Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Poetry for children - academic essay

This is my essay on Poetry for Children from: 'Modern Children's Literature' edited by Catherine Butler and Kimberley Reynolds, published by Palsgrave Macmillan. (apols for the vagaries of copying...there are several typographical oddities in the below.) 



Hall, Donald, (ed.) The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse in America (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)

Mitchell, Adrian, (ed.) A Poem a Day, helps you stop work and play (London: Orchard Books, 2001)

Opie, Iona; Opie, Peter, (eds.) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951,1997)

Opie, Iona; Opie, Peter, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1959)

Opie, Iona; Opie Peter, (eds) The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973)

Rosen, Michael, (ed.), Michael Rosen’s A-Z, The Best Children’s Poetry from Agard to Zephaniah (London: Puffin, Penguin, 2009)

Summerfield, Geoffrey, (ed.) Voices, an anthology of poetry and pictures, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Education for Penguin, 1968) 

Summerfield, Geoffrey, (ed.( Junior Voices, an anthology of poetry and pictures, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Education for Penguin, 1970)


Styles, Morag, From the Garden to the Street, Three Hundred Years of Poetry for Children by Morag Styles (London: Cassell, 1998) 

Styles, Morag; Joy, Louise; Whitley, David, (eds) Poetry and Childhood (Stoke-on-Trent and Sterling, USA: Trentham Books, 2010)

Thomas, Joseph T. Jr., Poetry’s Playground, The Culture of Contemporary American Children’s Poetry  by Joseph T. Thomas Jr. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007)

The most common approaches to literature for children attempt to define the field in terms of intention, style, content or audience - or all four. Poetry written for and read by children poses at least one extra particular problem: a good deal of what has been traditionally served to children - particularly in the context of education - only becomes poetry for children by virtue of it being in an anthology clearly marked and framed by its intended audience. So, poems which might start out life (or live for many years) as poems circulating between adults may well be found by, and approved of by a group of adults (anthologizers, editors, education advisers), who put them in, say, a school anthology, a child’s Christmas annual or a commercial out-of-school anthology. Where this differs from the rest of children’s literature is that this process happens for all ages of children, including the very youngest. Adult books like Robinson Crusoe (1719), Oliver Twist (1838), Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and the like have of course been published for children but with these adult books there is a tradition of editing and abridging the texts, while the anthologised adult poems - Shakespeare’s songs for example -  have often been offered in their entirety. This means that such poems become a form of children’s literature by virtue of their ‘framing’ and the ‘reading situation’. 

I should add here that within the English-speaking world poetry for children has tended to develop a distinctive national - sometimes explicitly nationalist - tradition. This has mainly revolved around the choice of poets put before children in their respective countries. The exceptions are what come to be called ‘classic’ poems, a tiny few of which travel around the English-speaking world, or where a particular effort is made to publish collections by individual poets from other countries, or specifically international collections with the aim of representing poets from many cultures and countries. A whole essay could - and perhaps should - be written about how nation and nationalism have been yoked to poetry for young people in a way that is not done with, say, music and painting as it is delivered to children. The consequence is that  the development and progress of poetry for children in the anglophone countries tends to unfold in their respective bubbles. I make this point partly to make clear that this essay is in its own way ‘national’, as it largely charts the development of children’s poetry in Britain. This follows the pattern laid down by the two most important critical books in this field, From the Garden to the Street, Three Hundred Years of Poetry for Children, Morag Styles (1998) and Poetry’s Playground, The Culture of Contemporary American Children’s Poetry, Joseph T. Thomas Jr. (2007).

So, given that there is a distinctive quality to the category of ‘poetry for children‘ (in this case within the UK), one approach that may help us corral and examine the species is to ask, ‘where is poetry for children?’

Here is an outline answer to this question

                 i. In anthologies made up of many poets, often graded or selected in terms of age, kind of school, sex of child, a particular examination, published in ways that clearly mark them out to be ‘school books‘.

So long as we consider the reading habits and tastes of all children, and not a highly specific group of children, it cannot be emphasized enough that education plays the pre-eminent role in the history of the reading of poetry by children. No matter how popular individual poems or poets have been, e.g. Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, or Shel Silverstein, the means by which every single child has become acquainted with what we might call ‘literary poetry’ has been as a direct consequence of what teachers in schools have done with it. That said, we shouldn’t forget that the consumption of the school anthology has had to match the extent of mass full-time education i.e. for very few in 1800, say, but for almost everyone under the age of 11 by 1900. 

I suspect that anyone reading this essay will be familiar with at least one anthology from their time at school, though there seems to be some mystery about when these books first started appearing. An argument could be made that from as early as the mid-sixteenth century, young people (middle-class boys in this case) were taught poetry through special editions of Latin and Greek poets. (see Peter Mack, ‘Elizabethan Rhetoric, Theory and Practice’ (CUP, Cambridge 2002) pp. 17-19). It seems as if it was harder for editors to prove to teachers (or teachers to editors?) that poetry in English (unless it was specifically for initial literacy teaching - see below) had a fit place in the school curriculum. Vicesimus Knox (1752-1821) , the editor of Elegant Extracts: or useful and entertaining PIECES OF POETRY, Selected for the Improvement of Young Persons (London and Dublin 1789) (Printed for J. Johnson et al) sets out his stall in the Preface:

...if I should be asked what are its [the book’s] pretensions, I must freely answer, that it professes nothing more than (what is evident at first sight) to be a larger Collection of English Verse, FOR THE USE OF SCHOOLS, than has ever yet been published IN ONE VOLUME. The original intention was to comprise in it a great number and variety of such pieces as were already in use in school, or which seemed proper for the use of them; such a number and variety as might furnish something satisfactory to every taste, and serve as a little Poetical LIbrary for school-boys, precluding the inconvenience and expence [sic] of a multitude of volumes. ( 
(apart from square brackets, all brackets and upper case as in original).

Interestingly, according to Susan Allan Ford (2007) one of Knox’s collections is mentioned in Jane Austen, and

 ...when Thomas James, headmaster of Rugby, in 1798 advised Samuel Butler, new headmaster at Shrewsbury, on developing a library of English books, he thriftily emphasized anthologies.

