SERIOUS FUN: IRSCL CONGRESS REPORT by Colleen Bazdarich
(Poetry Ireland News, September/October 2005)
Scholars of children’s literature from around the world fathered at Trinity College in Dublin this August for the International Research Society for Children’s Literature’s 17th Biennial Congress. The Congress, theme Expectations and Experiences: Children, Childhood and Children’s Literature, featured keynote speeches from Irish critic Declan Kiberd, children’s novelist and poet Michael Rosen, art historian Anne Higgonet and poet Paul Muldoon, whose keynote in the last morning of the Congress brilliantly complemented the Poetry Ireland symposium that followed it, Poetry, Children and Childhoods. The symposium was led by Morag Styles of the IRSCL and Poetry Ireland’s Jane O’ Hanlon, and included poet, publisher and anthologist Seamus Cashman, poets Rita Ann Higgins and Áine Ní Ghlinn, and scholar Mary Shine Thompson.
Paul Muldoon’s keynote speech, Hanging out with Narcissus Batt: a reading of poems for children, was what one would expect from the witty, sometimes irreverent poet: a light-hearted and informal mix of humour and gravity that at one moment recounted anecdotes about Muldoon’s own experience with his children, and the next discussed Keats’ idea of negative capability. Muldoon stressed the importance of ‘serious fun’ in children’s literature – a kind of playfulness free of condescension, the kind ‘that our friend Joyce was interested in’ – which is embodied in how own poem ‘The Noctuary of Narcissus Batt.’ Congress-goers were treated to a reading of this poem, an abecedary of animals which rhapsodises on such varied topics as art, criticism, Andrew Marvell and dope dealers.
Muldoon then changed gears from poetry written for children to the importance of poetry written by children. Adult poets have a lot to learn from children, he argued, as they naturally embrace the mystery of words, while maturity brings consciousness and over-concern for the reader. ‘The six- or-eight-year-old has the distinct advantage of not knowing what he or she is doing,’ he told the audience. The ‘knowing’ that comes from traditional schooling, especially the study of poetry in the classroom, was a subject of debate not only for Muldoon but for the panel members of the symposium that followed. ‘One of the terrible things that happens in school,’ Muldoon quipped, ‘is that one is taught.’ The teaching of poetry is especially dismal, he concluded, because most teachers consider verse ‘too difficult’ – a ‘fact’ they learned as children at school – and pass on that sense of poetry’s impossible esotericism to their students. Poet Áine Ní Ghlinn shared similar experiences with the school system in her symposium talk, in which she read from test questions posed on the Leaving Certificate about some of her poetry, questions in which the students were made to pick from short one-line descriptions of ‘what the poem is about’. The pressure of exams to produce a ‘correct’ answer robs the work of its mystery, she argued, and drains the act of reading poetry of all its pleasure. From her experience in the schools, students engage in poetry only to the degree they can extract basic information; Ní Ghlinn recounted one school visit where a students asked her to ‘retell your poem in your own words.’ As the anecdote drew exasperated laughs and sighs from the audience, Ni Ghlinn ended her talk by wondering how we as writers and scholars can keep children excited – and not just anxious – about poetry.
One possible answer came from moderator Morag Styles, who pointed out that while reports may seem grim, second-level students today show more enthusiasm for verse than their predecessors. Anthologies of children’s literature are being released by the dozens, and sales are high; the problem, she posited, is quality. The ‘serious fun’ Mudloon lauded has been replaced by thrown-together books that do little to challenge young minds. Public initiatives like Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools scheme may be the solution to the dilemma, she concluded, as the programmes not only engage the students in poetry on a more intimate level, but are just as educational for the adult poets who, through their first-hand experience with the students, come to better understand their audience and pursue more challenging subject matter, honing the ‘ironic, multi-layered and multi-textual’ quality of the best children’s poetry.
Seamus Cashman, editor of Something Beginning with P, also expressed and distaste for the majority of publications in children’s literature today, but described such output as a necessary evil, work that sells well and keeps the market open for the rare brilliant work to come out. Cashman made an impassioned argument for the delicate and important work of compiling children’s poetry, pointing out how much influence a popular anthology can have on ‘the face of civilisation.’ While the key to compiling a book for children is providing fun, Cashman concluded, he is also not afraid to present his young readers with a bit of a challenge. Working by his motto ‘power comes with slow time,’ Cashman includes a few poems in all his anthologies that no child could easily comprehend on the first reading.
Poet Rita Ann Higgins, along with Mary Shine Thompson of DCU, talked about poetry as a way of empowering young people, a force for change. While Thompson admitted that poetry won’t solve political problems – citing Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ – she did acknowledge the role poetry has played in revolutions throughout the ages, especially that of Ireland in the 20th century. ‘What rile can poetry play in putting the world into children’s hands?’ Thompson asked her audience. Though finding a definitive answer is elusive, Thompson hinted that great poetry can reflect out lives and our children’s lives back to us, allowing us to see more clearly the political and social arrangements of our world in a way that can be both inspiring and healing. Rita Ann Higgins spoke of her work in a similar vein. Referencing Blake’s Songs of Experience, she writes mainly for working-class children on the verge of adulthood – often an adulthood that has arrived prematurely – and uses verse as a way to ‘give children a sense of control over a world that seems unknowable.’ Higgins spoke passionately of poetry as ‘power’, a means for discovering the source of inequality in the world as well as enacting change.
Following the talks by the panellists, Jane O’Hanlon opened the floor of the Poetry, Children and Childhood’s symposium to questions, which led to a vibrant and colourful conversation that ranged from the role of parents in poetic education to the BBC’s efforts to standardise – and from the opinion of many in the audience, dilute – the English language. Questions were followed by excellent readings by Rita Ann Higgins and Áine Ní Ghlinn. Higgins read ‘His i’s Were Empty’ and ‘Anto’s Inferno’; Ní Ghlinn read in Irish and then English ‘Bunoscionn’ and ‘Tostanna,’ among others.Colleen Bazdarich, from San Francisco, is a recent intern with Poetry Ireland.