Saturday 4 May 2024

A few quick tips for poetry performance

 Performance poetry tip for schools: think of your body being in a box. For some lines, the box is tall and thin, sometimes it's small and square, sometimes the box is huge. Your hands and legs (gestures and movements) reach the edges depending on what's right for the line or word

You can express the rhythm of a poem in any part of your body or in all of it. It could be just your eyebrows, or fingers or how you sway your whole body. Try to make the rhythm of the words help the rhythm of your body, as if the words can push or pull.

Remember that your voice is a musical instrument: it can go up and down, loud and soft, spikey (staccato), smooth and slide. It can make rhythms rather than tunes. In groups we can combine these, some doing rhythm, some bass, some melody. You can take a phrase from a poem (eg the chorus) and by repeating it quietly you have a rhythm and bass over which you can say a poem.

As one example (sorry it's me!): when I do 'Bear Hunt' (see YouTube) notice I do big, I do small, I do mouth-rhythms, I use my arms and body for rhythm, I do faces, I go fast, I go slow. One or some or any of these you can use for any part of the poems you perform.

Monday 22 April 2024

Hal Syndrome - performative non-remembering

In the plays, Henry IV parts i and ii, Prince Hal hangs out with some low lifes, the most memorable of whom is Falstaff. This is in its own way, scandalous. Hal's father (Henry IV) is not happy about it. Then Henry IV dies, so Hal becomes king - Henry V. Falstaff thinks that the old relationship will continue but when he presents himself to Hal, Hal says, 'I know thee not old man.'
It's a fascinating moment of what we might call today 'performative non-remembering'. That's to say, for the knockabout, boozy Hal to transform himself into the calculating monarch, he has to show ('performative') that he doesn't 'know' Falstaff and that way of life. It's a form of censorship through staged silence.
So in amongst all the other syndromes, principles, effects, traits, tropes, 'razors' that people talk of these days I'm going to suggest Hal Syndrome. This is any event, story, occasion that grabs the news, preoccupies people, is apparently important but then when the situation changes, it's no longer news, it's not important. In other words there is 'performative non-remembering'.
I'm sure you can all think of examples from politics, culture, your own personal lives. It's happened to me in the last couple of weeks (that's to say the performative non-remembering), and so I needed a name for it.
I give you Hal Syndrome.

Saturday 20 April 2024

My books for children that reflect Jewish history, Jewish folklore or my Jewish background

The Golem of Old Prague (first published by Andre Deutsch) then published by Five Leaves Books) illustrated first by Val Biro, then by Baruch ben Yitshak

The Missing, the true story of my family in World War Two (Walker books) 

On the Move, poems of migration, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Walker Books) 

Please Write Soon. an unforgettable story of what happened to two cousins in World War 2, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Scholastic) 

Barking for Bagels (illustrated by Tony Ross) (Andersen Press)

Books for children that include poems that talk about my Jewish background:

Out of this World, illusrated by Ed Vere (HarperCollins) to be published August 2024

Quick Let's Get Out of Here (illustrated by Quentin Blake) (Puffin) 

You Wait Till I'm Older Than You (Puffin) 

Jelly Boots, Smelly Boots, illustrated by David Tazzyman, (Bloomsbury) 

Michael Rosen's Big Book of Bad Things (Puffin) 

Video of my telling the story of what happened to my relatives in World War 2, based on the books 'The Missing' and 'On the Move'. 

Just copy and paste the link below into your browser: 

Teachers, why not use the video with the books?

Monday 8 April 2024

The True Story of the making of the book of 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' - please note the legal implications.

 I've done this before but as some people on social media seem bothered about the matter, I'll explain it again. But first, a word or two about folklore and children's books. For at least two hundred years, collectors, writers and editors have put 'traditional', 'anonymous' or 'folk' stories, rhymes and songs into books directed at children. The most famous of these is the one we know as Grimms' Fairy Tales' or some such. They collected stories and adapted them. Another famous collector, adapter and editor was Andrew Lang. If you go to google images and put in, say, Andrew Lang and 'Blue Fairy Book' you can see that on the cover it says simply 'Andrew Lang' but on the title page it says 'Edited by Andrew Lang'.

Some people seem bothered that this format was copied for 'Bear Hunt'. That's to say,  on the cover it says 'Michael Rosen' and 'Helen Oxenbury' but inside it says 'Retold by Michael Rosen'.  Though I didn't have a conversation about this at the time,  the publishers used the Andrew Lang format.

