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Philippa Pearce Memorial Lecture, Homerton College, Cambridge, September 10 2009

‘What is children’s poetry for? Towards a new, child-specific ‘Apologie for Poetrie’ (Philip Sidney, 1579)

 

First, many thanks to Homerton College and the Philippa Pearce Memorial steering group for inviting me to give this lecture and thanks too,  to all of you who’ve taken the effort to come today. I knew Philippa a little, and always had the sense about her that she was part of the reason why I and all of us writing for children have the good fortune and pleasure of having an audience. She created scenes of such powerful feelings – anxiety, loss, mystery, danger, fun and the like, full of meaning and significance – that she created readers, and readers create other readers.

My job today is to talk about poetry and I should clear up something right at the outset. The word ‘apology’ does of course mean some kind of statement to do with being sorry, but there is an older meaning to the word which signifies a defence of a position, coming from the Greek word we know today as ‘apologia’. So, I won’t be saying sorry for anything today. I will be putting up an argument in defence of poetry. You might well ask, but who’s attacking it? And this takes us back to Philip Sidney who wrote a paper which was named – not by him – but by his first publishers,  one as  ‘An Apology for Poetry’, and the other  as ‘The defence of poesy.’ It was probably written in the winter of 1579-80.

Philip Sidney grew up at the heart of the ruling elite’s political and religious struggles.
He was given a full formal education from the age of 7, first with tutors from whom he learnt Latin, Italian and French. Then, at the age of 10, he was sent away to Shrewsbury Grammar School, a move that allied the family with the English Protestant hierarchy but also entailed a rigorous, nine and a half hour day working through, Cicero, Terence, Cato, Tully, Caesar, Livy, Ovid, Horace, Virgil, Xenophon as well as the French romances of Belleforest, amidst a good deal of worship along Calvinist lines.

Next stop was Christchurch, Oxford with yet more Cicero, Horace and Virgil, along now with Aristotle’s works on rhetoric – or what we would now call literary theory. It was at this point that he caught the eye of the Tudor’s top man – Sir William Cecil. To spell this out, this meant that Philip Sidney was going to be groomed for high office in Protestant England. One of the consequences of this was that he was sent by Elizabeth on a kind of three year prototype Grand Tour of Europe taking in Poland, Prague, Hungary and Italy as well as places nearer at home,  intermingled with diplomacy, and scouting for possible suitors for Elizabeth – or playing the game of scouting for suitors. This amazing period also drew him into the circle of the Tudors’ spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham and many of Europe’s major power-players.
When he gets back in England, he is clearly one of Elizabeth’s boys, with his life, career and marriage circumscribed by the nuanced requirements of the Elizabethan experiment with nationalist, unreformed Protestantism. So what is someone of this background doing writing a defence of poetry?

Well, the year he wrote it, Edmund Spenser had dedicated his poem ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’ to Sidney. But there was another event.  You’ll remember that the Elizabethan experiment didn’t simply involve a struggle between Catholic and Protestant but also involved what would turn out to be a deeper and more long-lasting struggle – signs of it are all about us today – of unreformed Protestantism’s conflict  with the various strands of Calvinism which we’ve come to call Puritanism.

In 1579,  one Stephen Gosson dedicated a pamphlet to Sidney called:

“THE
Schoole of Abuse,
Conteining a plesaunt in-
uective against Poets, Pipers,
Plaiers, Iesters and such like
Caterpillers of a commonwealth;
Setting vp the Flagge of Defiance to their
mischieuous exercise, and ouerthrow-
ing their Bulwarkes, by Prophane
Writers, Naturall reason, and
common experience:
 
A discourse as pleasaunt for
Gentlemen that fauour lear-
ning, as profitable for all that wyll
follow vertue. “

