Debbie Pullinger and I went to school together, in Cambridge
That is what I will be bragging about for the next few months and years! – having had a sneaky look at this extraordinary academic tome she has researched, written, and Bloomsbury has published.
The book is expensive -£85 – but this attached pic will get you or your University 35% off; plus the book WILL be coming out in paperback edition in a year or so and that will cost £26
It has been reviewed by Phillip Gross – his review can be read below, or for other reviews and to buy the book go here:
“This book is a rather thrilling call to take poetry for children seriously – that is, not earnestly, but with an appetite to see its fullest implications. Unafraid to engage with theory, the argument is anything but cerebral. Rather, it leads the mind back to the body, to its play and humour and its tactile wrestling with experience. Almost incidentally, it opens up the possibility that this approach illuminates all poetry, for any age, and that children’s poetry might be not a marginal art but the key.” – Philip Gross, Professor of Creative Writing
Here is the Introduction to her book: please forgive me Debbie – I haven’t included the notes of the intro or the extract because I couldn’t debiggify them 🙂
Children’s poetry: The problem child
Poetry written for children has always occupied a rather uncertain space. This is because ‘like children and poets, it may be nostalgically cherished, and simultaneously diminished’ (Flynn 1993: 37). It is a literature of betweenness. In its cultural positioning and critical reception, it intersects the domains of poetry and children’s literature, being simultaneously identified with each field and suffering from association with it.
In wider society, there are signs that children’s literature is being assimilated into the mainstream literary domain; the boundaries between children’s books and literature in general, between children’s authors and authors of books for adult readers, are becoming ever fuzzier, especially now that the growing young-adult sector has forced significant restamping of territory. But the conciliation has not really extended to children’s poetry or to scholarship. Despite the fact that many major poets have written for children, few poetry scholars have taken that part of their work into consideration. Nevertheless, those who have done so have found it integral to the poet’s oeuvre – as, for example, with Carol Ann Duffy (Zettelman 2003), Ted Hughes (Lockwood 2009), Christina Rossetti (Hasset 2005).1 These examples are all British, but Angela Sorby in the United States finds a similar state of ‘unproductive ignorance’ in which the insularity ‘cuts both ways’ (Sorby 2008: 235). Thus, for literature scholars, children’s poetry is ‘a marginal phenomenon’, investigated only on rare occasions through ‘a combination of pedagogy and developmental psychology, coupled with practical advice as to the ‘“teachability” of the text in question’ (Zettelman 2003: 188). Richard Flynn thinks this prejudice stems from an adult fear of play (Flynn 2009), but I suspect the underlying cause is more likely what Ann Wierda Rowland describes as the ‘triviality barrier’: the assumption that an association with children, childhood and related concerns, such as their play or their literature, will detract from academic gravitas (Rowland 2012: 11). No one, after all, wants to risk not being taken seriously. Whatever the precise reasons, children’s poems have tended to be dismissed as naive, sentimental or nonsensical, and unlikely to yield much to critical analysis (Grenby 2008). Most telling of all is that the 1,632 pages of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012), which include entries on everything from Avant-Garde Poetics to Zulu Poetry, fails to offer anything at all on children’s poetry or childhood.
The problem is not a new one. When the Romantic poets turned their attention to lowly themes, which included the affairs of children, they were treated with ridicule. Criticism of Wordsworth’s poetry regarded his use of simplistic language and trifling subject matter as evidence of a childish, and therefore diminished, sensibility. Contemporary critic Francis Jeffrey dismissed his poetry as ‘vulgarity, affectation, and silliness’, ‘childishness, conceit, and affectation’, ‘obvious inferiority’, ‘[the] language of which is coarse, inelegant or infantine’, ‘a piece of namby-pamby’, ‘a very paragon of silliness and affectation’ (Jeffrey 1807: 214–31).
Nor is the problem exclusive to children’s poetry. Writing about the ‘memorization canon’, Catherine Robson finds that ‘the poems … do not respond well to the set moves of close reading, however modified and adapted those moves may have been since the reign of New Criticism’ (Robson 2011: 25). More promisingly, she goes on to suggest that, used selectively and with an awareness of some of the underlying assumptions, ‘aspects of the close reader’s art will … continue to prove invaluable’ and that ‘any and every stretch of language, especially a consciously structured stretch like a poem, may well deliver more than can be seen at first glance’ (ibid.). Thus she contends that many of the poems traditionally used for the purposes of performance and recitation, eschewed by literary criticism owing to their apparent simplicity and their rhythmic qualities, may in fact yield more than expected to a patient close reading. Whilst children’s poems are not part of the recitation canon she examines, many share those qualities of apparent simplicity and rhythmicity, and many are essentially works for performance. What I will argue is that children’s poems may indeed yield to elements of close reading techniques, but may also require something of a shift in critical perspective.
