Morag Styles.

Morag Styles may be the only Professor of Children’s Poetry out there. Having recently taken up her new role, here she explains why poetry for the young matters – and why it is time to stop treating it as the poor relation of the adult form.

The best poetry says something that lasts. It leaves a footprint deep in the earth of what it means to be human.

Morag Styles

When I received notification that I had been promoted to a personal chair, amid the rejoicing was the question – professor of what? It didn’t take me long to decide, as in personal and research terms, my first love is children’s poetry, a field I have tried to promote from every possible angle throughout my professional life.

I have taught the subject for 40 years to children, teachers, undergraduates, postgraduates, higher degree and lately doctoral students in Cambridge and many parts of UK and abroad. I have organised everything from large international poetry festivals, conferences, performances and exhibitions to small local writing workshops with children, families and teachers. I spent years working on the history of children’s poetry, championing particularly the voices of women lost from the nursery. I have written books, articles and chapters a plenty on aspects of children’s poetry and produced more than two dozen anthologies for young readers with a mission to widen their knowledge of international poetry. I am currently engaged on a Caribbean Poetry Project linked with the online Poetry Archive and the University of West Indies (see The great Barbadian poet, Kamau Brathwaite, captures something essential about children’s poetry.

Why does children’s poetry matter? Children’s responses to poetry are innate, instinctive, natural – maybe it starts in the womb, with the mother's heartbeat? Children are hard-wired to musical language – taking pleasure in the rhythm, rhyme, repetition and other patternings of language that are a marked feature of childhood. As the poet, Tony Harrison, pointed out, it’s the scansion in poetry that unites the attention. Just think how, faced with fretful babies, we rock them rhythmically, dredging up old nursery rhymes, lullabies, or chants to amuse and pacify. This is a universal phenomenon, as Iona and Peter Opie, and other scholars, have shown in their research on the oral tradition. Even when we tell young children stories, they demand exact retellings and repetitions with the same cadences, rhythms, pauses and tones they heard the time before. This early sharing of musical language is often physical, too; bumping toddlers up and down on our knees and often ending with a kiss. Early poetry is about the expression of love.

At around 7 or 8, children enter the domain of  playground rhymes, a private club from which adults are excluded, where chants, rhymes and parodies accompany games, or are just belted out for the sheer communal pleasure of it, the ruder and more shocking, the better! Some of the same rhymes I enjoyed in Scotland of the 1950s are still around today with references to  Elvis and Marilyn replaced by Wayne Rooney and Madonna. Here’s the sort of thing:

Man United are short-sighted                              

tra la la la la la la la la

They wear rubies on their boobies

tra la la la la la la la la…… and so on.

Poetry is an intense form of language. It can be simultaneously personal and universal. It enlarges the sympathies, helps us understand ourselves better, gives us the pleasure of vicarious experience and offers us insights about being human. It provides a way of working out feelings, giving order to experience by reducing it to manageable proportions. Philip Gross (T.S. Eliot prize-winner, 2010) shares this belief in the power of poetry for the young, suggesting that “children imbibe poetry from people who bring to it some ease and passion … young people can be bold readers of rich and demanding poetry – and writers of it too – when they come to it as participants, rather than as passive consumers.” The poet and teacher, Charles Causley,  sums up neatly why children are a worthy audience for poetry : “For the child possesses by nature that valuable quality all adult artists seek to retain or regain: the ability of being able to view the world ... as if for the first time … unblurred by time or experience or tact or expediency.”

Sadly, this excellent start in poetry most of us get in early childhood often loses momentum as we get older. Most young adults are not enthusiastic poetry book buyers or attendees of poetry readings. However, when Carol Ann Duffy, John Agard and others perform to hundreds of teenage pupils preparing for English GCSE exams, they regularly receive a welcome fitting for a rock star! And most young adults rate good lyrics in popular music so there’s plenty of potential for deepening this age group’s response to poetry. One such initiative is the Poet Laureate’s ANTHOLOGISE competition, launched in September 2011, to encourage secondary pupils to edit their own volumes of poetry.

