Michael Rosen
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Visiting Professorial Lecture - Birkbeck, University of London

This is the lecture I gave as my Visiting Professorial Inaugural Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London on May 12 2009. I haven’t pasted in the full texts of all the poems I refer to. Apologies.

Here’s a poem I wrote triggered off by the NHS asking me to write something that would celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the NHS. I thought that I was writing a poem for adults. It turns out that they thought I was writing a poem for children. It now turns out that it’s going to go up on every surgery wall in England and Wales. 

These are the Hands

These are the hands
That touch us first
Feel your head
Find the pulse
And make your bed.

These are the hands
That tap your back
Test the skin
Hold your arm
Wheel the bin
Change the bulb
Fix the drip
Pour the jug
Replace your hip.

These are the hands
That fill the bath
Mop the floor
Flick the switch
Soothe the sore
Burn the swabs
Give us a jab
Throw out sharps
Design the lab.

And these are the hands
That stop the leaks
Empty the pan
Wipe the pipes
Carry the can
Clamp the veins
Make the cast
Log the dose
And touch us last.

Quite often, the conversation about children’s books focuses on questions of audience. Who’s reading the books? Or who’s the ideal reader? We  hear about books being ideal for this or that age of child, or this book is a girls’ book or girls of 12 will like this. Again, it’s quite usual to say of a picture book that it appears to be making nods to an adult reader, or that there are sly references in the text or pictures – as with a book by Anthony Browne, say, with his allusions to the painter, Magritte. Another way of thinking of audience in these conversations is to notice that some kinds of books – famously the Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman’s trilogy – are what are called ‘crossovers’. Adults have been spotted reading them on the Tube. They’ve even been re-bound by the publishers in adult-friendly covers.  This focus on audience is also the cause of a row in the publishing world: a campaign initiated by authors Anne Fine and Philip Pullman vigorously opposed the labelling of books with badges announcing what age of child was the ideal or intended reader of the book. Fine and Pullman’s argument was in essence about the way such labelling would, they claimed, restrict the audience for the books: books labelled for young children would scare off older children who wouldn’t want to be sneered at for reading books that were supposedly too young and books that were labelled for older children might frighten off younger children or, more likely, their parents, for fear of young ones getting into unsuitable stuff.

So, children’s books are often surrounded with these discussions about audience. They are of course based on an assumption that children’s books are for children. I would like to contest that idea or at the very least modify it. I have two broad reasons for contesting it: one comes from why and how children’s books are read and the other from why and how they are written.

There’s a long and decent history of people trying to figure out what are the defining characteristics of children’s literature. These are mostly attempts to find structural and/or generic elements in the books that can be said to exist only in literature for children, rather as biologists find the distinctions between sloths and apes.  So, Tony Watkins, for example, has examined how a large part of children’s literature, very nearly all of it, for all ages (bar a few novels directed at young adults), involve some sense of restitution, a restoration, a redemption, a homecoming. Then we can all have fun looking for  exceptions – Roald Dahl, who achieved a status for himself where he could overrule his editors – decided that the boy at the end of ‘The Witches’ did not need to be restored to his human self but could go on being a mouse. Not very homecoming at all.  Interestingly, the film of the book couldn’t or wouldn’t repeat this motif, and, just as the formula demands, restored the boy to boyhood. So while I’m speaking now, you might want to consider children’s books you’ve read and think of the endings. Have any or many of them did or did not leave its main protagonist without hope, away from home, with matters unsolved, the self in a state of confusion or unremitting loss? Not many.

