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: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/ted-hughes)
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
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
How is children’s poetry used in political
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: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk)
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
Does a shared performance encourage a communal
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
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.
Labels: Children's Poetry, Creative Writing, Homerton college, Isaac Watts, Lewis Carroll, Memorisation, Poetry by Heart, Symposium, Ted Hughes