Rhymes and Reasons: Poetry for children

downloadSmall children love poetry. Most adults, sadly, don’t. What happens in between? There seems to be a popular assumption that if you really like poetry (like me), you must be academic, a bit geeky, probably rather weird (like me). I don’t believe this; I think that too many people are put off poetry at school, perhaps by assumptions made by others around them that it’s ‘boring'; perhaps by exposure to a limited range of poems; perhaps by lacklustre teaching. But this is such a shame – I won’t go into why poetry is important, beautiful, necessary etc here (if you want more on this, read ‘How Poetry can Change Lives‘, which says it better than I can). When I’m teaching poetry to undergraduates, I often hear students say ‘I don’t understand it’. Often, it’s true, poetry doesn’t say things in the same straightforward way that prose does, but poetry is a lot more than just its projected ‘meaning’. I know this because my son, pre-verbal at less than a year old, loved me reading poetry to him; he heard a lot of Tennyson, Rossetti and Shakespeare (and anything else I had memorised) before he had any idea what words were, let alone how to interpret a poem. Of course he loved it – the rhythm, the sounds of the words in your mouth and in the air are hypnotic. How can you not be drawn in by Byron’s ‘The Destruction of Sennacharib’? If you don’t believe me, read it aloud.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.images

What about Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’?

When the centuries behind me like a fruitful land reposed;
When I clung to all the present for the promise that it closed:
When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.—
In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Poems are meant to be read aloud, and one of the pleasures of having a small child is the reading process. Of course, it’s good for them in an educational sense, and in a bonding way too, but it is also fun. Now my son is nearly 3, we have a lot of children’s poems, including the omnipresent Julia Donaldson (my particular favourite is The Highway Rat because of my affection for Alfred Noyes’ poem), but mostly, we have A A Milne’s poems of Pooh Bear and Christopher Robin. They entertain parents as well as children; they have little morals (images (1)some of them) and are absolute nonsense (others). But what they have in common is a gentle repetition, rhymes, a steady, often galloping rhythm, and images which appeal to children. Like all the best children’s (and adults?) literature, they suggest ways in which the world might be better (‘King John’s Christmas’ opens ‘King John was not a good man’, but concludes ‘And oh! Father Christmas, my blessings on you fall, For bringing him a big, red, india-rubber ball!’) ‘The Dormouse and the Doctor‘ reminds us that other people don’t always know best (and is, in its way, a very sad poem). ‘Sneezles‘ reminds us not to get too stressed about children’s colds, while ‘Teddy Bear‘ shows us that fat can be beautiful. All good messages. Be warned, though – these are earworms of the most pernicious variety, and you will find yourself reciting them long after the children are in bed.

In the Fashion’ is Edward’s current favourite: it’s about how a little boy gets a tail because his favourite animals have them; as a result, I have had to make him his own tail (see picture). Another favourite is the completely pointless ‘Busy’, which I rather like because it exactly sums up a child’s life. We often hear Edward muttering ‘Round about and round about and round about and round about’ when he’s meant to be going to sleep:

I think I am a muffin man. I haven’t got a bell.
I haven’t got the muffin things that muffin people sell. 
Perhaps I am a postman. No I think I am a tram. IMG_1081
I’m feeling rather funny and I don’t know what I am–

BUT
Round about 
And round about
And round about I go–
All around the table,
The table in the nursery–
Round about 
And round about
And round about I go–

I think I am a traveller escaping from a bear;
I think I am an elephant
Behind another elephant
Behind another elephant who isn’t really there….

SO
Round about 
And round about
And round about and round about 
And round about
And round about 
I go.

Grace Nichols, a judge of the Foyle Young Poets Award, wrote to the Guardian recently asking ‘Parents, pick poetry’. She points out that children are likely to get into poetry through their parents, and says that ‘a poem read aloud can hold children enthralled, awakening in them a new love of language. Poetry never forgets its roots in song. Children love the sound of words; the surprise of images; of getting their tongues around the music of vowels and consonants.’ She’s right, and perhaps if more children experienced this on a regular basis, more adults would instinctively love poetry too.

6 thoughts on “Rhymes and Reasons: Poetry for children

  1. Perhaps Edward will like this, possibly the greatest limerick ever penned:

    There once was a man who cried ‘Damn!
    I have just realised that I am
    A creature that moves
    In predestinate grooves,
    Not a bus, as I thought, but a tram’.

  2. That’s great, Simon, I love it! Think the philosophy of it might be a bit beyond Edward just yet though…

  3. It’s by one of Penelope Fitzgerald’s uncles, I forget which one. As boys they were obsessed by public transport. It’s true that they were all giant intellects, but they loved humorous verse. I don’t think anyone is ever too young to add a wonderful word like ‘predestinate’ to their vocabulary. As you said, part of the point, a lot of the pleasure, is rolling words around in your mouth, the joy of scansion and rhyme. You catch up with the philosophy later. That pleasure is lying in wait for you.

  4. Oh, I’d forgotten about Lear – he’s great too, and I love the illustrations that usually accompany the limericks! Glad you like the tail!

  5. My mother loves poetry and as a child we would be read a lot of classic verse before TV death came to perch on the set of drawers. Then at school being forced to analyse Bill Shakespearse sonnets – the enjoyment of words severely tested. Now I am rediscovering my love for spoken word and verse, the spoken word of some of the beats and also john cooper clarke is impressive. I wish we had been shown the rich variety of possibilities for poetry and spoken word at school, there is more to verse than Shakespeare.
    For the sake of my peers, coming from limited backgrounds most, i think the beats or wordsmiths of more contemporary vein would have connected better. Better to sow with what will grow with a view to the future than an oak in the desert.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s