Another area of focus has been formal or generic: certain forms of book seem largely restricted to the arena of children’s books  – the picture book, the pop-up book, the lift-the-flap book or ‘moveables’ as the antiquarian book world calls them; the heavily illustrated ‘chapter book’ for what are sometimes oddly called ‘self-supporting readers’  seems restricted to children’s literature too. Then there are the classifications along thematic lines. These are harder to prove: take the Robinsonade, which developed out of Robinson Crusoe and became within children’s literature, the family or group of children who become stranded and isolated, starting of course with ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, the name being no coincidence.  But as we know, some famous books like ‘Lord of the Flies’ and Nobel Prize-winning Kenzaboro Oe’s ‘Nip the buds, kill the kids’ are child-centred Robinsonades are child-centred books intended originally for adults.  It’s true that books which devote their whole story to a school seen through the eyes of a child – the school story - is largely a product of children’s literature, though the first major novel in the genre – ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ was what we might now call a crossover book. The crime-busting child-detective or secret agent is perhaps a children’s-only genre – its origins lying most probably in Erich Kastner’s ‘Emil and the Detectives’ from 1928. It burgeoned in later years with the ‘Famous Five’ and the ‘Secret Seven’ and many others. But you could argue that these are parodies (not in the humorous sense) of the adult form -  now most clearly stated with Charlie Higson’s young James Bond novels.

Sex, murder, rape, incest, bloody violence and child abuse are almost entirely avoided in children’s books, unless it is handled folklorically – as with the Grimms’ so-called folk tales or satirically and hyperbolically as with ‘Struwwelpeter’ and Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Cautionary’ Verse.  Famous exceptions to the ‘no sex and violence’ rule tend to be clearly marked  ‘teen novels’ or ‘young adult’ and the like. We may well find that whatever definitions and descriptions we come up with for children’s literature, the teen novel escapes and refuses to be bound by the same descriptions and conventions. However, because of our tendency to live in mixed age families, and children do insist on being born a few years apart some books, like Judy Blume’s ‘Forever’ escape from the corral and easily get into the hands of much younger children. For centuries, nudity, peeing and pooing were taboo but there is a whole new genre of picture book that has opened its doors to this too.

There’s an argument to be had at the level of language, perhaps. Children’s books clearly work on the assumption that certain kinds of complex concepts, abstract argument, psychological and political reasoning (and the customary language these ideas come in) aren’t suitable for a young audience. In fact, you could say that this is clearer now than it was in the past. If you compare the output of, say, Puffin novels from when I was a child and Puffin novels of today, then it’s clear that something has gone on here. The language of children’s books has become much more informal and the leisurely literary pace of novels from fifty years ago seems to have mostly disappeared. As the children’s author, Morris Gleitzman once told me, ‘You have to start every scene as late on into the action as you can.’ There is an assumption amongst editors and writers that children are informed by the timing of film-cutting and novels should try to keep pace with that. And perhaps, we could say that children’s novels avoid the inner landscape, the  interiority of the traditional novel just as film and television have to, though even as I say that, children’s fiction has recently been revelling in the ‘diary’ form which is often a feast of interiority. The problem with this linguistic approach as a defining characteristic of children’s literature is that there is of course plenty of literature for adults that is linguistically simple, fast-moving and low on interiority too.

So all these ways of trying to define children’s literature leaves us with a bit of rag-bag, doesn’t it? As people interested in literature, we might like to have something clearer than that. After all, if we go about calling something with a distinctive name – a dog, an elephant, ‘children’s literature’ -  we should be able to come up with a neat and tidy species description based on either what the books are about, or on how they are written.

But I think we are looking in the wrong place. I’ve a feeling that the answer doesn’t lie inside the books, an instrinsic definition, if you like, but outside – an extrinsic definition.

So, to my mind, children’s literature is distinctive for sociological reasons. Unlike any other literature it sits within or in very close relation to two social institutions of massive importance: nurture and education, with the understanding in both institutions, (and always made explicit), that an essential part of the audience will be children.

