11 June 2008

Could be Verse

Poems by Children edited by Michael Baldwin 1969

This is a hardback in a dustjacket that has a nice clean design with what looks like a lino-cut illustration on the front and back featuring, among other things, a flying elephant, a fairy castle, a school, a gun and a representation of toothache.

First thing on a random opening is a poem called Saturday in which the poet, Sheron Freer, describes playing with her brother - "A cheerful little chap" who "Tries to get the tadpoles in the Oxo tin, Pokes the dog's eyes and pulls his tail". That's a Saturday I can well imagine.

Leafthrough. I like this book. It has been made with some care and has the kind of clear layout and typography that poetry needs. The poems are separated into intriguing sections with titles like Birds and Beasts, The Face of Things and The Ego Alone and Lost. There are quirky little lino-cuts dotted about as well.

The front bits tell me that the book was originally published in 1962 by Routledge & Kegan Paul in London. This is a third impression dating from 1969. I wonder how much of the subsequent printing was done because this sold steadily through the shops and how much because of demand from schools or teacher training colleges. The lino-cuts were done by Michael Foreman who is a prolific, award-winning children's writer and illustrator who once worked as art director of Playboy.

Looking into it. The poems in this book have a real charm and some sophistication. They speak of the things that concern children, from the minutest details of their lives to the big issues of life and death. And they speak, unwittingly, of life in the early 60s.

Norma Sullivan's poem, One Day I Thought, imagines her as an adult with her destiny defined and contrasts it with all the things she thought she'd be when she grew up - a clown, a model, a star.

"But when it came to choose a job,
I ended up in a biscuit factory."

Today's child would probably have hit on the dead-end finality of a call centre rather than a biscuit factory. Similarly, The Thief of Linkfield Lane draws on daily experiences that would be unfamiliar to a 21st-century child. The thief of the title is 'a tit so blue' spotted by the poet and his Gran through the window of the pantry as it pecks holes in the gold tops of the milk bottles that have been left by the milkman. Quite apart from anything else, I should imagine by now that Gold Top milk has been banned as a health hazzard.

As interesting as the poems themselves is the thought-provoking introduction by Michael Baldwin who made the selection. He ponders such issues as the differences between boys' and girls' poetry and the question of when child poetry becomes adult poetry.

In one particularly fascinating thought he takes contemporary educationalists mildly to task and warns them against assuming that their methods have somehow unlocked a door to allow the children of the 60s unprecedented access to a store of creativity that was denied to their ancestors. He asks whether the Victorian child, for example, was only half developed. 'What we have discovered to have been repressed,' he says, 'has a curiously modern flavour, and the young were not always modern; they were merely contemporary: they were the unselective sponges of all that was superficial to their age.'

Although his concerns are still relevant, his context is definitely that of a bygone era. There is a passing reference, for example, to a literary competition run annually by The Daily Mirror who regularly published a book from the entries called Children as Writers. That one of the poetry judges for several years was Ted Hughes gives an indication of how seriously the newspaper took this initiative. There must have been a shared assumption among the press, drawn from society at large, that 'working class' readers would be interested in such rarefied things as literature and in poetry more challenging than the verses inside a greetings card. Since then, society has apparently ceased to exist and an assumption like that would be seen as commercial suicide.


Sheron said...

I'm flattered you liked my poem 'Saturdays' it was all a very long time ago but I remember it well ......... didn't write anymore poems..... maybe I should have ... Thanks again you made my day :-)

Ian Cowmeadow said...

Hello Sheron - only just noticed this comment as I've let the blog lapse a little. Thanks for your comment; it's great when connections like this crop up.