This title in itself lays out very well the Puritan position: it is militant with its ‘flag of defiance’, it is, in spite of the Puritans’ seeming hostility to unfettered imagination and sensual imagery, happy to introduce a visceral poetic image: ‘caterpillars of a commonwealth’’; and  it lumps together a set of people whose activities in the name of verbal and bodily pleasure he  deems to be ‘mischievous’: ‘poets, pipers, players, jesters and such like’. More surprisingly, perhaps, he claims, these people can be overthrown not by religious argument but by ‘common experience’, ‘natural reason’ and the words of ‘profane’ (ie non-religious writers). The result will be ‘profitable for all that will follow virtue’. ‘Virtue’ is a key word here. Puritans are virtuous people, who if they work, study and are industrious, will achieve ‘virtue’, a godly state of being here on earth.  Poets, pipers, players and jesters don’t have virtue. They are mischievous. Here is Gosson in full flow:

…and I should interject here that part of this talk today is about us enjoying the vigour, self-confidence and inventiveness of sixteenth century poetic prose as a form of poetry in itself.

“The deceitfull Phisition giueth sweete Syrropes to make his poyson goe downe the smoother: The Iuggler casteth a myst to worke the closer: The Syrens song is the Saylers wrack: The Fowlers whistle, the birdes death : The wholesome bayte, the fishes bane: The Harpies haue Virgins faces, and vultures Talentes: Hyena speakes like a friend, and deuoures like a Foe: The calmest Seas hide dangerous Rockes: the Woolf iettes in Weathers felles: Many good sentences are spoken by Danus, to shadowe his knauery: and written by Poets, as ornaments to beautifye their woorkes, and sette theyr trumperie too sale without suspect.”

Nb ‘iettes’ is ‘jets’ and in this context means ‘struts about’ – ‘Weathers felles’ means sheep’s skins. Ie the wolf struts about in sheep’s clothing.

“No marueyle though Plato shut them out of his schoole, and banished them quite from his common wealth, as effeminate writers, vnprofitable members, and vtter enimies to vertue.”

If you enter the school of Poetry, as Gosson calls it, you will pass on to

“…Pyping, from Pyping to playing, from play to pleasure, from pleasure to slouth, from slouth to sleepe, from sleepe to sinne, from sinne to death, from death to the deuill,.”

In other words, through disguising its knavery and trumpery, poetry leads you downwards – via music, laziness and sin – to Hell.

So Sidney decided to defend poetry against this. Firstly, we should be clear that Sidney uses the word ‘poetry’ to sometimes mean what we would also call ‘poetry’ but at other times he means literary writing – verse, fiction and drama.  This poetry has to be defended because it is, he says,  always derived from ‘nature’ , a word which we can take today to mean more like the whole of existence and experience.  However, the poet isn’t tied into representing nature as it is – as Mathematicians, lawyers, grammarians and Philosophers have to do.

‘Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops. Chimeras, Furies and such like”

So literature has a promethean quality of creating nature. When it imitates by means of Aristotle’s ‘mimesis’, Sidney argues, it is  

“a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth to speake Metaphorically. A speaking Picture, with this end to teach and delight”,

- quite the opposite model of Gosson’s syrup and poison,  where the problem is the pleasure. This image of the ‘speaking picture’ has rightly become famous. Poetry as a speaking picture is an idea we can take with us into the present with its purpose to ‘teach and delight’.

But this poesy has other functions.  People sing the Psalms ‘when they are merry’
“and I knowe”, Sidney says  “is used with the frute of comfort by some, when in sorrowfull panges of their death bringing sinnes, they finde the consolation of the never leaving goodnes.”

- Comfort and consolation then, even at death. Again, the opposite view of Gosson, who saw poetry as taking you to the devil. What’s more, says Sidney,

“This purifying of wit, this enriching of memorie, enabling of judgement, and enlarging of conceit, which commonly we cal learning, …   the finall end is, to lead and draw us to as high a perfection, as our degenerate soules made worse by their clay-lodgings, can be capable of.”

Enriching of memory, enabling of judgement, enlarging of our conceptual abilities (that’s ‘conceit’) pleasure, consolation, perfection and salvation. This is what you can get from Poetry, Sidney is saying. Then in a remarkable passage, Sidney explains that whereas other disciplines explain and argue, poetry can show us emotion manifest in action.