It’s worth spending a little time on this particular collection as it lays down something of a blueprint for the category of both the school and home anthology (see (ii) below).  It is arranged into ‘Books’. In Book I, ‘Sacred and Moral’, the editor offers readers a selection of the Psalms; some hymns including some by the then-living ‘Mrs Barbauld’ (Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825); verses from Isaac Watts’ (1674-1748) Divine Songs (first published 1715), including ‘Against Idleness and Mischief‘ which begins  ‘How doth the little busy bee...’ (p.61 Vol. 1) and would be parodied sixty years later by Lewis Carroll; verse fables from ‘the late Mr GAY’ (John Gay (1685-1732) best known for The Beggars’ Opera); ‘FABLES for the FEMALE SEX, by Mr. MOORE’ (Edward Moore 1712-1757); and several poems by Robert Burns and Alexander Pope. One clear survivor from this part of the anthology is ‘An Elegy, written in a Country Church-Yard‘ (p.22 Vol. 1) by Thomas Gray (1716-1771). 

Book II is devoted to the ‘Didactic, Descriptive, Narrative and Pathetic’. In this section, names familiar to us now are Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774), Alexander Pope (1688-1744), John Dryden (1631-1700) , Thomas Gray, William Cowper, and George Crabbe (1754-1832) , the selection of last two poets putting down a clear marker of the editor’s sympathies with the rural poor.   

Book III is titled, ‘Dramatic &c.’ and includes 35 extracts from Shakespeare, including (from The Tempest) Ariel’s songs, ‘Full fathom five’ and ‘Where the bee sucks...’ and Caliban’s anti-colonial speech, ‘This island’s mine...’.

In Book IV,  ‘Sentimental, Lyrical, and Ludicrous’, we find Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’ , ‘Il Penseroso’, and ‘Lycidas’ (staples of the upper school literature courses in British grammar and public schools), a good deal from Edmund Spenser, Jonathan Swift, Cowper, Dr Johnson and long-serving anthologists’ favourites, Robert Burns’s ‘To a Mouse’ and Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘An Elegy on the Death of a mad Dog’. Indeed, this ‘Book’ is full of animals and includes anonymous and comical epitaphs and epigrams (including Rochester’s subversive epitaph for Charles II), Cowper’s ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ - suggesting that Knox was an abolitionist - followed by a last section ‘Songs, Ballads, &c. &c.’  Survivors from this section include Henry Carey’s ‘Sally in our Alley’ (Carey 1687-1743) - clearly thought to be not too risqué, Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Come live with me, and be my love...’, the subversive  ‘The Vicar of Bray’ (anon), some more Shakespeare songs (‘Under the green-wood tree’, ‘Come follow, follow me’). Number 86 (p.908 Vol II) seems to be taken from a popular broadside, telling the story of a ‘maid in Bedlam’ whose love was sent to sea by his cruel parents. Number 101 (p. 912) is ‘The Children in the Wood; or, The Norfolk Gentleman’s last Will and Testament’ probably taken from a chapbook; Number 102 is ‘The Hunting in Chevy Chase’ and so on through a strong selection of classic folk ballads (the kind classified by Francis Child) and which Knox could have found in Bishop Percy’s Reliques’ (1765) or A Collection of Old Ballads (1723) or from even earlier: Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy’ (edited by Thomas d’Urfey (1698-1720)). There’s even room for a comical broadside ‘trade’ ballad telling how a barber woos and wins a woman who runs a fish-stall at the end of Fleet-market. The fee for the wedding is paid by the barber by shaving the parson’s chin, while the bride ‘entertain’d him with pilchards and gin’ (pp 952-953 Vol. II). The book ends with a selection of prologues and epilogues. 

(The 1805 edition comes in at 1016 pages in the two volumes.) 

Knox espoused some of the ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ causes of his day, including feminism and pacifism. In contrast to the school anthologies of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, there is hardly any representation in the book of poems celebrating war, and where later anthologies would overlook women completely, Knox gives a strong presence to the strongly anti-establishment writers, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806).

The modern school anthology - that’s to say published within an educational market, selling books aimed at every single child - bears the marks of having had to take note of many of the cultural streams of thought hovering in and around the educational world. Without mincing words, these, like Knox’s beliefs, are ‘liberal’ ideas to do with class, gender, race, environment and social action. This means that general school anthologies of the last 50 years or so have tried to represent poets from a wide range of social and cultural background. The breakthrough moment in Britain for the modern school anthology came with the collections Voices (1968) and Junior Voices (1970), edited by Geoffrey Summerfield (1931-1991) and published by Penguin Education.  In the Handbook for Voices, Summerfield laid out a programme that has served to inform many since:

I have not attempted in my selection to provide a bird’s eye view of English poetry. I wanted to provide a diverse range of voices that can and will speak to pupils and to their condition. Modern and contemporary poetry dominate: this is due to my own pupils’ enthusiasms... Poems serve to sharpen our sense of life and to present others’ sense of life. To the poems we bring our own lives; in sharing the poems with our pupils, we also to some degree share our lives.
(1968: 7)

This child-centred view of the anthologist’s job reverses the note that many anthologists hit when claiming that the poem will of itself uplift and enlighten. In a short chapter, ‘Poetry in the classroom’ (9-11) and in some footnotes on the poems, Summerfield outlines what might appear to some as strange: the guidelines on poetry in the classroom offer a 13-point way ‘in which poem, pupils and teacher can meet’, but these don’t involve the usual closed-ended interrogation that has dominated poetry within education for decades. Instead, the emphasis is on developing interest and taste through choice, discussion, imitation, performance and thought. Through these methods, Summerfield claims that the pupils will attend to ‘such matters as ‘tone, rhythm, intention, emphasis, form and so on’.  At the time this method was revolutionary; it moved to centre stage in the decades following and in the present era has become revolutionary again - or should I say, in exile? To appreciate what a departure from the previous era this was, we should also factor in the range of cultures and poetic types that were represented in these seven volumes.

