Thursday, 19 April 2012

Jack Prelutsky's 'Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face': I Finally Discover Children's Poetry

I took the above picture at the Saison Poetry Library at London's Southbank Centre, which includes a children's poetry section.

It would be an understatement to say that I grew up with books. I don't have a great many pre-reading memories, because I was three years old when I started to read. However, everyone in my family was pretty much a prose enthusiast. Famous poetry was around here and there, and I dipped curiously into my mother's old volumes of Eliot and Auden, but didn't get very far for a long time (when confronted with The Waste Land at a relatively young age, that's not surprising.) My brother and I got through scores of novels.

We started taking music lessons through the Orff Approach (incorporating a lot of percussion and play) when we were quite young, and later moved on to other instruments, so that was where we started with our love of music and rhythm. (My brother and I still both love classical music, but we REALLY love our Def Leppard and Van Halen, which our parents have been remarkably tolerant of, especially our classical-music enthusiast father). But poetry didn't make a great impact. Of course, poems and songs pop here and there in children's stories. There were moments in The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down and The Hobbit. I also enjoyed Edward Lear, though I'm not sure I ever made it all the way into his surreal world, and some of Robert Louis Stevenson's poems were wonderful. Still, we concentrated on novels (favouring the epic and medieval), and poetry didn't enter into it a great deal. I started reading Yeats fairly seriously when I was 14 or 15, and my poetic fate was gradually sealed after that.

It is only in very recent years that I have really learned about the wider world of children's poetry. I worked for a major children's publisher for a while, and although they mainly published fiction, there was the occasional book of poetry. Gradually, I started to become more familiar with some names in children's poetry. For the past two years, I have worked on publications for LAMDA Examinations, who offer exams in speaking verse and prose (among others) to the public. Part of my work involves developing the next round of anthologies for use in exams, and as a result I've read through copious amounts of children's poetry. At the mid and higher levels the poetry is more adult-level, but at the younger levels - well, there are a great many poems about cats, the sea, witches, dogs, wind, school, cats, and, er...cats. Still, although the subjects may seem more limited, there can be a pretty wonderful variety. The colleague with whom I've worked on developing the anthology is an expert on children's poetry, so she had more suggestions than we knew what to do with.

It's been a nice kind of education. Until now I never knew much about the children's poems of Jack Prelutsky, Ken Nesbitt, Grace Nichols, Dionne Brand, Roger McGough or Brian Patten. Some of these poets write for adults as well, of course. Children's poetry tends toward the humorous, and that's still not one of my preferred areas for poetry, so perhaps that had something to do with my relative disinterest when I was young. It is an art all its own, though - that is obvious. People who think writing for children is easy are so very, very wrong, and poetry is no different.

I've particularly enjoyed discovering Jack Prelutsky, who was named the first US Children's Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. He is extremely funny and has an incredible ear for poetry which flows smoothly and bounces off the tongue. Here is one of his best poems, 'Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face'.

Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
for if it were where it is not,
you might dislike your nose a lot.

I recently saw this on a list of the greatest poems of all time - a list which was definitely rather US-centric, but still, an interesting and worthy choice...

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