Some people feel that they have discovered some previously unknown link to a source for 'Bear Hunt' ie a 1983 version in the Smithsonian collection in the US. Just to be clear, I didn't ever hear that version when giving my version to the publisher some time in around 1986 or 87. The book came out in 1989. What version or versions had I heard? One was one sung by the Scots folksinger Alison McMorland who produced an album 'Funny Family' in 1977 and who I booked to sing 'Bear Hunt' on a show I wrote for Channel Four in the early 80s ('Everybody Here'). I had also heard versions sung by the Brownies (Girl Guide movement) earlier but their version was a 'Lion Hunt'. *** Alison explained to me that her version was an American version and had been devised in US  summer camps. Some of these included a repeated line about guns which as you will know, I didn't use.

It wasn't my idea to make a book out of the rhyme/song. It was one that I was performing as part of my poetry show from the early 1980s onwards, largely thanks to Alison. The editor of Walker Books saw me perform it and said it would make a great picture book. We discussed who could or should write it down. He insisted that I should. So I set about doing that. However, the first immediate problem was that at each of the 'venues' the children meet an obstacle, I produced noises, not onomatopoeic words. Then, again, in my oral version, I didn't have clear descriptions of each of the venues. And finally, my oral version wasn't long enough for the fixed length of picture books. 

So put these together and I came up with onomatopoeic words for the passage through the obstacles, I came up with words to describe each obstacle and I added two more obstacles (the snowstorm and the forest) . I think I also made some changes that I don't remember now, to the final rush home. I had nothing to do with devising or planning the final picture of the bear walking along the beach. Indeed, I had nothing to do with how the rhyme/song is pictured. Helen Oxenbury did that entirely herself and, as I've always said, what an incredible, beautiful and wonderful job she did. 

So, 'retold' is indeed an accurate description of what I did though you could also say it was 'edited' or 'adapted' or 'extended' by me. It's a job I have done many times with 'traditional' and 'folkloric' material, as with retellings of the German 'Til Eulenspiegel' stories, a Russian story I called 'Clever Cakes' an Indian story about a Rajah's ears, the Jewish Golem of Prague stories, a set of stories called 'How the Animals got Their Colours', an edition of Aesop's Fables. I have also done a book of jokes 'The Laugh Out Loud Joke Book' which is made up largely of  jokes I've collected, a song book of mostly traditional comic songs called 'Sonsense Nongs' and so on. This is part of the work that writers for children do and you can find wonderful work in this field from Michael Morpurgo, Geraldine McCaughrean and many others. 

In legal terms, what we do is create a new copyright version. You can find the same legality operating right the way across the world of folklore whether that be songs, stories, rhymes, jokes or whatever. 'Bear Hunt' belongs in this wider tradition of books in general where folkloric material has been adapted, retold, edited and so on. 

I am very sorry that some people might feel that somehow 'Bear Hunt' is less of a book because I adapted something rather than thought the whole thing up myself.  I always thought that the 'retold by' tag would make the situation clear. I would never want to take more credit for something that I've done than is my right or due. I'll take the credit for the adaptation, invention and editing work I did but not the total concept. Another analogy for this, if you like, is when people adapt stories and novels for the stage or film.  There has never been an attempt by me to hoodwink people about what I did for the book, In fact, I've told this story about the making of the book many times in the press and in media interviews.

Then there's the question of who is identified with the book. In my mind, the book was 'made' by Helen and the editors at Walker Books. What I did was provide them with a text that would 'work' for what they then created. However, I have performed the text of the book on YouTube and on the publisher's website where it's been viewed many millions of times. In addition, since it came out in 1989, I've performed it hundreds, if not thousands of times. Then when Channel Four commissioned an animation of the book, I worked with the animators (Lupus Films) on their version. I'm even on the sound track making the noise of the bear! It follows from this involvement that I've become part of how the book is seen or known. Again, I don't want to make this into something more than it is. It is simply me performing my version of this story but doing it in many places including in several versions online. 

However, some people for their own reasons which I don't want to go into just now, want to describe what I did as taking a pre-existing rhyme and simply or only putting it as I found it, into a book. That is not what I did, anymore than the Brothers Grimm simply or only put Hansel and Gretel, 'as they found it', into a book. They adapted it, revised it, edited it, expanded it. It is neither accurate nor legally correct to say that I simply or only put a pre-existing rhyme or song into a book. If people say this or write this,  in order to somehow damage my reputation, then they should be advised that stating that I put a pre-existing rhyme into a book is not a true statement of fact. I repeat, I did exactly what it says on the title page: I 'retold' the rhyme/song/story in the tradition of the Grimms, Andrew Lang and many others. 