Within the field of children’s literature criticism, children’s poetry fares little better. Although poetry was more or less where children’s publishing began, back in the eighteenth century, it is now treated as ‘a marginal form’ (Nodelman 2008). It is officially relegated to the ‘sidelines’, along with ‘other neglected dimensions’ (from the actual wording of a chapter title for poetry and drama in The Routledge Companion to Children’s Literature, Arizpe and Styles 2010). Some even doubt its existence, suggesting that ‘the idea that an innocent and separate realm of children’s poetry should exist at all is questionable at best’ (Flynn 1993: 41), and that children’s poetry may be a ‘Snark’, and theorizing on the subject a ‘Boojum’ (Hunt 2010: 23). Symptomatically, in the recent spate of handbooks and primers on children’s literature, some fail to include even a single mention of poetry. The Very Short Introduction to Children’s Literature, for example, makes the assumption that children’s literature is coterminous with children’s fiction, stating: ‘Children’s literature recapitulates, extends and modifies the range of narratives that make up “adult’s fiction”’ (Reynolds 2011: 31). Others make efforts to be more inclusive, but most manage only a token treatment. The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature (Grenby and Immel 2009) did venture an entire poetry chapter (Flynn 2009), but we surely have to wonder whether such a title as ‘The Fear of Poetry’ might not be perpetuating the very problem it laments. Certainly, there are substantive studies and commentaries, notably Morag Style’s From the Garden to the Street (1998) and Joseph T. Thomas’s Poetry’s Playground (2007), but none that offers a significant theoretical perspective (Nikolajeva 2005). Moreover, as Thomas (2007) points out, such criticism of children’s poetry that does exist has tended to come from children’s literature specialists who have not, on the whole, drawn on the broader critical or theoretical work available to poetry scholars.
By contrast, we do have a substantial body of specific theory for children’s narrative literature, and a reasonably well established set of distinguishing traits (Nikolajeva 2005; Nodelman 2008; Rudd 2013). Often sweepingly attributed to ‘children’s literature’, these theories are in fact derived from analysis of novels and picturebooks – and whether they apply to children’s poetry, or whether there is even a similar, corresponding set of distinctions, seems far from clear. A good deal of children’s literature theory is premised on the construction or interpellation of ‘the child’, and that, as I shall argue, is problematic for children’s poetry. Equally, children’s literature criticism has tended to prefer ideological, social and thematic issues to aesthetics (Thomas 2011), resulting in an approach which tends to steer debate in directions less conducive to the consideration of poetry. Contemplating this state of affairs, Flynn complains, with justification, that he is ‘less comfortable with the seeming conflation of narrative theory with all serious approaches to children’s texts’ and ‘increasingly weary of the project of defining children’s literature and creating taxonomies that place fiction at the top of the hierarchy, while marginalising genres that are not primarily or exclusively narrative’ (Flynn 2012: 113). However, the dominance of narrative within the critical field is not something peculiar to children’s literature. Several scholars in the wider literary field find that it has become the norm there, too (Aviram 1994; Culler 2008; Furniss and Bath 2007). Narrative, Jonathan Culler observes, is treated ‘not as one possible literary form but as the very condition of experience, which is made intelligible by narrative form that traces causal sequence and represents experience as something accomplished and able to be narrated’ (Culler 2008: 201). The problem here is that narrative theory, or narratology, is not suited to poetry; similarly, critical theory, as poet and critic Helen Vendler has observed, ‘operates better on the wider sweep of narrative, philosophical writing and drama; it has not found useful (for its purposes) the privacy of lyric space’ (Vendler 2004: 6). Hence, children’s literature critics used to swimming strongly in the clear flow of narrative fiction often seem to find themselves stranded when they enter the muddy puddles of poetry.
The effects of this theoretical lacuna are evident both in the lack of children’s poetry criticism in general and in criticism that fails to get much purchase on its subject, some of which could just as well have been written about the same text in prose form. What I therefore hope to offer is a theoretical perspective for productive thinking about a children’s poem – a perspective grounded in the nature of poetry itself.
