Rebecca O’Connor: Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021

Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021

I fell in love with poetry when my aunt and uncle gave me a gift of Enid Blyton’s Treasury of Verse for my seventh birthday. At the age of eight, I started to write. Though the inspiration ebbs and flows, it has been a constant in my life. But only on a couple of occasions have I attempted to write for children. I am amply qualified, you’d think, as a parent and a published poet and an editor of a literature magazine for children – but it was so much more difficult than I could have imagined.

This has given me a real appreciation for the ones who get it right. They make it look so easy, that’s the thing. But you have to have all the right attributes – a gift for music, a riotous imagination and an ability to connect with children, not speak down to them. A sense of humour doesn’t hurt either. But nor is it any harm to go to places that are less than comfortable, to write of loneliness or anxiety. The rest of course is just hard graft. And that’s where I see a lot of poets fall down. They just haven’t put the work in. It seems so obvious, but a poem for a child should be just as good as one written for adults. It should require drafting and redrafting. Relying solely on a bouncy rhyme to carry your reader along isn’t going to cut the mustard. We shouldn’t underestimate the child as reader. They are much harsher critics than adults. They know what they like, and they can see through a fake. The really good poets know that.

Ultimately, my attempts to write for children failed – the tone wasn’t right, I couldn’t make the lines sing – but I’m happy I tried. Perhaps I was too conscious of the fact that I was writing for children, wasn’t able to put that aside, or put my adult self aside. It does seem that some people have an ability to keep one foot in childhood, and they can tap into that part of themselves when they write. My husband Will certainly has it. He can make up truly captivating stories for our children at the drop of a hat, and has done so nightly for many years. None of them have been set down on paper or recorded, but they live in our children.

It makes me so happy as an editor when I come across a poem that is like a beacon in the night – like Louise Greig’s Caterpillar prizewinning poem ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’. ‘He thought of the sea. / And the sea is a big thought. / It took up a great deal of room in his head. / But he learned a lot. / He learned that the octopus / has a memory, and that whales / feel emotions, but when / he put this to his mother / she bent her head. / Don’t think of an elephant, she said.

Or a poem like Sarah Ziman’s ‘Faux pas’, which wittily portrays the mortification a child feels when she accidentally calls her teacher ‘Mum’, or the boundless humour in a poem by Julia Anna Douglas or Laura Mucha, or the philosophical ponderings of Robert Schechter.

The winner of this year’s Caterpillar Poetry Prize, by Christine McBeth – ‘a powerful piece of writing, a poem that everyone should read,’ according to the judge Michael Morpurgo – is a poem about the fate of our marine environment.

The drunkenness of things being various, that’s the thing. What you can write about for children is boundless. It’s not just monsters under the bed and worm sandwiches.

Rebecca O’Connor

Rebecca lives in rural Ireland, where she edits and designs The Moth and The Caterpillar magazines and runs several literary prizes, including The Caterpillar Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection We’ll Sing Blackbird was shortlisted for the Irish Times Shine Strong Award and she is the recipient of a Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. Her poetry has been published in the GuardianPoetry ReviewThe Spectator and elsewhere and was recently shortlisted for the Montreal Poetry Prize.  Her debut novel, He Is Mine and I Have No Other (‘Eerie, tender and wonderful,’ according to Sophie Mackintosh), was published by Canongate in 2018.