***Following the publication of this blog, I received a note on Facebook today (April 8 2024) from someone (Margaret E. Sandercock) saying this: 

'I was a brownie and girl guide about 70 years ago - in those days, we sat in a circle and did the actions to ‘I’m going on a lion hunt’. I definitely remember how we all screamed ‘a lion’ when we found ‘something soft, something furry’ in the cave and how we scrabbled our way back home, panting as we arrived! ' 

This puts one origin for the song/rhyme as early as 1954. 

Saturday 6 April 2024

My poetry books for adults

 Bloody Liars (self-published)

You Are, Aren't You? (Five Leaves and Jewish Socialist Group)

Carrying the Elephant (Penguin)

This is not my Nose (Penguin)

In the Colonie (Penguin)

Selected Poems (Penguin)

The Skin of Your Back (Five Leaves)

Don't Mention the Children (Smokestack)

Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio (Smokestack)

Mr Mensh (Smokestack)

The Advantages of Nearly Dying (Smokestack)

Many Different Kinds of Love (Penguin) 

Pebbles (Smokestack) - forthcoming

Wednesday 20 March 2024

My books about reading, poetry and writing (all mostly in a educational contexts)

 'What is a Bong Tree? Articles and talks 1976-2021' (edited by John Richmond)

'Write to Feel Right'

'What is Poetry? The essential guide to reading and writing poems'

'Poetry and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools'

'Good Ideas, how to be your child's (and your own) best teacher'

'Michael Rosen's Book of Play'

'Reading for Pleasure'

'A Year with Poetry' (out of print but available second hand)

'I see a Voice' (out of print but available second hand)

'Did I Hear You Write?' (out of print but available second hand)

'I never know how poems start...'

'Why Write? Why Read?'

'The Author' (based on my PhD)

'Writing for Pleasure'

'Michael Rosen's Poetry Videos; how to get children writing and performing poems too' (with Jonny Walker)

'How to Make Children Laugh'

'Alphabetical, how every letter tells a story'

(There's also a chapter on writing, directed at adult readers, in 'Getting Better' my book about overcoming (or trying to overcome) trauma and loss.) 

[Special note for the book 'Children's Literature in Action' edited by Richard Charlesworth, Deborah Friedland and Helen Jones. 

This is a book of many of the research projects by students (most of whom are teachers) on our MA in Children's Literature at Goldsmiths University of London, doing 'Children's Literature in Action' ie studying how children read. They set up research projects looking closely at children's responses to books.

It's available online, free of charge here:  ]

Most of these books are available here:

Sunday 10 March 2024

Ofsted try to 'do' literature and end up with pap

 This comes from the new Ofsted Subject Report for English:

There's a lot here to chew over: it's the kind of report that doesn't stoop to give evidence. So with one word (the opening word),  'Occasionally...',  the need to provide evidence for the statement that follows is swept aside. It's one of those lovely, fuzzy words that can cover any complex phenomenon. Something somewhere always happens 'occasionally'. It's unassailable and so, the writers of this report hope, can't be disproved. Clever but not clever. 

'In these schools...' - this is phoney specificity. Having said 'occasionally', the authors think they're covered to say 'these schools' as if we the readers are now holders of the evidence of which schools. In fact, not. It's rhetorical hoodwinking. 

'...focus on issues of social justice or that pupils are able to access more easily.' A long time ago, someone noticed that the thing about Metaphysical poetry is that it 'yokes' together unexpected and heterogeneous images. This is a good example. The reasons why teachers might choose books that focus on issues of social justice are not necessarily anything to do with why teachers might choose books that are easy to access. In fact, I've seen teachers (and myself with my own kids) hold our noses over issues of social justice, when we've seen a child struggling to read, really taking off with a book that was easy to read but had questionable content. Mea culpa, but yoking these two elements here suggests an ideology behind the writing of this Ofsted document. It reeks of suspicion of teachers that they are funnelling literature into classrooms that is both focussed on social justice AND trashy. Again, no evidence given, but it works as a smear. 

