Gaby Morgan: An Accidental Year of Dylan Thomas Pilgrimages

An accidental year of Dylan Thomas pilgrimages

While we have needed to stay safe at home, I have been reminiscing about places I have visited over the past few years. In 2019, I went on holiday to Wales with my family. My father is from Swansea and my childhood summers were spent on the beach at Langland, Caswell, Oxwich and Three Cliffs Bay, and it was during those holidays that my grandma recited poems that she had learnt by heart and have stayed with me to this day. I remember ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in particular and ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, which she loved because my grandpa had sent it to her when they were courting. During our trip we went on a tour of all the places they had lived in Mumbles, West Cross, Sketty and in the Uplands where they lived just round the corner from Cwmdonkin Park. On a slate-grey Welsh summer day we crossed the park and ended up at Dylan Thomas’ house at number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive and that was the start of a year of accidental Dylan Thomas pilgrimage

from ‘Fern Hill’

‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.’

Image: Gaby Morgan

Dylan Thomas’ house is fascinating – it is the house where he was born, was his home for twenty-three years and was where he wrote two-thirds of his published work. Poems such as ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ were written when he was still a teenager. Here’s a photo of the outside and a picture of his bedroom as it would have been in 1934.

from A Child’s Christmas in Wales

‘It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.’

Later that week, a very rainy day led us to take cover in the Dylan Thomas Centre where we visited the ‘Love the Words’ exhibition, which included wonderful recordings of Thomas reading his poems including Prologue – here is an extract:

Image: Gaby Morgan
Image: Gaby Morgan

We had gone somewhere else entirely the day we ended up at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Laugharne where Thomas, his wife Caitlin and their three children lived from 1949 until his death. Laugharne is of course the real-life model for Milkwood. It is a lovely house set in a cliff overlooking the Taf estuary and just up the hill is his writing shed (photos of both below). We took a different route back to the car and found ourselves at the cemetery of St. Martin’s church where he is buried.

Image: Gaby Morgan

From ‘Poem on his birthday’

‘In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks’

Image: Gaby Morgan

The final part of our accidental pilgrimage happened in November that year in New York where we had gone to Greenwich Village for a literary pub crawl to see where Jack Kerouac, Edna St Vincent Millay, Hart Crane and others lived and drank. The meeting place was The White Horse Tavern – reading our guide book while waiting for the rest of the tour party to assemble, we realised that it was exactly 66 years to the day since Dylan Thomas had died at St Vincent’s hospital just up the street. The White Horse was where he frequently drank in New York and where he had spent his last evening before being taken ill. He was 39 years old.

From ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’

‘Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

Image: Gaby Morgan

All these poems can be found in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The Centenary Edition published by Weinfeld & Nicolson and A Child’s Christmas in Wales published by Orion Children’s Books.

Gaby Morgan

Gaby Morgan is an Editorial Director at Macmillan Children’s Books and proud curator of the Macmillan Children’s Poetry List. She has compiled many bestselling anthologies including Read Me and Laugh: A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year, Poems from the First World War, Poems for Love, Fairy Poems – which was short-listed for the CLPE Award – and A Year of Scottish Poems.



Chrissie Gittins: Jill Pirrie – ‘All children are embryo poets’

I had intended to write about Jill Pirrie and her book On Common Ground: A Programme for Teaching Poetry, a book which inspired me when I began visiting schools. When I read that she died earlier this year it seemed even more reason to highlight her work.

A notice in The Eastern Daily Press states that she had a national reputation for teaching poetry, was an accomplished poet herself, and that she spent her life in service to the church and the teaching profession. She was the first of her family to have post-14 education and she received an MBE in 1987 for services to the teaching of English.

Jill Pirrie was Head of English at Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk for over 20 years and taught a mixed-ability group of 9-13 year-olds to write poems. In the mid-eighties her pupils won multiple awards in the WH Smith Young Writers Competition and an Observer Prize. In 1993 Bloodaxe Books published an anthology of her award-winning pupils’ work – Apple Fire.

