Finding the Sweet Spot
Much of what we call poetry written for children might more accurately be termed as verse; words which engage and entertain the reader, written in regular rhythm and with full end-rhymes. It’s a what you read is what you get type of experience. There’s a pleasure to be had from reading or hearing well-crafted verse that scans as it intends and that uses language in deft, comforting or amusing ways.
Children are particularly drawn to the reading, listening and performing of verse. Its predictable aural patterns tend to lodge in their memory, too. But it is much harder for them to write effectively. The technical skills needed to maintain a coherent idea through extended rhyme and rhythm is tricky for all but the most practised and enthusiastic junior poet. Happily, I was that kind of child. The following poem was written by my 11 year old self about the bus journey I took to school. I’d never shown it to anyone, but kept it safe, eventually including it in my second collection, for reader interest. It’s not particularly good poetry, or even ‘Poetry’ for that matter – it’s simply verse that was relatively crafted for its time.
The 20a Bus
In the line you hear a chatter
Up and down a clatter, clatter.
Noisy schoolgirls scream and shout
pushing in and pushing out.
Down the street the red bus trundles.
Girls surge forward all in bundles.
On at last, but what a rush
Banged my elbows in the crush.
‘I don’t know what it’s coming to’
said the lady with big buttons, who
had a habit to pursue
the trivial things young children do.
And when the bus stops in the street
I kick her underneath the seat
And when the lady stops her chat
I pull the cherries from her hat.
Poetry in its purer form, is a more exploratory art. It’s a voyage of discovery into the unknown. Its aim is to alter our perceptions and to linger in our mind beyond its reading. We might return to these poems and find new or deeper meaning from them.
The writing of such poetry raises different technical questions. How can we ensure musicality without necessarily relying on the tools of strict metre and end-rhyme? How do we utilise line breaks or the space on the page for full effect? What ‘stepping stones’ (images, concepts, concrete details etc) will we put in place to guide the reader through the reading of it? How subtle the inference and how abstract the ideas, given the poem’s intended audience?
I’m a poet who enjoys all the challenges that writing for varying ages brings, from crafting a jaunty rhyming picture book text through to (almost) ‘adult’ poetry. But I’ve always been particularly interested in the elusive sweet spot between worlds; the poem written for children, that has a surface lyrical simplicity but which offers up a more subtle interpretation for the older reader. Or the poem that pitches itself perfectly in content & complexity between the tail end of childhood and early adult readership.
And occasionally, I stumble across poetry written with the adult in mind, that a child reader might possibly access and relate to. The following short poem by Esther Morgan, is a personal favourite for this reason. It’s superficially simple, and could (almost) have been written by a child. And that is part of its mastery.
The Long Holidays
The day stretches ahead – nothing but
grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky
as far as the eye can see
nothing but sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass
and the wind galloping hard over the fields
like a riderless horse.
If you’re interested, here’s a wonderful close reading of the poem in a blogpost by the poet George Szirtes.
Rachel’s most recent collection A Kid in My Class (Illustrated by Chris Ridell, Otter-Barry) was shortlisted for the CLiPPA and has just won the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award for poetry 2019. A rhyming picture book The Problem with Problems, illustrated by Zehra Hicks (Anderson) is out March 2020 and a poetry collection aimed for older girls is due in 2021 (Otter – Barry).