Magnificent Obsession


  This is just to say that there can be a universe in a verse.  

  In the beginnings of "children's poetry"  there was overt didacticism--- 



 Yes, we've  moved from "instruction to delight"  





Of course, there 's a whole history and a diversity of poems in between Watts and Silverstein, exciting new poets and what means excellence is an ever-evolving discussion. 

But I heard myself saying the other day "I take my nonsense seriously." And I do. I did. I will.

What does this mean? Not much except to confess I’ve spent thousands of hours asking questions about nonsense and verse, a subject which has preoccupied, enchanted, fascinated me most of my life.  Poetry, especially that which comes to us as children is a kind of magic and for those of us who take up the writing of it, I've often thought it offers a way out of the darker world of experience into a world of "higher" innocence—not childhood as innocence but innocence as in a William Blake in-the- garden- with- angels- kind of way.  An entry into a divine landscape. A bard negotiating some way to marry heaven with hell. Or maybe the topsyturvydom of slithy toves. Wordplay, incantation, zap!     

In 1992, in the introduction to Literature for Children : Contemporary Criticism of Children’s Literature, Peter Hunt wrote : "I have been unable to find a single essay that adequately explores the problems of discussing -or even defining -verse and poetry for children. "

 So here’s my attempt at definition loosely based on the game of 20 questions. ( It was included in my thesis on Dennis Lee's work.)


So let the games begin.


Q:  What is children's poetry?

A:  A specific kind of poetry.

Q:  What do you mean by specific?

A:  Specific in the sense that it is distinguished in terms of the audience it is intended for.

Q:  Children's poetry is poetry written for children?

A:  Yes.

Q:  That’s it?

A:  Well –

Q:  Because if it is, then for example, Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy evening is not a children's poem, right?

A: That's right.

Q:  So you don't think the child can enjoy this poem?

A:  Well – no – I think a child might.

Q:  Well, then it would be a children's poem too.

A:  I guess it would be.

Q:  So your first definition is not correct.

A:  Well, maybe I should add to it, children's poetry is poetry written for children or enjoyed by them.

Q:  Then what is the difference between poetry and children's poetry?

A:   A good question. I guess I would say the children's poetry is most often characterized by spirit of play.

Q:   Spirit of play? Do you mean it is all silly stuff and nonsense?

A:   No, not at all. Some children's poetry expresses serious ideas. I mean play in the sense of playing with language, and yes a lot of children's poetry is nonsense first.

 But ballads and sonnets and ..

Q:   Yes.Yes.  Back up. Can you define nonsense verse?

A:  Well, nonsense verse is a kind of poetry. It is based on incongruity, “not by ignoring the general laws of good poetry, but by upsetting them purposefully and by making them, so to speak, stand on their head."  (Cammaerts)

Q:    I’m impressed. Headstand with words.  Oopsie. Topsy turvy. But again, a kind of playing with language.

A:  Yes. 

Q:   But adult poetry can also be said to be playing with words and language.  Also all children's poetry isn’t nonsense verse but it’s still nonsense.

 A:  NO! I didn't say that. My head is …

 Q:  Full of nonsense! So you still haven’t answered what is children's poetry or even how it is different from adult poetry.

A:  Oookay. Maybe the biggest difference between adult poetry and children's poetry is the context in which it is received.

Q:  Hmm. Could you elaborate on this?

A:  Most adult poetry nowadays and it wasn't always like this- (except for slam poetry or spoken word poetry) is read in silence and solitude. The transaction goes from  writer to page to reader. With children's poetry most often, the experience is still rooted in the oral tradition. The transaction is one like this: from writer to page to reciter to listener or group of listeners. It is received by and is dependent upon community. It invites participation. You could call it a kind of folk art.

Q:  Can you explain what you mean by that term?

A:  Yes in the sense: “folk poetry emphasizes the audience or perhaps we can say the users of poetry. Folk verse  is shared and often memorized by members of the community and often accompanies community ritual.  Folk poetry in this sense, can range from  Psalm 23  to John McCrea's in Flanders Field. ( Ricou)

Q:  Or children's poetry?

A:  Exactly.

Q:  All of it? Because if you're saying that that means a child never read the poem in silence and solitude the way say adults do .We know and established that's not true.  So could you say the poetry of early childhood is chanted and rocked to, tapped to and bounced to but the poetry that comes later after child can read, that doesn't always fit under your concept of folk verse.

A:  That's right. This is the kind of children's poetry that's received by reader as opposed to listener.

Q:  I notice you keep switching and forth between the terms verse and poetry. Can you clarify those terms?

A:  No.

Q:  What? Are you giving up?

A:  No. It's just that, well, it's an old old question.  Verse versus poetry, poetry versus  verse . Higher. Lower. Better. Best. Once upon a time the word poetry was used to suggest a certain kind of verse , came under the umbrella of Verse. Now vice versa, verse is considered a form of poetry, often a lower form. You don't agree?

A:  No I don't.

Q:  Why?

A:   A.A. Milne said it best:

       Light verse observes the most exact laws of rhythm and meter as if by happy accident, and in the sort of nonchalant spirit  of mockery at the real poets who do it on purpose. But to describe it solely leaves something unsaid: one must also say what it is not. Light verse then is not a relaxation of a major poet in the intervals of writing an epic; it is not the kindly contribution of a minor poet to a little girl’s album. It is a precise art which is only been taken seriously and thus qualified as an art in the 19th and 20th century. They needs neither genealogical backing nor distinguished patronage to make it respectable.  ( Milne )

Q:    He sounds a tad ..defensive. Still saying verse is not a lesser form of poetry still does not define children's poetry.

A:    Perhaps this will make it clear. Let's divide literature into two major categories: Utterature: literature in the air: for the ear and voice and body – all poetry and stories rooted in the oral tradition. Spoken out loud to an audience and received by community. Literature: or letterature ---  literature from the page for the eye and mind read silently, reflected upon by a “reader” of the poem story or novel.

Q:   Don’t you think this is rather awkward? Didn’t you cross a Latin word with a German  root?  Who do you think you are to invent a word –a poet?  And it seems you've moved even farther away from defining children's poetry?

A: I know. I give up.  Children's poetry is poetry.

Q:  But what is poetry?

A:  What can be explained is not poetry ( Sandburg )



Adding up the score

When you reach the point of answering with no answer, you have won.


My love of poetry started early. "Dad-tell us a story with your mouth talking," we'd beg. My father would begin by howling like the wind and then :"O wild west wind, thou breath of autumn's being...."  

He knew Shelley and Keats and Coleridge by heart because he'd gone to school when you had to memorize poetry. Often, for punishment. I'm glad, when we asked him for stories, he included poems and I'm especially glad he never stopped and thought this is not "for children."    

Read Read read. Verse , nonsense, poetry. Read Eve Merriam and David McCord and Ted Hughes and Lee Bennett Hopkins. Read Shakespeare. Emily Dickinson. 

It was my son, when he was nine, who gave me the best "definition"----

"Mum, did you know I can do three things at once? I can talk in a singing voice. And when I do that, I'm playing. So, I can talk, play and sing all at the same time. Neat ,eh? It's like a poem isn't it, Mum ?"  


I'm still obsessed.  But I know longer ask what a poem is---I let the poem ask me who I am.


"Sometimes my mind is crazy

 Sometimes my mind is dumb

Sometimes it sings like angel wings

And beeps like kingdom come."

   -from Goofus  by Dennis Lee