Ted Hughes wrote the forward to On Common Ground. He writes that in order for children to write good poetry ‘teachers don’t need pupils with an ‘evident natural gift’. All they need is ordinary pupils’.

Steve Gardam, a former pupil, bears this out when he described Jill Pirrie’s classroom on Twitter 30/9/2020. It was ‘kind of old-fashioned, and also timeless … it wasn’t just about the ‘smart’ kids who did well in other subjects. It was every child being shown the tools, the way to use them to make magic from words. And we did.’

Asked by the TES if her pupils continued to publish poetry Jill Pirrie commented, ‘I’m not in the business of making poets. I’m interested in teaching mastery of language.’ In an interview with the Independent she said, ‘Poetry has the capacity to empower children to achieve mastery of all literary genres. It encourages reflection and the powers of criticism, for the child to be both intensely involved at the moment of writing the poem and then objectively detached, equipped with all the criteria for assessing the poem.’

In her introduction she talks about how asking children to imagine requires an intense kind of remembering. The pupil then stands back from her/his material in order to craft their poem. She favoured sitting in rows and liked her pupils to work in silence to encourage ‘focus’.

Her favourite nouns were apparently ‘focus’, ‘economy’, and ‘sparseness’. Her approach to poetry was always inclusive – ‘In so far as all children have memories, all children are embryo poets.’ Each chapter reproduces a wide selection of her pupils’ rich poems.

Many chapters draw on poems by well-known poets. The chapter on Process outlines the importance of naming – the verb being seen second in importance only to the noun. ‘Children must learn to write with economy and discrimination, and to guard jealously the power of their nouns.’ She underlines the importance of naming through the senses: ‘the senses are not only the means by which we explore the world and know that we are alive; they are also the means by which we remember’.

The idea I most often use in workshops is from ‘The Impossible Christmas’ section and is perhaps doubly appropriate at this time. Instead of bought presents we’re asked to think about capturing special memories to gift wrap – a special place, a favourite taste, a wonderful sight/sound/smell, a favourable turn of events, a remembered moment with a friend or relative. Using as many of the five senses as possible I ask for a list poem called ‘Possible Presents’.

Jill Pirrie died 12th September 2020 aged 81. R.I.P.

Chrissie Gittins has had three of her five children’s poetry collections as Choices for the Children’s Poetry Bookshelf. Two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a Manchester Children’s Literature Prize finalist. Her poems feature on Cbeebies and the Poetry Archive. She has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

Zaro Weil: A Glimpse; Adult Poetry and Children’s Poetry

A few years ago, after a talk about children and poetry, I was asked about the difference between adult poetry and kids’ poetry.

A Cheshire cat grin rolled over me. I didn’t have to think twice. ‘There really is none,’ I replied with a smile. ‘A good poem is a good poem is a good poem. Of course themes and language will be different. Age and emotional suitability may vary. But poetry for children is not – at its heart – different from other poetry.’

Let’s take a glimpse at the basics. Just a glimpse.

What is it we expect when we read a poem?

The first thing is simple. There is an invitation. Something in the title or opening line says, Come on in. I have an idea you’re going to like.

Sounds good. We decide not to close the book or turn the page. We read further. The poet is communicating a vision we intuitively like. He or she is talking to us the way a friend might.

Zaro’s Cherry Moon won the CLiPPA Award for Children’s Poetry this year.

From that first invitation a good poem offers, the child is often more than willing to suspend what they already think and allow themselves to be transported into another world. Indeed, kids are often more eager and open than adults to step inside and treat the poet as a new friend.

But the words themselves must also spark magic; the swing and sway of the rhythms, meter and sound need to be dynamic. And feel right. It is the poet’s craft with words which creates excitement and meaning for us. Because our brains buzz and light up when the exact right words both sound great and go together. Like they were meant to be.

As for sound musicality and language acquisition, these are the child’s very own domain; one filled with the joy of rhyme, the thrill of rhythm and the love of onomatopoeia to name a few.