Line 5: 'literary merit'. What is this? Of course, here it goes undefined, as if we the readers and they, Ofsted, live in a world in which we agree as much on what is literary merit as we do over accepting the law of gravity. This too is an ideological trick. The writer scoops up the reader into an assumption that we are supposed to accept without question. In fact, the concept of 'literary merit' is highly contested. We know that critics and academics are in permanent conversation about literature, and that's part of the general conversation in the 'republic of letters'. Long may it last. But trumpeting from a postion of power and privilege that there is some kind of objective gold standard of literary merit, is not part of that conversation. It's power-play. Control through privilege. I'm not even going to try to mind-read what texts the authors have in mind. What's more significant is that they think that they can bully teachers with such a term, as if they are trying to make teachers nervous that a text they have chosen for KS3 students does NOT have literary merit. Well, there's hardly a text in the world that hasn't at some time or another been chastised by someone for not having literary merit! Remember, there were purists who once had a go at Shakespeare because his iambic pentameter was irregular and ragged! One of the least satisfactory games played by some critics and academics is to joust with texts as if it's their job to find holes and weaknesses in them. I can't think of how many times I've read criticism both in national newsapers and academic journals that seek to 'prove' that a given text is not quite as 'good' as it should be, or as not so worthy of praise as others say that it is. Even so, here this phrase hangs in the air like a critical policeman's baton. 

Then comes an extraordinary sentence: 'Schools do not consider how the study of these texts might prepare pupils for further encounters with even more complex texts, as opposed to developing their understanding of issues such as homelessness.'

'Schools...' Which schools? This is an absurd generality. I read such generalities in newspapers every day, as with  what 'men', 'women', 'children' supposedly all think or do, along with use (of course) of many racialised epithets. In these examples, we call it stereotyping but in essence, it's the same process going on here. Are the authors of this document  aware of this and are using it to bully teachers or, laughably, are they not aware of it themselves? I don't know!

The proposition of the sentence holds within it an ideology around what is the purpose of the study of English in schools: it attacks the notion that we ask students to read texts that matter to them, in the here and now (an existential argument, if you like) , and proposes that we read texts at some pre-ordained idea of 'level' in order that we might proceed to a higher level in the tomorrow. It's the 'ladder' model of literary consumption: that we move from simple to hard, from naive to complex, from accessible to texts that require prior knowledge...and so on. Note here that it's the text that is supposedly developmental not the student! It's as if a text has a pre-ordained place on the ladder, and that every student should match up to that ladder's rungs. We know that most KS3 students are at a complex stage in human and psychological development. One of the fascinating and difficult things about working with students of that age is that within any one class, there will be students who appear to be miles apart in psychological, physical, emotional and social development. Slapping on to them a mythic ladder of texts and justifying why you're reading one text on the basis that it 'leads' to the next, is to deny the very circumstances of the students doing this. But then, that is indeed the ideology being recommended here, and it's been on the agenda from the very start of the Govean revolution. The student is irrelevant. Only the text and the knowledge of the text is relevant. It goes without saying, this turns the curriculum into perfect exam-fodder. An exam tests specific aptitudes in relation to a fixed, common text. It can't empathise with the conditions of the candidate. Education is constantly entangled with the thorns of this dilemma. This report is quite clear: teach the ladder. 

'...understanding of issues such as homelessness.' This is the cry of the literary purist who has spent decades being infuriated that millions of people read in order to find out about the world. They hate what they decry as 'sociological' writing and reading. Notice the deliberate selection of 'homelessness'. It's a nice piece of bathos slotted in at the end of a sentence: a deliberate attempt to contrast the heights of 'further encounters with complex texts' with 'homelessness'. The joke is that the phrase 'further encounters with complex texts' is anything but a height. It's classic bureaucratic mincemeat. When we look at it, we can see that it's probably referring to some wonderful books, plays and poems, but because this report is evidence-less pap, we are given bureaucratic banality. And then they slug us with the horror that we might read a text about a family made homeless. What? Like Joseph and Mary? 

Further travels in the land of banality come with the last sentence when we find literature is reduced to something called challenging vocabulary and structures. Quite funny, isn't it, that on the one hand the passage trumpets the undefinable, abstract 'literary merit' and on the other gives us something as dry and dull as challenging vocabulary and structures. Just to be clear, this is TV quiz game stuff: 'hard words' and 'hard sentences'. 

Now we know what these people think reading in schools should be for. We are in pursuit of the ineffable, unfindable mirage of 'literary merit'  while doing hard words and hard structures because next year, there'll be harder words and harder structures. 

Who was it who talked of 'poverty of the imagination'. I've forgotten. But there's a lot of it going on here.