Michael Rosen and Marina Boroditskaya: Children’s Poetry and Politics: a conversation

2015 Number 2 - I WISH...

This kind of examining is a form of government control of literature. Though it does not involve the persecution of poets, it does involve an attempt to control how poetry is read. Given that it is so narrow, and eliminates the child’s point of view from the permitted range of responses, there is a clear ideology being expressed: poetry serves the purpose of being a mine of ‘facts’, consequential action and a source of literary language that exists for its own reasons.

Marina Boroditskaya is one of Russia’s best-loved and top-selling children’s poets. She is also a translator of English-language children’s poetry, from A.A. Milne to The Gruffalo. Michael Rosen is a former UK Children’s Laureate and author of many books of poetry, including the classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

SASHA DUGDALE: Michael, I’d like to start by going back to twentieth-century Russia. You made a radio programme based on the diaries of Kornei Chukovsky, Russia’s most famous children’s poet. Chukovsky was out of favour for a long period after a campaign against him in 1929, which complained of his lack of ideology in poems such as ‘Crocodile’. The campaign sounds like something from an absurdist play, although it had real and tragic repercussions for Chukovsky and his family. It’s a poignant historical example of state intervention in the moral purpose of children’s poetry. A whole generation of Russian children grew up without his wonderful poems. My question to you is have we ever seen anything comparable in Britain?

MICHAEL ROSEN: I know Chukovsky’s work as I have several of his poems in illustrated editions. They were translated into English in the 1970s, issued with lively Russian illustrations and distributed by left-wing organisations here. I’ve also come across Chukovsky’s work through his writings about childhood and fantasy. 

As you say, he was not only watched closely by the GPU (State Security) and its successors but he also attracted attention for protecting various writers under the auspices of children’s literature and the Communist Party seems to have given a certain amount of leeway. Chukovsky was able to argue for the ‘right’ of fantasy to be written and read. 

To find anything analogous in the UK, we have to look at the few areas where there is any kind of control over what children read: mostly that’s within education as everywhere else there is a self-censoring system carried through by authors, editors, publishers, critics, booksellers and the adults who buy children’s books for younger children. You can see this in action, say, with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. There was a gap of several years after this book came out in the US before it was published in the UK. Editors and publishers passed the book on they had grave reservations about giving it to children. At a surface level, this was on account of it being deemed too frightening for very young children, but perhaps they also sensed that it was a book which showed a child’s destructive feelings without these feelings being punished.

Poetry for children circulates under this kind of watchful gaze but with one proviso – the main agency through which poetry for children becomes popular is usually through the institution of education. Not entirely so, though, occasionally a writer like Spike Milligan has appeared and in his case his book Silly Verse for Kids became extremely popular outside of what was approved and circulated within education.

At various times, since the centralization of education through the National Curriculum, there have been efforts to control and limit what is read in schools. So in the late 1980s the educationalist Brian Cox was hired to write a report and produce and an approved list of texts for schools. This was foiled, in part, by the activity of writers for children who grouped together and refused to co-operate with it. This has been repeated several times since.

In the last year, another government initiative has created a compulsory part of the curriculum: learning poetry by heart and the new (2016) tests for Key Stage 2 children (7- and 8-year- olds) will probably include a paper on poetry. A draft paper is now up on the government website and it involves what they describe as ‘retrieval’, ‘inference’ and ‘identifying literary language’. Though this kind of paper does not stipulate what kind of poet might appear (the example given is a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson), it does demonstrate what kind of questioning teachers and children might expect. This will inevitably have a knock-on effect on how poetry is taught in the first years of the primary school as the combined scores that a school gets in such tests determines the school’s future – will it be forcibly turned into an academy or not?

The questions are extremely narrow, eliminating open interpretation or any kind of emotional or reflective connection made between the child and the poem. Under the heading of identifying literary language, the examiner has made the absurd error of talking of the persona of the poem as ‘the poet’, when the poem cited is told from the point of view of a boy playing with boats.

