Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 18: Children’s Poetry – The Why and the Wherefore

What poets do is to encourage our inclination to credit the prompting of our intuitive being. They help us to say in the recesses of ourselves… ‘Yes, I know something like that, too. Yes, that’s right. Thank you for putting words on it and making it more or less official’.

– Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, Faber, 1998

“I fucking hate guys who quote poetry to girls. Since we are being honest. Also, wisdom is a better fat than the vast majority of kisses. Wisdom is certainly a better fate than kissing douches who only read poetry so they can use it to get in girls’ pants.”

– from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
Professor David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

Duke Bunthorne is a character from an opera called Patience. Bunthorne is a poet who frolics around saying poetic things, followed by a hoard of women. [This reminds me of the eerie and inappropriate Canadian-born lecturer of poetry I had at university, who would approach young women in the library, sidle up closely and start reciting poetry at them creepily. He then tricked us all in the poetry exam by letting an entire lecture theatre full of people believe the exam would involve the interpretation of poetry, when in fact we were tested on how well we’d memorised, line for line, the poems of dead white men. We all failed and were all graded up, all of this doing nothing more than demonstrating one of the huge limitations of exams.]

Bunthorne’s lines are a parody of poets who despair at a world in which nothing is special. But there is nothing mysterious about poetry. It uses the same words that we use when making shopping lists or having conversations about football.

Iona Opie and her husband did a lot of work collecting rhymes and games and verse and the literature of play. They focus on the oral tradition.

Beagley mentions a number of good books but I can’t catch them from the podcast. He also mentions a particularly good website by poet Lorraine Marwood. Look especially at the vodcasts in which she works with secondary and primary school aged students.

What is poetry?

In Australia, the bush ballad is distinctive. (The Man From Snowy River is perhaps the most famous example.)

Nursery rhymes can be political parodies, such as Humpty Dumpty. So poetry can parse from one area of the community to another, ending up as a children’s poem.

Tongue twisters are for play.

Most school children and most adults as well have an aversion to poetry. Where does the yuck response come from? Many teachers present poetry to children in an inept way, misunderstanding children’s use and appreciation of poetic forms. What causes the strong reaction to the concept of poetry? Is it technical or about the meaning of the poems?

Poetry’s Form and Structure

Sound, especially end-rhyme, has been popular of late but this wasn’t always the case. Alliteration was a more popular poetic technique several centuries ago. Onomatopoeia describes words such as ‘bang’ and ‘slosh’, which are meant to sound like the real-world sound. In blank verse, the enjambment becomes important (where the lines end). Then you’ve got assonance and consonance and different types of rhymes.  Because of the stress-timed nature of English, the meter is important. Or the number of syllables. A haiku is the poetic equivalent of taking a photograph. Or the number of lines might be the defining thing, e.g. a sonnet, the limerick.

Other literary devices in poems have to do with meaning, particularly the metaphor. Similes, allusions are other examples. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a good example of metaphor, simile and allusion. The allusion is Biblical — King David is from the Old Testament, the Book of Samuel. Rhythm, rhyme and structure help poems to be memorable.

These techniques compress far more meaning into a short space than would otherwise be possible.

The Difference Between Prose and Poetry

Poetic techniques convey impression, emotion, feeling, idea and other abstractions from meaning, rather than instruction and shopping-list type information. Poets aim to use as few words as possible to convey the most. “The best words in the best order.” G.K. Chesterton said that the aim of prose is for the words to mean what they say, but the aim of poetic words is for them to mean what they do not say. However, writers of prose still have poetic techniques available to them.

The Poetry of A.A. Milne

Disobedience: The last verse is meant to be whispered.

Happiness: A lovely structure of sound and that’s the point of it.

Vespers: Is a breakaway from the other poems. This is a very adult, gushy view of childhood and children were forced to learn it. Parents are just as much an audience of children’s lit as the children, but the meaning is only intended for them. This contrasts with the ‘hoppity hop’ poem which exists as language play.

Other Important Poems

Some poems are very sensual, making use of all the senses. For example Fog by Carl Saunders. There are no harsh consonants, and instead is full of consonants which can be said continuously such as the sibilant ‘sss’, but no plosives. Eleanor Farjeon’s The Tide In The River is similar in this respect: soft sounds repeated, long ‘i’, almost like a nursery rhyme. It also uses the adult image of the tide turning.

Analysis of poetry can draw our attention right away from its beauty. Having said that, you do need to understand the technicalities of a poet’s craft. [This might destroy the poems you study but will help you to appreciate the poems you don’t. It’s a trade-off.]

Beagley then goes on to ruin a war poem. [haha]

Related: How To Enjoy Poetry from Brainpickings


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