Charms and riddles, Kathryn Walls

Another 100 New Zealand Poems for Children
ed Rachel McAlpine (illustrated David Elliot)
Random House, $24.95,
ISBN 1869414853

Like its evidently popular predecessor, this anthology is invitingly presented. Hard covers announce that it is meant to be kept for long-term use, while David Elliot’s cover picture (a comical kiwi against a softly rendered nightscape) and pen illustrations (one for every poem) suggest entertainment rather than instruction.

Rachel McAlpine’s brief introduction is also designed to disarm the young reader. Very simply worded, it emphasises the music, emotion and imagery of poetry. If some poems mean something, the quest for meaning is still a “game” and “fun”, and the reader must “never worry about the meaning”. As Freud pointed out, however, the subconscious does not recognise the negative; McAlpine’s “worry” and “meaning” may betray and communicate the very anxiety she wants to forestall.

But McAlpine’s selection will not draw anyone out of their depth for very long. Most of the poems make immediate sense in non-poetic terms – as stories, for instance (pace McAlpine, who rashly denies that poems can be stories, even while she includes Gloria Rawlinson’s classic “Belinda the cow”, a delectable poem that achieves so much of its impact through a surprise happy ending). Only a few cry out for exegesis (although many more will reward it). One of these is Marewa Glover’s “Not a Maori hui”. Jean Lonie’s “Letter to a lost address” is probably, for different reasons, another. Both poems are as emotionally disturbing as they are elusive.

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But if it generally eschews the more profoundly enigmatic, McAlpine’s selection nevertheless bears abundant witness to the potential of lyric poetry to ally itself with the traditional puzzling device of the riddle. Riddles, as Northrop Frye noted in his brilliant essay “Charms and Riddles”, exploit puns and imply analogies, yoking like and unlike in order to provoke the reader into a state of mental alertness. The Anglo-Saxons were, famously, masters of the art. Two poems in this volume, Margaret Mahy’s “The dictionary bird” and Hone Tuwhare’s “Birds of Prayer”, read like faint echoes of the beautiful and painstakingly written Anglo-Saxon riddle whose solution is clearly “a book”. Jill Brasell’s “What am I?” is a real riddle. Its clues, while proving on reflection to be entirely valid, function to distract us from its solution (which is provided upside-down at the end).

Fascinating poems with a strong riddling dimension include Ruth Dallas’ perfectly-conceived “The Pool”, which compares a poem in the mind to a stone dropped into still water. Arnold Wall’s compelling (if somewhat awkward) “Wind in the wires” compares birds perching in a row with notes on a stave. Elizabeth Smither provides a remarkable variation on the standard comparison of clouds with flocks of sheep (“Clouds”), and a humorously convincing account of the stapler as “ferocious beast” (“The Stapler”). Glenn Colquhoun’s “An explanation of poetry to my father” promises to be another pleasurably riddling poem. But while Colquhoun demonstrates the justice of his notion of words as half-backs (they “pass … ideas”), many of his metaphorical statements about words in poetry seem on reflection to be confused (player and ball are associated first of all with word and meaning, but then with poet and word), and even pointless. (Luckily, the anthology also includes “The sound of words”, where Colquhoun never falters.)

The young Laura Ranger puns on “tu-lips” (in “Tulip Sunday” – strangely repeated from the previous anthology), while her poem “Mum” proceeds by a series of assured analogies before abandoning control in (to my mind) a fulsome concluding stanza (“I love my mum/forty four million/times around the world”). Lauris Edmond’s “Sea creatures” develops from a simple punning beginning (“The flounder/flounders/eels/feel”) into a sharp allegory of life; the poem culminates in a paradoxically veiled epiphany (“nobody sees/the moonfish’s light,/nobody knows/the secret glitter/that turns to silver/the darkened water”).

If poems can be like riddles, they are (again according to Frye) almost without exception also allied to that other verbal device employed by Anglo-Saxons, the magic charm. Since the charm’s purpose is to subjugate rather than engage the hearer, it is the polar opposite of the riddle. Named after the Latin word for song (carmen), it exploits the sound of words while withholding meaning in the expectation that the listener will stop the independent activity of thinking, and simply “join the dance”. Barry Crump’s repeated chanting of “Toyota” in his rhythmic poem of that name reminds us that the contemporary equivalent of the ancient charm is the advertisement.

McAlpine’s introduction shows her to be particularly alert to poetry’s capacity to imitate the charm. Claiming that poems have more in common with music than with “stories, essays or news items”, she affirms that “a poem is only half a poem until it is read aloud or chanted” (italics mine). Her belief that poetry is most essentially a matter of sound is certainly shared by “Ben” (evidently a child author), whose narrator (also, touchingly, called Ben) announces: “I’m a snake,/My name is Ben./I’ve just found/This fountain pen” (phew). Cilla McQueen’s “Dogwobble” may defy interpretation, but this is mostly because it is almost as much a charm as Brasell’s “What am I?” is a riddle.