This kind of examining is a form of government control of literature. Though it does not involve the persecution of poets, it does involve an attempt to control how poetry is read. Given that it is so narrow, and eliminates the child’s point of view from the permitted range of responses, there is a clear ideology being expressed: poetry serves the purpose of being a mine of ‘facts’, consequential action and a source of literary language that exists for its own reasons. The idea that poetry exists in order that we can open a particular kind of conversation that draws close attention to feelings, ideas, unfamiliar ways of looking at the world, suggestiveness, open-ended questioning and ludic approaches to language all disappear under this government onslaught.

MARINA BORODITSKAYA: Yes, Michael, how true – it is a crime to make 7- and 8-year-old children ‘analyse’ poetry. At this age children tend to perceive things as a whole, and a poem is for them a fascinating little story spiced by the magic of rhyme and rhythm. Asking them to dissect it to find out ‘what the poet means’ might kill their imagination and forever put them off reading poetry. If older kids have to have ‘rules’ on poetry, there is only one by Archibald MacLeish that I would stick to:

          ‘A poem should not mean | But be.’

Our preschool and primary schoolchildren are still learning poetry by heart, which is, I am convinced, very good for them. But most of the poems in the primary school textbooks are Russian classics and deal with the beauty of nature and the change of seasons. It is as if someone was trying to convince the kids that Pushkin, Tyutchev, Nekrasov, etc. were a bunch of frightfully boring guys who never laughed or loved anyone and were obsessed by nature and seasons. As for preschool chilren who are too young for the classics, the trash they sometimes get to learn by heart is unspeakable. Among these, there is an alarmingly growing number of verse about ‘loving your Motherland’. The general tendency towards ‘patriotic education’ and the uniformity of school books (that smother any smart and free-thinking teacher with ‘obligatory texts’) is what really drives me mad.

Still, there are some independent publishers who supply the kids with the kind of poetry they can relate to – funny, sad, absurd, ironic, word-juggling, suggestive and so on. But it is getting harder and harder for these publishers to survive the financial crisis. The government, instead of cherishing these small but smart enterprises and helping them keep afloat, does its best to sink them with bans and restrictions. The Duma – our parliament, nicknamed ‘the printer gone mad’ – has issued a law on age limitations and forbidden topics in children’s literature; as a result, some librarians are refusing to hand out Anna Karenina and books on biology to teenagers. Groups of Russian Orthodox parents, especially in the Urals and Siberia, are constantly demanding that this or that book (for example, David Grossman’s Someone To Run With) should be banned. This reminds me of the ‘Kremlin Parents’ Committee’ which banned the great Kornei Chukovsky in 1929 for using ‘non-realistic fantasy and religious motives’ in his verse. In fact, the interference of the orthodox church in contemporary Russian culture is becoming so aggressive that any day now we can expect some group of ‘patriotic parents’ to suggest banning ‘Grandfather Kornei’ once again for ‘anti-religious’ or ‘anti-Russian’ motives.

SD: You mentioned age restrictions and forbidden topics, Marina. I’ve been following this more recent crackdown on children’s literature for a while in Russia and it is quite frightening. I heard recently that forbidden topics included ‘running away’ or ‘hobo’ lifestyles (which rules out a great deal of wonderful literature) and that some kids’ poetry and prose has been assessed as 16+ which is a clever way to effectively censor it.

MB: Basically, it is like this. The law that is murdering children’s literature in Russia today, the infamous Federal Law 436, was deliberately written in such a fuzzy manner than ANY writer and ANY book can be viewed as violating it. It has specific sections on what’s forbidden for which particular age – I won’t go into that – but it starts with a list of general interdictions. It is forbidden to publish books: 

• propagating or encouraging actions that can harm a child’s health or endanger life

• propagating or encouraging denial of family values, disrespect for parents, non-traditional sexual relations

The worst thing is that in the minds of these law-creators mentioning (for example, a gay relationship) equals propagating or encouraging. There was an ugly scandal around Daria Vilke’s book Foolscap that mentions gay people, and a children’s play The Soul of a Pillow by Olzhas Zhanaydarov was forbidden by the Ministry of Culture this last summer because the image of a ‘different’ pillow in a kindergarten bedroom – filled with buckwheat husks instead of feathers or down – was viewed by someone crazy as ‘propagating gay relationships’.