Critically speaking, children’s poetry is a contested term, and definition is a problem that has so far confounded both poets and critics (Grenby 2008; Hunt 2009b). Defeat was officially declared by the general committee of the 2000 Signal Poetry Award, reporting on the year’s new children’s anthologies: ‘where four or five dozen were gathered together, they announced a corporate uncertainty on the fairly fundamental question of what a children’s poem actually is’ (Hollindale 2000: 367). Some have tried to distinguish a children’s poem by its formal qualities, suggesting, for example, that it exhibits ‘a clarity of thought, language and rhythm’ (Benton 1997: 105); some by the child-appeal of its subject matter (Jurich 2006); some by the idea that it is characterized by a special quality of sense perception (Benton 1997; Philip 1996); and some precisely by its lack of appeal for adults (Hunt 2010). Some seem to have given up the struggle altogether: another children’s literature primer points to the ‘hybrid and miscellaneous nature of the category’ as ‘the real barrier to thinking about such poetry in generic terms’ (Watson 2009: 200).
But if children’s poetry is hard to distinguish in theory, in practice things are more straightforward. Following Matthew Grenby’s (2009) line of defining children’s literature as a commercial product, children’s poetry may be thought of as poems expressly written for children, or published for children, or both. On this count, the boundaries around children’s poetry are in fact rather more secure than those around children’s fiction. That is not to say there is no border-crossing: many children’s anthologies include poems not originally written for children (some because of editors’ anxieties about the quality of children’s poetry); many anthologies of poetry for adults have admitted children’s poems. And in the last thirty years or so, children have also partici- pated as gatekeepers, selecting poems for publications such as I Like this Poem (Webb 1979) and The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead (2013). But if we take a children’s poem to be one that has appeared in a single-poet volume of work explicitly published for a child audience, then, with one or two exceptions, the lines of separation become reasonably clear.
Mind and body
Poetry is a multimodal art form whose deepest roots lie in the acoustic. This is especially true for children’s poetry, whose primary medium is sound, and whose instrument is the human voice. The immediate implication of this is that it requires us to think about the real reader, as well as the implied reader, and about the voice, body and mind of that reader. A poem is also an artefact whose structures and designs have demonstrable correlations with the mind whence it proceeds (Vendler 2004), and I base my argument on an understanding of poetry as the product of an individual, embodied mind. My approach is therefore an eclectic one that looks beyond the bounds of tradi- tional literary study, which has tended to ignore both the human minds (and bodies) that produce and read texts as well as the mediating effects of text itself. In this, I follow a lead taken by David Fuller, who argues for a ‘properly engaged mode of criticism’ that will ‘convey more explicitly how perceptions of art arise from experience and feed back into it’, a criticism that has to be ‘a subject without boundaries’, for which ‘system is never enough’ and ‘eclec- ticism is essential’ (Fuller 2011: 9–12). My own eclectic approach draws on theories of neuroscience and cognition. By cognition, I also mean affect, since the long-held division between intellect and emotion, like the mind–body dualism, is increasingly seen as unviable. By neuroscience, I mean that I am drawing on scientific insights into brain function. In doing this, however, I do not wish to construct the reading brain as something apart from the reader, as if the reader were somehow outside or alongside the brain, or to conflate brain and mind in a way that results in the mind becoming mechanistic. What we speak of as mind is contingent on both brain and body.
In particular, I draw on the insights afforded by the work of Iain McGilchrist (2009) on the divided brain, an analysis that, though it begins at the level of physical brain structure, ultimately offers a magisterial account of human existence and experience. This is a model that allows for continuities between mind and body, between text and embodied mind, between adult and child. Most helpfully for my argument, it allows me to bring poetry, theories of language, and the mind and body of the real child into the same frame.
This book has its origins in a research project on children’s poetry, in which I undertook an in-depth analysis of the work of seven children’s poets. My selection criteria were that the work should be written in English by British writers; should have been first published as poetry for children; and should be by established poets with a reasonably substantial or significant body of children’s poems.2, 3 Additionally, though the sample was small, I attempted to represent both male and female writers, a range of historical periods, and a variety of poetic forms and traditions. And although children’s poetry is less age-specific than narrative fiction, I included poems for younger and older children.4 The corpus comprised Christina Rossetti (1872), Ted Hughes (1961–93), Charles Causley (1970–94), Michael Rosen (1974–2009), John Agard (1990–2011), Philip Gross (1993–2011) and Carol Ann Duffy (1999–2009).5 As well as reading every poem within each poet’s work for children, I conducted a panoptic analysis of the entire corpus.6 I then selected a number of poems from each poet for a set of initial close readings. Alongside this intensive work on the seven-poet corpus, I read extensively across the whole field of children’s poetry, both from single-poet volumes and from anthologies.7 Spreading the net as widely as possible, I took in everything from nursery rhymes and moralizing verse of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to contemporary work of the twenty-first. Again, from this wider pool, a number of poems were selected for close reading. My argument is therefore developed from a broad familiarity with British children’s poetry and from a deep knowledge of a handful of poets. My analysis encompasses what might be seen as more literary works, poems that offer the child reader richness, complexity and challenge. It also embraces nursery, finger and action rhymes, as well as the lesson and laughter of moralizing and comic verse. (Though, as my argument will indicate, these two categories are not mutually exclusive.) It covers any poetry, in fact, composed for a child audience.
