I’ll start by saying what I don’t mean. What I don’t mean is that poems for children should ever be wilfully obscure or inaccessible. Or that poems for children shouldn’t ever be wonderfully direct and simple. Or just tell a good joke. All of this is an important part of children’s poetry.
That said, I have this feeling there’s sometimes a certain expectation that poems for children should… do what they say on the tin, or not include anything deemed too mysterious, or not feature words or ideas that might risk seeming a bit highfalutin’ for younger brains – or that they (poems) shouldn’t have a sense of not having quite made up their minds.
As someone who writes for adults and for children, I do of course differentiate in all sorts of ways between these two audiences. I know there are many kinds of ‘difficult’ things (in vocabulary or concept) that would doubtless be unconstructive to include when writing for younger people, and I spend a lot of time making sure that I don’t risk losing a reader across a poem.
But at the same time… the more I write, be it for adults or children, the more I’ve realised how important it is for me not to know exactly what I’m talking about before I start. And I think my most successful poems for both children and adults retain something of this mystery once complete. Poems I’ve written for children called ‘The Demon Mouth’ and ‘Weird Cake’ both delve into ideas and sensations that I still can’t precisely articulate (tenderness, desire, control, self-expression, rage, release?) – and they seem to spark a lot of thought in children.
When I write in this way – i.e. propelled by an impulse that is difficult to explain in concrete terms – I find that the words often arrive in my brain with an odd sort of force. And because of this, when writing this sort of poem for children, I will sometimes use a word that mightn’t be immediately familiar to that audience. I use it because it feels like the right word, in the way that words do in a poem. And I only use such a word if I’m confident that it will spring to life for the reader in this context, but I know it’s still a risk. Yet I feel like it’s right to take this risk on occasion because, for me, poems are there to carry you to somewhere else in all sorts of ways. And if you trust in this process and let the sonic power of each word work its tricks, then it will probably be OK.
It’s a well-trodden reference, but I find Keats’ ‘negative capability’ such a helpful perspective: that good writing is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. I find it interesting that there’s sometimes an uneasiness about exposing children to ‘uncertainties’ in poetry – that it might be too unsettling or off-putting if a poem doesn’t reveal itself clearly enough in each and every way. Perhaps it’s because we often feel that our job as adults is to provide children with answers. But of course answers are not only what children want or need.
I view poems as a magic invitation (for writer or reader, adult or child) to sit for a while with a question or sensation, and explore it in your own way. Poems provide a space where things don’t necessarily need to be solved or understood in a rational sense. Rather, they’re somewhere you can experience something a little more deeply or perhaps in a new way entirely. They are a place of mystery and knottiness, but also of discovery. And it seems only fair that children should get just as much of this as anybody else.
Kate Wakeling is a writer and musicologist. Her debut collection of children’s poetry, Moon Juice (The Emma Press)won the 2017 CLiPPA and was nominated for the 2018 CILIP Carnegie Medal. Her second collection for children, Cloud Soup (The Emma Press) came out in the summer and was selected as a Book of the Month by the Guardian and the Scotsman. A pamphlet of Kate’s poetry for adults, The Rainbow Faults, is published by The Rialto.