And what is it the poet says to us? Is it clear and sunny enough that we can relate to it? Are the words bright enough in the lines we read for us to ‘get’ it.

Next we ask if this poem inspires us. Do we feel the poet’s unseen presence in his words? Does the poem burrow down to ignite those misty moon-lit thoughts we have but don’t know very well? The thoughts that are deeper and richer than our everyday words and ideas. The ones that allow us to imagine a new way of seeing things.

For imagination relies upon the senses; of what we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled and remembered. A good poem creates the words and sensations that call upon the reader’s personal memory store and then graciously offers up the possibility to re-imagine, re-pattern and re-position the reader’s own understandings.

Children grow in the ambiguity of light and dark. In the bright logic of facts and ideas about the world. But they also grow in the belief that there is something else. Something unknown, dark and uncontrollable. Being close to and accepting the mysterious plays an important role in a child’s development. A child is open to being moved by a poem.

And precisely because children play and because imagination is the currency for this play, a good poem can ignite a child’s mind. And as children are close to both their sensory understandings and memories, a good poem has the potential to fly them into a universe pulsing with possibility.

To finish my reply to the question, I think we all, at every age, respond to the same human impulses; the ones which lead us to better understand and illuminate the world we find ourselves in.

And that is why my Cheshire cat can’t help but smile.

Zaro Weil

Zaro Weil lives in southern France with her husband and Spot Guevara Hero Dog, alongside a host of birds, insects, badgers, wild boars, crickets, donkeys, goats, hares and loads more. She has been a lot of things; dancer, theatre director, actress, poet, playwright, educator, quilt collector, historian, author and publisher. Zaro’s two poetry collections, Firecrackers and Cherry Moon were widely praised; with Cherry Moon being awarded the CliPPA Poetry Award for 2020.

Joshua Seigal: “So How Did You Get Into Poetry, Then?

This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I visit schools. It is not an easy question to answer, and I am tempted to say that I simply ‘fell into’ it. But this is a cop out. My journey can best be adumbrated by my encounters with five poets.

Michael Rosen

Michael visited my primary school when I was around 8. I remember being captivated by his performance in assembly, where he acted out his poems and really brought them to life. I bought his book Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard, and we listened to its accompanying casette in the car every day on the way to school for about a year! I wasn’t necessarily inspired to write my own poetry at this stage, but the kernel of Michael’s visit obviously lodged in my mind. Later on, Michael taught on my MA at Goldsmiths, and was good enough to write an endorsement for the cover of my first book with Bloomsbury.

Niall O’Sullivan

I didn’t really begin writing poetry until my late teens. I had studied Larkin for A Level and my initial efforts were an embarrassing attempt to ape him. During my first year at UCL I discovered the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, which has a weekly open mic night hosted by Niall O’Sullivan. For a couple of years I regularly stood up and read my poems there, and was furthermore exposed to a wide variety of performance and writing styles. Niall hosted the night with humour and panache, and it was by attending these evenings that I developed my chops as a performer and (I hope) a humorist.

Neal Zetter

Neal helped me turn a hobby into what is now a career. I first came across his name in the Evening Standard, where he spearheaded a literacy campaign in 2012. He was described as a ‘comic poet who works in schools’, and then it hit me: this could be a proper job! I emailed Neal for some advice, and he responded with such warmth and encouragement that I shall be forever grateful. Heck, we are good friends now, and I even invited the man to my wedding. We are also poetical collaborators, and have our second joint book out with Troika in 2021/2.

Brian Moses

I took a humorous children’s poetry show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, where I met Brian. I foisted a copy of my first, self-published book into his hands, and asked whether he might help me find a proper publisher. I am extremely thankful for the advice he gave me. He said that my comic poetry was all well and good, but to concentrate on serious, emotional and heartfelt themes as well. I have since tried to synthesise a broad range of styles and feelings into my repertoire, and Brian’s advice has undoubtedly helped me grow as a writer.

