Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

30. Poetry

 

Morag Styles

 

Caribbean-British

 

It has been exciting to note the growing popularity of Caribbean-British writers in the UK since the 1980s. When I published my own first anthology, I Like That Stuff: Poems from Many Cultures in 1984, it was almost the only book on the market which explored international verse for children and the first, I believe, to anthologise poets like Agard, Berry, Bloom, Nichols and Zephaniah for the young. It is satisfying to note that, twenty years on, these poets are now firmly established with both adult and juvenile audiences and regularly anthologised for the young.

Valerie Bloom has been described as the Louise Bennet of British letters and is an electrifying performer as well as a gifted poet; recent titles for children include her Selected Poems: Let Me Touch the Sky (2001). Benjamin Zephaniah, who also writes highly praised fiction for children, is another acclaimed performer of his own verse; his well-designed collections for the young include Funky Chickens (1997). John Agard produced I Din Do Nuttin in 1983; a subsequent collection, Say It Again, Granny (1986), uses Caribbean proverbs as the basis for poetry which is both witty and wise, whereas Get Back, Pimple (1987) is a deceptively light title for some very assured poetry for older readers. Grace Nichols has gone from strength to strength since she published her first collection for children in 1988, Come on into My Tropical Garden:

 

Me mudder chase bad-cow

with one ‘Shoo’

she paddle down river

in she own canoe

Ain’t have nothin

dat me mudder can’t do.

 

James Berry, who had spent many years working in inner-London schools, made an impressive debut for children with When I Dance (1988) (followed by Playing a Dazzler (1996) and A Nest of Stars (2002)), demonstrating fine writing, an empathy for young people’s feelings and a lively sense of humour, in both Creole and standard English. Agard, Berry and Nichols have also compiled ground-breaking anthologies, particularly in terms of introducing young readers to poetry from other cultures, especially the Caribbean. No Hickory No Dickory No Dock (1995) edited by Agard and Nichols, brings together new and traditional Caribbean nursery rhymes, whereas James Berry’s Classic Poems to Read Aloud (1995) contains many of the English poems you would expect in a treasury of poetry, enriched by a wider range of cultures than normally included. Grace Nichols’s Can I Buy a Slice of Sky? (1991) contains well-chosen poetry exclusively by Asian and black poets. A Caribbean Dozen (1994), featuring thirteen poets edited by Agard and Nichols, was followed by Under the Moon and over the Sea which won the first CLPE Poetry Award in 2003.

All the poets mentioned above have touched on racism and identity, Caribbean memories and life in multi-ethnic Britain today, as well as the fun and frivolity typical of children’s poetry. There are some talented younger poets following in their wake, such as Lemn Sissay, who asks in his poem of the same name, ‘Rhythm/ rhythm/ Can you hear the rhythm?’ All of these poets use rhythm, humour and language with exuberance and vitality, though some write just as well in standard English.

I have privileged British poetry for children in this essay because it is probably more versatile, varied and vigorous than anywhere else in the world at the moment. (This is not true of fiction, fairy tales or picture books.) These comments are not intended to be disrespectful of some wonderful poetry being produced for children in different parts of the world, but simply to reflect the current state of poetry publishing internationally. There is now more interest in poetry in translation from many different cultures, but there is still a long way to go before we reach a genuinely international outlook or a proper representation of poetry in all its voices.

Recent poets have in their various ways ‘tuned in to childhood’ with intimacy and honesty, reflecting a basic respect for and recognition of young readers in all their complexity. One reason for this is the regular contact with children they gain through school visits and performances. These are poets who know what children enjoy, who are close to their audience, most of them dividing their time between writing for adults and children - something that certainly is much less common in the world of children’s fiction.

The current climate of popularising poetry may lead to a wider audience: yet, despite the huge range available, poetry remains a minority interest and only a small number of people read, write and buy it. Equally, although poetry for children has come a long way, how much of it still consists of the well-meaning preferences of adults foisted on to children?

William Blake was ‘the first great poet to draw on the oral traditions of the eighteenth-century nursery, capturing the gentle child-centred rhetoric of mothers singing and talking with their children’ (Watson 2001: 662). Blake understood that successful poetry for children needs a careful blend of make-believe and reality, delight and wisdom, in equal doses. If poets today are less likely to go ‘knocking at the gates of heaven’, they can still, like Blake, encourage children to ‘play among the tangled stars’ (Darton 1932/1982: 179).

 

References

Alexander, W. (ed.) (1896) Poems of Cecil Frances Alexander, London: Macmillan.

Darton, F. J. H. (1932/1982) Children’s Books in England. Three Centuries of Social Life, 3rd edn, rev.

Alderson, B., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Glen, H. (1983) Vision and Disenchantment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldthwaite, J. (1996) The Natural History of Make-Believe, New York: Oxford University Press.

Leader, Z. (1981) Reading Blake’s Songs, London: Routledge.

Lucas, E. V. (1896) ‘Some Notes on Poetry for Children’, Fortnightly Review, LX: 393-4.

Milne, C. (1974) The Enchanted Places, London: Methuen.

Muir, P. (1954) English Children’s Books 1600 to 1900, London: Batsford.

Opie, I. (1992) The People in the Playground, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Patmore, C. (1862) The Children’s Garland, London: Macmillan.

Paul, L. (1986) ‘Inside the Lurking-Glass with Ted Hughes’, Signal 49: 52-63.

Philip, N. (ed.) (1990) A New Treasury of Poetry, London: Blackie.

Rosen, M. (1995) Count to Five and Say I’m Alive, London: Team Video Productions.

Shaw, J. M. (1962) Childhood in Poetry, Detroit: Gale Research.

Stephens, J. (1992) Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, London: Longman.

Styles, M. (1998) From the Garden to the Street: 300 Years of Poetry for Children, London: Cassell.

Townsend, J. R. (1987) Written for Children, 3rd edn, London: Penguin.

Watson, V. (2001) The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Watts, I. (1971) Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children, ed. Pafford, J. H., facsimile of 1715 edn, London: Oxford University Press.

Webb, K. (ed.) (1979) I Like This Poem, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Whistler, T. (1993) Imagination ofthe Heart: The Life ofWalter de la Mare, London: Duckworth.

 

Further reading

Hall, D. (1985) The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse in America, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jones, K. (1991) Learning Not to Be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lonsdale, R. (ed.) (1989) Eighteenth Century Women Poets, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morse, B. (1992) Poetry Books for Children: A Signal Bookguide, South Woodchester: Thimble Press.

Opie, I. and Opie, P. (1973) The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

- (1977) Three Centuries of Nursery Rhymes and Poetry for Children, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

St John, J. (1975) Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Toronto: Toronto Public Library.

Styles, M. (1990) ‘Lost from the Nursery: Women Writing Poetry for Children 1800-1850’, Signal 63: 177-205.

Styles, M. and Cook, H. (eds) (1988) There’s a Poet behind You, London: A. and C. Black.

Styles, M. and Triggs, P. (1988) The Books for Keeps Guide to Poetry 0-16, London: Books for Keeps.