Poetic perspectives on our planet
One of the great pleasures of poetry is that the poets’ dazzling feats of imagination can whisk the reader under the sea, to another planet or to view the world from another perspective in the space of just a few lines. When I was choosing poems for Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book, I looked for verses that would help me see the natural world in a new way, as many of the museum’s amazing exhibits do. I hoped this shift in viewpoint would encourage children to connect more deeply with the natural world, and encourage a passion for protecting it.
The narrator of a poem can be anyone – or anything: a child, an astronaut, Charles Darwin’s wife, a duck, a dinosaur, a dodo. Children are used to suspending disbelief for the space of a poem, since we have all gorged on a diet of talking animals and magical happenings, often in rhyme since our earliest days being read to. A poem is a portal the poet asks us to walk through, and on the other side, nothing looks quite the same.
One of the poems I’m most looking forward to sharing with young readers is Gita Ralleigh’s ‘Solar System Candy’.
If I ate the solar system,
the moon would taste
strange and dusty
as Turkish Delight.
Planets would be
except Saturn and Jupiter –
those gas giants
fizz like sherbert,
or melt like candy floss
in your mouth.
The meteor belt
pops and crackles
like space dust.
Comets leave a minty sting
on your tongue.
Black holes taste of cola bottles.
you once had
Gita’s poem is full of sensory delights that help readers of all ages to see these distant astral bodies with fresh eyes as they recall familiar tastes and sensations. I had never managed to remember which planets were made of gas, but now they taste like candy floss on my tongue, I’ll never forget! The image of Turkish Delight is perfectly chosen, reminding us of the fact that the moon’s surface is dusty enough for us to leave boot prints in it if we could walk around on it.
John Clare’s poem ‘The Ants’ starts with a human-sized perspective. We see the ants’ procession from our usual lofty height. But with the suggestion of a whispered language among the workers, suddenly the reader is urged to swoop down to eavesdrop, and to imagine the customs and commands that govern the intricately-ordered community.
What wonder strikes the curious, while he views
The black ant’s city, by a rotten tree,
Or woodland bank! In ignorance we muse:
Pausing, annoy’d, – we know not what we see,
Such government and thought there seem to be;
Some looking on, and urging some to toil,
Dragging their loads of bent-stalks slavishly:
And what’s more wonderful, when big loads foil
One ant or two to carry, quickly then
A swarm flock round to help their fellow-men.
Surely they speak a language whisperingly,
Too fine for us to hear; and sure their ways
Prove they have kings and laws, and that they be
Deformed remnants of the Fairy-days.
Some of the poems explicitly ask the reader to think themselves into the mind of a seal, or a tree, or a lizard. It’s a wonderful way to ignite children’s imaginations: who hasn’t wondered where the cat goes at night, or what an elephant might dream about? Geoffrey Dearmer’s poem ‘Whale’ – with its lovely lulling ‘rise and sink and rise and sink’ putting the reader right there in the waves – is a great example.
Wouldn’t you like to be a whale
And sail serenely by—
An eighty-foot whale from your tip to your tail
And a tiny, briny eye?
Wouldn’t you like to wallow
Where nobody says ‘Come out!’?
Wouldn’t you love to swallow
And blow all the brine about?
Wouldn’t you like to be always clean
But never have to wash, I mean,
And wouldn’t you love to spout—
O yes, just think—
A feather of spray as you sail away,
And rise and sink and rise and sink,
And blow all the brine about?
Asking children to fire up their imaginations by reading – and writing – their way into fresh ways of seeing the natural world can foster a connection with the wonders of our planet. Hopefully, it will also inspire the next generation develop a lifelong interest in protecting it.
Ana Sampson has edited eleven poetry anthologies including Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book and She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women. She knows much less about dinosaurs than her children. www.anasampson.co.uk.