Is poetry for children second rate? It needn't be, says Matthew Sweeney, and gives an example of his own.
I started writing children's poems warily, mainly because I was already reviewing them for a Sunday newspaper. Once a year a package would be delivered containing 50 or more books of children's poetry that had been published in the previous 12 months. Most of it was pretty feeble, patronising in the extreme, usually silly or yukky (an adult's idea of being childish) and depending heavily on rhyme, often badly done.
Yet there were enough new books that were good, and these, together with Walter de la Mare's Peacock Pie, in an nth edition, showed me that children's poetry needn't be lowest common denominator, that children, in short, were capable of more. I brought this attitude to my writing with a crusading zeal and was extremely heartened to hear on the radio, a while later, Charles Causley (one of the ablest practitioners in the field) say "There is no such thing as a children's poem. A children's poem is a poem that children read as well as adults. It's not a silly collection of rhymes. It's a real poem or nothing." Exactly, I thought.
Nothing is straightforward, however. The first publisher I tried with a selection sent them back saying they were unsuitable for "the average child reader". The average child reader? I found the concept hard to swallow. Eventually Faber took me on, and when The Flying Spring Onion was coming out in early 1992, I was naively looking forward to something like the same number of reviews in newspapers and periodicals as my adult collections had got - also, perhaps, some comparison with the adult poems, some discussion of the children's poems as an interesting new development. I got hardly any reviews at all, and few of those discussed the book seriously. (The TES, of course, being the only periodical to review more children's poetry than adult, was and always is an exception.) This is not my experience alone. Any other children's poet will tell you the same. It was put in context for me by a chance meeting, in a wine bar, with a literary editor who had included poems of mine several times in his newspaper. I asked him why my children's book hadn't been reviewed. Come on, he said, everyone knows children's poetry is crap. There are one or two people who are OK, he said, but most are dire. Why don't you print an article saying exactly that, I asked him. No one is interested, he said. End of story.
The marginalisation doesn't stop with the literary columns either. Some of the sneeriest reactions come from fellow poets, as if the activity of writing for children is a dissipation of energy and beneath intellectual contempt. Then there are the moral custodians - adults who, to take one instance, want to protect children from any writing they see as sinister.
These people confuse black humour with sick, see absurdism as symbolism, and show little understanding of the different logic children have - how for them the boundaries of realism and non-realism blur naturally. This is evident in their games and in their literature, and the sinister plays a big part - but the sinister is not as real or as threatening for them as it is for us. I think of the roadrunner in the cartoon of that name getting up and running away after being flattened by the steamroller.
Children' s writers have often treated the sinister in this cartoon-like way. Elements of dark surrealism feature in many books that are children's favourites. Look at Dahl, or Belloc's Cautionary Tales. This doesn't stop these adults taking such literature over-literally. I have a poem, for example, where a boy stuffs a cat inside a snowman, and it was once removed from a radio programme by a BBC producer, because he didn't want children throughout the land stuffing cats into snowmen. I challenged him to find me a cat that would sit there quietly and allow itself to be immersed in a snowman; if he did so I'd grant he had a point. He refused to give way. The next radio programme I did, with a different producer, featured the poem. I saw no tabloid articles about cat snow-murders.
Inspired by Causley's remark, I have taken to including some of my children's poems in my readings to adults, and I rarely mention the fact that they're children's poems. I have several times published them in magazines alongside adult poems. This is not to pretend anything, but to make the point that each can be two poems simultaneously, one for children,and a different one for adults. (One comic illustration of this is a poem I wrote about a dog on a beach, coveting a second dog's white spots. When I showed it to a friend he said that for kids it might be a poem about a dog but for adults it was a poem about sex. It was entirely unintentional, but I saw that he was right.) For me, there has been an inevitable cross-influence between my children's and adult poems. A poet friend of mine said, when she saw the first of the children's poems, that they would be liberating for my adult poems. She was right, I feel: imaginatively liberating. The influence goes the other way, too - most of all in the ambition not to patronise child readers.
And it is important not to forget them in all this talk of the treatment children's poetry gets in the adult literary world. They are, after all, the readers one writes for first - they are, ostensibly, the only readers. No amount of critical praise can help a children's poet when he or she stands up in front of two or three hundred kids in a school hall.
You're either going to get and keep their attention or you're not. Such readings can be daunting, much more so than most adult readings - and they have to be approached very differently, as a newcomer to the circuit quickly finds out.
But they can be immensely rewarding as well, when the kids stay quiet enough to listen and maybe make appreciative noise after the odd poem (usually a nasty one) - by banging on the floor, for example, as happened in one school I was in. The poem on this page, "Honey" (published in Fatso in the Red Suit, Faber and Faber) is one which produced such an effect. And when, very occasionally, a child fan writes, co the publisher, it's as near to being an Indie-star as I get. I always try to write back, and I forget for a while the literary world.
The bee buzzed over the honey pot
Left open on the table.
"That's mine," he thought, "not theirs!
They're as bad as grizzly bears.
I'm going to steal it back if I'm able."
He hovered and buzzed and dipped
below the rim of the pot
till he could sniff and smell his fill.
It was foreign honey, but still.
Home in the hive there wasn't a lot.
He buzzed in a figure-of-eight
and dodged the sticky spoon.
He flew up and landed on the rim.
How would he get the honey home?
He'd better hurry. They'd be back soon.
Should he go to the hive for help?
Bring a swarm back
to carry each sweet drop at once,
with a dozen bees hanging loose
to guard in case of attack?
He buzzed down to the honey again.
He'd better taste it first.
Who knew what had been done with it?
Boiled, or stuff mixed in with it?
They were known to do their worst.
He landed gently on the meniscus.
He dipped a claw inside
and brought a sticky drop to his mouth.
Six out of ten, he'd tasted worse.
It was time he headed for the hive.
But when he flapped his papery wings
he saw he was stuck there.
He flapped so hard he began to hum.
He telepathized the Queen to come
but he stayed stuck there
til a boy came in and found him,
and pulled his wings off
and squeezed him till he was dead
then spread him, with honey, on bread - over half a French loaf
which the boy gave to his sister
as they sat down to tea,
and the boy crumbled a bee wing
while th girl swallowed a bee sting.