BATS POETS CHIPMUNKS & Utter Nonsense

There was a day when children's literature was called kiddylitter and some English departments dismissed CL as an area of scholary study. I was in my infant days as a writer then, an undergrad with two children who were my captive audience. I wanted to concentrate on the study of the literature we were reading. Luckily, I found the work of Sheila Egoff, The Opies, Michelle Landsberg,  Judith Saltman, Walter De LaMare's introduction to Come Hither and the brilliant criticism of Lissa Paul.

I was even more fortunate to have a professor at St. Thomas by the name of Dr. Russ Hunt. An extra-ordinary professor, a pioneer in the field of teaching, I'd call him somewhat of a radical for being one of the first to introduce children's literature as a credit course in an English Department. It's fair to say that Russ Hunt's class changed the course of my life. In graduate school I found Hilary Thompson who welcomed me with open arms when I said I wanted to do a master's thesis on well -- nonsense and nursery rhyme. I wanted to examine the children's  poetry of Dennis Lee. I wanted to study the best kids poets from far away and long ago, but I wanted a live poet and a Canadian.The study took me years of reading after my course work, and, by the end I was calling it the FT. The F stood for... Fookin. In recent weeks, in three different discussions/interviews , I've been asked some really good and difficult questions about being a writer who writes in many genres. The best: "What was my answer when people assumed kids books were 'easier'? My answer was rude.  http://blog.bookfridge.com/ Well go write one and then see. Or go read my thesis."(Lordie. I am now a crotchety bunny in that bunny eat bunny world.) 

So for the first time in a long time, I dipped into that master's thesis where I wanted to prove, I think, that profound truth could be found in the smallest verse. That distillation was an art form. That childrens' poetry was an aural/oral social tradition and depended upon community to have a life. And the human voice. I called it "utterature' not literature. (The noive I had!) Even if the genre I would be working in was 'a kind of folk art' as Lee told me in an inteview, I wanted to prove it was, in John Ciardi's words: Serious joy and worth putting under a critcal microscope. I was obligated first to explain (or maybe justify) this critical framework I was using. (Translate: r-e-s-p-e-c-t.)

In the poem, Thinking in Bed, Dennis Lee writes:

I am lying in bed

‘Cause I can't get out

‘Till I learn how to think

What I am thinking about.

~ Alligator Pie 40

Learning how to think what I was thinking about was the most crucial and challenging objective of my thesis but it’s that way for a lot of wrinkled brain types. So yes, that very first question “how do I approach the genre of children's literature critically?” almost silenced me. In A  Kindercritical Mode of Responding, I outlined my critical philosophy. (That too, was inspired by Lee.) I’m surprised these many years later not just how I dared to put forth my own critical theory---I know now I was defending the genre and myself for travelling in this direction as a writer---but I’m just as surprised I still mostly agree with the words. Here, for anyone who might like this kind of conversation about children's poetry is a piece from Chapter One.  

The Bat Poet by Randall Jarrell, is the story about a bat who would be poet. It is also an analogy for an artist’s search for authentic voice and vision, and it is about the need for an audience and the importance of audience response. Perhaps my favorite line of all is when the bat heaves a sigh and says: “The trouble isn’t making poems, the trouble is finding someone who will listen to them".

Art for art's sake doesn't quite satisfy the bat. He wants an audience. By the end of the story the bat is triumphant. He has found his audience, but most importantly, he draws on his own experience and all he has learned about making a poem and writes what can only be called a masterpiece poem for bats. It is, finally, the most authentic piece of writing he produces. 

The bat's journey has been frustrating and isolating and along the way he learned not only that an audience was important but the way in which an audience responded made a difference. In an article entitled “Could you put in lots of holes? Modes of Response to Writing", Dr. Russell Hunt uses The Bat Poet to talk about responding to students’ writing. "The Bat Poet", he writes, "contains the most powerful dramatization I've seen of what seemed to me two entirely different modes of responding to writing.” One type of response Hunt calls “mockingbird” responses. This is why. In the story, the bat reads his first attempt at a poem to the mockingbird. The mockingbird has been the bat’s mentor, in a way. He has been listening to the mockingbird’s songs, mostly imitations of other barnyard creatures. The bat is inspired to begin to write poetry of his own. This is what happens after the mockingbird listens to the bat’s poem:

When he finished his poem the bat waited for the Mockingbird to say something; he didn't know why but he was holding his breath.

“Why, I like it,” said the mockingbird. “Technically, it's quite accomplished. The way you change the rhyme – scheme’s particularly effective."

The bat said: “It is?"

“Oh yes," said the mockingbird. "And it was clever of you to have that last line two feet short."

The bat said blankly: “Two feet short?"

"It's two feet short," said the mockingbird a little impatiently. "The next to the last line’s iambic pentameter and the last lines iambic trimeter."