Roger Stevens

Roger gave me my first publication in an anthology and invited me on the wonderful ‘poets’ retreat’ in 2014, where I met many other wonderful poets too numerous to mention. In his bounteous munificence, he also put my name forward to a bunch of editors he knew, which helped secure my first book deal with Bloomsbury in 2016. So now I was a poet writing and performing in a variety of styles, who both made a living working in schools and had a proper publishing deal to boot! I could not have made it this far without the aforementioned poets.

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 www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

Laura Mucha: You Think You Like Poetry?

You Think You Like Poetry?

‘You think you like poetry? You don’t like poetry…’ said Mrs Flowers.

‘You’ll never like it until you speak it – until you feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips, you will never love poetry.’

Her student, Maya Angelou, ran out of the house. But Mrs Flowers didn’t give up – she followed Angelou to the store and said, pointing her finger, ‘You don’t like poetry’.

She continued harassing her student for months until finally, after five years of not saying a single word, Angelou spoke for the first time. And when she did, she spoke poetry. (You can listen to Angelou’s account of her experience here.)

Mrs Flower’s description of speaking poetry made me think of the phrase ‘hau gum’ or ‘mouth-feel’ in Mandarin. It’s usually used in the context of food, but I think it applies just as much to poetry. It’s all very well reading poems silently on the page, but, as Angelou’s teacher pointed out, that doesn’t give you a sense of the texture and sound of the language, the ‘mouth-feel’.

That’s why, when I run workshops with young people, I try to get them to co-write – and co-perform – a poem. The performance is just as important as the writing as they both inform the other. It’s only when you perform a poem that you fully appreciate the tiny signposts the poet has left you in the form of commas, line breaks and white space – and can reflect on the signposts you might use in your own writing.

But often, when poetry is taught in the classroom, the teacher is the only one that performs, while the students sit and listen – at least according to Joy Alexander at the School of Education, Queen’s University Belfast.

Teachers can easily solve this by asking students to perform poems in pairs. When one of Alexander’s student teachers realised her pupils were ‘not at all proficient’ in reading or performing poetry, she found it improved drastically with just a little practice. She also found that the practice was helped by playing the audio of the poems to students before asking them to say the poems themselves. Not only did this help them perform better, but it also made them more engaged with the poem more generally. BOOM!

Even if you don’t speak it, listening can be game changing. Seamus Heaney once wrote that until you had found the work of T.S. Eliot, you had not ‘entered the kingdom of poetry’. But for a long time, he found Eliot obscure and bewildering – until he heard the actor Robert Speaight reading Eliot’s Four Quartets. By listening, Heaney discovered that what he ‘heard made sense’.

That’s why it’s so important to find ways to take poetry off the page. “If your genuine goal is to share poetry,” argued Ariel Bissett, a prominent booktuber at this year’s annual Poetry Summit, “then you shouldn’t just be doing it in print. Print is preaching to the choir. What we need are new readers who don’t yet know that they love poetry.”

Taking poetry off the page and getting it into the mouths (and ears) of young people makes poetry more accessible. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising because, as Mrs Flowers said, ‘You’ll never like poetry until you speak it.’

 

Laura Mucha

Audio sample of Dear Ugly Sisters, Laura’s debut poetry collection for children:

 

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha’s debut collection, Dear Ugly Sisters is out now and comes with a free accompanying audiobook (a sample of which is provided above).

Her debut non-fiction book, Love Factually / We Need to Talk About Love was published last year and Richard Curtis describes it as ‘much better and more useful than my film’.

Laura has won two international prizes for children’s poetry (the Caterpillar Prize and the YorkMix Prize) and her poems have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and CBBC. You can read more of her work at lauramucha.com. @lauramucha

Lorraine Mariner: Poems Go Green! at the National Poetry Library

Poems Go Green! at the National Poetry Library

As I write this the Southbank Centre’s Imagine Children’s Festival is in full flow and the Royal Festival Hall is bursting at the seams with children and their grown-ups. The Imagine Festival takes place annually during February half-term and for the last five years we have been holding a Day of Poetry in the National Poetry Library for ages 0-11. We like to think of it as a Poetry Festival within the bigger festival.

