Mandy Coe: Howling a poem

Image: Anna Crokill

Who watches the news and feels like howling, a head back, full-on wolfish howl? Not a wholesome image for a poet writing for children… or is it? Children can be wolfish too, playful, alert to the world and alive to the senses ‒ and surely a howl is a kind of poem? You know when the train to work is cancelled, or when your workshop for twenty has been bumped up to fifty, there’s this moment when you close your eyes, ask the universe for help, then summon a smile and crack on. I used to be able to do that. Without howling. Like I used to be able to listen to the news.

Radio news was a soundtrack in our house. Every hour on the hour. Then we’d eat dinner, watching the news on TV. But, as each new normal unveiled itself, we began to portion the news out (who can eat, laugh, or potter listening to that?). Now, before tackling the headlines, we buckle up and adopt the brace position.

But poets are good with turbulence, aren’t they? Poetry is a sharp-eyed witness in times of oppression, revealing concealed realities ‒ personal and social. However, when the sustenance of what you create is rooted in the rhythms of nature and the treasures of the everyday, the damage caused by profit trumping all hurts us. What do poets usually do with hurt? They put it into poems. Will those poems be suitable for children? Maybe. Maybe not.

Children’s poetry treads a fine balance of age-appropriateness, of light-heartedness, and being able to tap truth on the nose. Thankfully, this balance doesn’t have to be found in every poem! A body of work lets us delve deeper into both life’s joys and challenges. But there’s no getting away from it; these challenges are getting tougher. If they were the subject of films, they would be rated PG. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that one in four children in the UK is living in poverty (1), and the Child Poverty Action Group puts it at a third (2). In my book, that’s not PG; it’s horror.

How do we write poems about/for children who are homeless or hungry? I guess we do what we already do ‒ seek balance by creating a range of poems. Some will offer the kindness of rhythm and wordplay, some will invite escape through fantasy, and others will explore emotions stirred by the ups and downs of life. This balance is supported by the broader landscapes of bookshops, bodies of work and themed anthologies. My childhood had enough harshness in it to let me recognise the monsters between the lines. I knew sweet from sour and liked both. The world of poetry for children contains all of this.

But how do us poets get beyond the howl? That, I don’t know. I’m struggling with it myself. Maybe with more poems for teens?  Or anthologies of children’s poets speaking out on climate or child poverty? Thankfully, creativity, joy (and howling) are not only the language of poetry for children, they are also the language of resistance and resilience. We write because we must, and in these times, silence is so very dangerous. But for those days when only a howl will do ‒ I hear you.

1 The Joseph Rowntree Foundation Overall UK Poetry Rates

2 Child Poverty Action Group

Mandy Coe

Mandy Coe is the author of nine books, and writes poetry for adults and children. She was a recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship and is a visiting Fellow of the Manchester Writing School. Her poems have received a number of awards and have appeared on BBC television and radio programmes such as CBeebies, Woman’s Hour and Poetry Please. Her work on teaching poetry is widely published.

“It sings, so your heart does too.” Nicolette Jones, Sunday Times (Belonging Street)

“A gentle, relatable book full of humour and the wonder of being alive… finely observed poems to share between parents and children, and poems that can be used as models for children’s own writing….” Poetry Roundabout 5 Star review (Belonging Street)

“This effervescent volume brings poetry to life for a 21st century audience. From poems about nature and protecting the planet to verses about family life and belonging, there’s something here for everyone.” The Independent 10 Best Kids’ Poetry Books (Belonging Street)