Debbie Pullinger: Poems and Pictures

Poems and Pictures

This week I heard about a new poetry book prize. This year, at the International Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the BolognaRagazzi award for illustrated children’s books has a special category for poetry – “in acknowledgement of the wealth of poetry books produced in recent years by the children’s publishing industry worldwide.” Hurrah, indeed. One of this blog’s contributors, Morag Styles, is on the illustrious judging panel, so we can look forward to hearing more about it in due course. In the meantime, it’s got me thinking about what makes for good poetry book illustration, and about how pictures and poems interact with each other.

As adults, we may be used to reading poetry quietly, reflectively. Or we may prefer to hear it read aloud. Like music, it has to come off the page. Either way, we’re tuning into the poetic language, allowing the sounds to enhance the sense, the words to resonate with connotation, the imagery to unfold. For me, it’s a sort of listening with which pictures would really only interfere. It’s like the old adage about listening to the radio “because the pictures are better”. (The science behind this: neurologically, incoming visual stimuli tend to override aural ones.)

But it would be an odd book of rhymes for the young that had no illustration. For pre-literate children, especially, the pictures are doing some vital work – signalling to the child that this is something specially for them; helping them to navigate the collection and to relocate their favourites; making the book a pleasurable object in its own right. A picture can also help them to key into a poem and what it’s about. Since many rhymes and poems – especially those for the very young – come with actions and gestures, or special voice and sound effects, I wonder, too, whether poetry illustration may be supplying a sort of visual equivalent on the silent page.

There are many books of children’s poetry where the illustrations seem to have insinuated themselves into the work. I cannot think of Ted Hughes’ Season Songs without feeling the almost awkward bulk of that book and seeing Leonard Baskin’s haunting illustrations, or of Michael Rosen’s early volumes without seeing Quentin Blake’s amiable figures, all feet and elbows, ambling across the pages. Both in their own way seem to capture and conjure the wordworld of the poet, in all its richness and particularity.

Sometimes, less is more. I think of Ann Stevenson’s black and white motifs that dance around Carol Ann Duffy’s work, or the stark woodcuts of Jonathan Gross that punctuate the poetry of his father, Philip in Off Road to Everywhere. As oblique as the poems themselves, they work metaphorically, metonymically – poetically.

More recently, Jackie Morris’s beautiful watercolours have shared equal billing with Robert Macfarlane’s extraordinary poems in The Lost Words. Although more lavish and more figurative, they still manage to create space for the imagination. It’s interesting that these particular poems went on to forge a further cross-media collaboration in a set of musical arrangements, premiered at the Royal Albert Hall proms. Of course, there are those who would rather let the poem speak for itself rather than be spoken over by music. But that’s another blog.

So then, it is possible that hearing a poem performed well is the best way to fully experience its poetry, to engage the musical ear and the mind’s eye. But equally, illustration and design (let’s not forget those oft-unsung designers) can add another dimension. The finest can play along with the words – whether in unison or harmony or counterpoint – to create a rich, multimodal experience that opens up the imaginative space in different ways.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher, based at the University of Cambridge. Her book From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry was published by Bloomsbury Academic. Website:

Debbie Pullinger: A Poem in the Head

A Poem in the Head

Lockdown has been an unlooked-for boost for poetry. Under pressure, creative juices have leaked out and poems have sprouted in every spare bit of ground. At the same time, appetites have grown, and some – like my friend who’s learning a load of Larkin – have even turned to memorising.

If lockdown poems have poured out of you, then you’ve something to show for it all. But what if you have simply coaxed them off the page and into your head? What’s to show for that? And why not simply enjoy reading them, rather than going to the bother of learning?

These were precisely the kinds of questions with which we began our Poetry and Memory project at the University of Cambridge. We were interested in the value of the memorised poem, and how knowing poems by heart affects appreciation and understanding. Our findings point to a constellation of potential benefits – for anyone, at any age. You can read more about the project here. But to highlight just three, a poem in the heart …

  • becomes a valuable emotional resource, often growing and changing with us.
  • creates a sense of ownership – and for children, that can provide a vital sense of mastery as well as being a staging post to other poems.
  • open us to possibility – like Becky Fisher’s mum, you never know where, or who, it might lead to…

Lines in the head also help with the lines that come out. We know that for so many of our great poets, a store of memorised poetry was instrumental in their achievement – what Seamus Heaney called “bedding the ear with a kind of linguistic hardcore”. When poetry learning was reinstated on the primary curriculum in 2012, it was not universally welcomed. Even so, it does build an instinctual awareness of how poetic language works. It’s great to hear on this blog about the inspiring work poets are doing in schools – and to read some of the poems which come out of that. And as these young writers begin to find their voice, they will be tuning into those tracks of language laid down in the brain.

