- From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children's Poetry by Debbie Pullinger
Debbie Pullinger's From Tongue to Text begins by asking: "[W]hat makes a children's poem a children's poem?" This is a difficult question because, while children's fiction almost always relies on child protagonists, children's poetry rarely shows images of children and even more rarely ventures to speak in a child's voice. If children's poetry cannot be defined by the presence of children in the text, how can it be defined? The book's first section, titled "Tact," suggests that, rather than telling children stories about themselves, successful children's poems immerse readers in a more primal experience that might be called the co-construction of consciousness. Thus a poem like Christina Rossetti's "Rushes in a Watery Place" describes nature (swallows, blossoms) directly, in a voice that is neither fully adult nor fully childlike. Rosetti's liminal diction and imagery invites the child reader into its creative space. In a wonderful turn, Pullinger draws on Robert Macfarlane's concept of tactful language to imagine how children's poetry might always be "in [End Page 242] relationship with and responsive to the child, predicated not so much on relations of unequal power as on a sense of response and responsibility" (60). Because the child reader is so integral to the poem's meaning, poetic language must rest on a "tactful" pre-linguistic foundation of love and trust. Children's poetry is thus best seen as a process: it is affectively—or tactfully—co-constructed, in real time, through social and embodied experiences that are rooted in language but extend beyond the page. In many children's poems, children are neither seen nor heard because they are subjects, not objects: they, themselves, are learning to see and hear through the medium of the poem.
Most lyric poetry has an auditory dimension, but pleasurable interplays between ear and eye are especially prominent in children's verse because it is so often read or recited aloud. The book's second major section, titled "Tongue," draws heavily on the work of Walter Ong and Umberto Eco to posit children's poetry as a contact zone between orality and literacy. This leads to some markedly original insights. For instance, an extended discussion of the "poetic list," or what some critics might call the catalog, shows how and why it is attractive to child readers. Examples by Carol Ann Duffy, Ted Hughes, Roger McGough, and others illustrate how poetic list-making—a practice derived from the oral tradition—can capture the paradoxes of experience: containing the uncontainable, generating (and yet controlling) chaos, and linking together wildly disparate objects. While the oral nature of children's poetry has been discussed elsewhere—for instance by Karen Coats, whose work Pullinger cites—its ramifications have never been explored so thoroughly and imaginatively with reference to contemporary English authors. Ultimately, Pullinger argues, the tropes and techniques of the oral tradition invite children to engage, both in the sense of actively participating (calling out refrains, answering riddles) and also in the subtler sense of responding viscerally—with body and brain—to linguistic and musical patterns.
The book's third and final major section, "Text," complements its exploration of orality with attention to the technologies and effects of literacy. Rather than privileging either mode, it focuses on how children's literature has long negotiated between tongue and text, beginning with John Newbery's influential eighteenth-century renderings of nursery rhymes and street games. The historical parts of this chapter address topics (Locke, alphabetization) that have been covered by other scholars; it would benefit from more engagement with prior studies such as Patricia Crain's Story of A (2000). However, Pullinger makes distinctive contributions to the conversation when she extends her argument into present-day materials. For instance, Duffy's "Jemima Riddle" uses and disrupts the nursery-rhyme genre, playing with sound while also highlighting the physicality of individual typographic letters. Such letters, [End Page 243] Pullinger argues, function as "imaginal abstract...