I have said that poetry is a multimodal art form whose acoustic and phonic dimensions are fundamental, but these are aspects conspicuously neglected in criticism (and in many, though not all, classrooms). If we are literary critics, we are accustomed to the silence of the page; we look at what is before us and we theorize (literally, from the Greek, theoreo – ‘to look at’). We tend to think of literary analysis, as with any academic discipline, as requiring a certain objective distance. In the case of the poem on the page, it is quite literally held before us at arm’s length. This is a necessary part of the exercise, but only part. Counterintuitively perhaps, to apprehend poetry’s effects, the distance needs to be reduced. We need to bring the words up close, to hold them within rather than without. Thus, in line with my understanding of poetry as sound and as existing in the body, my analytic practice has been to engage with the poems through reading aloud (even if quietly!). I also committed some of them to memory, so that the tracks of sound were laid down in my mind and body.8 In other words, I endeavoured to give myself an immersive, embodied experience of the work. I would very much like to encourage you, my reader, to take a similar approach, and to read the quoted lines of poetry out loud. Equally, a poem is best appreciated in its entirety. For reasons outlined in the Preface, I have not been able to display all the lines of every poem discussed, but I hope you might feel sufficiently inspired to seek out and to read – aloud! – these examples and others.
The ever-present risk with literary theory is that, counterproductively, it makes literature less, not more, fascinating. The literary critic who knows what to look for in a text will usually find precisely that, rather than what is most interesting or significant about it. McGilchrist, in his capacity as a literary scholar, ventured some very searching criticism of criticism: ‘literary philosophies which ignore individuality are not only very badly adapted to their subjects. Objective or subjective, they effectively make the means – the theoretical framework– more important than the ends’ (McGilchrist 1982: 242). I would hope that any theoretical perspective I adopt might be consistent with the position of the ‘organic critic’ as outlined by McGilchrist: one that facilitates criticism which points to the uniqueness of a work of art and the complexity of that uniqueness. So I go forth in some trepidation, hoping that, ultimately, the analyses I offer will indeed point away from themselves and into the poems. Constructing theory is a tricky business, especially when the theory concerns language itself: ‘to be forced to use language to show the limitations of language is like being asked to demonstrate the existence of daylight by drawing it’. It therefore ‘has to make its points by reticence: by what it implies, by what it does not say, and be what it asserts not to be the case’ (ibid.). But language is all I have.
In the first chapter of this book, I stake out the ground of my argument, establishing some points of intersection between poetry, language and the child. I begin by highlighting differences between the lyric and narrative modes, and their implications for the relationship between the poem and the child. An exploration of some commonalities between primal language, the language of infancy and poetic language is preceded by an overview of Iain McGilchrist’s work on the divided brain, which underpins this argument and feeds into discussions in subsequent chapters.
In Chapter 2, I consider what happens if we take children’s poetry as an essentially phonic art form. Borrowing from orality–literacy theory, I inves- tigate the ways in which the ‘psychodynamics of orality’ play out in poetry for children. I suggest that they may offer a productive way of reading these works and reveal their relationship with the child.
Next, having largely ignored the way in which the words of poems appear on the page, listening instead to their rhythms and rhymes in order to inves- tigate their oral and aural dimensions, in Chapter 3 I bring the text itself into focus. Here, I examine the interplay between a poem’s visual and spatial representation and the poem as a whole, multimodal form. Even if, as I argue, children’s poetry is inflected by oral-culture mentality, it is mediated by text.
And this written or printed form is not an inert carrier, but has shapes of its own that interact with the poetry’s sonic and phonic forms. My investigation into children’s poetry’s relationship with textuality begins with the period, in the eighteenth century, in which compositions of childhood oral culture began the gradual transition into print. We will look at what happens when poetry moves off the tongue into text, and when phonic forms metamor- phose into graphic ones. From an analysis of the variety of ways in which the forms of poetry interact with the forms of text, I propose a possible typology of signification for children’s poetry. I also examine the special place of the alphabet as the site of transition. As the gateway through which a child passes from a state of orality to a state of literacy, it is a symbolic object with which children’s poetry has a very long-standing but also changing relationship. To conclude this discussion about the children’s poem on the page, I consider three works whose subject is the written poem. Portraying poetry as a textual form, composition as an act of writing, and reading as reading from the page, these poems construct relationships amongst the poet, the poem and the reader that reflect the particular distances of text.