This year our day of poetry was devoted to eco poetry. The idea for the day was sparked by Poems from a Green and Blue Planet edited by Sabrina Mahfouz, a wide-ranging and majestic nature anthology published last autumn. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a whole day of eco poetry at this time of climate emergency, when so many children, inspired by Greta Thunberg, are taking a stand?

Our day of poetry began at 10.30am with Rug Rhymes for under-5s and Ed Boxall joined us for this Eco Edition. He shared a picture book he has recently illustrated, Dragons’ Wood (Troika, 2019), of a poem by Brian Moses. We all took a walk through the wood with our dog catching glimpses of dragons. At 11.30am we had a workshop run by the UK’s Green Poet Martin Kiszko. Martin has worked with Sir David Attenborough composing music for nature documentaries such as BBC’s ‘Wildlife on One’ and has published two collections of green poetry for children illustrated by Nick Park (of Oscar winning Wallace and Gromit fame). Our workshop was aimed at ages 6-10 and Martin got the children writing in different forms; an animal kenning and a clerihew about an environmental issue.

Ed and Martin were back with us for our 1.30pm reading, aimed at ages 5-7, along with poet Carole Bromley, for Poems Go Green! Ed had realised that sticks feature quite a lot in his poems and his gentle, contemplative poems got us looking closely at nature. Carole took us to Australia, a country she recently visited, and which the children were aware had been tackling catastrophic bushfires. One of her poems reminded us to care for the less loveable animals and insects along with the cute koalas. Martin finished this set with his exuberant, rhyming word play, celebrating, amongst other environmentally friendly energy options, poo power.

Our final event of the day was a 3pm reading for ages 8-11, Poems from a Green and Blue Planet, where poet and editor Sabrina Mahfouz shared poems from the anthology along with contributing poet Liz Brownlee. The UK had just been battered on two consecutive weekends by Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, so the reading began with a selection of stormy poems. Sabrina also got the children thinking of words to describe a storm and we combined these with objects. I think my favourite was “clattering candle”. Highlights of some of the classic and newly commissioned poems that Sabrina and Liz shared were Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Peace and Pancakes’, Hollie McNish’s ‘Anything!’ and Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘How to Cut a Pomegranate’ (with pomegranate prop!).

At 4pm it was over. It was a hectic day but all of our events sold out, poets sold and signed books, and I left work feeling less eco-anxious and hope the children that attended felt the same. We’d asked the poets for green tips and Martin advised that you should love the planet in the same way as you would your parents, brothers and sisters or pets. Nature poetry is a great way to foster this love and we have some wonderful collections and anthologies in the National Poetry Library that we recommend – please click here to see our list on the National Poetry Library Catalogue.

Lorraine Mariner

Lorraine Mariner is an Assistant Librarian at the National Poetry Library and has published two poetry collections for adults with Picador, Furniture (2009) and There Will Be No More Nonsense (2014).

Pie Corbett: 16 Things in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

16 things in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

I developed this idea with Brian Moses about 38 years ago. In those days, we had our children writing lists along the lines of ‘5 things you’d find in Margaret Thatcher’s handbag’. This is the version that I wrote at the time to use as a model for children (Ian McMillan has also written several similar list poems).

Six things found in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

A wasp’s sting to startle unwary goblins.

Two leather-bound books. One titled, ‘Tunnel digging for beginners’ and the other, ‘Wolves and methods for their avoidance’.

A purse of never-ending wishes.

A pot of gold found at the end of a rainbow.

A pair of twelve league boots.

A fur-lined cape, the colour of rock, for keeping warm in the winter and using as camouflage.

© Pie Corbett

  1. Read the model through and discuss the ideas.
  2. Brainstorm a list of other possibilities.
  3. Use shared writing to create a few lines
  4. Inject a sense of urgency by giving a time limit for independent writing, to aid concentration.
  5. Children share and polish their ideas.
  6. Hear examples. Copy favourites for display or to make a booklet.