It is largely through these two institutions or processes (nurture and education) that adults relate to children. That’s to say, the people who mostly deal with children are carers and educators. We have devised buildings and rooms for this – flats, semis, detached houses, bedrooms, dormitories, nurseries, schools, classrooms and the like. Millions of people work at it, parents, grandparents, playgroup leaders, teachers, teaching assistants, librarians and headteachers and many more.  There are even ministers in government who are actually or theoretically in charge of it all, sending out directives and policy documents, creating taxation and benefit systems and the like to mould the processes as they see fit. The major media outlets – TV, magazines, newspapers and the internet devote millions of words to both matters – how to have a happy baby, how to make your kids clever, how to deal with stroppy teenagers and the like. A discourse around motherhood and fatherhood rages in the press, with examples of what is seen as bad parenting regularly making the headlines and there are regular alarms sounded about the state of children and teenagers and what measures should be taken to restrict their movements.   We can say here as a rough guide that the prevailing attitudes to children that emerge in mainstream discourse demand that children should be protected, punished and instructed: protected because they are innocent, punished because they are evil (don’t worry about the contradiction here) and instructed because they know nothing. Meanwhile, a cluster of capitalist enterprises deliver products and services into the institutions of nurture and education– formula milk, frame steel structures for schools, kids’ clothes, toys, school-friendly equipment and of course books.

When we get closer in to all this, we can see where books are. Carers are sitting with their children on their laps or alongside them at bedtime, reading books out loud, talking about books with their children.  Some carers construct shelves for their children’s bedrooms. Schools spend hours and hours a week, teaching children how to read and historically varying amounts of time encouraging children to read whole books. But let’s freeze frame here. Though it is clear that the books in these processes are being consumed by children, it is also clear that are being handled and shared by adults too – mostly the carers and educators. Yes, we might spot a child in a corner of a nursery, looking at a book on her own, a child at home, sitting in his bedroom reading alone – but the means by which the book got there, the context for the book itself is nearly always one mediated and arranged by the adult carers and educators. Not every piece of children’s cultural life is like that – the passing around of rude jokes and rhymes, for example, is usually carried out furtively and privately between children, with no adult intervention.

So I would suggest that what we call children’s books are in fact shared books, books shared between children, carers and educators and this sharing nearly always goes on in the context of nurture and education or as an immediate and direct consequence of nurture and education. In other words, built into the children’s book is a multiple audience – not just as buyer, but very often as an actual reading or listening partner. So I would say that one of the defining characteristics of the children’s book is not simply or only that it is for children but that, unlike its adult counterparts, it is a book for a shared audience in the two contexts of nurture and education. When we say that this or that book is suitable for a six year old boy, what we are really saying is that it is suitable for a six year old boy when he is at home or in school near or with a carer or educator.

I’ll put that another way: I think that children’s books are literary interventions into two discourses – the one about nurture and the one about education. So, children’s literature does what literature does, parades scenes and narratives and images predominantly with language, but does so in these two specific contexts, and either intentionally or as a consequence jumps straight into the ding-dong battles over how children are raised and how children are educated. In other words, the books frequently engage with those three broad themes that I mentioned earlier – the requirement that we protect, punish and instruct our children. And it does these things in the knowledge or with the awareness that much of what is written addresses the shared audience of those taking part in those two contexts – the adult carers and educators on one side and the children on the other.

To take one example: a book like ‘Where the Wild things Are’ shows us a boy who has said to his mother that he’ll eat her up. The text tells us that he’s done wild things. He’s sent to his room from where he magically goes away where he tames some very large wild things and returns to find that someone has put out his supper and it’s still hot. This is a book which is about how children handle being brought up and which will nearly always  be read in the context of either that bringing up – at bedtime, on a carer’s lap, or within education at playgroup, nursery, or early years schooling. It speaks to both child and adult as it negotiates questions of what is an OK way of going on, either as a child or as a parent, raising questions around the issues of punishment and forgiveness. It pinpoints with painful accuracy the moment of emptiness when the child,  ‘wanted to be where he was loved most of all’, which at first glance appears to be about the child, (it’s about ‘he wanted’)  but in the context of an adult reading it, raises for that adult questions of whether that adult or any adult can or will or does deliver that kind of love, that intensity and totality.  This is why the book in the contexts of its reading, will instantly create conversations. Having read the book many times with my then three year old, he suddenly said, as I read the line ‘where he was loved most of all’ – ‘Mummy!’.  Just to remind you, we never see Mummy in this book, she is the off-stage presence who has sent the boy to his room, and presumably, though it’s not said, she is the presence who has left the supper in the bedroom waiting for him, after his trip to tame the Wild Things. What my three-year old decided was that she’s also the agent in the passive construction ‘where he was loved most of all’. What I’m saying here then is that ‘Where the Wild things Are’ is children’s literature because it is an intervention for both children and adults in the conversations we have about the processes of nurture and education. The book is not ( as some would have it) simply or only about how a child should or could handle his anger , but is as much about how we as adults get to understand that anger and how we should or could negotiate with that angry child. It will of course do this partly by awakening memories in ourselves of how we were angry as children and how we felt when we were punished or forgiven or loved. And then as we read the words out loud and turn over the pages, children tell us what they think and what they want, so the book becomes a platform or springboard for talk within an ongoing relationship. With the active participation of adult and child the book helps modify that relationship, if you like. I think this is a different view of what children’s literature is about or for, than is usually described.