And of course, both publishers and booksellers are scared of the huge fines and having to – God forbid – withdraw the whole print-run from shops and even destroy it. So everyone tries to be on the safe side – and, yes, a book that should be marked 10 or 12+ gets 14+ (like Roland Smith’s Peak – just in case, because the main character climbs to dangerous heights).

And any Duma deputy who wants some PR can suggest banning a book. All he has to do is raise a hand and say, ‘Hey, the other day I was looking through kiddies’ stuff in a bookshop, and there was this We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by this foreign chap Michael Rosen, and it propagates and encourages life-endangering behaviour: hunting wild animals...’

SD: Why is children’s poetry such a vital genre? Why does it need protecting against all of this?

MR: My first answer to this is that poetry is about what poetry ‘can’ do or ‘might’ do rather than what it will always do. So, it can express ‘big ideas in small spaces’ and this is convenient and fun. It’s very good at not telling the whole story. It doesn’t have to conclude and tie things up in the way that plays and novels and films tend to. This means that it can, if it wants to, avoid the falseness of the perfect conclusion. Poems are good at suggesting things which means that the reader or listener can find satisfaction in the open-ended interpretation that is asked of by the poem. Poetry can investigate uses of language. It does this through a very active ‘scavenging’ process, gobbling up other genres, other uses of language other than its own, other forms and indeed all previous forms of poetry itself. Poetry is good at identifying the culture of the poet. In other words, poets find that they can express something that they feel is a cultural marker. Poetry is good at soap-boxing, saying in effect, ‘I believe’. This is related to its ability to offer a confession-box to writers, so that they can say, ‘this is what I did, what I saw, what I thought’. This enables it to offer poets and readers, a kind of running commentary on the self or on the group. Similarly, it’s good at witnessing, saying in effect, I am bringing back news of what is ‘out there’. Famously, poetry is good at making the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar. Metaphor is one of its most potent ways of doing these two things. Because of the musicality of a good deal of poetry, poetry has the possibility of creating feelings without saying explicitly what those feelings are. This will draw attention to language itself and how we have invented a means of communicating that is not semantic.

If we put all this together, we see that poetry has the potential to offer young people a place that can be an exchange of ideas and feelings, it can offer them a way of being awakened to the potential of language rather than its limits. It can offer them ways of being highly personal and/or highly cultural so that the reader or poet can discover a mixture of ‘who I am’ and ‘who I belong to’. Because it doesn’t have to tell the whole story, poetry can offer pupils the idea that there are ‘moments’ in life as well as ‘sequences’ and ‘consequences’. The lyric tradition, in particular, stands in contrast to the rational-logical process that students are invited to spend a lot of time perfecting elsewhere in the curriculum. It suggests that human experience is more complicated than the rational-logical system offers. It offers
a different sense of time. That is there are ‘moments’ AND ‘continuities’ AND ‘repetitions’ co-existing as we exist.

MB: I agree with everything Michael says – especially with ‘big ideas in small spaces’ and ‘making the familiar unfamiliar’
and vice versa. Also, the jumping, dancing magic of rhyme and rhythm is something a young child needs like the vitamins without which they get rickets or beriberi and can’t grow properly. And poetry can have a strong healing effect for a child as well as for an adult; for a teenager, it can become a life-saving pill. It gives a voice and words to what a teenager (anyone, in fact, but teenagers are more ‘accident prone’) sometimes feels inside him or herself but can only moan about wordlessly.

I also like what Michael says about the lyric tradition versus rational-logical progress. It reminds me of a popular discussion in the USSR during the sixties: ‘Who is more important, ‘physicists’ or ‘lyricists’? Today the physicists are outweighing lyricists dangerously, education is growing more and more lopsided and we need a counterweight or antidote urgently!

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