Meanwhile, themed school anthologies have appeared over the last thirty years or so which have focused on, for example, the environment, the supernatural, women poets, ‘scary’ poems, ‘world’ poetry and Caribbean poetry, while another tug on the anthologist has come from specific curriculum requirements. So, for example, when England and Wales laid down what was in effect a graded (by year and by term within a year) poetry curriculum as part of a National Literacy Strategy, some anthologists stepped in to provide the poems to suit the strategy. 

It is within the school anthology, particularly since the 1960s, that poems from all over the English-speaking world have reached children in the UK. The presence of poems from Seamus Heaney, Ogden Nash, Rabindranath Tagore, Carl Sandburg, Eve Merriam, Dennis Lee, Mary Ann Hoberman, Nikki Giovanni, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, John Ciardi, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Banjo Paterson, Louise Bennett and many others has been as a consequence of anthologists seeking them out and teachers reading them with children. In addition, a kind of sub-canon of translated poems has been established with strong favourites re-appearing from eg Arthur Waley’s translations of ancient Chinese poetry, Basho’s haiku, Miroslav Holub, Christian Morgenstern,

                         ii. Anthologies made up of many poets, clearly marked for an intended child audience at home.

As Susan Allan Ford has shown, Elegant Extracts not only appears in Emma but also had a place on the Austen family’s shelves, so we may take it that in some middle class homes, the idea of reading poetry in the home as a not specifically religious practice had already taken root by the late eighteenth century. Another early anthology for children was put together by Lucy Aiken with her collection, Poetry for Children, Consisting of Short Pieces to be Committed to Memory (1801) which by its title tells us what one of the purposes and practices of reading poetry was. By virtue of its prosody, reading poetry carefully selected by adults for children may well enable us to commit it to memory but bundled up with that come many varying notions about why this is a virtuous or worthwhile or enlightening activity. This may include any of the following: showing children a correct way to follow religious observations, to open the eyes of children to the nature of God’s creation and/or of ‘Nature’, stirring children to be patriotic, awakening children to the iniquities, absurdities and mysteries of humanity, showing children that they can meditate or reflect on anything from the smallest to the largest phenomena, and/or their incredible diversity, passing on wisdom, revealing the possibilities and beauty of what can be done with words. In Aiken’s words:

By the aid of verse, a store of beautiful imagery and glowing sentiment may be gathered up as the amusement of childhood, which, in riper years, may soothe the heavy hours of languor, solitude, and sorrow, may strengthen feelings of piety, humanity, and tenderness, may soothe the soul to calmness, rouse it to honourable exertion, or fire it with virtuous indignation.

We may note in passing that this last intention to do with firing up ‘virtuous indignation’ was a political statement linked to Aiken’s selection of such poems as ‘The Vanity of Greatness‘ (Shirley), ‘The Orphan Boy’ (Thelwall), ‘Against Slavery’ (Cowper) and ‘The Dying Negro’ (Anon.).  

In the modern era, in some cases, the power of full-colour art-work has been brought to bear on poems and poets in these home anthologies, while others have tried to produce cheap paperbacks accompanied by black-and-white drawings or cartoons. This divergence expresses a split between on the one hand a sense that poetry is, or should be, edifying and uplifting, and on the other those who want to revel in its potential for populism – vulgarity, even. At the heart of this discussion is the question of the ‘classic’ poem and its sub-category, the classic poem for children. A canon is culturally constructed but the exact instruments of the construction are not always visible. In the case of poetry for children, it has been effected largely through co-operation between those at some level of power within education and those who make school and home anthologies. It’s a kind of double-sieving process involving recommendations, quotations and presentations. 

This raises some questions: what ideological outlook is represented by the canon? What ideological outlooks lie outside of the canon? Does the canon change? The Puffin Book of Classic Verse, edited by Raymond Wilson (1995) is divided up into sections: ‘Come! Come Away!’; ‘All in a Day’, ‘Creatures’, ‘Very Remarkable Beasts’, ‘Ghosts, Ghouls and Witches’, ‘The Sea’, ‘Mystery, Dreams and Enchantments’, ‘Love’s Moods’, ‘Song and Dance’, ‘People’, ‘Figures of Fun’, ‘School’, ‘The City’, ‘War’, ‘Reflections’, ‘Seasons’ and ‘Journey’s End’. Most of the poets are English, male and dead. Non-English poets here include the Americans Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Don Marquis, Bret Harte, Vachel Lindsay, Ogden Nash, Jack Prelutsky, the Scots Robert Louis Stevenson, Irish - James Stephens and Welsh - Dylan Thomas. There are 19 female poets (out of 146 poets in all, excluding a handful by anon.) including Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Jennings, Stevie Smith, Dorothy Parker and Amy Lowell. There are 18 poets in the anthology who were living at the time Wilson was editing the book. 

To be absolutely clear: this is not a personal complaint or jibe at Raymond Wilson. Far from it. I’ve edited a collection of ‘classic‘ poetry myself with a not dissimilar distribution of poets! What I’m raising here concerns the composition of the category ‘classic‘ and the question of why we want or need poetry to be packaged up in this way. It should be said that Wilson, in a collection as large as this, has been able to diverge from some aspects of the classic children’s poetry mould by adding on what I suspect are personal favourites, whilst laying to rest some of the more tub-thumping poems of the British Empire that were compulsory fare in British schools until the 1960s. However, there is hardly any room in the collection for poems by anyone of colour - the notable exception being the African-American poet, Margaret Walker. It also goes without saying (though perhaps we should question this) that ‘classic’ poems do not include anything in translation unless it’s from the Bible, or from Anglo-Saxon, or Chaucer.  So we can say that Wilson and I find ourselves constructed by the category - to which we might ask the simple question, but are they good poems? If we mean by that, do they have the potential to reach and touch many children? Yes! However, at the heart of my query is the problem of whether the term ‘classic’ has the power of suggesting to people (adult buyers, probably)  that it offers young readers all that’s worth reading by way of poetry, and that it offers a sufficiency. Or, to reverse that: does the term ‘classic’ have the power of suggesting that simply by being given that designation the poem will reach and touch all children? In both cases, I would hope not.   