When it comes to looking at the history of children’s literature, I’m suggesting that what we are really looking at is the history of a kind of literature that is written in intimate relation to prevailing attitudes and policies to nurture and prevailing attitudes and policies in education. It is not simply or only a matter of a history of kinds of books. It is, then virtually always and inescapably tied up with questions for carers on how we raise children and for educators on how we teach and run schools. 

What kind of exceptions might we think of? Perhaps the economically self-sufficient 11 year old who goes shopping with her mates and buys up the latest Jacqueline Wilson or Meg Rosoff,  does at that moment appear to have broken free of nurture and education? Yes, but no. Most (not an absolute all, admittedly) of the books for pre-teens and even teens involve a key moment where the adult carers and educators have to be negotiated with.  Take Robert Cormier and his two ‘Chocolate War’ novels or ‘After the First Death’. They take place in the contexts of how the people designated as your educators or ultimate carers have political concerns that appear to run counter to humanistic values.  This is the meat of the three novels. One of the most child-led book-buying phenomena of the present era – the very first Harry Potter book – is on almost every page about how a child or children collectively negotiate adult carers or educators. So, even when the buying and private reading habits (children avidly reading the books in their bedrooms with doors clearly marked ‘keep out’) would appear to counter my argument that this is about a shared audience, we find that the books themselves address the adult-child relationship and in a matter of months, they are gobbled up by adults and turned into films for family viewing, for that shared audience. 

What I want to do now, is read you some poems and trace why and how I came to write them. This way, I hope to get a sense of how I grasped some understanding of who I wrote them for. I think it will be possible to see within the poems how I’ve incorporated a sense of the shared audience I’ve been talking about and how these poems have been what I’m calling literary interventions in the discourses of nurture and education.

I share my bedroom with my brother

Father says

I wrote these poems when I was about twenty. I think in my head was an idea that I could apply James Joyce’s principle he manifested in ‘Portrait of the Artist’. That is, I could write about your childhood in the voice or imagined voice or simulated voice of the child at that stage of life. I remember very clearly thinking that reading Joyce gave me permission to try that way of writing myself. In passing, I would say that a good deal of my experience as a writer has been like that:  coming across a kind of writing that I haven’t encountered  before and finding that that writing has, as it were, said to me, ‘Now you have permission to write like that.’ So I sat down and wrote what I thought was a kind of writing that people who read poetry would read. I knew people who read poetry. They were my parents, and friends of theirs who, incidentally, mostly seemed to be teachers.

As a consequence of writing that poem and a sequence of others, I discovered that the publisher who had published a play I had written and had gone on at the Royal Court, didn’t think that they were worth publishing. The children’s editor in the same publishing house didn’t think they were suitable for children either as, they were, she said, written in the voice of a child. However, eventually, they were published in a book clearly marked as being for children, with illustrations by Quentin Blake. This was 1974.

