As I was changing the sheets on my bed a week or so ago, I was rather taken aback to realise I was muttering to myself as I did so:
‘Mother, make my bed soon, for I’m weary wi’ hunting and fain wald lie down’
I guess it’s easy to see the connection between the task and the poem, but what I had to consider was whereabouts in my memory that line came from… A little thought reminded me that it was part of the English Literature 1 course I undertook as part of my BA in Melbourne – our elderly lecturer (the Professor at the time) did love the Anglo-Scottish ballads and would read them aloud to us in his quavery voice (which became more quavery as the emotion of the ballad took over, so much so that he’d have to wipe his eyes and his nose on the edge of his academic gown... and then he’d clean the blackboard with the edge of the same gown!).
So I had to go and find my copy of The Oxford Book of ballads and read ‘Lord Randal’ over again, which led to another ballad, and another – the bedmaking did get done eventually though!
But that led me to mull over the place of poetry in our culture (and of course in other cultures). Children do love to hear poetry read to them – it doesn’t matter if the vocabulary is not your everyday vocabulary, or if the constructions are strange to our everyday ears. Who uses ‘fain’ in their daily contact with others? But the word and others like it will stick in the memory and be recognised the next time they’re seen or heard.
Nicola Bayley edited a delightfully illustrated poetry book, The necessary cat, (Walker Books); your cat-loving audience will revel in this, and it’s a great introduction to various poets – Keats, Wordsworth, Butler Yeats, Belloc feature in it. The poems were not written especially for children, but the subject matter ensures that they will be enjoyed.
Michael Rosen selected a well-illustrated set of poems which was published as Classic poetry (Walker Books again), and these are drawn from an even wider range of well-known poets writing in English, and some not so well known – Shelley, Byron, Rossetti, Frost, Sandburg, Wilcox.
And then there are books of poetry written specifically for children. Edward Blishen and Brian Wildsmith collaborated to produce the Oxford book of poetry for children, and Neil The new Oxford book of children’s verse. And what about the tried and true Oxford book of children’s Verse (Iona and Peter Opie)?
Last but not least, how about Old Possum’s book of practical cats?
Have a look in your library and see what you can find next time you need to calm a potentially noisy child or two – I am sure you (and they) will enjoy a poetry reading.