Write stuff

28th April 1995 at 01:00
Diana Hinds meets author and polemicist Michael Rosen, this term's TES guest poet, who introduces his first choice below.

Michael Rosen, writer, critic and broadcaster, made his name in the 1970s with his collections of humorous verse for children. But he is not, he says, particularly bothered if people choose not to regard his work as "poetry". Meeting the accusation - as he has done in the past, from members of the literary establishment - that he is merely "an entertainer", a "lightweight", his reply is that, OK, he writes "Bits" and "Stuff".

"I can see that, as a body of writing, my work is a rag bag of styles and genres, according to orthodox literary notions, but does it matter? I'm not trying to hoodwink anyone, I'm not trying to gain membership to a Peerage of Poets", he says (in Did I Hear You Write? Deutsch 1989).

While he may never be Poet Laureate, Rosen's hearty dislike of anything that smacks of a literary "canon", and his open espousal of the idea that poetry is there for everyone to read, write and enjoy, has won him thousands of fans among children.

His poems (for want of a better word), in collections like Mind Your Own Business (1974), Wouldn't You Like to Know? (1977) and Quick, Let's Get Out of Here (1983), deal in the very stuff of childhood - scoffing chocolate cake, dive-bombing the sofa, the baby who hates having his nappy changed, the brothers who turn washing up into a giant water fight - and they are told from a child's point of view. Lively, immediate, spiced with doggerel, rap, nonsense rhymes and puns, these are poems not only to be read aloud, but to be performed, chanted, acted out.

And this is exactly what Rosen has done with them, visiting schools all over the country, holding poetry workshops or, in the past, working as poet in residence (not so much these days, he says, as schools seem to prefer the visual arts if they can afford a residency). Reading his own work leads to discussion, and in due course - though he emphasises this stage should not be hurried, if the children are not to be put off - to them having a go themselves.

"What I hope to see come out of sessions like this is the children reflecting on some moment of experience, holding it up for examination and sharing it with others. Also, though not necessarily at the same time, to see them reflecting on, and playing with, language itself".

Twenty years of work of this kind have given Rosen some firm views about how not to teach poetry. "When I did poetry at school in the Fifties, there was a ritual about it, which was almost semi-religious. My teacher would bring in a poem, then we would learn the poem, and the following week we would have to stand up in class and recite it. Some people were made to feel a failure because they couldn't learn it. The whole thing was very, very confined, and the aura around it was that poetry was difficult, that it was a trial".

Teachers are more relaxed in their approach today, he admits, not least because there is so much poetry now published for children and poets visiting schools are no longer a rarity. But Rosen still encounters teachers "not at ease" with the subject - "and that's not a criticism, because it is just not embedded in our education system that language is there for us to play with".

Some teachers, he feels, get too obsessed with form; they can be so intent on their class of eight-year-olds producing, in turn, the perfect haiku, ballad, sonnet etc, that poetry is reduced to a verbal exercise. He is also suspicious of the "write a poem about a dragon" approach - since children have no shortage of their own fantasies and daydreams - and of the idea that a beautiful description, with lots of metaphors and evocative words, constitutes a Great Poem.

His two main tips to children are, write down what people say, and write down what you think. "Children need to discover that exactly what they say can be reproduced on the page", he says, instead of thinking that to write a poem they must adopt a more formal, reported speech.

They can be encouraged to tell their own anecdotes, and to write them down in free verse (much as Rosen does himself). Also, they need to be reading poems, and hearing poems read, regularly and often - not just at the beginning of an English lesson, but, say, for five minutes every morning, or at the end of each day.

"Just as writers have repertories, if you're reading plenty in the classroom, the children will build up their own repertories," Rosen says.

If all this sounds a little pedagogic, it is perhaps not surprising coming from the son of two ardent teachers and educationists. Harold and Connie Rosen were renowned among Michael's schoolfriends for their mounds of books, piled from floor to ceiling in every room of the house. But for the young Michael - born in Harrow, Middlesex in 1946 - books were simply the stuff of everyday life.