This is an example from working with a year six class.

We started with a rapid class brainstorm of possibilities: a hammer forged from underground mines; a dagger for dragon attack; oat cake or seed cake; a small block of hardened cheese; a flagon of water for rehydration; a clarinet, reed pipe or recorder; flint and steel; a map of The Misty Mountains; a quill and slate for writing runes, communication or sending a message; a silver pen for writing which can only be read by the light of the moon; a diamond for bargaining; a sack for treasure; an invisibility cloak and some pork pie.

We then did shared writing of a few lines:

A silver pen for secret statements concealed safely beneath a moonless night.

An enchanted reed pipe to fool your advancing foe by summoning a slither of moonlight.

Here is a list made by four of the year 6 children:

Sixteen things found in a Hobbit’s Knapsack

Two fire-flies in a jam jar to light up your way.

A book of myths and legends though some would call them truths.

A quill of wise words that writes runes to summon a thread of starlight.

A silver pen that can only be seen by the light of the moon.

Gandalf’s pocket-watch where you spin the hands to turn time.

An enchanted reed pipe for summoning a slither of moonlight to guide you in the night.

A charmed recorder for fooling or hypnotising your foe.

A cauldron of wishes at the edge of an inquisitive mind.

Homely, hard cheese for a fireless night.

A flagon of never-ending water to quench any dwarf’s thirst.

A golden feather, plucked from the finest eagle and a strip of slate forged in goblin mines to contact the nearest village, using an ancient map of The Misty Mountains.

The fang of a dragon to slay fleeing foe.

A completely crystal dagger, able to pierce through any armour and wound even the deadliest of creatures.

A pair of relatively light boots which can endure months of crossing rivers, navigating woods and stumbling through seemingly endless caves and caverns.

A steel-lined cape to protect you from fire, piercing blades and the strongest of incantations.

Of course, the lists could be about what you would find in a troll’s rucksack, a giant’s suitcase, a unicorn’s saddle bags or a goblin’s backpack!

© Pie Corbett 2020

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice. Talk for Writing.

Andrea Reece: Poetry ‘for keeps’; a history in 240 issues

Poetry ‘for keeps’; a history in 240 issues

Among the anniversaries to be celebrated in 2020 is one very important landmark for children’s literature: Books for Keeps, the children’s book magazine, is 40. In its very first issue, way back in 1980, editor Pat Triggs explained what the magazine would be: ‘Helpful, practical, stimulating, informative, entertaining, sometimes provocative and always enjoyable to read’.  And so it has remained, as a dip into the archives reveals. Past issues are all available to read for free on the website, four decades worth of serious (though never earnest) scrutiny of writing for young people.

Unsurprisingly, poetry for children has been a major preoccupation of BfK editors and contributors, and the archive is a revealing commentary on the contemporary history of the genre, the highs, lows, rise of new poets, and growing concentration on its importance to children themselves.

‘Every teacher needs a personal bookshelf of anthologies and collections of favourite poets. Every classroom needs poetry in the book corner.’ Editor Pat Triggs again, in 1983, lines that are just as true today, and need as much emphasis. She was writing in the era of the Signal Award for Poetry, a period when there was an unparalleled energy in the publishing of the genre, prompted perhaps, as Brian Alderson wondered at the time, by the presence of the Award itself. Such was the healthy state of poetry that in 1988 BfK was able to publish a guide to children’s poetry, edited by Chris Powling and Morag Styles.  It was revised and updated in 1991. Authorgraph subjects of the 1990s include Roger McGough, Kit Wright, Charles Causley, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Michael Rosen and James Berry – and a delightfully playful conversation with Lewis Carroll no less, as imagined by Naomi Lewis. (For non-BfK readers, the Authorgraph is our feature interview, an in-depth discussion with leading writers for children).

