Poets cornered

6th June 1997 at 01:00
READ MY MIND: YOUNG CHILDREN, POETRY LEARNING. By Fred Sedgwick. Routledge, Pounds 11.99

Judging children's poetry competitions, I would give my eye-teeth to come across poems half as good as those that pepper this book. So if you want inspiration and encouragement, these poems and the approaches prompting them (usefully summarised in the Index of Stimuli) will provide it. If you want a rationale, you will find things less satisfactory.

This book is in the great tradition of humane English teaching that derives from the Romantics and educators like David Holbrook and Denys Thompson. Sadly, however, it is not a great book. Fred Sedgwick writes too much and edits too little. Though there is a great deal that is valuable (and I am completely in sympathy with its values), the argument is often diffuse and unfocused. Nevertheless, Sedgwick hits on some memorable formulations, such as, writing poetry is "a process of discovery, not a record of it".

He says at one point, "This book is about teaching self-knowledge through poetry." At others he says slightly different things, for example: "This book is essentially about . . . the way children use poetic techniques . . . in order to learn." It is as if he is still discussing with himself what the book is about.

While poetry may be a process of discovery, a discursive book should reflect cognitive clarity. Sedgwick indulges in too much special pleading and too many muddled metaphors to convince anyone not already persuaded. For example, at one point he says his metaphor for relationships is "geometrical" - lines between people. "Charges flow back and forth" along these lines (now electric power lines!). Some get "stretched - but never to breaking point" (now, perhaps, mooring lines). He then indulges further slippage of the word from lines in graphic art (Klee hovers in the background) to lines of argument, to lines of verse. This wandering "line" isn't so much wiry and bounding as slippery and distracting. Paraphrasing Lawrence (the unacknowledged legislator), he says that the real business of learning is "in the line I draw between myself and (the world) with my writing." But what sort of a "line" is this - a connection or a separation? Yes, we know what he means to say, but why is he so unalert to language when language ishis business?

But his heart is in the right place. The themes and approaches he illustrates lead to heart-mysteries, deep-rooted things. He distinguishes between skills-based teaching and creative activity and recognises the importance of formal (technical) constraints. What he doesn't do, in advocating "newness" of language, is distinguish between absolute newness and newness to the child.

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