Part II. Forms and genres
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).
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