Themed anthologies for home consumption have been published in the present era but they find it difficult to make headway in the market unless they come clearly marked as being comic.

        iii. Verse narratives or verse texts in chap books, comics, comic annuals; as the verse narratives or  verse texts in stand-alone books.

This category is easily overlooked in the history of poetry for children. From at least as early as 1630, probably earlier, a Londoner could buy from a ballad-seller in the street a printed ballad version of the Tom Thumb story, presented as: ‘Tom Thumbe, his life and death: wherein is declared many maruailous [sic] acts of manhood, full of wonder, and strange merriments...’  (Ritson: 1884). Earlier still, the printer Wynkyn de Worde (in around 1512, according to M. O. Grenby (2008:26)) published the verse narrative, ‘The Friar and the boy’, a tale of a boy who manages to enchant his step-mother to fart in public. This tradition of popular knock-about verse flourishes as ‘street literature’ with thousands of poems until the mid-nineteenth century, when it becomes absorbed by comics. In the present era, there are very few rhyming texts to be found in comics, though the style flourishes in the picture book tradition, most notably and successfully with Julia Donaldson. In fact, there is something of a revival of this genre, with many authors and illustrators telling stories in picture books in verse, most often (apart from Donaldson) in the four-line verse (‘quatrain’) ballad form that ‘Tom Thumbe’ was told in.

             iv. As a clearly defined and named category, ‘nursery rhymes’, to be found in collections of a range of literature for the youngest children, or as stand-along books of nursery rhymes.

The story of the ‘nursery rhyme’ has to be told with great caution and fortunately we have the stern hands of Iona and Peter Opie to warn us off speculation and fantasy. Their approach in The Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951,1997) was to chart the first appearance or reference of each rhyme. In their ‘Introduction’ (1997: 1-51) they make clear that the rhymes are mostly not composed by children, they were often fragments of folk-songs, theatre songs or ballads. The great majority of the rhymes are more than 250 years old, some much older than that. 

Though they appear in popular miscellanies earlier, the first known printed collection is the remarkable little two-volume book, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, published in London in 1744. Survivors from Volume 1 (as reconstructed by Andrea Immel and Brian Alderson (2013) include, ‘See-saw Margery Daw’ (probably its first appearance), a version of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ (probably first appearance), ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ (probably first appearance), a version of  ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ (probably first appearance), ‘Little Jack Horner’ (not first appearance), part of ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ (probably first appearance)  ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ (probably first appearance) and from Volume II (which survives), ‘Ladybird, ladybird’ (first appearance), ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ (first appearance), ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ (first appearance), ‘London Bridge’ (not first appearance), etc.

So, we can see here (albeit much summarised) a clear laying out of a tradition which survives to this day. What doesn’t survive are the bawdy, scatological and what we would now describe as racist rhymes. In the present day, nursery rhymes are not as widely shared as they were, say fifty years ago. They are missing from modern reading schemes where once they were staple fare e.g. The Merry Readers (Benny, 1915), which is made up of 38 nursery rhymes). Publishers keep trying to revitalise the tradition with many kinds of illustration. Perhaps advertising jingles, snatches of songs from singers seen on TV or circulating as i-tunes are taking their place.

                  v.Rhymes that pass between children, mostly orally, mostly without adult intervention, known mostly as ‘playground rhymes’ or ‘street rhymes’. 

In spite of their obituary having been written many times, these continue to flourish in several forms: clap-rhymes, counting-out rhymes, parodies of carols and modern songs, rude rhymes, nicknames, skipping rhymes. What seems to have almost died out are the rhymes chanted with ball games. 

Iona and Peter Opie, with their The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), showed how one rhyme started out its printed life as a poem by Henry Carey (see Carey also for ‘Sally in our Alley’ above in Elegant Extracts) from his  ‘Namby Pamby’ of 1725, and was being recreated orally by children in 1954 in York (Opie; Opie, 1959: 10-11). Over and beyond that, we might assume that children created, parodied and shared rhymes long before then.

                vi. Poetry produced by children, mostly as encouraged by teachers and poets working with children in schools, libraries and poetry clubs. The ultimate location of this poetry may be the classroom or library in question, or it may be anthologised into locally produced anthologies, websites, blogs or commercial anthologies where it may appear alongside poems by adults or may be clearly marked as collections of poetry written by children.

In the old ‘public’ (i.e. private) schools there is a long tradition of pupils composing new verse in Latin, often for a competition of some kind. Interest in the idea that children in state schools could write poetry in English seems to have begun before the First World War. By the 1920s and ’30s it was possible for a local authority like Tottenham in London to publish Children’s Verse, an anthology of poems, written by pupils of elementary schools of Tottenham (1937). Again, this tradition survives, sometimes cramped by formulaic methods, other times following the Geoffrey Summerfield or Barry Maybury tradition, putting the child at the centre of the poem and the writing. Key exponents of this way of working now in print are such people as Michael Lockwood, James Carter and Jean Sprackland.

               vii. Poetry produced by adults in stand-alone collections of single poets, clearly marked by the publishing industry as poetry for children. In the last fifty or so years, these have occasionally been produced by educational publishers but mostly they are produced by the commercial publishers of children’s books. 

Perhaps this part of the tradition starts most clearly – as a name-on-the-frontispiece and stand-alone author – with John Bunyan and his A Book for Boys and Girls: or, Country Rhimes [sic] for Children (1686), though Abraham Chear was in the late 1670s a known and much-read poet for children and had his poems collected posthumously in 1672 in A Looking-glass for Children. These were both ‘Puritan’ poets who believed that their poetry could take children forward on path of righteousness. The idea of adults writing and producing volumes of poetry for children has ebbed and flowed since then, sometimes with a foot in one or other of the Christian churches and Sunday Schools, at other times with a clear view to being ‘used’ in schools, at other times, particularly since the publication of Spike Milligan’s work in the 1960s and 70s (e.g. Silly Verse for Kids (1968) with a view to being unofficial, a bit scurrilous, subversive even (Spike Milligan 1918-2002). My own contribution to this aspect of poetry for children was to write poems (first Mind Your Own Business [1974]) from the child’s point of view (indeed as A. A. Milne [1882-1956] and Robert Louis Stevenson [1850-1894] had done) but about the world I had known in the 1950s and knew through my own children from the 1970s onwards. 

