An anonymous but appropriate and still fairly well-known bit of American doggerel, near as I can figure from the 1940s or thereabouts. From our small, battered copy of the Arrow Book of Funny Poems, collected by Eleanor Clymer and published in 1961 by Scholastic:
The wind riz
And then it blew,
The rain friz
And then it snew.
Spring has sprung,
The grass has riz.
I wonder where
The flowers is.
Spring has spring,
Fall has fell,
And it’s cold as…heck.
What do we mean by the phrase ‘poetry for children’? For me W.H. Auden, writing of the work of the great Walter de la Mare, answered this question once and for all. ‘It must never be forgotten,’ he said, ‘that, while there are some good poems which are only for adults, because they pre-suppose adult experience in their readers, there are no good poems which are only for children.’
I remember wondering, in my earliest years as a primary school teacher, why my so-called ‘poetry’ lessons invariably fell flat, although made up of what I believe to be perfectly acceptable ‘children’s’ verse of the day: simple songs and jingles, light verses about animals, comic tales of those who were judged to be ‘characters’, and the like. All these offerings were accepted politely by my captive audiences, though clearly without much enthusiasm. Shamefully, I had failed to remember the excellent advice of a wise and experienced tutor. ‘Never forget,’ he had said. ‘Feed the lambs.’
and here’s the middle part,
Then, one lucky day, I arrived before one of my classes with the wrong set of books, only one of which was of poetry: a newly-acquired selection of English and Scottish traditional ballads made by Robert Graves. I’d had no time to study it properly, and retreat was out of the question. I opened the book and began to read.
Young Beichan he was a noble lord
And a peer of high degree;
He hath taken ship at London Town,
For that Christ’s Tomb he would see.
He sailèd west, and he sailèd east
Till he came to Galilee,
Where he was cast in prison strong,
And handled cruelly.
At this point, out of sheer nerves, I muddled a turn of the pages. In the small silence while I put things right, I was startled by a boy’s voice from the middle of the class. ‘Go on, then!’ And I knew that, at last, I’d secured a genuine audience, if only of one. I also knew that perhaps, as far as my work as a teacher was concerned, I’d discovered one key to the world of poetry for children.
Beginning in this simple fashion, it became increasingly clear to me that given a little trust and encouragement, children are as capable of interpreting the signs and signals, the secret messages of poetry, as adults are venturesome enough to make available to them. It was Sir John Betjeman who defined such secret messages with wonderful simplicity as ‘tones of meaning beyond the surface one’.
Few children in this or any other age can be entirely unfamiliar with the ancient patterns of birth, love, marriage, infidelity, betrayal, sickness, old age, death. All these elements form part of the fabric of our early popular poetry, presented in a simple-seeming and undidactic manner as it reflects the ways of the world.
Who can resist a tale well told? The ballad moves with breathtaking speed and clarity (no excess of words here), the narrative leaping forward from stanza to stanza like the images in a film. The total absence of sentimentality, the lack of moralising on the part of the narrator, are all essentials in this plainly-spoken form that, with its sturdy companion the folk-song, have held their places securely in our culture over the centuries. ‘The young are a secret society,’ said the Czech novelist and playwright Karel Capek, ‘and the old have forgotten that they once belonged to it.’ It’s the business, surely then, of those of us no longer children, to try to remember.
I’ll post the final part of the foreword next week.