I should say, that this process of being drawn into the world of children’s literature wasn’t quite as passive as I’ve made it sound. While I was playing with this kind of writing, both my parents were avidly engaged both theoretically and practically with the question of how to teach literature in primary and secondary schools. That’s to say they were teachers of literature; they were anthologisers and broadcasters of poetry for schools; they produced papers, talks and books on literature, including poetry in the classroom. Part of this involved my mother sitting at the kitchen table with piles of poetry books looking for poems either for her class or for the next schools broadcast, while my father sat on the other side of the table writing a paper on, say, secondary students’ language in the classroom.  It did occur to me that if I shoved some of what I was writing my mother’s way, she might think it was worth putting in one of her radio programmes. When I heard her saying that she was doing a programme about ‘looking closely’ or about ‘the child alone’, I would look at the poems she had found by such people as Leonard Clark, James Reeves, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Stephens and then nip back upstairs and have a go myself. I discovered that there was an overlap between my experiments with Joyce and what these poets seemed to be doing.

In the daytime

Meanwhile, the wild figure of English teacher and poet, Geoffrey Summerfield would appear in the house with bundles of proofs and samples of a brand new kind of book under his arm: a poetry anthology which would be full of poems and songs and chants and proverbs and lists from all over the world interleaved with the most fantastic photos, paintings and drawings that could be collected. New kinds of poetic voices suddenly appeared in the house: American, Australian, African, Caribbean, Scots, cockney – names like Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Langston Hughes.

Volume knob on the radio…

Clearly, this was all going on in the context of education, but in my own personal case, the educators happened to be my parents, they were the nurturers, if you like!

But to return to the book that was published and which included the poems I’ve just read - . what happened to me in relation to that book? How and where was it read?

Well, anyone who writes a children’s book soon finds that they are confronted with a choice: do you take up the invitations that immediately come in from the agencies of children’s literature? Or do you ignore them? These invitations are about audience. Do you go and talk to or read to this or that group of children in a school, a nursery, a library, a book group? Do you talk to this or that group of educators or carers about your book, or about writing or perhaps about encouraging children to write? I chose to take up every invite that came.

This altered the reading process that surrounded the book. It set up oral situations where the poems were received by the audience as performance. The context for this was nearly always educational.  I found myself in front of classes, sometimes, scarily to start off with,  in front of whole schools of children. The performance of the poems was, then, an intervention in a pedagogy, or even a moment of pedagogy in itself.  Apart from anything else, the poems started changing from quietly intoned readings into acted out dramas, monologues, chants and songs. The implication here was that there was space in schools for this kind of thing. It said or implied: ‘whatever English studies or literacy or literature teaching is, it could include the performance of poetry.’  What’s more, as I quickly found out, it could be directly linked to children’s and school students’ own writing. Just as I had found a springboard with, say, James Joyce, I was being asked by teachers to use my poems as a springboard for children’s own writing.

Mum disappearing in Mustard Custard
I know a man who sucked a pebble

So, let’s put this into the ideas that I began this talk with. Poems that began their life as an intended exploration of childhood with an adult poetry-reading audience had ended up in the institution of education. On occasions, I would hear of people who had read the poems at home, within nurture, if you like. The life described in the poems seemed on occasions seemed to have given some people fun on car journeys and on evenings when they were on holiday.

We sit down to eat and the potato’s a bit hot…

I think the effect of all this was almost unavoidable. That’s to say, the phrase ‘sense of audience’ was becoming tangible. In the performances and classroom conversations about the poems and in the sessions where children wrote poems themselves, I was becoming more and more aware of effects and responses from children, the business of what interested them, what interested me, what interested teachers and, as I say, on occasions what interested parents. This all sounds rather abstract.

Mart’s Hat

I probably don’t have to spell out, that this piece of writing has a dual focus, how Mart reacted to the way I behaved and how  my mother behaved. I’ve been fairly true to what actually happened there. In a sense, the dual address, (child and parent) that I’ve mentioned, is right at the heart of the writing. I have memories here that I was writing to the kinds of conflict that I would see around me in classrooms and playgrounds. I seem to remember that this was around the time what were called ‘beanies’ came in, woollen hats and hat-grabbing was big in Holloway Boys School, where I was a writer in residence.  In a way, I saw myself as a translator – translating experiences that I had had and making them understandable to people who lived in the present world for children who had backgrounds very different from mine. You might be amused to know that this story in fact took place on a camping holiday and the Mart in question threw my hat over a gate into a field. I have then constructed a fiction based on what happened – ‘transformed my sources’ as the phrase goes. So you could argue that I’ve gone in for a bit of self-censorship, effacing what I think I may have feared was a context that wouldn’t speak to the children I was meeting. They didn’t do camping, but they did do buses. And with a bus, I could introduce a time element into the story, and give it a sense of urgency.  Teachers who were almost solely responsible for my poems being read, would I thought, be able to get children talking about ripping hats off people’s heads, toughing things out, mums’ or dads’ responses to lost and mutilated clothes by way of getting their pupils writing from their own experience and in their own language. All notions I had imbibed at that kitchen table from my parents.