At times, these stand-alone collections by single authors have done very well in the open market, at others they have all but died out. My own theory is that the fate of this part of the tradition rests largely on how the school curriculum is devised and dictated. When teachers, advisers and publishers are given the scope and freedom to explore the world of poetry for themselves, many flowers bloom. When it is dictated from central government, the choice narrows and the numbers of books sold and published dwindles. It’s an example of how education policy affects the commercial part of book distribution.

That said, there is a wide range of poets in Britain writing for children, trying many different kinds of poetry. One particularly strong strand has been Caribbean, (or Caribbean in origin) with poets like John Agard, Grace Nichols, James Berry, Valerie Bloom, Benjamin Zephaniah and others. Poetry for children by women in stand-alone collections has always been strong, and it still is with Carol Ann Duffy, Mandy Coe, Lindsay MacRae, Jackie Kay, Julia Donaldson, Judith Nicholls,  and many others, while male poets in the modern era who have excited and interested children include Ted Hughes, Spike Milligan, Adrian Henri, Vernon Scannell, Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Charles Causley, Adrian Mitchell, Kit Wright, Roald Dahl, Allan Ahlberg, Gareth Owen, Spike Milligan, Philip Gross, John Hegley, Wes McGee, Brian Moses, Tony Mitton, Colin McNaughton and John Mole. New poets writing for children tend to find it hard to get single stand-alone collections published, which is why I put them together along with more established writers in Rosen (2009). The two US poets who have travelled best to the UK in single-poet collections are Shel Silverstein and ‘Dr Seuss’. At the heart of most of this writing is a strong commitment to the idea that poems can do something special with language in order to talk about the world in ways that children can enjoy or even imitate. Each of these poets interprets the world and their place in it with a distinct tone and approach, drawing on different traditions, landscapes and inner worlds. It might have been possible in the past to distinguish clear divisions between the few poets working in this field, but the key characteristic of the present era is the opposite: a diversity which is hard to grasp in a wide-ranging essay like this one.

              viii. Since at least the early 18th century, published and unpublished poets have written occasional verse for a child or children known to the poet. Like ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ (Robert Browning, 1842) (Robert Browning 1812-1889) (originally written for a boy whom Browning knew: the son of Browning’s theatre producer), these may eventually end up in commercial circulation as books or anthologised poems, or they may stay within family groups. 

According to Shirley Brice Heath (1997: 26), in 1986, a private collection of a ‘nursery library’ was discovered. It had been created by Jane Johnson (1706-1759) for her own children as they were growing up and includes many of Johnson’s own rhymes: 

The Man with his Dogs
went out to kill Game,
HIs Gun it went off,
and shot the Dogs
(1986: 26)

Since the 18th century, children have received poems written by parents and carers, or jokey verses made up on car journeys, birthday wishes, Easter rhymes to aid the hunting of eggs, parodies of hymns, carols and songs and the like. It’s the kind of thing that goes on below the radar but flourishes nevertheless. 

                     ix. On school-walls, bedroom-walls, in books intended for children, from the medieval period onwards, various kinds of instructions, guidance and etiquette for children have been put into verse.

In The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse Iona and Peter Opie select as their first poem part of Chaucer’s ‘Manciple’s Tale’ (1973: 3) where he imitates an etiquette verse beginning (as translated) ‘My son, keep well they tongue...’ When religious institutions had great control over the nurture and education of young people, verse admonitions and guidances were extremely common – in particular with the dissenting  traditions of Christianity, they mark out the duties of a Christian subject. 

In the present day, though much of this has disappeared, what survives in some quarters are rhyming and alliterative slogans put up in schools full of words like ‘believe’ and ‘achieve’, ‘know’ and ‘grow’. Some of this seems to derive from marketing training where new recruits are told such things as ‘retail is detail’ or ‘eye-level is buy level’.

                   x. Perhaps as part of this previous location, or perhaps separately, there is a long tradition of mnemonics (going back at least to the Roman era)   such as those to aid the memorizing of the numbers of days in the months, or various kinds of  alphabet poems.

Not all mnemonics rhyme as does ‘Thirty days hath September...’, which seems to have started out life in the sixteenth century. Many people remember such things as the order of the colours of the rainbow, (‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’) notes on the stave (‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fish’), planets revolving round the sun (‘My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos’), the wives of Henry VIII (‘Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived’), the order of the geological eras (‘Pregnant Camels Ordinarily Sit Down Carefully; Perhaps Their Joints Creak’)  and the like with poetic phrases. Some people remember spellings with ‘I before E, except after C’, though, as an extension of the rhyme has it: ‘weird is just weird’. These circulate around schools and families and now on-line too.

                  xi. Initial literacy verse found in primers and reading schemes, 

One of the first examples is ‘A was an apple-pie’, cited by the Opies (1997: 53) and known, they say, in the mid-seventeenth century. Since then, many alphabet poems have been composed anonymously, and most famously by Edward Lear. Of course, teaching to read didn’t have to be done with alphabet poems and from the early 18th century onwards authors and educators had the idea that learning to read was aided by rhymes and alliterative sentences. In 1651, An English Monosyllabary produced: ‘Ah! wee see an ox dy by an ax’, ‘Oh God! his game is gon, as sure as a gun. He that did ly on his bum, and ban, was his bane.’ (Michael, 1987: 18) From the 1830s onwards, children were reading: 

‘Go now to bed,
For you are fed.
If Jem can run,
He has a bun.
Now my new pen
is fit for Ben.’ 

