When I get a few days off, I’ll usually take on some sort of side project, like rearranging the furniture or attacking a hedge. Now and again I’ll try something new – learn Welsh, dabble in stocks and shares, make bread. These I’ve attempted with truly disastrous results.
This Easter break, however, I thought I’d dedicate my thoughts to poetry. I had a simple aim – to see if I could write a few poems for children.
I come from Newport, in south Wales, which isn’t a pretty town. It was the birthplace of one notable poet, WH Davies, the ‘Supertramp’. He was a world famous bum, a high class hobo. His first poem, written at 14, was called ‘Death’. He travelled widely, caught malaria, lost a foot under a train. I’ve always found Davies useful for introducing adult poetry to primary school aged children. He was an entertaining rascal, and his poems are an easy read.
I don’t remember much poetry I was taught in my own primary years. Perhaps ‘The Pied Piper’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. Not much else. I studied the usual suspects for GCSE and A level: Chaucer, Keats and Ted Hughes. But none of these had anything like the same effect on me as when I first heard Roxy Music’s ‘Virginia Plain’. Pop music was the true poetry of my teenage years.
Since schooldays poetry has floated around my life like the International Space Station. I knew it was there, I knew it was important and big, the work of brilliant minds. Occasionally I’d glimpse it and point to it, want to share it with friends. But most of the time it was invisible, forgotten about.
I’ve attempted writing poetry many times, but never with much success. My most spectacular failures, however, have been my efforts at poetry for children. And it’s not just me who is rubbish at it. You can find anthologies of the stuff, twee, patronising and horrible enough to induce vomiting.
Children’s fiction has come so far since I was a young, but children’s poetry hasn’t moved at all. There are wonderful picture books full of excellent rhymes for the youngest readers, but where are the new and exciting poems for ten year olds? They don’t exist. Skim through Amazon’s poetry ‘bestseller’ charts - most are anthologies that have been around for decades. Macmillan’s more recent series ‘The Works’ is good, but it is a notable exception.
So, with these few days off, I had the misguided notion that I should write a series of poems for older children.
I sat and stared for at least a morning, hoping for some inspiration. I did a lot of Tweeting. I opened and closed the door of the fridge. I even started dusting the radiators. Poetry wasn’t happening. It was even harder than I thought.
Fortunately, a friend who knows about these things pointed me in the direction of some good books about the mechanics of poetry, how it works, why it works.
Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’ is informative but a bit dull. ‘The Making of a Poem’ by Evan Boland and Mark Strand is better. It has a little more passion than Fry, and some juicy examples of particular forms.
And then I came across Seamus Heaney’s “The Redress of Poetry” – his Oxford Lectures. Not only is Heaney a poet of enormous stature, but his prose writing is intense and electrifying. And here, at last, I came to understand what it is about poetry that should thrill me.
Whereas the first two books I encountered focus too much on technical aspects of poetry, Heaney tends to assume these things are in place, and moves on to demonstrate that there must be something beyond technique, and through exploring a poem as apparently simple as John Clare’s ‘The Thunder Mutters’ Heaney shows that sometimes a poet’s skill is doing more with less and making it look easy.
Poetry can be accessible to everyone, even if it is presented as just a game, a hunt for rhymes and rhythm. There still seems to be a place for the poet, certainly in the adult world. But the poet must not be conjurer with a bag of tricks, he should drill down, get right to the roots, even if it hurts. To do otherwise is to patronise and just add more trite verse to the mountain of dreadful stuff already out there.
It could be, then, that children’s poetry doesn’t need to exist. Ted Hughes ‘Thought Fox’, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Fish’ or ‘Manners’, Brian Patten’s ‘A Blade of Grass’ or Larkin’s ‘The Trees’ can speak just as well to children as well as adults.
My favourite poem for children is John Hegley's 'Bad News'. If you don't know it, look it up, and tell me you don't laugh a little when you read the last line.
Do you have a favourite poem suitable for children, or an anthology you could recommend?