In the concluding chapter, I attempt to draw some of these threads together, examining their implications for the criticism of children’s poetry and offering some principles for reading a children’s poem, for connecting tongue and text, body and book.
I have not assumed knowledge of technical terms, and offer a glossary at the end. Glossed words appear in italic at first mention.
And NEXT is an extract – both are published here with Debbie Pullinger’s permission. Thanks Debbie! Any typos are my fault, I was copying in from a PDF and had to remove some extra bits that came in here with it. Debbie this is SUCH A FASCINATING BOOK!!! Please everyone – if you know an academic, University, anyone – who may be interested in the subject – please do pass this on to them.
Donald Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object explains how another rift – that between mother and child – is negotiated, as the child moves from dependence to independence. The human infant comes into the world unable to distinguish between ‘me’ and ‘not me’, unaware of where self ends and mother begins. But then comes the painful process of separation, which is assisted, according to Winnicott, by ‘transitional objects’ and ‘transitional phenomena’. He describes how an object, such as a blanket or teddy, acts as an intermediate area of experience – a ‘holding environment’ – which the child perceives as both ‘me’ and ‘not me’. The unsuspecting teddy is therefore a means by which child and parent can paradoxically (and often uncon- sciously) hold onto each other and let go at the same time. The transition may thus be smoothed by such physical objects, but the same process may be effected by other, non-physical things, or ‘phenomena’. Winnicott goes on to say that
an infant’s babbling and the way in which an older child goes over a repertory of songs and tunes while preparing for sleep come within the intermediate area as transitional phenomena, along with the use made of objects that are not part of the infant’s body yet are not fully recognized as belonging to external reality. (Winnicott 1991: 2)
In this description, we can recognize the infant monologue or ‘songstrie’ – the child’s first effort at artistic creation – and Winnicott believes that works of art continue in a similar role for adults. He states, ‘it is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience’ (Winnicott 1991: 13). At any age, then, a work of art may act as a holding environment for ideas and emotions. To change metaphors again, a poem performs its act of conciliation by being a container.32 The form of the container is clearly marked by the boundaries between sound and silence, between black and white. By its particular nature, poetry performs this act in some distinctive ways.
At the most fundamental level, poems contain us physically through their existence in the medium of sound. We tend to speak of the five senses as if they were all straightforwardly different ways of apprehending the world – like viewing something from five different angles. But putting them all into the same category of ‘sense’ is somehow to diminish the qualitative differ- ences between them, to gloss over their particularities, and to suggest that each one operates on and within human experience in a somehow equivalent way. Nothing could be further from the truth; each has a different kind of relationship to the human body and also to the other senses. Sight and hearing, in particular, tend to be seen as parallel channels but work in entirely different ways. To convey this radical difference, John Hollander suggests that ‘if one were to diagram the way in which the two senses cut through language, the eye and the ear would be axes at right angles to each other’ (Hollander 1975: 248). As compared with our other senses, sound has a distinctive relationship to interiority. Walter Ong observes that ‘whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer … I am at the centre of my auditory world, which envelops me’ (Ong 2002: 71). Whereas visual images are always experienced as without and at a distance, sound is always within: it penetrates the body, is felt in the blood and along the heart (or bone).
In a very real sense, sound is our first sense. Through sound, we had our first intimations of a world outside ourselves while we were in the womb: a beating heart, the thud of footsteps, the music of a voice. It is significant that these are all sounds with distinctive patterns, or rhythm. As Richard Berengarten observes, rhythm itself is ‘precisely, the patterning of regularity, repetition, ritual’ which all contribute to the sense of familiarity and of the primary familial condition of the foetus in the womb (Berengarten 2015). To feel all these in our bodies may be therefore to connect, at some deep, subcon- scious level, with our very first sensory perceptions in the womb, to be once again safely held. Moreover, the effect appears to be amplified by the medium of the human voice – a sound to which we react to as to no other. Research has indicated that every baby arrives in the world with a preference for the human voice over other sounds, and fully equipped to distinguish between individual speakers (Vouloumanos and Werker 2004). The voice can feel almost tactile in the way that it acts on our bodies. Language researcher William Condon describes how we’re almost in auditory touch. When I speak to you, my thoughts are trans- lated into muscle movements and then into airwaves that hit your ear, and your eardrum starts to oscillate in absolute synchrony with my voice. (Condon, in Douglis 1987: 40)
The containing effect of sound and the human voice is then amplified further by poetic form – as can be heard in some of the most popular nursery rhymes. In this one, for example, it is blindingly obvious:
Three blind mice.