(Avery, 1995:.5)

In the modern era, with the rise of systematic synthetic phonics, rhyme has been given a special place in the teaching of reading. Various schemes are now full of little poems which fit the graded, phonic system.  From the late 1950s onwards, ‘Dr Seuss’ (Theodore Geisel (1904-1991)), wrote early ‘readers’ based on a different system: simple words from a reduced vocabulary, the first being The Cat in the Hat (1957) (Collins). All his books are still in print and are extremely popular, particularly as some of them have now been made into full length feature films in which parts of the poems are heard.  

An argument could be made that for most of us these early rhymes, banal as some of the most elementary might be, lay down in our minds some long-lasting connections between school, rhyme, reading and childhood. Many poets who work in schools observe that these simple rhythm-and-rhyme structures are often a strong magnet when we ask children to create poems of their own. Though there is a tendency to call this ‘natural’, it seems as if a constant flow of this kind of poetry plays an important part in shaping taste.

                xii. In recreational books -  chap-books, parlour-games books, annuals -  various kinds of puzzle-poems, rhyming riddles, ‘riddle-me-rees’, rhyming rebuses and the like.

These flourished in particular in the nineteenth century with books like Selections from the Masquerade, A collection of enigmas, logogriphs [sic], charades, rebuses, queries and transpositions, published in London in 1826. Number XL in ‘Rebusses, &c.’ is ‘A CONSONANT add to a dignify’d Jew//A wild little quadruped rises to view.’ (The answer is provided on p.212 of the book.)

This kind of verbal, poetic fun is much harder to find these days and yet, in my experience when you play these kinds of games with children, they enjoy them a great deal. Perhaps the notion that literacy and language itself are fun and that verse can be the carrier of such fun has been chased from the classroom.

                   xiii. On birthday, Easter and Christmas cards clearly intended for children.

Again, this used to be a prolific source of short poems, but seems to be in decline as the standard form for cards nowadays is the question on the front and the response (non-rhyming) inside.

                 xiv. In ‘reciters’, elocution books, collections for poetry performance exams, poems (often with speeches, extracts etc.) either selected or written with the express purpose of being recited for public performance.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, this was a strong tradition of anthologising, such as Carpenter’s Penny Readings in Prose and Verse (1866). In the modern era, as an equivalent to music Grades, there are verse reading exams, ‘by heart’ competitions of various kinds and anthologies are still made up by the examiners or mainstream publishers with a view to satisfying this demand. When governments decide that this is desirable (as at present), there is an increase in the number of ‘by heart’ anthologies available.

             xv. In family and social gatherings where a recitation tradition has been active.

This is hard to gauge. Though, the presence of ‘reciters’ and of popular traditions of recitation, as with ‘The Lion and Albert’(1932), the dialect poems of the Lancashire cotton-workers, Burns Nights and the like, it’s hard to know which traditions survive and where. On occasions, writers (e.g. Jackie Kay [2011]) or interviewees on radio and TV reveal that their parents used to recite a mix of poems learned at school, folk-rhymes, limericks, made-up ballads about colleagues and the like.

               xvi. In out-of-school youth groups, various kinds of chants and collectively performed rhymes.

The chant I know and have adapted as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt  (Walker Books 1989) seems to have started out life as either a chant worked out in American Summer Camps or in the Brownies, where the Brownies chant, ‘We’re going on a lion hunt’. This one example of many circulating in the scout movement, forest camps, Woodcraft Folk and many other youth groups. Most of them are un-authored and are part of a communal chanting, reciting or singing that is seen as an important part of companionship, team spirit or just a fun way of passing an evening.

               xvii. In specifically religious contexts like Sunday Schools, or other forms of religious instruction.

The key text here is Isaac Watts, Divine Songs, attempted in easy language for the use of children (1715). He writes in his preface:

There is something so amusing and entertaining in Rhymes and Metre, that will incline Children to make this part of their Business a Diversion. And you may turn their very Duty into a Reward, by giving them the Privilege of learning one of these Songs every Week well,... 
(unnumbered p. 2 of ‘Preface’) 

Apart from anything else, Watts explains, the learning and knowing of poems will ensure that children will ‘not be forced to seek relief for an Emptiness of Mind out of the loose and dangerous Sonnets of the Age.’ 

The Sunday School tradition lives on, in particular in the Evangelical churches, but it doesn’t seem as if poetry has as large a role to play there as it did in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

                   xviii. In stories, novels and plays intended for children, where characters have spoken newly created verses, parodies, riddles and the like from within the narrative, or occasionally as prologues and epilogues to novels and stories. 

In one of the first novels written explicitly for children, Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749), there are several examples of verse:  from the popular ‘I am a Giant, and I can eat thee://Thou art a Dwarf, and canst not eat me’ (p.52) to a more homiletic verse about ‘Patience’.  Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien were renowned users of verse within fiction, as was Beatrix Potter with her riddling use of nursery rhymes in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) and The Tailor of Gloucester (1902), among others.  The folk-tale tradition is rich with short verses: the Brothers Grimm either collected or wrote verses for ‘Hansel and Gretel’, for example, whilst African and Caribbean stories are full of verse prologues, epilogues, repeated couplets and the like. It’s probably in the story-telling tradition that this idea of including verse in fiction has best survived and it appears in story-tellers’ performances in schools, libraries and at festivals everywhere. 

  An Autobiographical Approach 

With your indulgence, I would now like to invert the process of this essay: from what has been a generalised survey to a highly personalised one. This is not purely an exercise in egotism, but I am hazarding a guess that it might be appropriate on account of the fact that a) my parents, Harold and Connie Rosen, were professionally active in presenting one particular strand of children’s poetry in the 1950s and 60s; b) I started writing poetry at that time and have been writing it ever since; c) my own interests in poetry for children have brought me into contact with most of the locations (or written examples taken from those locations) listed above, and; d) at various times in my writing these examples have been part of my writing intertext. 

I represent, then, several different protagonists in the field of poetry for children, from the time I was born in 1946 to the present-day. These are, of course, highly specific in relation to location (north-west London suburb), social class origins (my parents were teachers of working-class east London origin), education (state schooling at nursery school, two primary schools and two grammar schools), ethnicity (in origin, secular eastern European Jewish), political world-view (socialist), family intellectual outlook (libertarian, ‘progressive’), sex (male), family position (youngest; no specifically named disability; two-parent nuclear family throughout my childhood). 