Ok, but surely children shouldn’t be required to learn or recite? An interesting question I’m often asked.

In our research, we asked about when, how and why poems were learned. Some people reported dreadful experiences of enforced learning that put them off for life. And yet… others made to learn and recite under duress were really glad they did and now love their poem. Countless others, though, said they learned their poem ‘accidentally’, just through hearing it again and again.

And that’s the thing – children really don’t need forcing. As any parent whose child joins in with a Julia Donaldson book knows, they do it as naturally as they learn language. And as many a teacher knows, there are lots of ways to make learning enjoyable. For a few ideas, my Poetry Archive Teaching Resource draws on findings from the project.

Once learned, poems can be explored through performance. The act of sharing a poem in this way seems to bring the relationship between sounds and sense into sharper focus, while new shades of meaning can be opened up in the moment. Again, ideas for performance are here.

But what if, like me, you’re of the generation who never learned poetry in school? Well, some of my most fascinating interviews were with people who told me about starting to learn poems later in life – as an absorbing hobby, as a bulwark against dementia or, perhaps – most significantly for these times – as therapy for depression or solace for dark days. It’s never too early, never too late.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher based at the University of Cambridge. Having published a volume on children’s poetry – From Tongue to Text (Bloomsbury, 2017) – she is currently working on a book about the memorised poem.  @debpullinger

Debbie Pullinger: Why the Revival?

Why the Revival?

Something’s afoot. As Michael Rosen said at the outset – and as blog on blog has attested – there’s a Sense of Revival. Children’s poetry is all abuzz – as is poetry generally. As Michael Rosen also says, it’s hard to say why – why now? But it’s an interesting question, nevertheless.

Maybe it’s just a pendulum swing thing. The wheel goes round and poetry is recalled and re-cooled.

Maybe it’s because we’re remembering that poetry is all about the ear and the tongue. School poetry, in particular, got rather stuck to the page for all sorts of reasons. But in classrooms as in performance venues, its voice is being heard.

Maybe it’s because a poem is short. It’s all we can manage when we’re so strapped for time and attention.

Maybe it’s part of what David Sax calls “The Revenge of Analogue”.* Like listening to songs on vinyl or writing with a fountain pen in a leather-bound book, speaking and writing and even learning poems feels like some kind of material resistance in this digital age. A slowing, flowing, real-world sort of activity.

Maybe all those, and maybe more.

Another question might be about why we lost the poetry plot in the first place. Because, the fact is, poetry is where we all started. Our human ancestors’ first foray into language was a kind of singing – whose main purpose was to maintain bonds within social groups once they became too large for everyone to groom everyone else.** Not language to label and manage, but language to connect and enchant. And it’s where we still start. When you arrived to join the world, it was the musical rhythms and intonations of your family’s speech that you recognised, and vocalised, first. Vocabulary and syntax came later.***

So poetic language is primarily primal language. It’s language rooted in music, emotion and the body. It hangs loose with meaning. It’s playful. That’s what all poetry – but children’s poetry in particular – taps into. Its meaning is often enacted in the body through physicality and sensuousness. This much is obvious in many nursery rhymes (‘Hickory Dickory Dock’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’), but you can find these subtle mimetic qualities in most poetry. The patterned, musical sounds of poetic language reassure the very young (and perhaps all of us) that language is not an arbitrary, alien assemblage of sound symbols, but something that has a deep connection with our own bodily experience, and connects our embodied selves to the world around.

Most importantly, poems offer a vital sense of containment. The world is vast and feelings overwhelming. Rhymes and songs assure children that both can be contained and ordered.

So maybe this revival is simply our first language reasserting itself, in spite of everything. Normality resumed.

*David Sax, 2016, The Revenge of Analogue: Real Things and Why They Matter. New York: PublicAffairs

**Robin Dunbar, 2004, The Human Story. London: Faber

***Studies of language development in infants indicate that rhythm and phrasing are acquired before vocabulary and syntax, and that this process begins before birth.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher, based at the University of Cambridge. Her book From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Childrens Poetry was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2017. Website: Debbie Pullinger.