“Let us but hear old Anchices, speaking in the middest of Troies flames, or see Ulisses in the fulnesse of all Calipsoes delightes, bewaile his absence from barraine and beggarly Itheca…"

We gain what he calls ‘insight into anger’ when we see Sophocles’ Ajax ‘whipping sheep and oxen’., and further insights into feelings such as  ‘remorse of conscience in Oedipus’, ‘soon repenting pride in Agamemnon’, ‘self-devouring cruelty in Atreus’, ‘the violence of ambition in the two Theban brothers’, and  ‘the sour sweetness of revenge in Medea’

And how do we, as readers and listeners receive these? Sidney says, “…we seeme not to heare of them, but clearly to see through them.”  So, that’s to say, I think, that through absorbing these moments in literature we come to understand their true purpose and essence; their meaning becomes transparent or clear without our consciously hearing how.  And the result of all this is that when we read, say of
“Dives burning in hell, and Lazarus in Abrahams bosome,” these end up “ inhabit[ing] both the memorie and judgement.”  So, he is saying, by showing us these emotions in action, poetry ends up being ‘memorable’ but also ends up by being absorbed into our ‘judgement’ – or as we might call it -  our value-system.

The poet, Sidney concludes, is a ‘popular philosopher’. But this isn’t boring taught philosophy – and he mocks dry dusty academic philosophy teaching. This kind of teaching – through poetry - happens in another way:

“For who will be taught, if he be not mooved with desire to be taught?”

a notion that flew in the face of the caners, beaters, drillers and bores of Sidney’s own time and goes on flying down through the centuries since.

The poet – and he really does mean our meaning of ‘poet’ here - can do this because

“hee commeth to you with words set in delightfull proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for the well enchanting skill of musicke,”

And as an aside, he adds, it’s not just the great classic writers who do this:

“Certainly I must confesse mine owne barbarousnesse, I never heard the old Song of Percy and Duglas{88}, that I founde not my heart mooved more than with a Trumpet; and yet is it sung but by some blinde Crowder”

He is referring here to the old folk ballad now known as ‘Chevy Chase’. But how does poetry work? Sidney says:

“Verse far exceedeth Prose, in the knitting up of the memorie, the reason is manifest, the words (besides their delight, which hath a great affinitie to memorie) being so set as one cannot be lost, but the whole woorke failes…Besides one word, so as it were begetting an other, as be it in rime or measured verse, by the former a man shall have a neare gesse to the follower.”

There is in poetry, a way in which a formal poem is measured out in such a way that dropping a word, spoils the whole and this in turn gives it a predictive quality:  the pattern enables us to sense what is coming next.

I think all this constitutes a fascinating defence. There’s a good deal we can take straight into now to help us understand what poetry offers us and what poetry can do.
But surely, in the present context, poetry doesn’t need to be defended. And I should say my job today is not to talk about poetry in general – as Sidney did – but to defend it as an art for children. And yet, surely no one’s attacking it?  Well, I’m going to suggest that there has been an attack,  and the attack has gone on by default, even as publicly, and in official policy,  it’s been defended. The process will be familiar to many of you, if only because I’ve talked about it before – perhaps too often – so excuse me going over old ground.

I’ll put it this way. I was speaking at a joint meeting of headteachers from the NAHT and teachers from the NUT to discuss the forthcoming campaign against SATs. One headteacher was quite explicit. He said that he taught in a school made up almost entirely of children whose first language is not English. By comparing results in the SATs from year to year, he now knows (or is it ‘thinks’?)  that he can inch his school’s position up  the local league tables if he drops all reading of poetry and stories and spends most of year 6 drilling the children in exercises geared to matching the tests. He hates doing it, he says. He can see the effect it has on the children emotionally, behaviourally and intellectually, he said, but the league tables rule. He would love to be reading stories and poetry but he can’t take the risk, he said.

