Places and Sites: Reading, Writing and Theorising Children's Poetry

by Eve

Morag Styles opened the poetry event with a retrospective that traced the evolution of interest in children’s poetry at Homerton College and the Faculty of Education. Through conferences, collaborations, workshops and teaching the community of researchers working on children’s poetry at the University of Cambridge has blossomed. This day of lectures and workshops organised by Cleméntine Beauvais provided a space to catch up on some of the latest thinking and theorising on children’s poetry.

Debbie Pullinger gave the first paper, which reminded us that children’s poetry has its roots in a strong and vibrant tradition of nursery rhymes and that it is composed for a primarily oral culture audience. This makes it particularly difficult to theorise from visual and literate perspectives because it is characterised by oral psychodynamics that are rooted in the body and situated in place. Debbie’s analysis of ‘This Little Piggy…’ traced the dynamics in action by showing how the poem gains depth and significance in performance, so that the sound of the words and the meaning of the gestures combine with the rhythm and rhyme to build a complex and multidimensional experience.

On the other hand, David Whitely’s paper worked to query some of the ways in which children’s poetry has been distinguished from poetry written for adults. He began by asking us to listen to an extract from Moortown Diary (using an extract from the excellent and updated Poetry Archive: before turning to a selection of poems from What is the Truth? (Hughes, 1984). David’s analysis of the complex and contradictory voices present within the poetry dispelled any notion that the poetry Hughes wrote for children was simpler or more forgiving than his poetry for adults. This returned us to question how (or if?) children’s poetry can (should?) be distinguished from poetry for adults.

After a quick coffee break Sabrina Kamal continued to blur the line between poetry for children and adults by introducing us to the ways in which the oral qualities of Rabindranath Tagore’s children’s poems were used to kindle a nationalistic spirit in both children and adults through song and performance. Sabrina argued that Tagore’s vivid and subtle use of natural imagery enabled him to begin building a sense of unity and national identity that went beyond a simple rejection of colonial oppression and towards a more nuanced and hybrid understanding of postcolonialism. Then Redell Olsen (Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellow) led us out to the orchard for a poetry-writing workshop that drew on our natural surroundings and a selection of children’s poetry forms to explore how we might begin to adapt our writing to suit child audiences.
After lunch we reconvened for Louise Joy’s talk on the place of laughter in children’s verse. She began by examining a range of eighteenth century attitudes towards the laughing child and then used these to reflect on contemporary beliefs about the importance of children’s laughter. Reflecting on the anxieties surrounding the laughing child in the eighteenth century Louise was keen to stress that children’s laughter was particularly problematic when occasioned by a text due to it’s disruptive, anarchic and infectious properties. She concluded her presentation by asking what we are endorsing by providing children with poems designed to make them laugh, which is a pertinent point at a time when children’s poetry appears to be predominantly comic.

In her talk on Isaac Watts and Lewis Carroll, Kate Wakely-Mulroney continued to explore this shift in attitude from serious to comic that occurs in children’s poetry. However, Kate argued that although Carroll’s parodies of Watts’ Divine Songs are often interpreted as a criticism on the culture of rote learning that Watts promoted, Carroll was also a huge proponent of memorisation in the fields of maths and logic. This is particularly evident in his lesser-known work Sylvie and Bruno (1889), which suggests that Carroll’s parodies of Divine Songs in Alice could more accurately be interpreted as a critique of complacency, indicating that memorisation is always §an ongoing project that requires continual commitment.

All these excellent talks led to a series of animated discussions that in turn led to further questions include:

Where does children’s poetry dwell, within the eye or within the ear?
What roles do laughter and the comic play in children’s poetry?
How is children’s poetry used in political projects?
What happens when memory becomes the site of poetry, from childhood to adulthood?

The roundtable at the end of the day enabled us to continuing exploring these questions. However, before we were able to settle down comfortably into our accustomed roles as academics Debbie, David and Julie Blake (a PhD student at Homerton, and also a pillar of Poetry by Heart: shook things up still further. The workshop they ran required us to split up into three groups. The first group worked on performing a close reading of a poem; the second group memorised the poem; and the third group prepared a performance of the poem. When we came back together these three different ways of approaching poetry threw up a raft of further questions:

Do we know the same poem?
What different kinds of understanding do these approaches open up?
Does a close reading encourage an individualistic approach?
Does a shared performance encourage a communal understanding?
Who knows the poem best?

I think I can safely say that for all involved this exercise shed new light of different perspectives. As a member of the group that was asked to memorise the poem I was surprised to remember how much I enjoyed having things off by heart, so I’ve decided to keep on going. I’m going to try to memorise a poem for each long journey I take, I’ll let you know how I get on but for the moment here is the one that got me going:


The deftest leave no trace: type, send, delete
clear history. The world will never know.
Though a man might wonder, as he crossed the street
what it was that broke across his brow
or vanished on his tongue and left it sweet.

Don Paterson (from Landing Light, 2004) 

Thank you Clémentine for organising such a lovely event and thank you to all of the speakers and for offering such interesting papers and workshops.

Eve Tandoi 

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