The protagonists I represent across 50 years are, variously: boy audience of poetry in state schools; son of progressive, intellectually committed and active parents; post-Second World War child; teenage writer of poems about childhood; audience of the process of anthologising and broadcasting poetry for children by my parents and their friends; anthologised poet for children, published poet in single collections of my own work, poet performing in schools, poet writing about poetry, poet running teachers’ workshops on poetry.  

Within this narrow, social, educational and political layer, I can ask the question of these various protagonists (i.e. me!), what was poetry like in the locations identified earlier? And what conclusions can we draw?

My first encounters with poetry were at home: in comics, often as the undertext in comic strips; in nursery rhyme books that my parents read to me; in Beatrix Potter books that my mother read to me; in various ‘rude rhymes’ or colloquial and familiar rhymes that my father either made up or recalled, some of which were partly in Yiddish. Alongside this, both my parents recited the whole or parts of poems and snatches of Shakespeare, many of which appeared in school anthologies of the time. Sometimes these were in French, German or Latin - memories mostly from my father’s own schooling. 

At school, we met poetry in anthologies, never in collections by individual poets. These were not commercially produced anthologies such as the ones produced by Puffin Books. They were in effect a form of the graded reader. My first memory of poetry, aged 7 in ‘first year juniors’, is of the teacher reading us poems. One boy had learned a poem and recited it to the rest of the class - ‘Autumn Fires’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. By the age of 10, I had been selected to be in the Choral Speaking group and was learning and reciting poems, like ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas, selected for inter-school competitions. 

In the playground, I was with a group of boys who shared a good few rude rhymes and parodies, some of which we thought we had made up. I witnessed girls saying, chanting or singing skipping rhymes, ball-game rhymes, clap-game rhymes. A friend and I read the Winnie-the-Pooh books and we enjoyed reciting, ‘My nose is cold, tiddly-pom’ together. 

My brother is four years older than me, but was ‘put up a year’ so from the time I was 7, some of his secondary school poetry curriculum and popular culture came home, and as he was a very vocal and sharing sort of a person, I was introduced to secondary school anthologies well ahead of my due date. He enjoyed parodying the ‘poetry voices’ we heard at home on radio or off our parents’ gramophone records - especially Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas and W. B. Yeats. 

As we went up through the primary school, the poetry focused most heavily on Walter de la Mare, Robert Louis Stevenson and John Masefield. At primary school, I can only remember one specific occasion when we were asked to write poetry. I wrote about a train that was slowing down and it was printed in a class magazine. At secondary school, in the first year, the only poem I remember having to write was a ‘Robin Hood Ballad’ which I did for homework with my mother helping me. In the second year, we ‘did’ dramatic monologues by Robert Browning. Homework was to write one. I wrote in the voice of a man who won’t help someone pleading for help and who leaves him to die on a beach. In my rough book, I started writing parodies of poems from school anthologies, but replacing the characters in the poems by people from my class. In the second year, in French, we had to learn off by heart a La Fontaine fable, ‘Maitre Corbeau sur un arbre perché tenait en son bec un fromage...‘   When I was twelve, I joined a young persons’ theatre group and we learned poems to recite in choral competitions, like Louis Macneice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’. 

In my teens, I became aware of the poetry of D. H. Lawrence alongside American poetry either written or selected for children to read, in particular poems by Carl Sandburg. As Geoffrey Summerfield was a friend of my parents he brought many of the poems he was trying out with ‘Voices’ and ‘Junior Voices’ into our house. 

When I first started writing the poems that eventually appeared in collections for children, I thought that I was writing a D. H. Lawrence/Sandburg-style of poetry about childhood primarily for an adult audience. In fact, this didn’t happen. By adopting the Sandburg voice, I didn’t realise at the time I was breaking with an English tradition of poetry for children which was up till then almost entirely formal verse. As my parents were actively involved in encouraging children to write poetry through their teaching, publications and radio work, I have a sense that I imagined that my poems were in a shape that children could adopt and use to write poetry for themselves. 

Another discovery for me was performance poetry, and I joined other writers of fiction and poetry in schools, libraries and at festivals performing to children. This has turned out to be a community of sorts which has taken on a campaigning role, advocating literature, writing, enjoyment of reading and the like alongside an active encouragement of children’s own writing. At times, this is glimpsed in the mass media but most of the time goes on out of sight of the loudest voices in education and literature. As a group of poets, we reach hundreds of thousands through our publications, performances and on-line presence. It’s a diverse group of people drawing on a wide variety of cultural traditions, some of it overlapping with rap, story-telling, folk- and rock-music, some of it more traditional, drawing on the traditions of the poets like Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Walter de la Mare. In my own work at anthologising, I’ve tried to encompass many of these traditions including the most modern performance poets working in schools and libraries (Rosen: 2009)

Looking back over the survey I’ve outlined in the first part of this essay and at my own place within it, I find myself looking for a metaphor to describe how these different parts of the world of poetry for children came together. Are they equal ingredients in a cake? Distinctive strands of a plait? Or dissolved parts of a solution? And as I (and any other writers or readers) absorb these different parts through childhood, how aware are we of the metalinguistic question, ‘is it poetry?’ Geoffrey Summerfield, much inspired by Carl Sandburg’s own work of assemblages of oral utterances, tried to widen the range of what is entitled to be called poetry incorporating riddles, free verse translations, modernist poets’ fragments and jokes, folk songs, children’s playground rhymes, charms, chants, prose poems, poems and written monologues by children, Humpty Dumpty’s prose explanation of ‘Jabberwocky’ from Through the Looking-Glass, graveyard inscriptions and so on. It’s as if he was saying that, on the one hand, ‘all this is poetry’ and on the other that formal, poetry of the canon (as understood by critics and publishers) is itself made up this huge miscellany of utterances which carry many of the characteristics of formal poetry – metaphor, poetic prosody, compression and so on. 