So, we don’t have a Stephen Gosson, as Philip Sidney had, we have a process, or a set of practices that quietly and insidiously have taken over in many schools. Not all schools by any means. Where teachers and parents have had the confidence to carry on reading and enjoying all books, poetry included, this attack has been resisted. What’s more, where parents have the knowledge and experience of what books and poetry can do for children, they too have carried on borrowing, buying, reading books and poetry with their children….which leaves a percentage – how big? perhaps we’ll never know – of children of whom we can say, if they don’t come across books and poetry when they’re at school, they will probably never come across it. And somewhere, deeply embedded in what I’ve called a quiet and insidious practice is a notion that says, in effect, ‘So be it. It doesn’t matter. If those children don’t get books and poetry. Tough.’  Instead of Sidney’s account of  ‘insight into anger’ , the soon repenting pride in Agamemnon, the self-devouring cruelty in Atreus, the violence of ambition in the two Theban brothers and the sour sweetness of revenge in Medea, those children will have this: (and again excuse me to those who’ve heard me read this before). I quote verbatim from a worksheet and in its entirety. It’s not me cutting anything here.

“Perseus and the Gorgons

This is part of a myth from ancient Greece

At last Perseus found the Gorgons. They were asleep among the rocks, and Perseus was able to look at them safely.

Although they were asleep, the live serpents which formed their hair were writhing venomously. The sight filled Perseus with horror. How could he get near enough without being turned to stone?

Suddenly Perseus knew what to do. He now understood why Athena had given him the shining bronze shield. Looking into it he saw clearly the reflection of the Gorgons. Using the shield as a mirror, he crept forward. Then with a single swift blow he cut off the head of the nearest Gorgon. Her name was Medusa.

In one mighty swoop, Perseus grabbed the head of Medusa. He placed it safely in his bag and sprang into the air on his winged sandals’

To my mind this is utterly insufficient. It’s an act of deliberate deprivation to deliver this up to children, as it denies them the context and motive for action, and in so doing drains the story of fear and tension. Or to put it another way, as we don’t know why Perseus is going to see the Gorgons, we don’t feel with him the danger. If we don’t feel the danger, we don’t enjoy the ingenuity of his success nor the pleasure in his ultimate victory. The engine at the heart of literature has been taken out of this piece purely in order that the writing can be used as a pretext for asking a set of comprehension questions as printed on the other side of the story:
‘Why had Perseus brought a bag with him?’
‘Who had given Perseus his shield?’

And so on for ten more questions like it, each with specifically right answers. Empricism has seized power. Sidney is overthrown. So, I say,  in the face of this kind of mental cruelty,  I think we need as stout a defence of poetry for children (and perhaps I’ll leak over into Sidney’s broader use of the word poetry than our contemporary usage), as Sidney offered. Where he was speaking with all the confidence of a rising class of Tudor Protestant nationalists and humanists, I’ll borrow some of that humanism and marry it to some ideas to do with:  the rights of individuals to explore their identities – including and especially language; along with what is in effect a form of internationalism which work in classrooms affords us.
I’ve spoken too long on this subject without reading a poem.

My Mate Darren by Paul Lyalls p.114 ‘A-Z of Poetry’ edited by Michael Rosen (Puffin 2009)

My first point will be to say that poetry like this does a lot of things at the same time.
Here are some of them:

It tells a story
It offers us Sidney’s ‘speaking picture’
Which, in turn teaches and delights us…
…and delights us in many different ways, one of which is
that it is derived from nature – or as we would say now, from experience and existence

But part of this is that it ‘counterfeits’ and ‘represents’, as Sidney put it – that’s to say there is something symbolic going on in the poem that is more than what it appears to be talking about. There is also emotion manifest in action – some of which we can give names to –  delight in play, something to do with the absurdity of war or destruction, and something to do with the difference between humans and animals, perhaps…and a whole lot more besides.

We’ve also got something here of Sidney’s ‘well enchanting skill of musicke. ‘
The unfolding of the poem with its rhythm and rhyme (and the expectations that go with these) gives us the sense that this story will roll along through to a conclusion, but also perhaps in the rhyme there is some kind of gentle self-mockery, that undermines the seriousness of the protagonists.  And what of the promethean aspect? Well, the construction of the whole piece - its crescendo, Darren’s supposed speech, are precisely this. ‘A form that was never in nature’, as Sidney says.

