- Can Children's Poetry Matter?
Unexamined assumptions about poetry often go hand-in-hand with unexamined assumptions about childhood. Poets, like children, are thought to have access to some originary, mystical language of the unconscious. The language of poetry is thought to be "other"—archaic, grounded in rhythm and play, as Jacqueline Rose points out, in opposition to narrative fiction "as the forward progression of advancing literary form" (139). Poetry in contemporary America is considered a specialized language, something we often put away with childish things:
Classifying "otherness" in language as infantile or child-like reduces it to a stage we have outgrown, even if that stage is imbued with the value of something cherished as well as lost. In the end, the very association of linguistic rhythm and play with childhood becomes a way of setting the limit to what we are allowed to conceive of as a language which does not conform to the normal protocols of representation and speech.
Classifying "otherness" in language is a way of delineating and circumscribing language communities. Certain others—children and poets—may be nostalgically cherished, and simultaneously diminished. Poetic language is thought to bear a magical relationship to what it signifies. Like childhood, poetry is thought to signify universal, even inarticulate, truth. Lyric poetry (the dominant twentieth-century mode) is characterized by its supposed sincerity and authenticity, innocent, genuine, and precious like children's play. Often in this pretense of authenticity, its real value as a complex discourse constructing meaning is obscured. Thus, there are contradictions in the way we view both poetic language and children.
Poetry is both complex, artificial, formally conceived expression and it is work, but in postmodern America it is rarely thought of as serious work; it is marginalized like children and children's literature. Relegated to the specialization of the expert, albeit an expert in language play, the activity of poetry increasingly becomes a marginal utility in a marketplace culture. Unlike fiction, which at least has commercial potential, the rewards of poetry are realized by grants, academic appointments, or stints [End Page 37] as poet-in-the-schools. In The Child as Poet: Myth or Reality? (1984), an idiosyncratic but often convincing indictment of poetry-in-the-schools programs in the wake of Kenneth Koch, Myra Cohn Livingston shows how the generalized crisis of contemporary poetry filters down to the schools:
Poetry dies in the schools too often because in this society it is not respected. It is tacked onto language arts, it is mutilated by gimmickry, it is castigated as a frill. It is thought of as some esoteric region of the mind, as a luxury. . . . [Those who perpetuate this "false mythology"] believe . . . that poetry is a sort of therapy for children. . . . [T]hey feed upon the child's product and create for themselves a Utopia on earth where they are the impresarios of the child prodigy.(309)
The first contemporary practitioners of the poetry-in-the-schools movement were poets somewhat outside the mainstream of then-dominant verse cultures—they were typically New York School figures like Ron Padgett, and most prominently Kenneth Koch—descendants of the raw side of the anthology wars of 1959-60.1 The rhetoric of the movement shows an unspoken conflict between competing aims—the stated goals of empowering children as writers go hand-in-hand with nostalgic, adult impulses to romanticize childhood. Kenneth Koch professes a belief in "taking children seriously as poets" but at the same time subscribes to the romantic myth that "children have a natural talent for writing poetry and anyone who teaches them should know that" (25). Taking as his model the university writing workshop, he subscribes to the idea that creative writing cannot really be taught:
Teaching really is not the right word for what takes place: it is more like permitting children to discover something they already have. I helped them to do this by removing obstacles, such as the need to rhyme, and by encouraging them in various ways to get tuned in to their own strong feelings, to their spontaneity, their sensitivity, and their carefree inventiveness.(25)
Even though one may question Koch's...