The arrival of a first grandchild is always a big event in any person’s life, and when that person is a writer, then a lot of the amazing and often unexpected emotions that are triggered by this joyous event find release and expression in what we find as natural as breathing—writing.
But it can be surprising how it comes out, and in my case, the arrival of beautiful little George, my daughter and son in law’s first child, has triggered two forms of writing that I’m not really known for: poetry and picture-book texts. Hardly surprising you might think, given that George, at nearly four months, is already loving being read to (how can he fail to grow up to be a reader, with a literary agent mother and author grandmother?). But in fact though I have already got one one picture book out, and working on others, the rebirth of my poetry instinct is what’s been most unexpected for me.
I say rebirth, because as a teenager that’s practically all I wrote, aside from short stories—I didn’t start tackling novels till I was well out of school. I filled exercise books and notebooks with lots of poetry, with varying results—some I can still read without wincing, others I can hardly bear to look at! But that was then—the poetry was full of angst and romantic adventures (or lack of them) and also attempts at writing in the style of poets I admired, such as WB Yeats and John Donne. What I’m writing now is very different—a return to the patterned, fun, rhymed forms of children’s poetry.
I’ve always loved reading and listening to poetry—my parents read us a lot, we had a lot at school, and as kids, we often spoke in rhymed sentences, just for fun. As a teenager I would often buy poetry books, as well as write my own, and when I had my own kids, I bought lots of poetry books specially for children, to read to them: wonderful collections like the Oxford books of poetry for kids, and lovely single books of poetry, from the classics like Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear, Christina Rossetti, AA Milne, to more modern but equally wonderful poets like James Reeves, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Max Fatchen, Michael Rosen, William Hart Smith and many many others too numerous to name!
We all loved sharing these poems, and many of them we can still recite, such as James Reeves’ wonderful “Cows”: with its hilarious, true-to-life cameos of cows grazing in the water-meadows “in the lazy month of May.” Look it up: it’s one for all the family!
I don’t quite know why writing my own poetry for children didn’t enter my mind then; maybe because I was busy writing novels, or because I was reading so much good kids’ poetry to my kids that I felt disinclined to try my own. In several of my books, I did have the odd verse or two, but it was nothing sustained. Not like what’s happening now.
Now, all kinds of lines of poetry keep coming into my head. The inspiration just seems to flow. Earlier this year, I was commissioned to write three poems to be set to music—and they came perfectly formed, the composer loved them, the commissioning body (a music conservatorium) loved them too. I keep seeing poetic images everywhere, even in the most unexpected of places: building sites, a signpost, a school bus. And they are most definitely children’s verses; not serious, but tricky, fun little flashes of surprising image, allied with rhyme and rhythm and humor.
It feels like playing; it feels like back when I was a kid and making up silly words with my brothers and sisters. It feels like the most fun I’ve had in quite a while. Writing novels is wonderful; but it is a different kind of wonderful. This is me really letting go, being a kid again, revelling in sheer enjoyment of captured moments. And yet writing very much as an adult, delighting in the challenge, the clarity and distillation of words. And it seems to work with other people too, for the poems are finding favor with magazines as well as conservatoriums! The poems are also lending strength to the picture-book texts, for picture books, especially for the very young, are clearly allied to poetry. As to George—well, he seems to approve!
Here’s a few bits of advice based on what I’ve learned both in the reading and writing of poetry for kids:
- Don’t obsess about rhyme; rhythm is more important. Rhyme is great but shouldn’t be strained, and the right rhythm will give that nice pattern and flow anyway;
- Have a single clear theme as the focus—for example, Reeves’ focus on a group of cows in the meadow;
- Don’t be afraid to be unexpected with image and idea, but don’t strain after effect;
- Keep the poems relatively short;
- Don’t moralize;
- The natural world is a wonderful source of inspiration, but you need to be imaginatively observant in order to avoid cliché;
- Always keep your kid self in mind!
- Read as much poetry for kids(and for adults!) as you can;
- Have a look at specialist children’s poetry sites, like the brand-new Australian Children’s Poetry  site, or the Children’s Poetry Archive , the Poetry Foundation site,  and many others–explore!
Over to you: who were your favorite poets in childhood? And if you’re a writer of poetry as well as a reader, what’s your favorite thing about creating it?