There were bundles of the latest Puffin books for Christmas and birthday presents; books from the local library on Saturday mornings - which his father would vet with a quick "You've read that one, haven't you?" or "You're a bit old for that sort of stuff, aren't you?"; and books which Harold Rosen read aloud on family holidays, Dickens and Scott, until Michael was 14 or 15. Literature, history and politics were constantly in the air in the Rosen household, and Michael drank it all in. "I grew up bathed in that environment. It's difficult to describe if you're part of it, but it was like a secular religion in some respects".

The theatre, not poetry, was his first love. He went every week to the Questers Theatre in Ealing, West London, watched his father mount regular school productions, and was soon convinced that his future lay as an actor or director.

After attending grammar school, Rosen went up to Oxford, switched from medicine to English, and wrote a couple of plays. One, Backbone, was taken up by the Royal Court and performed there in 1969: the story of the clash of cultures between the son of a bohemian, Jewish, left-wing family (as Rosen's was), and the daughter of a straight, suburban English family he falls in love with.

The play was based on a girl Rosen's older brother had met at college; her family objected to the Rosens, but could not prevent her running away to them, and later marrying their son. However, when Yorkshire television bought the play, Rosen's future mother-in-law got wind of it and threatened to sue if they went ahead.

They didn't - but Rosen had already decided, in any case,that being a playwright was not for him. "I sat in the audience at the Royal Court every night the play was on, and I couldn't figure out why I was saying what I was to this kind of audience. I suppose it didn't seem populist enough for me. "

A spell in left-wing agit-prop theatre eased his political conscience for a time. But then the poems he had been writing on and off since the age of 18 or 19 got their first airing on a schools radio programme his mother was working on, and in 1974, Andre Deutsch published his first collection, Mind Your Own Business. Although Rosen hadn't conceived of it as a collection for children, it appeared on the children's list and immediately began to draw invitations for him to come and talk to children at schools and libraries.

"Suddenly it all fused: the writing, the performing, the popular audience. It was just incredibly exhilarating."

Since then, he says, amiably and without boasting, he has "never looked back". Some two dozen books for children, stories and verse, have followed, a number of them collaborations with the artist and illustrator Quentin Blake, and including We're Going on a Bear Hunt (Walker 1989) with Helen Oxenbury, which won the Smarties Book Prize.

Much of his inspiration derives from his own childhood, and from his close relationship with his brother: "Just as people speak with the voices of their parents, I also speak with the voice of my brother", he says. And at home in Dalston, East London, there are his five children (two of them step-children), aged from seven to 18, to furnish him with fresh copy - notably his son Eddie, now 14, immortalised in Quick, Let's Get Out Of Here as the nappy-hating, anarchic two-year-old.

But the actual writing of books only takes Rosen an estimated eight weeks of his year. The rest of his time, when he is not taking his children to the Tower of London or watching them perform on freezing sports pitches, is divided between visits to schools, conferences on teaching and children's literature, and broadcasting work - which includes presenting the children's book programme Treasure Islands on Radio 4, and Meridian, the World Service arts programme.

Nor has he neglected his political activities, working on campaigns for groups such as the Anti-Nazi League, and launching the occasional broadside in the direction of government education policy. Prescribed reading lists and the return of selection are only two of his betes noires: "The worst thing that has happened over the last 10 years is the Government saying, on the one hand, teachers are no good, and, on the other, telling them what to do. What they've done is to make it possible, and easier, for teachers to deny their own expertise.

"They have created a situation where teachers, through no fault of their own, have to say, 'What do we do now?' So they go to a booklet - a badly-designed, dull booklet (the national curriculum) - which is going to tell them. That seems to me disastrous."

Although very positive about his continuing involvement with the children's literature world, Rosen is at pains to point out that, over the past ten years, his work has expanded beyond its confines into adult broadcasting and writing.

"The problem with children's literature is that it gets ghettoised by the anti-child culture we live in. I'm not too bothered, because I voluntarily entered it and because I liked it when I entered it. But there's no denying that it's a ghetto, sealed off from the language in which we talk about our culture." His work outside the "ghetto" has given him an important new perspective, he says. "Instead of just being seen as a children's entertainer - which is fine - it has become possible for me to reflect on being a Punch and Judy man . . . What I want is for people to take what we do in children's literature seriously, but without turning it into something solemn."

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