Three blind mice.
See how they run.
See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife. Did you ever see such a thing in your life As three blind mice?
This is pretty gruesome stuff on anyone’s level – mice, farmer’s wives or implied bystanders. But the potentially distressing little narrative is tightly held within a highly patterned formal structure that includes frequent repetition, rhymes and assonance, and a carefully controlled rhythm. Within this imposed order, however, the growing threat of disorder simultaneously creates the tension that holds it all together. In the first two lines, the static image and solid rhythm work to anchor the poem. Through the parallel between the numbers of mice and beats, they also imply a solid relationship between sound and sense. The next pair of lines set both mice and rhythm tripping along before the galloping, accelerating rhythm and escalating disorder of lines five to seven. In the end, nothing is really resolved from a narrative point of view, and the bodies of the mice are permanently fragmented. And yet, the disruption in the middle is securely enclosed by the repeated line, and, prosodically, we are returned home. In this as in many other rhymes, an assemblage of parts held together by both tensions and harmonies works, and is felt, metaphori- cally as a container. These strong rhythms and melodies are characteristic of nursery rhymes across different cultures and language, ‘as if babies were teaching adults some universal principle of rhythm’ (Karpf 2006: 71). Coats suggests that these rhymes may work to contain through conceptual content as well as form (Coats 2013). But apart from the perfectly exemplary ‘Baby Bunting’, which wraps the baby in rabbit fur and in words, there are few whose theme seems quite so explicit. More typically, like ‘Three Blind Mice’, they stage some kind of fragmentation or disruption of individual bodies. It is as if they enact rupture between language and the body in order to enact containment through its form. The drama of disruption and containment is perhaps nowhere so clearly enacted as in these infant rhymes, but as bodies of language, all poems work metaphorically to assure us that we, too, will hold together. And in the literate world, this aural experience has a visual metaphor, as the shape of the poem appears, boxlike, on the page.
The poem, then, is a form of human dimensions whose rhythms are the rhythms of the body, which may act as a container for our very selves. To adjust the metaphor slightly, it may also offer us a space in which to move around and explore. Something of this idea echoes through the word stanza, which comes from the Latin for ‘room’. In a project that set out to investigate the value of a memorized poem, we interviewed several people who, when asked about their experience of the poems they knew by heart, described them as containers for feeling and ideas. Typically, they articulated their experience in very physical terms: ‘I seemed to come to know the poem from inside,’ said one, ‘as if it were a landscape that I had to navigate with my eyes closed, learning where the dips and climbs were, when to turn left or right, and what outcrops to avoid; it felt very physical.’32 The safety of the container allows the risk of exploration.
Finally, though the circumscribed form of a poem works to contain us, it is also true that conversely, poems themselves are very containable. Soaked up as sound or pocketed as print, a poem may readily be taken into the heart or the hands. It cuts both ways. Like the word, the words of the poem seem to say: ‘abide in me and I will abide in you’.34
Out of the box
I have argued here that, for the young child, poetry works to contain and reassure – and so I believe it does. Coats goes further, suggesting that in this respect, poetry for children is the exact opposite of poetry for adults: whereas children’s poetry has ‘the goal of establishing representation as a familiar site in which to live our bodies’, adult poetry ‘takes defamiliarization as its goal’. Moreover, she suggests that what we don’t want to face is that such interpre- tation is ‘in itself an effacement of the true meaning of children’s poetry, which … is at least partly to connect the body to language in a material and sensual, rather than linguistically or conceptually meaningful, way’ (Coats 2013: 137). Whilst I agree that children’s poetry does connect the body to language in this way, and whilst it typically plays conspicuously on the senses, I do not think that the ‘material and the sensual’ can so easily be separated from ‘linguisti- cally and conceptually meaningful’. Their interrelationship is very much of the essence: as McGilchrist says, ‘too great [an] emphasis on the sound and feel of words as “things” separate from their meaning, or alternatively on the meaning as something separate from the sound and feel of the words in which it exists, destroys poetry’ (McGilchrist 2010: 373). If, as I have argued above, poetic language is deeply connected to the body, meaning in all its facets is conveyed through the material and the sensual in interaction with the linguistic and conceptual. I also suggest that the relationship between familiarization and defamiliarization is not as straightforward as this propo- sition assumes. A recognized dichotomy in poetry, it has been described, for example, as a tension between comprehension and apprehension (Guite 2010), between the ‘solar’ (or ‘prime meaning’) and the ‘lunar’ (or resonant meaning) (Maxwell 2012). And although there are poems that capitulate to one or other end of the continuum, they are not mutually exclusive. Malcolm Guite suggests that a mark of when a poem ‘succeeds’ is often when ‘the knowable form of its comprehended language, the glassy surface of its mirror of imitation, is suddenly a window that lets us pass through into the new world the poet has apprehended’ (Guite 2010: 58). As I hope to demonstrate in Chapters 2 and 3, there are children’s poems that, even as they create a secure and familiar room in language, open a window onto a new world.
