Joshua Seigal: What is Children’s Poetry?

Ah, that old chestnut. Many gallons of academic ink have doubtless been spilled in the attempt to proffer some kind of answer. I say ‘academic’, because a satisfactory crack at the question invites a labyrinthine discussion about what poetry is, and what ‘children’ means, and so forth. What I have to offer here will not be an academic discussion; rather, I will adumbrate some thoughts based on my ongoing writing of two poetry collections, one ostensibly for grown-ups, the other to be marketed to children.

The main thing I am learning is that the boundary between children’s poetry and other poetry is incredibly murky. It can’t really be delineated by an appeal to theme as, in my experience, many adults appreciate poetry that deals with light-hearted themes, whilst children can certainly access poetry that tackles big, deep issues. Nor will an appeal to style suffice: children often love jaunty rhythms and rhymes, but then so do plenty of adults.

One might think that the two types of poetry make use of different lexicons, and that ‘grown up’ poetry uses words and allusions that children wouldn’t understand. This may be true in some cases, but the pair of manuscripts that I am currently working on subverts this expectation somewhat: in the children’s book I go all out with my vocabulary, and the introduction even includes a recommendation that children read the book with a dictionary, or Google, ready to hand. In the grown-up book I very much aim to pare down my vocabulary, and to resist the inclination to use a fancy word where a common one will do. I sort of aim to encourage children to reach for the stars, whilst bringing adults firmly down to earth.

Ultimately, I think that whether or not a particular piece counts as a ‘children’s poem’ comes down to context. Notice how I very deliberately used the word ‘marketed’ in the opening paragraph. In many cases, this seems to be the determining factor. If you show a poem to children, and they get something out of it, then it is a children’s poem. Similarly with adults. Indeed, there are a couple of poems that I hope to use in both the children’s and grown-ups’ books. I know that children and adults might well take slightly different things from the poems, but I hope they will each take something. Here, then, is a poem that appears in both collections.

I Found It

on his desk last thing

on the Friday afternoon, and assumed

it was from his kids, or wife.

Glancing inside, however, I read –

Happy Birthday Jack, Love Mum.

Only then did I see him in a different light,

the crumpled trousers and wonky tie

no longer those of a teacher

but of someone’s child.

His name was Jack and he had a mum,

a mum who gave him birthday cards.

I figured he must have put it there

to remind himself, through the fog

of our cruelty, of the lighthouse of her love.

We, all of us, are children –

I touched this truth and felt it burn

as I snuck from the classroom

out into the sun.

Is this a ‘children’s poem’? Well, ‘[w]e, all of us, are children’; children are hopefully elevated by the knowledge that, poetically speaking, they are no more ‘little’ than adults; adults meanwhile have their ‘grown up’ pretensions quashed. Poetry is the leveller.

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader based in London. His latest collection, Welcome To My Crazy Life, is published by Bloomsbury, and he was the recipient of the 2020 Laugh Out Loud Book Award. Please visit http://www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.