The bat looked so bewildered that the mockingbird said in a kind voice; “An iambic foot has one weak syllable and one strong syllable"; the weak one comes first. The last line of yours has six syllables and the one before it has 10: when you shorten the last line like that you get the effect of the night holding its breath."

"I didn't know that," said the bat. I just made it like holding your breath.

"To be sure, to be sure!" said the mockingbird. "I enjoyed your poem very much. When you made up some more, do come round and say me another."

The bat said he would and fluttered home to his rafter. Partly he felt very good – the mockingbird had liked his poem – and partly he felt just terrible. He thought: why I might just as well it to the bats. What do I care how many feet it has? The Owl nearly kills me, and he says he likes the rhyme scheme!"

~ The Bat Poet 14 -15 

As Hunt points out:

The mockingbird is positive, supportive, educational and kind: he refrains from actually suggesting ways to improve the writing, but he does take the time to help the bat towards more conscious awareness of his skills as a writer. What Jarrell foregrounds however, is the fact that his response is condescending, judgmental, and of no use to the aspiring poet, just as that of a teacher, or a peer who has been trained to be helpful, might. (30)

When the bat finally makes friends with a chipmunk and tests out  his poem on the chipmunk, here's what happens: 

The chipmunk said in a determined voice: "I'm going to bed earlier. Sometimes, when there's lots of nuts, I stay out until it's pretty dark, but believe me, I'm never going to again." (45)

Hunt says, "that through the chipmunk’s fear, the bat  sees the poem works, that it does what it ought to do." And even more importantly, "it's clearly the chipmunk's response, not the mockingbird’s that encourages the bat to continue his career as bard." (31)

The next time the bat says a poem to the chipmunk, in fact, a poem about the chipmunk, the chipmunk replies with magic words: "Say it again." As listener, he wants to absorb more on the second go round and then begins to discuss what he likes and understands.

"Oh it's nice. It all goes in and out, doesn't it?"

The bat was so pleased he didn't know what to say.

“Am I really as red is that?”

“Oh yes, “ the bat said. (21)

The chipmunk is delighted with the simile in the poem even though he doesn't know it is a simile: "Red as leaves the wind blows off the maple/ Red as a fox…"   

One of Hunt’s points in his article is that teachers need to be more chipmunk than mockingbirds in order for students writing to flourish, that this, in the end, is more real responding been basing the "construction of our artificial responses on how a theory of language might work."

As a student in several of Dr. Hunt’s classes, I know he put his theory into practice. Our university classroom was a place where we used "collaboration not to attend the form of discourse but to the substance" (Hunt 30). We wrote “to and for each other” to share what we learned and "not to demonstrate that we have learned it" (Hunt 29).

This is part of the background to my approach to the criticism of children's literature. 

Children, in their response to text offered them, whether oral or written, are like the chipmunk. They will respond with likes or dislikes in a real way. They might not know a simile, but they might be delighted at the word picture it evokes in their minds. They might bounce along because the poem goes all in and out, happy enough without the knowledge that a dactyl is more than the dinosaur. And therefore the literature is doing what it was intended to do: communicating with and delighting its readers.

What happens very often when an adult critic begins to put a work under a critical microscope is that all of a sudden the mockingbird response is present. The text is examined as text. Even though reader-response theory has insisted that the work exists in the dynamic between text and reader and much critical work is taken into account the implied reader, far too often, criticism travels in a backwards loop away from the literature and into discourse that becomes interesting, insightful but sometimes, in fact--all too often, alienating. There are as many ways of looking at children's literature as there are literary theories and is even what Terry Eagleton calls a meta-criticism, criticism of criticism. Which is ironically enough what he ends up doing and the direction my discourse seems to be headed.

Time then to turn a corner by asking a question. Is there a way to critically discuss or approach the work of children's literature that doesn't violate the spirit of the genre? Is there a way to preserve the initial real response of the chipmunk (child)  that uses the informed opinion of the mockingbird (critic)?

The answer, is of course, yes. I call it the kindercritical mode of responding. Criticism based on the teeter-totter principle. That is, the kindercritic balances chipmunk and mockingbird, adult and child, and writes from, explores the work from, that starting point. It is critical polyphony. The kindercritic, like the writer, must begin again as a child. In doing that, the spirit of the literature is preserved and the child in children's literature is not forgotten when an adult begins to respond to text defined as “children's literature."