In an article in 1996, then Puffin editor now agent Philippa Milnes-Smith was able to celebrate the impact poetry for children was having, and even to grumble that poetry accounted for less than 5% of children’s books published and was never considered for the Carnegie Medal. She was happy to stand up for comic verse too, and just as well, because there was a surprising amount of public hostility, as demonstrated by her favourite press clipping of the time: MUM CALLS FOR BAN ON REVOLTING NOSE POEM.

Come 2001 however and things feel gloomy. Robert Hull is forced to ask, ‘What hope for children’s poetry?’, worried that children’s understanding of poetry is being driven out by the curriculum. Comic poetry is no longer a laughing matter, and Morag Styles, judging the CLPE Poetry Award in 2004, worries about the preponderance of ‘relentlessly jokey books of second rate verse printed on rough paper’.

Jumping ahead a decade however, and things are on the up again. A trawl of BfK makes the reasons clear: the reinvigoration of the CLPE Poetry Award, now CLiPPA, which, like the Signal Award in the 20th century, gave publishers reason again to invest in poetry; the combined efforts of organisations such as CLPE, NLT, UKLA, National Poetry Day and the Poetry Society to promote poetry for children; the work of campaigners such as Kate Clanchy, not to mention that of individual poets themselves in schools, festivals and, significantly, digitally. A search of recent issues will find articles on the influence of rap and hip-hop, on the liveliest techniques for encouraging children’s poetry writing, while round ups of the best new poetry feature books by 21st century stars Rachel Rooney, Karl Nova and Kate Wakeling. Recent Authorgraph subjects have included Joseph Coelho, A F Harrold and Sarah Crossan and the July issue will feature Carnegie winning verse novelist Elizabeth Acevedo.

In fact, as we mark the 40th anniversary, the time seems right to create another Books for Keeps Guide to Children’s Poetry. July seems the right time – coinciding with the announcement of the CLiPPA. What do you think?

Andrea Reece

Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps.

Morag Styles: Early Children’s Poetry at the British Library

Of Rossetti, Robins and Rhymes: Early Children’s Poetry at the British Library

Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, c1744, Children’s Chapbook, Public Domain, Held by British Library

My head has been deep in the British Library collection of early children’s poetry, some of which has been digitised and is soon to be showcased on a forthcoming website. To be able to see Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of 1744 in all its glory on the screen is a rare treat. And likely to please young readers as it is full of delightful rhymes and illustrations – and rude in parts!

Little robin red breast

Sitting on a pole

Niddle, noddle,

Went his head,

And poop went his hole.

I haven’t yet looked online at Christina Rossetti’s manuscript copy of Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book, 1872, but as I have actually held it carefully in white gloved hands I can tell you it is quite wonderful to see her handwriting and her own little pencil-drawn illustrations. Even better is to witness some of the small changes she made to her text. This exceptional collection is not as well known as it ought to be with its tender and lively variety of poetry for young readers.

‘Sing Song’: a volume of 121 nursery rhymes, 1868/70, Christina Rossetti, Copyright Unknown, Held by British Library.

Something must have been in the air as Lear’s brilliant Nonsense Songs and Stories was published the same year as Sing-Song and Carroll’s inspired parody of Jane Taylor’s The Star just a few years earlier in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

Twinkle, twinkle little bat

How I wonder what you’re at…

Even now, hard to beat those two great humorists in verse.

Songs of Innocence and Experience [A facsimile of a coloured and gilded copy of the first edition], 1923, William Blake, Held by The British Library, Public Domain.
I’ve also been revisiting Blake’s dazzling Songs of Innocence of 1789, Browning’s Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1842, his tragic and thrilling tale of mayhem, madness and mendacity, and A.A. Milne’s much loved When We Were Very Young, 1924, with E.H. Shepard’s outstanding illustrations. So many poems in these volumes are still winners with the young. If you haven’t looked at them for a while, they are more than worthy of your attention on the British Library’s website. The new Discovering Children’s Books site will launch in late February 2020.

