From Tongue to Text

By | March 5, 2018

This week we’re celebrating the wonders of children’s literature with guest posts from authors making new contributions to the field. Below, Debbie Pullinger discusses children’s poetry and the inspiration for her new book From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry.

Poetry is our first language. True, it’s sometimes regarded as a rather high-flown art form, but it’s also where we all start out. In the womb and in our mother’s arms, it’s through the beat of the heart, the tide of the breath, and the musical cadences of the voice that we learn of feeling and to feel. It’s through rhymes and songs and the distinctly unpoetically named ‘infant directed speech’ that we come to language. As children, we don’t know that poetry is difficult and we love it, just as we love playing with words. It reassures us that language is not alien or arbitrary, but belongs to the body – and so belongs to us.

In a very real sense, poetry is the child’s native language.

And yet, children’s poetry books do not fly off the shelves. It could be argued that’s because it’s not actually on the shelves in the first place. (Go measure the length of the poetry shelf in your local bookstore. Assuming you can find it.) There again, we can’t blame the high-street booksellers, who need all the sales they can get.

If children’s poetry sits awkwardly in the children’s books department, it sits awkwardly in the academic section, too. Largely ignored by literary scholars (despite the fact that many poetry volumes for children are written by major poets), it’s also a poor relation in the otherwise burgeoning field of children’s literature studies. Morag Styles’ From the Garden to the Street mapped the territory beautifully almost twenty years ago, but few have ventured in since. Occasionally, I come across articles that make a valiant effort to look at some children’s poetry, but then I’m often left with the feeling that the writers have failed to get to grips with their subject. Not that there’s anything to disagree with. It’s just that they might as well have been looking at prose, when what they’re trying to do is look at children’s poetry.  And perhaps that’s the problem. As critics, we’re used to looking, to standing back and getting some critical distance so we can see what’s going on – and offering some theory about it. The word theory comes from the Greek, theoreo: to look. But though the text on the page may convey something, it’s unlikely to convey what’s really significant. We need to hear and feel its effects directly in the ear, on the tongue and in the body. Poetry – as the poet Basil Bunting said –  “lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life, just as music, on the stave, is no more than instructions to the player”. (Basil Bunting, 1966, The Poet’s Point of View).

Bunting’s point is about poetry in general, but I think it’s especially important for the poetry of childhood. And that was the starting point for my book, From Tongue to Text. I wanted to approach the poetry on its own terms, to see – no, to hear – what came of it. (Look how our everyday language is in thrall to the visual!) And hence the subtitle – a new reading of children’s poetry – with all the ambiguity that the word ‘reading’ provides.

Half term and a packed train to London. Around the table seats in front of me, each side of the aisle: two families. On the left, a mother fiddling on her phone and two young children, each with her nose on a tablet screen, thumbing her way through a game. On the right, two more children with a grandparent. They chatted and laughed; they made up rhymes together and played I-Spy. Nose to the windows, the children took in the passing landscapes, conjured with words as they tried to avoid using the word itself, and played with rhythm as objects came in and out of view – “there’s one, there’s one, there’s one,” echoing the rhythm of the train, laying down the tracks of language. But increasingly, as early-years teachers tell us, many children today are not given the opportunity to lay down those tracks, or encouraged to put their hand on the train.


From TongueDebbie Pullinger is Research Associate in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, UK. Her new book, From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry, is now available in the Bloomsbury Perspectives on Children’s Literature series.

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