restricted access “We Are Masters at Childhood”: Time and Agency in Poetry by, for, and about Children
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“We Are Masters at Childhood”:
Time and Agency in Poetry by, for, and about Children

“Time for bed,” a phrase common enough in children’s lives and in texts intended for young audiences, offers a glimpse at the ways that relations between adults and children shape and are shaped by temporal discourse. When it is “time for bed” in a text for children, it is implicitly understood by adult and child readers that adults have set the schedule and that children have the option to follow, ignore, delay, stall, or resist these temporal priorities. Even basic ways that time is marked in language illuminate and produce cultural ideas and projects. In other words, temporal discourse both reflects and is constitutive of adult-child power relations. Since “time” is too often depicted as adult-determined temporality that presupposes a lack of children’s agency, representations of time in texts of childhood provide a lens through which to consider questions of children’s agency. Agency can be understood, as sociologists such as Allison James (“Agency”) and Berry Mayall have discussed, as an individual’s capacity for intention and action as shaped through cultural practices, power relations, and institutional structures. One method of discerning how poets represent childhood agency in and over time is to read across contexts of writers’ age-related social positions and audiences, and to bring poetry by, for, and about children into the same critical conversation. This approach enables a consideration both of young people’s perspectives on the social position of children in representations of childhood and of the value of poetry as a site for thinking about childhood, time, and agency.

To consider poems written by young people alongside poems written by adults is to diminish the social and cultural authority inherent in positioning [End Page 124] poetry by adults as more legitimate or developed (as in the argument of Myra Cohn Livingston) than poetry by children. Diminishing the assumption of adults’ mastery can facilitate adults’ recognition of young people’s agency and identity as children in terms of their ability, in the words of young poet Jennifer Edwards, to be “masters at childhood” (19). Given that, in Western contexts, time is infused with adult-determined power, one route to children’s agency is to wrest power from time. Many kinds of temporal transformations and trajectories are possible in lyric poetry, and they can indicate young people’s imaginative engagements with time, as I have discussed elsewhere (“‘My Future’”). Later in this essay, I will read a sample of poems by young poets and adult poets to explore how temporal engagements can intersect with the social roles of child and adult characters in ways that shed light on time, agency, and poetries of childhood. First, however, I outline more generally the existing scholarship on audience and agency in children’s literature studies and on agency and time in social studies of childhood.

Giving young writers our scholarly attention recognizes children’s participation in literary practices and provides another angle from which to view the complex relationships between children and representations of childhood. Although there has been little scholarship on poetry written by children, a special issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly on poetry in children’s literature includes an article by Elissa Gershowitz, who writes of her experience editing Teen Ink, a journal of teen writing. She notes that “[m]any of our submissions arrived in packets of classroom work, adding another layer to the creative process. In some cases the authors were highly aware of their dual audience of adults and peers, which is reflected in their writing” (40). Since published poems by young people are often generated in classrooms and are typically mediated by the pedagogic or editorial attention of adults, it seems reasonable to say that published poems by young poets have an audience of both young people and adults, the “dual audience” to which Gershowitz refers.

Questions of audience, however, are particularly complicated in poetry for children. Marketing poetry to children that was written by adults for an adult audience is a common practice. Moreover, as Angela Sorby, Morag Styles, and other scholars of American and British poetry have...