In this chapter, I have been circling around the question of the child in children’s poetry. Through considerations of the nature of poetry and the relationship between the child and language, I have arrived at a number of conclusions about what this might mean for poetry’s relationship with the child.
First, poetry’s medium is sound: the medium through which we have our first intimation of the world outside ourselves and of our first attempts at artistic expression. A poem, we might say, speaks children’s language.
Second, I have argued that whereas children’s narratives relate to childhood in narrative’s defining elements, in children’s poetry that relationship is found precisely in the essence of the lyric mode. It is the representation, through a musical language, of thought or an event in consciousness. And if a poem is in one sense a live investigation in and through language into the connection between language and experience, it is engaged in a primary task of childhood.
Next, if poetry can be understood as a ‘verbal icon’, whose acoustic (or visual) forms are peculiarly present to us, this is also the condition of language for the young child, for whom words have not yet acquired full transparency. Interestingly, children often seem less bothered than adults by not knowing what a poem ‘means’, being content to enter it in a relationship of trust, to enjoy its musical effects and mysterious images. This may be partly because young children are used to having to take things on trust; it might also be because, in their sound-dominated world, they find particular pleasure in the form and feel of words, for young children are used to operating on the borders between word-form and meaning – which is where the peculiar rewards of poetry are found.,
Crucially, poetry’s language has its roots in primal language, which, it appears, conveyed emotion in the mode of metaphor and through the medium of music. This primal, poetic language is the language of infancy. It is also a language that, at any stage of life, has the power to carry us back over the gap created by language itself, back to lived, embodied experience. Poetry has the power to return both children and adults to the place where language and the body are felt not as irreconcilable facets of experience but as funda- mentally interconnected.
Thus, individual poems may act as containers. Their forms hold our feelings and our selves. Their structures contain our unknowings and uncer- tainties until such time as meaning fully unfolds. Again, this can be true of poems at any stage of life, but rhymes and songs in childhood may play a very distinct role in the child’s developing sense of self in relation to language and the world. In this way, in Coats’ definitive and memorable statement, ‘children’s poetry is what children’s poetry does’.
Finally, whilst both sides of the brain are involved in all aspects of cognition (including writing, speaking and hearing poetry), poetic elements are processed and understood predominantly by the right hemisphere. It is, moreover, the right hemisphere – which is able to see holistically and accommodate paradox – that integrates the various elements in order for us to experience the total effect of a poem. As a language of emotion, music, metaphor, connotation, ambiguity and the body, poetry is a language of the right cerebral hemisphere, which is also the more active and developed in the young child.
Tact and tactility
In his book Landmarks (2015), Robert Macfarlane proposes the phrase tactful language to denote a special kind of language that would enable us to listen again to nature, to evoke those aspects of our experience of the natural world that defy description, to regain a sense of wonder and enchantment. As I read this, it struck me that there is something about the nature of Macfarlane’s tactful language which resonates deeply with the nature of the language of childhood. Primal language, the language of infancy, poetic language – all, perhaps, are varieties of tactful language. Indeed, as I then discovered in the closing chapter, Macfarlane’s quest for just such a language ends with a foray to the woods with a group of children. There, the ‘children’s explorations of place were also, of course, explorations of and in language’, and the utterances they produced ‘gracefully accurate … rarely required extension’. This language – ‘subtle in its intricacies and rich in metaphors’ – he proposes as a completely separate language: Childish (Macfarlane 2015: 326–7).
Tactful language, then, is a ‘language to hand’. It gathers meaning from the rich etymology lying beneath the word tact: ‘a quiet reminder of the relationship between tactfulness and tactility, between touch and ethics’ (Macfarlane 2015: 34–5).35
Etymology: Latin tactus touch, participial stem of tangĕre to touch:
1a. The sense of touch; touch.
1b. Fig A keen faculty of perception or discrimination likened to the sense of touch.
2. Ready and delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others. 3. The act of touching or handling; an instance of this, a touch.
