Poetic tribute;Children's books

26th June 1998 at 01:00
FROM THE GARDEN TO THE STREET: Three Hundred Years of Poetry for Children. By Morag Styles. Cassell pound;45, pound;15.99

Neil Philip welcomes the first guide book to the territory of children's poetry

There is nothing but poetry about the existance (sic) of childhood," wrote John Clare, "real simple soul moving poetry the laughter and joy of poetry and not its philosophy." Clare himself wrote several lovely children's poems on nature themes, and recollected his own childhood in lively, accessible verse. A generation earlier, the visionary William Blake had set down in his Songs of Innocence a collection of "happy songsEvery child may joy to hear".

Prior to Blake and his contemporary Christopher Smart, however, poetry for children was less about "laughter and joy" than a vehicle for instruction. Puritan writers such as John Bunyan and Abraham Chear pioneered a mode of religious verse that came to its apogee in the Divine Songs of Isaac Watts, first published in 1715 and still popular enough in the following century to invite parodies from Lewis Carroll (in Alice in Wonderland) and John Constable (in illustrations, now in London's Victoria and Albert Museum).

Watts has been described as the first true children's poet, but it was only in the age of the Romantics that children's poetry became a distinct literary genre, with the appearance of writers such as Ann and Jane Taylor, whose Rhymes for the Nursery (1806) introduced the world to "Twinkle, twinkle, little star". The simple perfection of this little poem of wonder at the Universe speaks directly and uncomplicatedly to the child reader. It asks the child to share the poet's response, not to learn from it, and this sense of invitation into a shared world has become crucial to the development of children's poetry as a genre.

That development, from Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll to Spike Milligan and Roald Dahl, and from Christina Rossetti and Robert Louis Stevenson to Charles Causley and Michael Rosen, is well traced by Morag Styles in, incredibly, the first full-length study of the subject. Although the Opies mapped the territory in their Oxford Book of Children's Verse, this is the first guide book. The author has had to strike a delicate balance between the sober hard facts and her livelier comments and judgments. But when she gives herself enough space, as in her excellent chapter on Stevenson, she has much of interest to say.

Morag Styles, who is reader in children's literature at Hom-erton College, Cambridge, is well known as a supporter of the diversity of today's children's poetry, but she has made herself equally at home with the poets of the past and, especially where these are women, assesses their achievement with sensitivity and insight. She has blind spots (most notably Kipling), but makes up for these with her unusual gift of imaginative sympathy with writers whose special qualities have to be delicately disinterred from their outmoded style and language.

She quotes, for example, "Invitation to the Bee" by Charlotte Smith (1749-1806): "Child of patient industry, Little active busy bee, Thou art out at early morn I". By the third line, most modern readers' interest will have waned, but Styles keeps her attention focused, and so recovers for us what she elegantly calls "a radiant account of early morning in a meadow".

Early morning in a meadow is a prototypical subject of early children's verse. The natural world was seen as the realm that poets and children could share on equal terms. But in today's children's poetry, as Morag Styles's title suggests, the muddy lanes have been covered in Tarmac and the meadows turned into housing estates. With this urbanisation of subject matter has come a new attitude to language. She writes: "Let us pay tribute to poets today for using the words really spoken, not by men, as in Wordsworth's famous remark, but by children." She quotes Roger McGough: "If you look after the words, the poems look after themselves."

Some readers may be disappointed that so much space is given to poetry that is essentially of historical interest, while major contemporary writers such as John Mole can only be mentioned in passing, but that is inevitable in a survey of this nature. A more serious defect is the patchy and unconfident coverage of the American tradition. There is a postcript on Carib-bean poetry, but otherwise the viewpoint is surprisingly paro-chial for the editor of such ground-breaking multicultural anthologies as I Like That Stuff.

In tracing the history of children's poetry from hymns to rap, Morag Styles has also drawn a fascinating portrait of changing attitudes to childhood, and the developing confidence of poets to enter the child's world.

The modern master of this is Michael Rosen, and Styles writes well on him, recognising both his modernity and his debt to Stevenson. To show that today's children's poetry has a hinterland is one of her achievements, in a book that is on the whole well balanced and well written, and which should be essential reading for anyone working with children and poetry.

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