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Children's Poets for Grown-Ups by Various (Poetry Library, 2014)

Our February 2014 Poetry Library Book Club was held as part of Southbank Centre's annual Imagine Children's Festival and looked at the work of five twentieth-century British children's poets we felt every grown-up should read. Each of the poets we looked at were writing after 1912 and are no longer living.

The poets we looked at, in birth date order, were:
Walter de la Mare
Eleanor Farjeon
Charles Causley
Ted Hughes
Adrian Mitchell

Children's Poetry in England (a very brief introduction)
Poetry has been used as a way of teaching and entertaining children for many centuries - many nursery rhymes have ancient origins and traditional ballads have played a large part in children's reading matter.  The Puritans of the 17th century were the first English writers to use poetry methodically as a means of instructing children in religion and A Book for Boys and Girls by John Bunyan, published in 1686, could be called the first notable book of verse for children.  In 1715 Isaac Watt's Divine Songs was published, in which Puritan ideas found a milder expression, and for the next century and a half it was one of the most widely distributed children's books (Isaac Watt's is best known for his hymn words which include "Joy to the World" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross").  The next notable book was 70 years later in 1789, William Blake's Songs of Innocence followed in 1804 by Original Poems for Infant Minds by Ann and Jane Taylor, Jane Taylor being the author of the nursery rhyme "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star".  In 1846 Edward Lear's First Book of Nonsense a volume of limericks was published, which went through several volumes and helped to popularise the form.  1862 saw the publication of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market and in 1885 Robert Louis Stevenson published A Child's Garden of Verses.  That brings us to where our book club started because Stevenson was a considerable influence on Walter de la Mare the first poet we looked at.

Children's collection at the Poetry Library
The Poetry Library's collection of children's books started on the move to the Royal Festival Hall in 1988. The collection was founded with the donation of the Signal Poetry Collection which was the collection of the now defunct Signal Poetry Magazine (1973-2003) who used to award the Signal Award for children's poetry. The bulk of the collection is from the 1970s onwards, but also has a selection of earlier works. While in the adult collection we do not collect books by poets from before 1912, there are certain poets we will collect new editions of for the children's collection, for example Lewis Carroll, Christina Rossetti and Edward Lear. This is because these poets were so highly influential on the development of poetry for children.

Hilaire Belloc
Before we looked at Walter de la Mare we listened to a poem by Hilaire Belloc.  Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was a contemporary of De La Mare. Belloc was born just outside Paris, to an English mother, and a French father.  Following the death of his father when he was 2 the family returned to England. Belloc began writing poetry at the age of 5 and he grew up to be one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. He was known as a writer, orator, poet, sailor, satirist, man of letters, soldier and political activist. His reputation since his death has suffered, largely because of his staunch Catholicism and consequent antagonism toward other religions, notably Islam. He has also been charged with anti-semitism. Though much of his output is now neglected, his name lives on through his poetry, in particular his Cautionary Tales for Children (1907) a parody of the cautionary tales popular in the 19th century, written to warn a hearer of a danger. His comic poetry stands comparison with the best nonsense verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.

We listened to "Jim who ran away from his nurse and got eaten by a lion" track 2 on the CD Hilaire Belloc Cautionary verses [compact disc] read by Rosalind Ayres and Martin Jarvis (London : CSA Telltapes, 2004)

1. Walter De La Mare
Walter de la Mare was a private person, and little is known about his personal life other than the bare facts. He was born in 1873 in Charlton, Kent , to an affluent family who were of Huguenot descent. His father, who died when he was young, worked for the Bank of England, and his mother was related to the Victorian poet Robert Browning. The young de la Mare was sent to St Paul's Cathedral Choir School until, at the age of 16, he began work in the accounting department of the Anglo-American Oil Company. He did not enjoy the work, but remained in the job for 18 years to support his young family - he married Constance Elfrida Ingpen, 10 years his senior, in 1899 and the couple had four children. However, he also found time to write, and in 1908 a Civil List pension of £100 per year enabled him to give up his office job and concentrate on writing full-time.

His output was prolific, comprising dozens of poetry collections and prose works for adults and children, but he is most renowned for his poetry and children's fiction. De la Mare wrote during the modernist era in the early twentieth century, but his work was not part of this movement.  In his poetry he chose to develop traditional styles rather than experiment with new modernist forms.  However, modernism did not begin to dominate poetry until the 1920s, and in the decade prior to this, de la Mare's reputation flourished. His first significant success was his collection for adults The Listeners and Other Poems in 1912, followed in 1913 by his first critically acclaimed children's book, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes. The title poem of "The Listeners" is his most well-known and most frequently anthologised poem and is typical of much of de la Mare's poetry, in that there is a strong sense of other realities (whether eerie or benign) which are experienced, not through ordinary senses, but through imagination and spiritual intuition.
De La Mare died in 1956, aged 83. His ashes are buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, where he had once been a choirboy.

