Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

30. Poetry

 

Morag Styles

 

Poetry for children internationally

 

Poetry written specifically for children is not a particularly widespread phenomenon. In some countries, children’s poetry borrows from accessible adult work and the oral tradition, rather than having a tradition of separate poetry publishing for young readers. Certainly, most children encounter poetry from cultures not their own through edited anthologies rather than single-poet collections.

Canadian poets like Anne Corbett and Dennis Lee, and Australian poets such as Max Fatchen, Norman Lindsay and Doug MacLeod follow roughly parallel tracks of light verse for children to their American counterparts, whereas the Australian Steven Herrick shares the same robust humour and honest eye for contemporary life as many British poets. For the last twenty years or so, there has been more sympathy for and interest in Aborigine, Maori and Native American/Canadian literature, including poetry for children. Their poetry is represented in anthologies such as Mary Alice Downie’s The Wind Has Wings: Poems from Canada (1984) and Celia Heylen’s Someone Is Flying Balloons: Australian Poetry for Children (1986). Ethnic minorities and underprivileged groups, including Latino culture in the USA, often follow a different path in their poetry, choosing themes that explore identity, the struggle against oppression and racism, and the fight for equal rights and decent living conditions.

In Japan there is keen interest in children’s literature and a great deal of British fiction and picture books are translated into Japanese, though sadly not the reverse. Children’s poetry is a less well-established genre, though the poet Michio Mado won the international Andersen Prize in 1994. Although he has written more than a thousand poems over a period of sixty years, only a small handful have been translated into English by Empress Michiko.

 

‘Little elephant,

Little elephant,

What a long nose you have.’

 

‘Sure it’s long,

So is my Mommy’s.’

 

‘Little elephant,

Little elephant,

Tell me who you like.’

 

‘I like Mommy,

I like her the most.’

 

As well as poetry written for children, simple (often deceptively simple) forms like haiku and tanka are accessible to young readers. Indeed, there is a great deal of Japanese (and Chinese) poetry in the adult canon whose clarity and lucidity make it easily intelligible to young readers.

The popular poets of continental Europe are rarely translated into English. For example, in France one of the most respected poets for the young is Claude Roy with Enfantasques (1974) and Nouvelles (1964). A rare exception recently was the Gagenlieder (1922) of Christian Morgenstern which have been beautifully translated by Anthea Bell and gloriously illustrated by Lizbeth Zwerger in Lullabies, Lyrics and Gallows Songs (1995).

 

Twentieth/twenty-first century children’s poetry in the USA

Some of the most popular American poets for children in the twentieth century remain firm favourites: Arnold Adoff, Harry Behn, John Ciardi, Eloise Greenfield, Mary Ann Hoberman, David McCord, Eve Merriam, Jack Prelutsky, Nancy Willard and Charlotte Zolotow; Laura Richards’s Tirra Lirra (1913) draws on her many collections. Their poetry tends to be amusing, gentle and less robust in flavour than the British poets cited above, with the exception of Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic (1982), Karla Kuskin, Any Me I Want to Be (1972) and Nikki Giovanni Spin a Soft Black Song (1971), whose verse is anything but tame. ‘Urchin verse’, which does so well in Britain, is hardly known in mainstream America, which is interesting as American fiction can be more hard-hitting and depict grimmer social realism than even the British variety. Some of the most distinguished and most often anthologised poetry for the young is by poets whose writing is mostly directed at adults - Elizabeth Coatsworth, e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, Rachel Field, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Myra Cohn Livingstone, Edna St Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, Theodore Roethke, May Swenson, John Updike and William Carlos Williams are notable examples. Frost and Sandburg made selections of their poems for children, You Come Too (1959) and Wind Song (1960) respectively; while Emily Dickinson (A Letter to the World (1968)) and Langston Hughes (Don’t You Turn Back (1969)) have had selections published for the young. A lively new generation of poets is producing more challenge and variety, though some of it, produced by small presses, does not yet have a wide audience. Some of the most interesting include Janet Wong (A Suitcase of Seaweed (1996)), Gary Soto (Canto Familiar (1995)) and Naomi Shihab Nye (Varieties of Gazelle (2002)). Nye is also editor of an excellent anthology, The Flag of Childhood: Poems from the Middle East (2002).