As far as I’m concerned, he succeeded but it has to be said that it was part of a split in the small world of children’s poetry: some favouring the clear demarcation of the genres, ‘poetry’, and ‘poetry for children‘ as exemplified by, say, Robert Louis Stevenson, but also by the layout on the page of the ‘poem‘, the object, the poetry collection in a book, situated on a shelf; others finding poetry and poetic utterances everywhere – in those same books, but also on bus shelter walls, in everyday speech, in sports commentaries, the comments of three-year-olds, in puns, montages of song titles and so on.  At times, central government has intervened in this discussion and expressed a wish or even a directive that a particular kind of poetry should be taught and learned in schools. My own view is that this is an attempt to tame poetry and confine it to approved shapes, sounds and meanings but of course I am aware that in saying that, I have diverged from an academic essay and expressed a strongly felt opinion. 



Aiken, Lucy, Poetry for Children, Consisting of Short Pieces to be Committed to Memory (London: R. Phillips, 1801)

[Anon (ed.)], A Collection of Old Ballads &c., (London: J.Roberts,1723)

[Anon (ed.) Selections from the Masquerade, A collection of enigmas, logogriphs, [sic] charades, rebuses, queries and transpositions, (London: Baker and Fletcher, 1826)

[Anon (ed.) Children’s Verse, an anthology of poems, written by pupils of elementary schools of Tottenham, written by the elementary schools of Tottenham (Tottenham, London: The Borough of Tottenham Education Committee,1937)

Benny, Ada H., (ed.)The Merry Readers, a whole-word method of learning to read ,  (London and Edinburgh: T.C & E.C. Jack, 1915

Bunyan, John, A Book for Boys and Girls: or, Country Rhimes [sic] for Children (London: N.P., 1686)

Carpenter, J.E., Penny Readings in Prose and Verse (London: Frederick Warne and Co.,1866)

Chear, Abraham, A Looking-glass for Children (London: Robert Boulter, 1673). 

Fielding, Sarah, The Governess or, Little Female Academy. Being the History of Mrs. Teachum, and her Nine Girls. With their nine Days Amusement. Calculated for the Entertainment and Instruction of Young Ladies in their Education (London: ‘The Author’, 1749)

Immel, Andrea; Alderson, Brian, (eds.)  Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book, The First Collection of Nursery Rhymes, A Facsimile Edition with a History and Annotations, (Los Angeles: Cotsen Occasional Press, 2013)

Kay, Jackie, Red Dust Road (London: Picador 2011)

Knox, Vicesimus (ed.), Elegant Extracts: or useful and entertaining PIECES OF POETRY, Selected for the Improvement of Young Persons (London and Dublin: J.Johnson et al, 1789)

Milligan, Spike, Silly Verse for KIds (Harmondsworth: Puffin, Penguin, 1968)

Opie, Iona; Opie, Peter, (eds.) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951,1997)

Opie, Iona; Opie, Peter, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1959)

Opie, Iona; Opie Peter, (eds) The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973)

Percy, Thomas, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (London: J.Dodsley, 1765)

Potter, Beatrix, The Tailor of Gloucester (London: Privately Printed, 1902; Frederick Warne and Co., 1903)

Potter, Beatrix, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (London: Frederick Warne and Co.,1903) 

Ritson, Joseph,(ed.) (revised by Goldsmid, Edmund), Ancient Popular Poetry from Authentic Manuscripts and Old Printed Copied  (Edinburgh: Privately Printed,1884)

Rosen, Michael, Mind Your Own Business, (London: Andre Deutsch, 1974)

Rosen, Michael, (illus. Helen Oxenbury) We’re Going on a Bear Hunt  (London: Walker Books, 1989)

Rosen, Michael, (ed.), Michael Rosen’s A-Z, The Best Children’s Poetry from Agard to Zephaniah (London: Puffin, Penguin, 2009)

Summerfield, Geoffrey, (ed.) Voices, an anthology of poetry and pictures, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Education for Penguin, 1968) 

Summerfield, Geoffrey, Voices, an anthology of poetry and pictures for teachers, Teachers’ Handbook (Harmondsworth: Penguin Education for Penguin,1968)

Summerfield, Geoffrey, (ed.( Junior Voices, an anthology of poetry and pictures, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Education for Penguin, 1970)

Summerfield, Geoffrey, Junior Voices, an anthology of poetry and pictures, Teachers’ Handbook (Harmondsworth: Penguin Education for Penguin, 1970)

d’Urfey, Thomas, (ed.), Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy (London: Henry Playford, 1698-1720)

Watts, Isaac, Divine Songs, Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children, (London: M.Lawrence, 1715)

Wilson, Raymond (ed.), The Puffin Book of Classic Verse, (London: Penguin,1995)


Avery, Gillian, ‘The Beginnings of Children’s Reading to c. 1700’ in Hunt, Peter (ed.)   Children’s Literature, an Illustrated History (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) pp.1-25

Ford, Susan Allen, ‘Reading Elegant Extracts in Emma. Very Entertaining!’ Vol 28, No. 1 (Winter 2007), Persuasions On-line, (Jane Austen Society of America)

(Accessed January 6 2014)

Grenby, M.O. ‘Before Children’s Literature: Children, Chapbooks and Popular Culture in Early Modern Britain’ in Popular Children’s Literature in Britain (eds Julia Briggs, Dennis Butts, M. O. Grenby) (Aldershot: Ashagate, 2008) pp. 25-46)

Hilton, Mary; Styles, Morag; Watson, Victor, Opening the Nursery Door, Reading, Writing and Childhood 1600-1900,  (London and New York: Routledge, 1997)

Hunt, Peter, (ed.), Children’s Literature, an Illustrated History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Michael, Ian, The Teaching of English, from the Sixteenth Century to 1870, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1987)

Styles, Morag, From the Garden to the Street, Three Hundred Years of Poetry for Children by Morag Styles (London: Cassell, 1998) 

Thomas, Joseph T. Jr., Poetry’s Playground, The Culture of Contemporary American Children’s Poetry by Joseph T. Thomas Jr. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007).