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.

 

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.

 

A Sense of a Revival, by Michael Rosen

I have a sense that the world of children’s poetry is having something of a revival at the moment. Someone with their nose closer to the details would be able to aggregate what’s going on but as someone who is himself immersed in it all, I can see that there seem to be more single collections coming out, along with more anthologies bringing together the work of several or many poets. On top of that, I see a lot of activity on social media – twitter especially – drawing attention to events, school visits and prizes. I personally know several of the young poets working with schools and bringing out new books themselves and it’s great to see that they’re making a living. The CLPE’s prize for the best poetry book of the year draws a good deal of attention to what’s coming out too.

I can’t immediately put my hand on what is the cause (or causes) for this but I would point at the ‘advocates’ of poetry for children who put in a shift on this: CLPE, the English and Media Centre, Chris and the folks here on this website, the Poetry Archive, the magazines like Carousel, Books for Keeps, English Association 4-11 and Teaching English from NATE. We can also see that several publishers are going the extra mile and working on bringing out beautifully produced books of poetry for children and young people. Another growth point is the increase in the number and variety of rhyming picture books. These provide a base in how parents, teachers and children think about poetry: that it’s accessible and engaging. It’s easy to forget that ‘The Gruffalo’ and the rest of Julia Donaldson’s hugely popular books are of course poems. Alongside this, at the other end of childhood, we’re seeing the rise of the free verse novel (Sharon Creech, Sarah Crossan) which contributes to a wider acceptance of what I might call the ‘poetry way of seeing things’.  I think also that poets themselves have got more media savvy and are using the internet more with news, videos, websites and the rest. My son and I have worked very hard on building up our web presence with regular updates on our YouTube Channel and my website. Obviously, putting poetry through these channels enables teachers, parents and children to access poetry very easily on tablets, laptops and phones.

I think there must also be a new enthusiasm amongst  younger teachers who spend an inordinate amount of time locked into a curriculum obsessed with putting children through tests that only have right/wrong answers. Besides everything else that poetry offers, it provides quick benefits in terms of children’s confidence, interest, enthusiasm and what I call a ‘bridge’ to literacy. What I mean by that is the way in which poetry – particularly in performance – offers children a way in which they can easily make a bridge between the oral and the written. Purely in terms of literacy, poetry is a bonus when it comes to reading fluently.

In saying this, I don’t want to minimise in any way what poetry can offer by way of foregrounding emotions, feelings, a sense of self, a sense of culture, a sense of the plasticity and flexibility of language. More than that too: in its own way, poetry insists on being portable philosophy, carrying a commentary on the interactions between the mind, the world and events as they unfold. Speaking personally, poetry has above all enabled me to explore memory, whether that’s been through a form of ‘naturalism’ or through hyperbole. In all these matters, poetry will insist on not wanting to be reduced to those right/wrong answers but to make its effects known through suggestion, sensation, ambiguity and a movement of feeling across words, verses or a whole poem. And let’s not forget Keats and his ‘negative capability’ – those moments where, as writers or readers, we can sit in a place of not-fully-knowing. Whether teachers put the matter like this or not, I have a sense that for many, poetry has become a great place to do things that are not like the binary world demanded by the teach-and-test regime.

In general though, things are looking good!

https://www.michaelrosen.co.uk/

https://www.youtube.com/MichaelRosenOfficial