- "Still so much work to be done":Taking up the Challenge of Children's Poetry
Children's poetry, it seems, is finally being acknowledged as a suitable venue for academic scholarship. Even within the field of children's literature, poetry for children has suffered unaccountably. Scholarly interest typically ends with nursery rhymes; only occasional articles and even fewer full-length studies such as Myra Cohn Livingston's The Child as Poet: Myth or Reality? have challenged the gimmick-ridden pieces that populate elementary school teacher-oriented magazines.
Morag Styles has produced a masterly piece of scholarship, a work that is so much needed in children's literature that we hardly knew how bereft we were, how much of a gap there has been, until we read it. From the Garden to the Street will function as the guidepost for other works to follow, because of its broad scope, its enviable grasp of so many poets, and its documentation of the Great Shift from idealized childhood to a supposedly more realistic view. The book's title is an apt one because the chapters move generally from the poetry depicting the child as part of nature, as free and untainted, to the grittier, more "realistic" poetry of the last quarter-century. Styles basically takes us from the era when the gates were being constructed around the idyllic garden to the present time, in which the gates are tumbling down.
Styles divides the poets and poetry according to genre and time period, devoting occasional chapters to specific authors. The introduction is quite useful, giving an overview of the traditional view of [End Page 195] childhood derived from the Romantics and the problem of defining children's poetry. Chapter 1 addresses the historical construction of childhood, which in Puritan times mandated devotional verse for children. Styles takes us from the expected Bunyan and Watts up to the much more recent Charles Causley, and she champions Anna Barbauld as a female writer unfairly maligned by male critics and unjustly lumped with lesser poets. Chapter 2, "Romantic Visions," focuses on the shift from devotional poetry to that of the Romantics; Scott, Keats, Wordsworth, Burns, and John Clare are studied, though Blake receives the most emphasis. Further chapters analyze nineteenth-century nature poetry; nursery rhymes, old and new; comic poetry; narrative poetry; poetry that reflects a vanishing image of childhood; poetry of the street; and Caribbean poetry. Chapters on individual poets include one discussing the nonsense verse (and troubled lives) of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll; one to promote Christina Rossetti; one to revitalize the reputation of Robert Louis Stevenson; and one on Charles Causeley and Ted Hughes as representing the twin peaks of children's poetry. Chapter 9 analyzes anthologies of children's poetry published during the past two centuries. This chapter, arguably the most important, points to two problems: the relative absence of female poets, and the propensity for editors to marginalize the poets who actually wrote for children.
Styles states that her intention was to "consider most of the poets who have written for children up to the end of the 1980s, including those who wrote for adults but whose poetry was or is regularly anthologized for the young" (xxvii). This is an expansive proposal difficult to argue against. Her position is altogether much more defensible than Neil Philip's decision to confine his selection of poems for The New Oxford Book of Children's Verse to those designated by the poet as being for children (thus he includes only the three Emily Dickinson poems actually sent to children but also one poem by the novelist Peter Dickinson that was culled from City of Gold). Styles avoids trying to define children's poetry, perhaps because she is attempting to broaden its boundaries. Nevertheless, Styles's scrutiny of two hundred years' worth of anthologies of children's poetry is eye-opening. Many editors of anthologies have adopted unquestioningly the assumption that the main purpose of reading children's poetry is preparation for the reading of "great" poetry, that is, poetry written...