4. Music. A stroke in beating time. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Building on the definition of tact ‘as due attention, as tenderness of encounter, as rightful tactility’, Macfarlane offers:
Tactful language, then, would be language which sings (is lyric), which touches (is born of contact with the lived and felt world), which touches us (affects) and which keeps time – recommending thereby an equality of measure and a keen faculty of perception. (Macfarlane 2015: 35)
Here, it seems to me, are some clear points of resonance with the type of language I have been attempting to describe, which is the language of children’s poetry.
Tactful language is insistently physical; it ‘keeps us from slipping off into abstract space’ (Macfarlane 2015: 32). Born of the body and of sensed experience of the world, it keeps contact with both. It conspires to create a sense of both physical and emotional touch: it strokes our hands and our hearts. In infant rhymes, the connection between language and the body is evident and a defining feature, but in children’s poetry more generally, the prominence of sound and musicality (or, in print, the emphasis on the visual aesthetic) often works in a similarly characteristic way.
Tactful language is born of a particular kind of ‘precision’ which, for Macfarlane (following the poet Marianne Moore), is not to be confused with a scientific precision, but is the kind of truth-perception that comes from a particular kind of patient attention, and activates imagination and metaphorical modes of understanding. It allows the subject to ‘talk back’ and ‘helps us to listen’ (Macfarlane 2015: 32). This seems to me to be a right- hemisphere, rather than a left-hemisphere, precision. McGilchrist says that all the philosophical categories by which we understand the world are understood in different ways by the two hemispheres, ‘like the left-hand and right-hand worlds seen by Alice on either side of the looking glass’ (McGilchrist 2009: 169). Thus, many familiar words (his worked examples are belief, familiarity and will) can be seen to have both a right- and a left-hemisphere inflected version. Tactful precision is therefore a position of humility, in the true sense of the word: a right (and right-hemispheric) relation to the world which is characterized by curiosity, openness to whatever is, and the desire to under- stand – to stand under. The qualities of humble attention, truth-telling and imagination could be seen as common to the making of all poetry, but might be most needed in children’s poetry.
Tactful language is musical language. The ‘stroke’ of the definition refers to the movement of the conductor’s hand – a physical demonstration of the music’s beat. (There is a satisfying connection, too, between the metrical beat and the soothing touch.) Musicality is an acknowledged strength of children’s poetry. Maxwell suggests that ‘poems primarily strong in music … beautiful verse like “Jabberwocky” or the “The Dong with the Luminous Nose”’ are ‘where kids should start’ (2012: 32). Certainly, everything I have said about primal language supports this idea. I’m not sure, however, that poems strong in music are necessarily weak in substance. Like familiarization and defamiliarization, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. The presence of a strong prosodic line may fool us into thinking that the musical resonance is not matched by the semantic resonance. But again, as I hope to show, some highly prosodic rhymes that appear to be all surface can reveal surprising depths.
Tactful language highlights the connection between attention and time. It has been observed that in a poem everything becomes present at the same time (Collins 1991). Its parts, though relentlessly sequential, are also all present simultaneously. This simultaneity has the effect of slowing down the running of time. It is as if we have slipped out of time, or perhaps into a different quality of time – very much like music, which takes place in time and also has the effect of making us stand outside time (McGilchrist 2009; Steiner 1989). Young children, similarly, have a different quality of relationship with time. This quality of attention that makes hours seem like moments and moments like hours is childhood’s time, and perhaps also lyric’s time.36 And lyric’s time can be slow in another sense. The implied reader of a poem is always a reader through time. It is commonly understood that, as Ruth Padel writes, ‘most good poems want to give, to communicate, something complex, and not be understood all at once’ (Padel 2010: 66). According to the poet Charles Causley, poetry’s time can be very slow indeed: ‘If, say, 80 per cent of a poem comes across, let us be satisfied. The remainder, with luck, will unfold during the rest of our lives’ (Causley 1966: 91). A children’s poem may therefore be heard, ultimately, as a declaration of faith in the audience – not only in the child audience but in the adult that the child will become. Indeed, adults who have enjoyable encounters with poetry as children tend to find that those poems still in their memory now contain within them rich memories of time and place (Pullinger and Whitley 2016).37
Finally, tactful language is a language that is responsive to others. It is born out of an encounter in which we ‘return to a pre-economic state in which things can be “tendered” … that is treated with tenderness’. It is characterized by self-giving and generosity, but at the same time its formality creates ‘a certain reticence born of watching and waiting’ (Macfarlane 2015: 33–4). Similarly, children’s poetry is always in relationship with and responsive to the child, predicated not so much on relations of unequal power as on a sense of response and responsibility. The relation between poet and reader, poem and audience, is ultimately one of love and trust, bounded by the respectful forms of poetic language.