Poetry is the greatest teacher
SOME people have faces which are just naturally funny. When Michael Rosen starts to perform one of his much-loved poems for children, his eyes bulge with excitement and his mouth spreads into a broad grin with a big ear on either end. It's the kind of face which made him Quentin Blake's model for the BFG. The kind of face you warm to.
It's now the new face of children's literature, since Rosen was appointed Children's Laureate in June. The two-year appointment, previously held by the likes of Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson, aims to raise the profile of writing for children. Rosen, 61, is the fifth Laureate, and the first poet to hold the position.
Each Laureate is given the opportunity to advance projects of their own, and Rosen is bursting with ideas. Over coffee in a greasy spoon near his home in Hackney, he enthuses about a YouTube-type interactive website for performance poets, a children's poetry roadshow, literature trails, poetry-friendly classrooms and a prize for the funniest children's book of the year. He's got two years and the clock is ticking. No point hanging about. There is a sense in which the Laureateship has simply given a formal shape to what Rosen has been doing for 30 years.
A passionate advocate of good writing for children, and evangelical about reading in general and poetry in particular, he spends a great deal of his time visiting schools and libraries, meeting the readership.
And then there are the books. Rosen has written 30 books of poems for children alone. The last few months has seen six new titles: a Selected Poems and a book of political poems for adults, two new picture books, and guides to the life and times of Shakespeare and Dickens for older children.
I'm beginning to understand why it was so hard to make an appointment to meet him. I'm surprised he has time to be here at all. Get him on the subject of poetry, however, and he'll happily talk all day. We all need more poetry in our lives, he says, and its important to start young. But many children miss out because their experience of poetry is at school, where it is straitjacketed into a highly prescriptive curriculum.
"In England at least, poetry is delivered in a very restricted way. You deliver a poem and then you ask children questions about that poem that you already know answers to. I can't for the life of me see the point of that.
"Poems are written because they suggest ideas and feelings and pictures and sensations, and if you think it's a good idea that children should have access to these, the most important thing is to make a space where they can explore those ideas, feelings, pictures and sensations.
"[The education authorities] haven't twigged it. They think poems are instruments which are an extension of the testing regime. It's a great shame because it says, 'These poems don't belong to you, they belong to us, we clever people who examine and test you. We're giving them to you so we can work out if you're worthy enough to read them and understand them, and mostly we find you're not.' It's terrible."
Rosen himself had no such trouble. Growing up in Pinner, Middlesex, in an argumentative, literature-loving Jewish household, he breathed in poetry from an early age.
There were gramophone records of Robert Graves and Dylan Thomas, trips to the theatre to see Shakespeare, a children's anthology being compiled in the front room. He "didn't take much notice" at the time. Now, he realises he was soaking it all in.
"I remember reading DH Lawrence's Snake and thinking, 'I can write like that', and sitting down and doing it at the age of 16. You could say that's was where it began, but a lot went on before that. My parents were incredible anecdotalists, storytellers, teachers, performers, scholars, political creatures. Lots of interesting people came through our house. I couldn't possibly disentangle myself from that, I wouldn't want to, it's part of me."
At Oxford, Rosen switched from a degree in medicine to English and became heavily involved in theatre, writing, acting and directing, seeing his first play - a Jewish comedy - transferred to the Royal Court. After graduating, he spent three years at the BBC as a trainee in radio drama, followed by a period at the National Film School. His first book of poems for children, Mind Your Own Business, was published in 1974.
His poems are clever, colourful and often laugh-out-loud funny, with titles such as We're Going On A Bear Hunt, Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy and Uncle Billy Being Silly. They often contain anecdotes about his own childhood, or about his offspring, particularly his older sons Joe and Eddie, as children.
Rosen argues poetry is a great way for children to experience and begin to understand emotions, both happy and sad. "One of the problems about being human is that you cannot simply live, you have to reflect, we seem to be wired in to doing that. Poetry is a very user-friendly way of reflecting on experience. Just as people find that playing a fiddle is wonderful, poetry is a space you can go into and experience emotions that you wouldn't otherwise experience."
This philosophy would be put to test in an unexpected and tragic way in 1999 when Eddie, then aged 18, was struck down by meningitis. After complaining of a fever and flu symptoms, he took a couple of paracetamol and was tucked up in bed by his father. By morning he was dead. Rosen was devastated.
"At first, I couldn't write about Eddie dying but something led me back to reading Raymond Carver's poems. Suddenly, in the way that can happen as you read, I found a voice or a shape or a shadow, something that enabled me to have a go myself. I wanted to think about what [Eddie's death] meant to me. I had to, I didn't actually want to. It was an obligation, a compulsion: what is this thing, what does it mean, and how is it making me feel?"
The result was Carrying the Elephant, a book of Carver-influenced prose-poems which explored the death of his son, describing with understated sadness the sound his body made thudding on to the floor, the image of the medics hauling the giant bodybag (Eddie was 6ft4) down the stairs. The style was then developed in two further volumes, This Is Not My Nose and In the Colonies, which explored his own family background. Elements of all three, plus children's poems, can be found in the Selected Poems.
Released at the same time, Fighters for Life, published by Bookmarks Bookshop in London, celebrates his political poetry, another strand of his work. His left-leaning worldview was honed at his parents' dining table, and at university he was a radical who helped organise the sit-ins of 1968.
"Some people are very uneasy about the idea of political poetry. But in actual fact many of the poems we think about now as being non-political were highly political. Wordsworth's Daffodils, is a highly political poem, written at the time of the French Revolution. He is celebrating freedom, which was the most subversive word you could possibly use at the time of the French and American revolutions."
He quotes a long history of political poetry in Britain, from Robert Burns and Jonathan Swift to Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo massacre of 1819. The subjects of Rosen's political poems range from the war in Iraq to xenophobia in London. "And I've got a poem about going with Harold Pinter and Bruce Kent to the Israeli embassy to hand in a petition about [imprisoned nuclear whistleblower] Mordechai Vanunu. Pinter lost his rag in there, it was a wonderful moment because he just started shouting at them."
Poetry can take in all of that, from a big idea like the Midde-East peace process, to his two-year-old son's chubby little legs (he has two small children with his third wife, Emma). "The other day I squeezed his knee and said 'little legs' and he thought this was very funny. Then I saw him walk about in the alleyway next to my house and thought about his little legs, and how precious they were. There's an image, there's a feeling, and a sound. It alliterates. That might turn into a poem."
Meanwhile his daughter, aged six, loves probing him for information on his own childhood. "I thought I'd told her everything I could remember about my bedroom," he says. "And then I remembered that when my brother moved out of my bedroom, I tried to drill a hole through the wall into his bedroom so I could talk to him. With the corner of a ruler. She got that out of me. All of this is a massive stimulation."
• Michael Rosen is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy on Sunday at 10am (suitable for age 7+) and will be reading from his work for adults at 7pm on the same day.
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Ottoline and the Yellow Cat with Chris Riddell, 3pm tomorrow
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