This is a call to the almost mystical process writer's experience when their frame of reference is their child selves. Writers who write works considered children's literature often talk about the difference between writing "for children" or "from" the child or children still contained within their adult body, soul and psyche. Here are some of the ways in which some writers have described this process:

To get back to the essence of childhood you can only go down. You can only go in. Deep in. Down through all the deep, mystic intuitive layers of the subconscious back into your own childhood. And if you get deep enough, get basic enough, become again the child you were, it seems reasonable, but by way of the subconscious, you have come into what  must be the universal child. Then and only then, do you write for that child. (Mendart DeJong Townsend, 75)

I have to go on what I know, not only about my own childhood then but about the child I was as he exists now. (Sendak, Only Connect 329)

First, just be a child before you grow up and let nothing interfere with that process. Write it all out of yourself and for yourself as you remember that weasel body with the eagle eyes. Never, never take the right phrase writing “for children” seriously. If you write “for” them you are lost. (McCord 53)

Like everyone, I have more than one child in me. I'm a two-year old; I'm a five-year-old, I'm a 10-year-old. Those kids are excited by things fearful or silly or whatever. Ideally what excites them gets written with the craft of an adult under the direction of the child. (Lee, Roots and Play 35)

For all these writers, then, the point of departure, the impulse from which the poem or novel or story was written, was getting in touch with, a connection with, some aspect of their child being. In many ways, it is a process of recollecting, or retrieving child self, or in the case of Lee, child selves. It is true that authors need not love children to write books children love, but they do need to be in touch with some aspect of their childhood selves. Writers cannot write as adults looking over the tops of children's heads and produce authentic work. They must connect with what might be called “kinderspirit.”

Kindercritics are no less rigorous in the remembering or recollecting of their own childhood selves. Whatever interest in the literary merits of the text critics might want to explore, kindercritics find a way to link the text to this audience.Whether the critical lens or framework is based on the literary theory of feminism, or deconstructionism, linguistics or a pyschoanalytical philosophy, the theory is always subservient to the objective of criticism eloquently espoused by Robert Bator: "If criticism of literature is to have any meaning at all, it must be primarily concerned with the nature of childhood, not just the nature shared by most children, but the diversity of childhood nature, too." (Signal 130)

If literature is an art form which offers insight into what it means to be human, then children's literature is an art form which offers his insight into what it means to be a child being in the world of the story or poem.

Maurice Sendak writes: "We can never know all there is to know about any one child. They’re formless fluid creatures – like moving water. You can’t stop one of them in midstream and find out exactly what is going on." (Only Connect 328) This is what kindercritics accept, but by holding a work under a critical microscope, they attempt to examine the mystery – for a moment, to stop the child – being in the story in midstream and try to find out what is going on.

"The Sweet Chorus of Ha, Ha, He,” a line from William Blake’s The Laughing Song  is an image which (for me) evokes many voices within the one and the spirit of play which is ever present in children's poetry – rhymed or unrhymed, lyrical or narrative. nonsense or sensical.

For literary response is an activity of play, in the sense that J. Huizinga defines play: "It is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to the rules freely accepted and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility." (Huizinga 132)

A kindercritical mode of responding is an active form of literary play which does not diminish the seriousness. Rather, "the contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness" (Huizinga 6) It is not necessary or desirable, when it comes to discussing children's literature to turn into what Dr. Russ Hunt calls, “a waiting, condescending, kindly mockingbird" (32).

It could be further argued that a kindercritical mode of responding, but putting kinder or child at the center, is, (pun intended)  kinder towards the literature and audience it attempts to serve. It is not a relaxation of scholarly rigour, but a move towards allowing authentic voices to participate in discussions on children's literature. This might include teachers, parents, children, not just those who call themselves critics. Or simply, ideally, whenever possible, the teacher, parent, poet or child within the critic. The kindercritical mode of response opens up endless possibilities for discussion. In the spirit of play.

The kindercritical mode of responding demands polyphony which calls for sharing because: "the play mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion… Here, then we have the first characteristic of play: that it is free, is in fact, freedom." (Huizinga 8).

References

http://www.stthomasu.ca/~hunt/batpoet.htm
Acre, Allison. Dennis Lee's children's poetry." Descant, number 39, 1982.
Bator, Robert. Signposts to Criticism of Children's literature. Chicago: 1983.
Eagleton Terry. The function of criticism. Deptford, nor folk: Deptford press, 1985.
Egoff, Sheila. Dennis Lee's Poetry for Children." Descant, number 39, 1982.
Frye, Northrup. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton Yuki, 1971
Hentoff, Nat. "Among the wild things." Only connect: readings of children's literature.
Egoff, Sheila, editor. Oxford:  1961.
Huiziga, Johann. Homo Ludens. Boston: Beacon, 1955.
Hunt, Russell A. "Could you put in lots of holes? Both of response to writing." Language Arts, volume 64, two, February 1987.
Jarrell, Randall. Sendak, Maurice, illus. The Bat Poet. New York, New York: Macmillan, 1964.
Landsberg, Michelle. Guide to children's books. Markham, Ontario: Petco in 1986
Lee, Dennis. Neufeld, Frank. Ilus. Alligator Pie. Toronto: Macmillan, 1972.
Lee, Dennis. "Roots and play: writing as a 35-year-old children," Canadian children's literature, number four, 1976.
McCord, David. Away and go: rhymes of the never was and always is. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968
Townsend, John. Written for children. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1974.