And the poem enters Sidney’s ‘memory and judgement’. We are aided in the memory by the rhyme – when I see Paul Lyalls I’ve started saying to him:
‘there is no more war’
but no one told his dog,
who ran back in and chewed them up once more.’

And what about the judgement, that value-system inside us?  By some process – that Sidney says taught us by ‘moving us to be taught’, the values of the poem find their way in, find their place – ‘inhabit’, Sidney says, perhaps snugly, perhaps by challenging it, perhaps by co-operating with it -  in whatever value system we call our own. So, at one level perhaps it does say with the poem, ‘no more war’ but at another, doesn’t the poem have a laugh at the simplicity (or is it the simplistic nature?) of saying ‘no more war’?  Is there a conversation here being had with the end of ‘Dulce et Decorum est,’ when Wilfred Owen says:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Then again, the poem seems also to be inhabiting similar territory – but in a comic, ironic way, to the end of ‘The House at Pooh Corner’.

“Christopher Robin was going away. Nobody knew why he was going; nobody knew where he was going: indeed, nobody even knew why he knew that Christopher Robin was going away”

In Milne’s words, there is something ineffable and mysterious about ‘the going away’ of growing up. But then in place of ‘that enchanted place on the top of the Forest’ where ‘a little boy and his Bear will always be playing’ , we’ve got the gritty naturalism of Paul Lyalls’  soldiers stuck under an old fridge, followed by the dog eating them again.

So, I think this constitutes something like Sidney’s ‘popular philosophy’.  In the place,  of A.A.Milne’s time-fighting suggestion that either childhood goes on forever, or that it survives because of his own book, we have Lyalls’ bluntness that leaves us with Darren not as a child but as a man and the soldiers gone – apart, once again, from their presence on the page in Lyalls’ poem. The poem plays with time, change and continuity. It sends us as adult readers back to our childhoods. With children, I suspect it breaks them out of their synchronic continuum – the state of permanent childhood, which I can never sort out clearly in mind is something we foist on children or  something they fight to preserve – and it brings them sharply into the diachronic continuum so brilliantly and amazingly presented to us of course, by Philippa herself with ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’.

So, yes, popular philosophy too.

Something I like about Sidney’s defence is that it appears to be talking about wisdom encapsulated in poetry. He talks of ‘insights’ and ‘judgement’ and ‘learning’. I see literature as being in effect, 3000 years of wisdom about human behaviour put in a form that we can understand and take pleasure in. And yet, for some incredible reason, we have created an environment in some schools, in some classrooms (not all, please note) where the writing of summarisers, extract-hacks and writer-substitutes has been promoted above the level of those who’ve spent their whole lives trying to perfect ways of encapsulating wisdom and feeling into literary form. So not only do we get the banal re-writing of ‘part of a myth’ but we also get – and I’ll hestitate to give the exact example -   people who produce school text-books on say, personal development, which include sessions on bereavement, anger, jealousy and the like but the writer of the lesson plans,  knowing that poetry often deals with this sort of thing, chooses not to find great poetry to stimulate talk about such things. Instead, she sticks in a bunch of poems of her own,  saying thereby, ‘all that stuff written in the previous three thousand years won’t be able to do its job better than me.’

So, I’m going to say that what poetry and all fictions do is encapsulate wisdom about human behaviour and they do this, as Sidney implies, by marrying ideas with feeling and putting them into sequences derived originally from experience and existence but which may also involve creatures and beings that have never been seen or heard of before.  And in the process of reading this, we will find out what it feels like to be someone facing danger or love or disaster or fun and the like. The poem or the story will do some experimenting for us.

Now,  I would like to add on some more defences.

‘The Angler’s Song’ Jackie Kay p.127 A-Z

Much of children’s lives are circumscribed by explicit and implicit rules. These come ultimately from all the adults around them. No matter how hard we as adults try, we find it very difficult to grant children autonomy over parts of their own lives – even when there is no justification in an argument for health and safety, or psychological danger or whatever. I look at our new kitchen and realise that at present we’ve put a lot of things out of reach of the children. Is there any reason why children’s shouldn’t be able to get a bowl or a cup by themselves? Why have we built in dependence even into our kitchen?

