Children and Poetry
When I was a child, the walls of our home were lined with shelves of books. Most of them were chosen by our mother. Our beloved father was too busy earning a living to support his family, to have time to visit the local library. (He made up for it by reading to us every evening at bedtime.)
Our household was not affluent. Books were a luxury that had to be borrowed or saved up for. As a special treat, at birthdays or Christmas time, our parents would buy us a book as a present.
We were fortunate that Mum had carefully kept the books she herself had loved as a child. We were allowed to read them whenever we liked. There was no TV in the house, so my sisters and I used to immerse ourselves in books whenever we weren’t playing out in the garden. Mum loved fantasy. Her childhood books included Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies series, the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, and a book of children’s poems by Water de la Mare. It was called Down–Adown–Derry. I still remember being enthralled by the poems in this book, and the exquisite illustrations by Dorothy P. Lathrop. Fortunately for children of the 21st century, you can find the text and illustrations online at Project Gutenberg.
The Romantic Poets
When I reached my teens I discovered other poets, including Tennyson (The Lady of Shallott), Wordsworth, Shelley (Ozymandias), Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and Keats (La Belle Dame sans Merci). Of these, Keats was my favourite. His The Eve of St Agnes and To Autumn remain my most beloved poems.
The classic children’s poets (including Christina Rossetti) and the Romantic Poets influenced my inner world, and my later writing. My focus is very narrow; there is almost no other poetry I enjoy. (That said, I do love Shakespeare’s sonnets.)
But I really do love the words of these poets. The images they evoke, their metre, their rhyme and rhythm, all combine to produce a wondrous reading experience. On the other hand, I actively avoid most other “poetry” (particularly blank verse or free verse), finding it boring, pretentious, unintelligible or all of the above.
The Least Popular Genre
When I was touring bookshops, giving talks and signing copies of The Bitterbynde, I used to ask the bookshop staff, “What are the most popular genres?”
“Self-help” they’d invariably reply, “followed by biographies and autobiographies”.
“What’s the least popular?”
And I can understand this! For me, pretty much all poetry that isn’t written by the poets I’ve mentioned, is a turn-off. I know people who actively loathe all poetry – perhaps they have never read the work of the Romantics . . .
Poetry may be the least popular genre, but that doesn’t alter my passion for it. I include short verses in my books, usually at chapter openings. This can set the scene for the chapter. Writing verse is invigorating and inspiring, like a mental work-out. You have to choose your words very, very carefully when writing formally structured poetry with rhyming and metre. The structure forces you to think differently. In most cases it improves the quality of your writing.
The Fairies by William Allingham
Here’s a poem that my sisters and I used to sing together, as children. The opening sounds cute and fluffy, but when you read the subsequent verses you realise how dark and dangerous “real” fairies can be.
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!