National Poetry Day, Alison Forde writes about a seminar she attended with the world's first professor of children's poetry.
I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar on children's poetry with the worlds first (and possibly still the only) professor of children's poetry, Morag Styles, of Cambridge University. Morag is the author of several texts on children's literature including From the Garden to the Street: Three Hundred Years of Children's Poetry, Cassell, 1998. Morag treated us to a brief run-down of this history with readings from Bunyan's Country Rhimes for Children (1686), through to works by the current poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy. Throughout this three hundred year history authors producing work specifically for the consumption of children, which has ranged from the moralising and didactic to some of the most beautiful and timeless, have found their works marginalised and excluded from general anthologies compiled for the appreciation of poetry in the English language. The poems we looked at in the seminar which struck me with their timeless quality included those of Christina Rossetti, whose beautiful lullaby rhythms would still sooth many a baby to sleep, and R.L Stevenson, whose work in A Child's Garden of Verses demonstrated his ability to think himself back into childhood in writing for children. Ann and Jane Taylor writing for children around 1800, who found considerable fame in their own time, are now almost forgotten, despite Jane being the author of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, now often infuriatingly attributed to “Anon”.
For the second part of the seminar, Morag invited us to examine two examples of work from Carol Ann Duffy: First Summer and Star and Moon, both featuring mother and child relationships. Voicing one's opinions on poetry to the world's first professor of children's poetry could have been quite daunting, but I found myself, no longer at school and looking for the correct answer, liberated to give a genuine response to the works, albeit a response mediated through the lens of motherhood, which was also a stimulus for Duffy to write much of her poetry for children. Which brings me to one of the key dilemmas of the critical study of children's literature – it is written for children, and yet it's is impossible for the adult author, parent or teacher to know exactly how a child reads and experiences children's literature, including poetry.
I considered myself to be someone not much concerned with poetry. Like many adults, the last time I devoted much thought to it was at school, although I have read and enjoyed poetry written for children with my own family. The seminar with Professor Styles has reopened a gate into the garden of children's verse.