Listen to de la Mare on the Poetry Archive

We looked at two poems from De La Mare's most highly regarded collection Peacock Pie, 1913. The page numbers refer to the Faber and Faber edition of 2001.
"The Lost Shoe" p34-35
1. Is Lucy's response to her lost shoe a bit over the top?
2. Do you feel for Lucy?
3. Do you like the rhyme and rhythm of the poem? Does it suit the poem? What does it add?
"The Little Bird" p14
1. What do you make of the end of this poem?  (Is the "Wee small bird" a child that died?)
2. How does the "new mansion" fit in with the end of the poem?
3. Do you find this poem scary?  Would you share it with a child?
4. Although this poem has longer lines it has a similar rhyme scheme to the other poem.  Does it suit this poem too which has a very different atmosphere??

2. Eleanor Farjeon
Eleanor Farjeon was born in 1881 in London and died in 1965. She came from a literary family and was encouraged to write from an early age. She suffered ill-health through most of her childhood, but it was her childhood which gave her the most inspiration for her writing.
Her most widely known work is the children's hymn "Morning has Broken". She wrote children's stories and plays, as well as poetry, but also lots of other kinds of writing such as opera librettos and satire. Her work was popular with both children and adults both during her lifetime and after.
She had many friends who were writers, including DH Lawrence, Walter de la Mare, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost. She never married, but had a thirty year relationship with an English teacher called George Earle. She became a Roman Catholic in 1951.
Her work won many prestigious prizes, including the annual Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, the first international Hans Christian Andersen Medal, and the biennial award from the International Board on Books for Young People (now considered the highest lifetime recognition available to creators of children's books).

We looked at her poem "It Was Long Ago". It can be found in the collection Blackbird Has Spoken : Selected Poems for Children by Eleanor Farjeon ; chosen by Anne Harvey -- London : MacMillan Children's Books, 1999, p3-4.

1. "And seemed to know how it felt to be three" - what memories can you recall from when you were three years old? Does this poem seem plausible if we take it to represent an actual childhood memory?
2. "And the smell of everything that used to be" seems to be a key line in the poem. It is in contrast to the other observations in the poem which seem very simple and literal ("red shawl" "grey cat" etc). Do you like this line? Does it work against the rest of the poem? 
3. If Little Red Riding hood is a story about a girl in a red cloak being misled by a wolf ("experience") who kills her sickly grandmother, how might we read this as a story about a girl who is offered food by a strange old woman in a red shawl with a cat? What might the woman represent? What might the colour red represent? The food? The cat?!
4. Do we as readers experience this as a poem about real memories or as an allegory filled with symbols?

3. Charles Causley
Charles Causley was born in Launceston in Cornwall in 1917 the son of a gardener and domestic servant.  He attended grammar school on a scholarship and became a school teacher, spending most of his life in his beloved Launceston, though he did travel and twice spent time in Perth as a visiting Fellow at the University of Western Australia, and also worked at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada.
When he was only seven his father died from wounds sustained during the First World War. This early loss and his own experience of service in the Second World War affected Causley deeply and war and its aftermath is a frequent theme in his poems.  He began publishing children's poetry in the 1950s.  Again, like De La Mare, in contrast to the modernist poets who were his contemporaries, he wrote using traditional rhyme and meter, preferring lyric ballads and descriptive, narrative poems that recalled 19th century poetry.  His poetry is filled with images of the sea and coastal life, with reference to Cornish legends.
His poetry was recognised by the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1967.  Causley was very highly regarded by his fellow poets, and on his 70th birthday, many of them, including Ted Hughes, Roger McGough and Seamus Heaney, contributed to a collection of poetry and prose tributes published in his honour.  Ted Hughes described Causley as one of the "best loved and most needed" poets of the last fifty years.  Causley died in 2003 aged 86.

The poem looked at was from his first collection of verse Farewell, Aggie Weston / Charles Causley -- Aldington, Kent : Hand and Flower Press, 1951.

"Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience"
We listened to Charles Causley reading this poem track 1 Charles Causley [compact disc] : reading from his poems / Charles Causley -- Stroud, Gloucestershire : Poetry Archive, 2005,  recorded 5 December 2002 in Launceston, Cornwall.
1. Are you surprised that this poem is calling itself a Nursery Rhyme?
2. Do you find the 4th and 5th verses romantic or disturbing?
3. What's happened to the sailor?  Do you like how Causley suggests this obliquely and with pretty economic use of language?
4. What do you make of the boy's behaviour at the end of the poem?  Where are the other girls and boys?

