Kyra Ho: Who is ‘Children’s Poetry’ Really For?

At the age of 9 I knew the following about ‘children’s poetry’: rhyme and rhythm and the recognisable can soothe the grown-up as much as the growing-up.

My grandma used to drive me to primary school. On particularly bright winter mornings she’d take issue with the sun’s position in the sky, pull over to the side of the road, and wait for it to move. As I became steadily later to school, she’d have me sing the same song (and a song is a poem and a poem a song) over and over.  Mr. Tumble’s ‘There’s a Worm at the Bottom of the Garden’ is now burnt into my brain. But it is not the act of reciting that I remember: it is the change in my grandma’s face and mood after hearing it. I have no memories of children’s poetry in an academic context, but I remember needing it and it being needed as a bridge to a loved one in a distant moment.

Readers of this blog know the support and spread of children’s poetry to be vital. It’s difficult to argue against young people getting to grips with a form of self-expression, cultural engagement, tool of empathy, world of wonder, etc.  And yes, children need children’s poetry, but what I’ve been learning during my time with The Poetry Society’s Education team is that grown-ups need it just as much. We find children reading, reciting, explaining, and falling in love with poetry so adorable that I’m starting to think it might be trialled as an alternative medicine.

Two experiences during my time with The Poetry Society stand out in particular:

Every year, The Poetry Society runs Look North More Often, an education project celebrating the gift of the Christmas tree from the Mayor of Oslo and the Norwegian Embassy in Trafalgar Square. They commission a children’s poet to write a poem for the occasion which students from a local primary school recite at the annual ceremony – after some coaching from another children’s poet. This year, I got to meet everyone involved and interview the children about how they found the experience for a Poetry Society podcast. I got to hear them recite Kate Wakeling’s ‘and a tree’ more times than I can count and ask them what the poem meant to them. I got to see and hear people who have been on this earth for less than a decade get excited about words! If that’s not lovely, what on earth is?

Another experience that I can’t seem to get out of my head is reading the entries to Young Poets Network’s (many and varied) challenges set for 5-25 year olds.  A particular challenge, ‘Your Name is a Poem’ in collaboration with Modern Poetry in Translation, asked for poems about the meanings of a name. I couldn’t believe how many primary school children were entering the competition with nomenclature-based musings that were, actually, pretty beautiful. Several times I had to ask whether they were likely to have been written by parents seeking glory instead, the response to which was always ‘no’. I’d love to list all the lines of (actual) children’s poetry that gave me that ‘oh that’s a good way of saying something’ feeling, but you can see them all here anyway.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learnt from my short time with Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society’s projects with children’s poetry is something we’ve always known: children should never be underestimated. Their love for poetry is as much our gain as it is theirs.

Kyra Ho

Kyra Ho is a Publishing and Participation Trainee with The Poetry Society. She recently completed her master’s in Francophone and Hispanophone poetry and runs a podcast dedicated to poetry in translation: In Another Voice.