I think poetry, when handled well, offers autonomy. It does this, I would argue, through several channels:
Suggestion
Reflection
Juxtaposition
Physicality of language
Mutability of language
And interculturalism

In Jackie Kay’s poem, she writes:

‘My sea bed. I tell no lies so your heart
will not be broken. I offer nothing.’

This is elliptical. We have no means to judge or determine exactly why the angler fish will tell no lies, why it will offer nothing. All we can do is infer and guess and wonder. We will occupy a space that is unfamiliar for many children, and yet it’s one which is terribly important – a space where vague and indeterminate sensations are all we have to go on. Very often, for life to carry on, we can’t assume that there are right and wrong answers. We have to figure out what other people’s behaviour is about and for. And this sort of thing needs reflection.

And yet, it seems that for some children, some schools are forced into saying, in effect, ‘there isn’t time for reflection’. And I mean here the kind of reflection that looks at something, wonders about it, and hears a variety of voices alongside you that also wonder about it. I’m not such a poetry chauvinist that I think this can only come about through poetry. It can come about from a group of children looking at how a dandelion has grown between two cracks in the pavement. But poetry, nevertheless, does offer this potential.

“My sea bed. I tell no lies so your heart
will not be broken. I offer nothing.
All you will have is my breathing.
But I will give myself up to you.

I will give myself up for you.”

The meaning of poetry does indeed often come to us musically – repetition being one of the musical cadences available to poets, but it also comes to us through the sideways process of juxtaposition. Here, Jackie Kay has juxtaposed the idea of  a sea bed with ‘no lies’ with ‘no heart broken’ and then with nothingness being on offer. Then on to all that’s being offered is breathing. Then  on to the idea that the ‘I’ of the poem will give itself up to the ‘you’ of the poem.  These six or so images aren’t necessarily or easily linked. There are only two ‘connectives’, as the National Literacy Strategy called them  – a ‘so’ and a ‘but’, but they don’t really seem to help us in making a logical connection between things. But please note, extract-writers, comprehension question-setters, SATs-testers, logic is not what’s going on here. The poem is forcing us to make connections simply by placing images side by side. I can’t speak for people here, but by reading, re-reading, reading and thinking, I start to get a feeling about the angler-fish, perhaps a feeling about me. A feeling about saying things,  through breathing and not talking. A feeling about trust, I think.  In some kind of bed.

I’m going to make the claim that to go through this process in an open-ended way, in a co-operative way with people you trust – or entirely on your own – gives children  - and all of us – a chance to investigate how and why, in daily life as lived,  feelings and ideas are inseparable. 

Moving on, Sidney also talked of poetry’s music and proportion. And following that,  I think in one respect, one side of poetry has a particular part to play in children’s lives. It’s in its physicality.

He had a little sticker
And he had a little ticket
And the took the little sticker
And he stuck it to the ticket.

Now he hasn’t got a sticker
And he hasn’t got a ticket
He’s got a bit of both
Which he calls a little ‘sticket’

They won’t let you on the bus with a sticket.

Whatever else this poem does, it  draws attention to something about the similarity of the words ‘sticker’, ‘ticket’, ‘stuck’ and ‘sticket’. This runs across what language is thought to do, which is that it’s there to convey meaning, as if words only exist to give you facts.  In turns out, the poem conveys very little factual meaning apart from making a connection between words, as they say, at the level of the signifier.  For children, this has a special role. One of the important parts of being a child is hearing words, whether spoken directly to you, or spoken in the air, without knowing what they mean. Instead, all you hear is the word’s physicality, its material existence, if you like – its sound, its tone, its pitch, its volume, its rhythm, its place in a cadence of words and the like. In this environment, such words exist as signifiers without signifying through what’s been called the process of denoting. Instead, it conveys feeling through connoting – gathering up and delivering of the words’ associations. And, as people like Julie Kristeva and Jacques Derrida have suggested, a lot of what’s being connoted will be because of how one word sounds in relation to the similar sounding words around it. Apart from poetry and song, there are very few, if any, outlets for children in schools, to explore this area of being, much of which must be tinged with anxiety. Think of how we feel when we travel to countries where we can’t speak the language. Physical poetry like my sticker-ticket poem allows, I would suggest, a release through play, from some of that anxiety.. It plays with words. Instead of treating words as sacrosanct little parcels of meaning, it offers relief from the relentless signifying of history, geography, maths, school rules, home rules and comprehension exercises about the Gorgons. It gives us all, but children in particular,  a space in which to acknowledge with them the fact that language exists in its own right as a puzzling, peculiar set of phenomena just as rocks, birds and houses exist in their own right. Poetry is then also about language itself.