We then listened to Natalie Merchant singing the poem on her album Leave Your Sleep. This is an album of children's poems that Merchant has set to music. It has also been published as an anthology accompanied by the album:
Leave your sleep [multimedia] : a collection of classic children's poetry / adapted to music by Natalie Merchant and illustrated by Barbara McClintock -- New York : Frances Foster Books, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012.
5. Does Natalie Merchant capture the atmosphere of the poem?
6. What does having the poem set to music add?

4. Ted Hughes
Like Charles Causley, who became his great friend, Ted Hughes came from a working class background.  Hughes was born in Yorkshire in 1930 and won an Open Exhibition to Cambridge University to study English, though he switched to anthropology, and much of his poetry, both for adults and children is concerned with animals and nature.  Hughes became famous with his ground-breaking first collection, The Hawk in the Rain (1957) and would remain famous for the rest of his life, not only because of his poetry but because of his tragic marriage to poet Sylvia Plath which ended with her suicide.  He became Poet Laureate in 1984 and died aged 68 in 1998 following the publication of Birthday Letters which explored his relationship with Plath.

Ted Hughes's first collection for children was Meet My Folks! (1961), written for his daughter Frieda who was a baby at the time.  Ted Hughes once said that for him writing for children was a biological thing, when his children were born he started producing a store of stories for them, 'like mother's milk'.  The poems in Meet My Folks and in his next book Nessie the Mannerless Monster (1964) are formal, rhyming poems.  He then moved on to writing poems for older children, free verse animal poems such as Season Songs (1975), Under the North Star (1981) and the "farmyard fable" What is the Truth? (1984). When his own children were grown up he began to write lyrical poems for younger readers The Cat and the Cuckoo (1987) and The Mermaid's Purse (1993).  Hughes most famous works for children are his science fiction novel The Iron Man published in 1968 and his groundbreaking anthology that he edited with Seamus Heaney The Rattle Bag (1982).

We looked at two poems by Hughes, both published in his Collected poems for children / Ted Hughes -- London : Faber and Faber, 2005, starting with a poem for younger children "Cat" originally published in the collection The Cat and the Cuckoo (1987).
You can listen to Hughes reading this poem on the CD Poems for children [compact disc] / Ted Hughes ; read by the author, with Juliet Stevenson and Michael Morpurgo -- London : Faber Audio, 2011.
 1. Do you like that the opening line ends with a full-stop?  Does it need to be sentence on its own?
2. Hughes has said of the poems in The Cat and the Cuckoo that "my plan was to compress each subject into a very brief but intensely musical form that would be above all easy to memorise.." Is this just a nice poem about a cat with a strong rhyme scheme and rhythm or is Hughes commenting on the human condition?

We then looked at a poem for older children from Hughes's book What is the Truth? (1984)
1. Do you find the opening line surprising?
2. Do you think Hughes has captured what it is to be a dog?
3. Is this poem just a series of surprising images or is there a rhythm and rhyme to it?
4. Do you think that today's children would relate to this poem?  (we don't really have paper boys any more, post people come when children are at school, most children live in cities so wouldn't know about sheepdogs?)
5. What do you make of the poem's last sentence/image?

5. Adrian Mitchell
When Adrian Mitchell died in 2008, aged 76, The Guardian obituary described him as a poet in which "the legacies of Blake and Brecht coalesce with the zip of Little Richard and the swing of Chuck Berry", and as "a playful, deeply serious peacemonger and an instinctive democrat". During his lifetime Mitchell wrote plays, operas, adaptations of classic texts, songs, novels and, of course poetry. In 2005, a National Poetry Day poll chose his poem Human Beings as the poem most people would like see launched into space. On the night before he died he rang his friend Michael Kustow to recite a new poem. It included the lines: Tis my delight each Friedegg Night /To chomp a Verbal Sandwich / Scots Consonants light up my Pants / And marinade my Heart in Language / Alphabet Soup was all my joy!"

The poem we looked at was "The Postman's Palace" on pages 118-120 of Adrian Mitchell's Umpteen pockets : new and collected poems for children -- London : Orchard Books, 2009.
A film of the palace the poem refers to can be watched here:

1. The language of the poem is quite simple. Does this detract from its impact?
2. How might this poem function as a gateway poem i.e. as a way into more complex "adult" poems?
3. Mitchell commented that "Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people", and it has been said that his work was an attempt to create a body of writing that included most people by its use of everyday language and cadence, and also by its thematic concern with the lives of everyday people. How does this poem fit with Mitchell's agenda?
4. Mitchell has written poems for adults that might be included in his children's collections and poems for children that might sit comfortably in his adult collections. Is this poem one of those?

Concluding questions:
1. Will you read more of any of these poets children's poetry?  Do you think you will share their work with any children?
2. Are there any other children's poets you'd like to recommend to the group?

All of the books and recordings mentioned are available for reference or loan in the Poetry Library.

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