I was delighted to be asked to write about these works in the context of making connections with contemporary poets writing for children, especially if the British Library or Seven Stories, with whom they have worked in partnership, hold their manuscripts. John Agard, James Berry, Valerie Bloom, Jackie Kay, Roger McGough, Grace Nichols, Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah and others come into this category and are perfect choices for considering links and contrasts with early poetry when talking about nursery rhymes, humour and storytelling in verse. Many themes that work in children’s poetry are timeless and one of those is the natural world. Poets have always served children well in drawing environmental issues to their attention in a way that makes them care.  Never more important than now.

Morag Styles

Morag Styles is Emeritus Professor of Children’s Poetry and the author of From the Garden to the Street: 300 years of poetry for children. She has written many books and articles on children’s poetry, edited several volumes on children’s literature, and is editor of numerous anthologies of poetry for children.

 

Teresa Cremin: Profiling Poetry this December

Profiling Poetry this December

It’s Yuletide – a time for carols, songs, stories and poetry– a time to tempt children with the words and tunes, rhythm and rhyme that play into this space of celebration. Over the decades, teachers have made this time special in school, offering class, whole school and community events that involve giving, receiving and so much more.

It is also a rich opportunity to read, write and perform poetry together and to seize those liminal spaces when half the class are at a play practice or are finishing making cards for instance. So, in this Christmas blog, given there is scant time for thinking as we rush from job to job, planning food, writing cards and generally panicking (well I am!),  I thought I’d simply share some ideas for profiling poetry this December.

Advent Calendar Poetree: This idea was developed by Miss Graham, an NQT from Edge Hill University who is working at Kingsmoor Junior in Carlisle, Cumbria. Eager to foster children’s reading for pleasure @MissGrahamteach hid 24 wrapped poems in each classroom, children find the day’s poem and share it! Each dated poem also has a challenge on the back- a discussion question relating to the topic or form of the poem to get children buzzing about poetry!

Poems as Christmas Gifts: Inviting the class to write their own poems as gifts for family members always works well. Focusing on a chosen relative or friend, rather than the jolly red stereotypes of Christmas is often more engaging. The key, as George Szirtes highlights, is to avoid platitudes and clichés, but to let the pressure of such avoidance ‘be felt at every juncture of each line and each word. That pressure is the pressure of the imagination, the auditory imagination if you like’. You could explore what makes their grandma so special – what are the objects in her house, her voice,  style, typical expressions and so forth. Or you could play the furniture game and encourage them to imagine their grandad as a piece of furniture ‘a deep leather sofa creased and loved’ perhaps? Printed on card and illustrated, this will be given with love.

Poetry Recommendations for Parents: Encouraging poetry gift giving, schools can offer a recommended booklist of their top ten poetry collections, perhaps on the school website or newsletter.

Pop-up Poets: Why not interleave  opportunities to share poetry – the children’s own and others – when parents come to see their children’s work or attend events? You could create pop-up poets who, having prepped their chosen poem in small groups, are at the ready when a governor, parents or others come by? They can then rush off and perform their poem – ‘Talkin turkeys’ by Benjamin Zephaniah or ‘The computer’s first Christmas card’ by Edwin Morgan would work well amongst many others.

Poetry in Christmas gatherings: Most schools will be joining together in a special assembly or performance. Why not interleave the printed programme with children’s own poems? Or offer live poetry during the interval?  Saint Andrew’s C of E Primary school Halstead hold an annual candlelight service for the children who sit in a circle around the candles while each member of staff reads a poem or an extract. One teacher there, Claire Williams (@borntosparkle), tells me that the sense of peace and ‘togetherness’ is tangible, especially when the headteacher closes by reading ‘A visit from Saint Nicolas’ by Clement Clarke Moore. Sounds very memorable.

Regardless of the way you enjoy poetry with your class this December, I hope you and the children will be tempted by the words and tunes, the ideas and images that such rich language provides.

Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa is also passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website based on her research into reading for pleasure. The site supports over 80 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 24 HEI partnerships across the country. Teresa Cremin’s OU webpage.