Various, Five Nonsense Poems, (Candlestick Press, 2014), 12pp., £4.95, ISBN 978 1 907598 24 1; Various, Five Poems about Teachers, (Candlestick Press, 2014), 16pp., £4.95, ISBN 978 1 907598 23 4
Reviewed by Lucy Page [Originally published in LP1, August 2014]
“Nonsense wakes up the brain cells,” Dr Seuss once said. Children’s first foray into the joys of language comes from the simple rhymes and verses – the poetry – we later learn to dismiss as infantile babble. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll knew how our minds create meaning from basic, suggestive sounds. A poet’s delight in the crackle and fizz of combining certain syllables is how verbal invention happens.
Five Nonsense Poems, by Candlestick Press, owes much to Carroll’s joy in coining neologisms. Spike Milligan’s ‘The Squirdle’ invites children to imagine what such a creature may be: “I thought I saw a Squirdle / I think I thought I saw / I think I thunk I thought / I saw a Squirdle by my door”. Pauline Clarke’s ‘My Name Is…’ plays with children’s delight in naming things through pairing familiar words and actions in surreal combinations, “My name is Sluggery-wuggery / My name is Worms-for-tea / My name is Swallow-the-table-leg / My name is Drink-the-sea.”
The menagerie of imaginary creatures continues with an anonymous Scots dialect poem about an “awesome beast” called the horny-goloch (“Soople and scaly / It has twa horns, an a hantle o’ feet / An a forkie tailie”). In all these poems children are given the power to construct exaggerated beings; to create them, laugh at them and dispel any fear, even as they bring them to life. After all, who could be afraid of a horny-goloch? If we consider one of the most-loved picture books of recent times, Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, it’s the tiny mouse’s act of reciting descriptions of the giant beast that keeps danger at bay.
Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Hotel’ completes this delightful collection. Here we are given an account of two cows behaving as a pair of old grannies might. They “swan” into the Hotel and have “tea and toast” before taking the lift upstairs to bed. A nice reminder that there is little funnier than the anthropomorphisation of animals.
The slim pamphlet is wonderfully designed with bold but unobtrusive illustrations. It is one of five new children’s “mini-anthologies” that Candlestick Press has put together. The pamphlets come with an envelope and are intended to be given as a gift in place of a conventional card, and the neat package is completed with an illustrated bookmark and sticker. As a thoughtful bonus, there is a page at the back of each pamphlet where children are prompted to write their own verse. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy calls the pamphlet-card “the most original way of delivering poetry since Poems on the Underground”.
The other new anthology reviewed here is Five Poems about Teachers. It is a nice mix of poems which are lively and fun, capturing the unruly spirit of schoolkids, and thoughtful, longer poems looking at the unique obstacles and responsibilities of the teaching life. It leads off with a limerick: “There once was a teacher from Leeds / Who swallowed a packet of seeds. / In less than an hour / Her nose was a flower / And her hair was a posy of weeds.”
John Hegley’s ‘One day while we were getting out our rough books’ will strike a chord with teachers. It recreates the daily frustrations of maintaining classroom authority, the size of text growing larger the closer the teacher comes to breaking point.
The most interesting poem, ‘Please Mrs Butler’, by children’s author (and former teacher) Allan Ahlberg, alternates between the pleas of a picked-on pupil and the increasingly evasive and surreal deflections of a teacher who doesn’t seem to be paying enough attention to the class bully. “Lock yourself in the cupboard, dear. / Run away to sea. / Do whatever you can, my flower. / But don’t ask me!”
An ideal collection to send to children on their holidays, or to a teacher friend celebrating Michael Gove’s exit from the Department for Education. Indeed, the beauty of these trim volumes is that they engage the reader of any age. Poetry need not be difficult. Whether it uses nonsense words or not, it should always rouse something playful in our imagination.