child abuse, depression and death in his poetry. The skill lies in delicate yet honest treatment of harrowing issues. Wright also feels that children ‘can take some stiffening’ and tenderly explores mental handicap, bereavement and the cruelties of whaling in amongst the laughter. Agard, Berry and Kay touch on racism in their poetry. Rosen and Mitchell tackle bullying, sexism, rejection and loss. Henri reflects on a wartime childhood and Patten considers the aftermath of a nuclear war.