Another way to incorporate the audience was to listen to what that audience said and performed. At the time, the couple next door to me had three boys, Jason, Junior and Otis, three boys born in Hackney with a mother from Jamaica and father from St Lucia. In the early eighties they were seriously into hip-hop and would regularly ask me to write them some hip-hop lyrics. At first I resisted, saying that it was for them to make them up so that I could watch them performing them. In the end, I wrote something that wasn’t of any use at all to them, but was in a way, a reply to them.

Michael Rosen Rap

Most children’s writers I know engage with the ideas of either or both of the institutions of nurture and education. Some, like me, go further and take an active part in political activity in these spheres. So, for example, my own children have been put through the so-called SATs, and have experienced the crude rehearsals for these tests that have become the substance of so much of the curriculum. What that description misses out however, is that the very nature of the SATs focuses children and teachers on one very narrow set of concerns: the logic, chronology, sequencing and so-called facts of narratives. What follows from this, is that schools then issue the children with worksheets that guy the SATs papers. The reading of literature is reduced to a logical positivist inquisition. Here’s one that my daughter brought home:

(Elsie’s Perseus and the Gorgons)

This is a story that could take a group of children in all sorts of directions and explorations. We might like to ask a set of open-ended questions...what is brave and what is foolhardy? If you were a woman and wanted to be dangerous, what would you make yourself look like? Imagine if you could turn people into stone, and you began to wish you couldn’t. What do the other gorgons think when they lose their sister?

Because I engage in this sort of thing, I ponder a lot on the kind of education I had. I find myself relating the two. So, here’s something I wrote that is in a way a bridge between two kinds of education, my own and children’s today. It talks of the one and talks to the other.

The Bell

I have two young children, eight and four and one of their demands is that I should tell them either true things that happened to me or jokes. The true things should ideally be occasions where I’ve been naughty. I thought I had run out – surely not – when I remembered the episode I’m going to read to you. Having told the story several times, I went away and wrote it.

The Hole in the Wall

So, in a way, this was written for and to my children. Once again, it involves that bridging gesture, talking of a past bit of a child’s thought and action, talking to, to start off with, some specific children. As it happens, as the writer of this, who also happens to be these children’s parent, the piece does precisely what I suggested most children’s literature does: it enters a relationship between adult and child, it talks of an example of that relationship, it enters the discourse about nurture and when I read it or tell it, it serves as a kind of yardstick for me and them, on child and parent behaviours.

So across the poems I’ve read, I’ve explored some variations in where they spoke from and who they speak to.

However, this is not sufficient.  What I’ve done here is describe, if you like, the processes going on around these poems as a way of trying to explain who they are for. But there is another way of looking at the matter. Every piece of writing uses forms of language that its author or authors have acquired. This goes on at every level of language and form – the combination of sounds, the kinds of words, the grammar, the structuring of phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, verses, the narratological methods – first person narration, omniscient narrator, the forms – poem, story, play and so on. A writer has acquired these prior to taking up a pen or hitting the keyboard. They are what has been called a ‘repertoire’ in the writer’s head, or the ‘already’ the writer works with.