Carol Ann Duffy has also been quoted as saying that we are all Shakespeare’s children. Here she was referring to the debt we pay to the poets of the past who forged our literary heritage. Children’s poetry also enjoys a rich birth right, including the work of that “sweet songster of words and music, Master William Shakespeare”, as he was described in Mother Goose’s Melody (circa 1760), where his songs were printed side by side with nursery rhymes. But it goes further back than that. Since the earliest times, children will have shared with their elders the more accessible, entertaining and dramatic elements of the ballad, chapbook and epic poetry tradition. And religious writers, as far back as Bunyan in 1678 and Watts in 1715, penned lyrical hymns and rhymes for the amusement of the young which were popular for many generations. Indeed, the church would have been one place where most children, poor and rich alike, regularly experienced musical language in the hymns they sang on Sundays. This tradition of writing poetry for the young contains many distinguished names including, William Blake, Ann & Jane Taylor, Edward Lear, Christina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson, AA Milne,  Eleanor Farjeon, Langston Hughes and Robert Frost.

Even so, for some years, children’s poetry has been somewhat in the doldrums. I meet regularly with members of the Poetry Book Society, Poetry Society and Arts Council, as well as publishers, academics and booksellers. All of us are concerned about the future of children’ s poetry. In the UK this certainly has nothing to do with the quality of poetry available to the young as we are unusual in having so many leading poets sharing their writing time with children as well as adults, including the current and recent poet laureates - Carol Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes. Others, such as Roger McGough, Grace Nichols, James Berry, Jackie Kay, Adrian Mitchell, John Agard… all bring their knowledge of the craft and their passion for poetry to a young audience.

Furthermore, poets working in schools have been championed in UK for decades and now we have a plethora of literary festivals and library events which include poetry for children. The popular poet and performer, Michael Rosen, did much to revitalise children’s poetry is in his stint as Children’s Laureate. Yet children’s poetry languishes in most bookshops. This poor relation status for children’s poetry is also evident in the children’s literature academic conference circuit with few papers or keynotes on the subject. Ofsted has given children’s poetry in schools the thumbs down in recent reports which cites improvements in other aspects of English teaching and I think this alerts us to one of the problems of poetry – the lack of confidence of generations of teachers in tackling poetry has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as pupils are not inspired to read it for pleasure. Of course, there are many notable exceptions to this rule, something my colleagues, David Whitley and Debbie Pullinger are investigating in a British Academy funded research project on the teaching of poetry from early years to university level. Debbie is working on a theorisation of children’s poetry for her doctorate and I hope she will be joined by other scholars who take children’s poetry seriously.

Andrew Motion doesn’t write for children but in his period as Poet Laureate he took great interest in what was happening for the young, including setting up the online Poetry Archive - recordings of poets reading their own work, keeping their spoken voices alive for a wide audience and future generations – with a strong section devoted to children’s poetry.  He talks movingly about the importance of poetry in children's lives:

“Every possible effort should be made to promote the appreciation of poetry, and encourage its creation. Through the mingled sense and non-sense of poetry, through the charge of its rhythms and the magnetism of its rhymes, through the various colourations and configurations of its language, it allows children to feel a profound sense of connection with their interior spaces, and also to make links with the wider world which lies around them. It is a representation of life, which is also a kind of life in itself - a self-sufficient delight, which is simultaneously a way of looking forward and preparing to meet the future; a confirmation of the self, which nevertheless allows the growth of sympathy with others.”

And what could be more important than that? Writing a review in the Observer recently (21.02.10), Kate Kellaway asked ‘What is poetry for?’ One answer she offers is that the best poetry says something that lasts. It leaves a footprint, not in the sand, as in Robinson Crusoe, but deep in the earth of what it means to be human. Nowadays that includes taking responsibility for our planet and it is no surprise that this topic is touched on by most poets writing for the young today and in the poetry children write themselves. The best children’s poetry is profound though the voice in the poem may be superficially light-hearted – and fun and laughter have always been and will, I trust, always be an important part of any healthy diet of poetry. We are lucky to have a new Poet Laureate who produces some of the best children’s poetry ever written – and who can both make her readers howl with laughter and think intensely about the nature of the human condition and what Motion calls ‘a wider world’.  Perhaps the future for children’s poetry doesn’t look so bleak after all.

And as I am not aware of anyone else ever having taken the title Professor of Children’s Poetry - in the UK or anywhere else for that matter – I’ll continue to promote this special field in every way I can by campaigning for it as an excellent subject for academic research, by helping teachers gain confidence in teaching it in school, by working alongside children as they read, write and perform poetry, and by striving to improve poetry’s status internationally by recognising it as a rich source of nourishment and amusement for the young, something that will last them all their lives.

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