But there’s more to this. When we show children words being physical, we also show them that language is mutable. It can be played with, according to patterns of sound in order sometimes to see what signifiers might spring up. And this is one of the bases of nonsense poetry which creates new worlds, just as Sidney described, often held together by recurring sounds, peopled by beings whose names, like Jumblies, Jabberwocks and Snarks half-echo previously heard places, people and creatures. Most of education travels in the opposite direction: it teaches correct usage, as handed down from those of us who know what correctness is. It teaches apposite and appropriate usage – le mot juste – whether that’s in French, maths, history, school rules or wherever. A lot of poetry, in particular poetry for children, suggests that that correctness or appropriateness can be subverted and you, children, can if you want subvert it too.

Ladles and jellyspoons,
I come before you, to stand behind you,
To tell you something I know nothing about.
Next Thursday, which is Good Friday,
There will be a mothers' meeting for fathers only.
Admission is free, pay at the door,
Pull up a seat and sit on the floor.
We will be discussing the four corners of the round table.

Apart from anything else, this suggests that it’s not only language that is something that you can play with, but so is the world.  

And so to interculturalism.

Now, it’s been argued that Sidney’s ‘Apology’ was in part a defence of something specifically English – there hasn’t been time to explore this.  In place of this, I would want to pose a process that is rarely celebrated in relation to poetry. I would argue that no matter how we write, or even how we read, we do so with the culture we own, live with and live through. We cannot escape the processes of acculturation that we have lived – food, language, gesture, frame of mind, habits – all of it and much more. Poetry can’t escape it either. However, there is a theory around in education that knowledge and skills are value-free, that they aren’t cultural – or if they are, there are some that are so absolute and universal we shouldn’t waste our time describing them as being cultural.

Poetry doesn’t waste much time doing this either. It just gets on and ‘does’ culture. It expresses the way we are, the way we live, the way we think. It offers this up in what are now (less so in Sidney’s time) a huge range of forms – some very short, others long and expository. It can be imagistic or full of dialogue. It can be interior monologue, it can be narrative, or it can fight narrative and explore state of being and existence. It can draw attention to its writerliness by playing with words, or it can appear (though this will be an illusion) to be seamless with reality by being bald, concise and simple.. All this makes it hugely various, open to choice by readers to find the shapes and forms that they want and like and indeed might want to adopt or adapt themselves.

More mutability.  

The Difference p 211 A-Z

In Glasgow
the hotel gave us something called
‘Soap’.
In Edinburgh
the hotel gave us the same stuff
and it was called:
‘Skincare Bar’.

So, by scavenging around in the displayed words and detritus of human existence - itself an important process to show children - poetry can express how people define themselves or how others choose to define them.. If we put that into an open-ended context of several or many people sharing ideas like this, poetry becomes intercultural. It shares.

I would suggest, (just as Sidney did in claiming a seriousness for poetry at the level of salvation) that in a way, interculturalism possesses the ingredients for a kind of salvation. Not heavenly, but earthly. I’ve seen children looking at pictures of refugees escaping the bombing of Barcelona in 1936 and then writing poems based on the idea that right now, they’ve got to leave and take with them important things, important memories, important wishes and desires. And then I’ve seen these children, some of them refugees themselves  – from a wide range of faith and national backgrounds: Bangladesh, Nigeria, the Caribbean, eastern Europe and the UK -   share these around in a circle, talking of such intimate details as a hug from a grandmother or a look in someone’s eyes. Whatever else we do to make the world safer and better, we will have to do quite a lot of this kind of sharing of feeling and understanding.

 

 

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