When we talk about who a writer writes for, perhaps the answer is to be found somewhere in this repertoire – or, more accurately – in the elements of that repertoire that the writer has used, transformed or embedded in his or her writing. When a writer starts to write, some of the choices being made (some would argue that it’s all the choices being made) are to do with that repertoire. The point is that repertoires aren’t neutral. Each and every text that a writer might be calling upon is loaded up with baggage that tells of where it’s been, who it hangs out with, what kind of people like it, what kind of people despise it, what values and attitudes are attached to it and so on. To take an example: when I first started to write about personal experience, it seemed unexceptional or indeed necessary and logical that I should write in free verse. ‘I share my bedroom with my brother and I don’t like it’ . I’ve already mentioned the ‘already’ of James Joyce here, but there is also a few hundred years of lyric poems beginning with the word ‘I’ and about a hundred years of free verse poems mixing talk of a state of mind around a set of actions – think D.H. Lawrence. There’s over a hundred years of the dramatic monologue, which traditionally is a monologue that reveals more about the speaker than the speaker appears to know him- or herself. Think Robert Browning.  And there’s also a tradition of poems in the first person, about childhood and about play, and addressed to children. It was a literature invented by Robert Louis Stevenson with ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’.

So, when we ask a question like: who is a poem for?  yes, one route to go down is the one I’ve pursued for most of the time in this talk, but it’s also true that in a way, a poem like ‘I share my bedroom with my brother’ is ‘for’ or ‘about’ or ‘in conversation with’ its predecessors, its forbears, its shadowy ancestors.  When the poem talks, the ancestors talk. I’m OK with that. More than OK, for a rather obvious reason. I’m very fond of these ancestors. Not simply because I like what they said and how they said them, but because I mainly acquired them through the loving devotion of my parents. Their fingerprints are all over them - parents whose grappling with theories of the teaching of literature in schools was partly how they parented.  But no matter who they were, can we say, it is ‘for’ this or that audience because a poem’s audience is encoded in its language and forms? If I say to you,

‘He had a little sticker’ – [do poem]

doesn’t it announce itself as a child’s nonsense poem by the end of the second line? In a very tolerant way,  you adults have perhaps smiled at it, but it won’t be printed in the London Review of Books, will it? If we ask, why not? I don’t think it’s much to do with whether it’s any good or not, and very much to do with how its audience is encoded in its language and form.

One last thought:  even in the fifties, at the height of eleven plus fever, and weekly tests,  schools seemed to know that you had to give children space to listen to and enjoy and perform poems and stories. The imposing Mrs MacNab would rehearse us in the art of choral speaking and in so doing, we felt the shape and rhythm and music of poetry without anyone giving us the inquisition.  ‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller, knocking on the moonlit door’…we chanted. ‘Yes, I remember Adlestrop, the name, because one afternoon of heat a train drew up unwontedly…’

These poems seemed to have been written out of a sense of unease or disembodied melancholy and we chanted them in a world that seems to me now to have been anxiously trying to make everything secure after the six  year trauma of a second world war. That classroom I described in the poem about the school bell. So anxious about security. A few months ago, I worked with some children from London schools who looked at Robert Capa’s photos of the refugees walking away from Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. Some of the children in the classes were themselves refugees, most came from families where they or their parents were migrants. They wrote poems about what things and thoughts and memories they would or actually did bring with them if they left home in a hurry. I thought of my great-grandparents and grandparents who were migrants too. I thought of the young people I and my wife have met in a kind of Reception Centre in East Ham, who had arrived in London as asylum seekers as unaccompanied minors. I played around with a poem I had half-written before. I wanted to make something that would have shape and rhythm and music, would even invite an audience to join in – chorally if you like – as I had joined in chorally all those years earlier – but this time, I wanted it to be without that sense of disembodied melancholy. I’m hoping that it will turn out to be a poem that will, like the NHS poem I began with, find quite a few different kinds of audience…

migration move it prove it.

And to finish a poem that I’m trying to find an audience for:

Car School

Poems read or referred to:

NHS poem
I share my bedroom with my brother
Father says
In the daytime
Volume knob on the radio…
Mum disappearing in Mustard Custard
I know a man who sucked a pebble
We sit down to eat and the potato’s a bit hot…
Mart’s Hat
Michael Rosen Rap
(Elsie’s Perseus and the Gorgons)
The Bell
The Hole in the Wall
‘He had a little sticker’ – [do poem]
migration move it prove it.
Car School




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