Mahy’s dictionary bird, himself the product of a riddling mentality, flies in with a series of words chosen for their sound: “‘Hugger Mugger’ ‘gimcrack’ ‘guava’/’Waggish’ ‘mizzle’ ‘swashing rain.’” (I was interested to discover from the OED that “hugger mugger” is thought to be onomatopoeic in origin, deriving from the purposefully obscure muttering sound made by people who want their activities to remain mysterious.) Colquhoun, in his always clever and sometimes inspired “The sound of words”, quotes Juliet’s “Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” before representing her words as the semantically meaningless sound created by a man attempting to conjure the presence of his beloved by “revving his motorcycle outside a woman’s house.”

The musical direction of many of the poems is evident from their titles: “Song in summer” (a lovely “old-fashioned” evocation of mutability by Ruth Dallas), “Internet skipping rhyme” (an update by Alan Bagnall), “Boy’s song” (an elegiac poem by Sam Hunt), “Charlotte O’Neil’s song” (in which Fiona Farrell gives a cheerfully rebellious voice to a Victorian servant-girl in an appropriately traditional metre), “Laura sings to her corn-cob doll” (Jan Hutchison’s touching lullaby), and two poems “to the tune of” – Bill Manhire’s incantatory and nostalgic “Vanessa’s song,” and Rae Nicholls’s “The putaputaweta song,” a vigorous incremental exercise (moving by stages from “There’s a putaputaweta” to “There’s a nipper on the weta in the hole in the branch on the trunk on the putaputaweta”).

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In one of McAlpine’s own tidy contributions, “Computers can’t scoot”, the narrator is offered a choice of gifts by a rich uncle (“‘I will get you a scooter/or a brand new computer/but you can’t have both,’ he said”). The niece (or nephew) remains uncertain, but in agreeing to edit an anthology McAlpine was of course agreeing to choose some poems and not others. First on her list of criteria must have been suitability for children. Her inclusion of a number of poems not written for children (or, at least, not written for children in particular) might therefore seem a little odd. And while some of these poems do, in fact, fit perfectly into a specifically children’s collection (Jenny Bornholdt’s “Sang the mother”, for instance), some do not. Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s beautifully constructed “Green”, despite its surface clarity, expresses peculiarly adult longings, and Manhire’s comic masterpiece “Declining the naked horse” would surely bemuse the younger children for whom this anthology was clearly made.

Perhaps because McAlpine is so keen to show that poetry can be “fun”, more than half of the poems in her anthology are humorous. Not all of these are in the end “light” (those by Louis Johnson, Peter Hawes and Brian Turner all reflect on the grim reality of the food chain, for instance), but this proportion still seems rather high. Kuki Kaa’s “A soldier’s letter home” is, sadly, exceptional in addressing heroic action.

On the grounds of poetic quality, too, I had reservations about McAlpine’s selection. Admittedly, she does incorporate many poems that could not be bettered as examples of their type. In “Spring-heeled Jack”, James K Baxter has invented a story that, partly thanks to its nursery rhyme “sprung rhythm”, manages to seem traditional. In “If you feel blue, get on your ski-doo”, Mahy makes a nonsense poem yield a message. Farrell’s “Magic stuff” is so assured that it could have been written by Mahy herself, and her “Once a little kiwi-fruit” is an exceptionally clever fable (it reminded me of that 1950s favourite, “A peanut sat on the railway line”).

Also present, however, are several more or less extreme examples of the type in which child-narrators (often citing “Mum” or “teacher”) are patronising about adults; in the end, these poems patronise children. There are also mediocre poems like “Windscreen wiper” (an inaccurate representation of a monotonous sound), “Nonsense rhyme” (to which all of us could add a verse without much trouble) and “Road cones” (automatic “whimsy”). Some poems are inept. “The dancing school” (a sub-Carrollian description of a submarine dancing class) makes pauas “trot” while its own two-beat rhythm collapses under the pressure of empty words (“But the jellyfish/Who are rather small [not the greatest of their difficulties, surely]/Can’t seem to learn/The steps at all”). Equally weak is “Rainbows”, a flaccid acrostic which (and this would surely offend most young readers) contains a line listing the colours of the rainbow in random order.

It may of course be that “The dancing school”, “Rainbows”, and other inferior contributions are among the thirteen poems that (as McAlpine informs us in her introduction) were written by children – in which case they have various kinds of value. Unfortunately, however, this anthology contains no information at all about the authors represented within it. Nor does it provide the titles of any source publications. Also lacking are indexes of titles and first lines. Furthermore, thanks to the fact that the poems are identified both on the contents page and (very prominently) at their heads by the numbers 1-100, the only index provided (an index to authors) is confusing to use since it gives page, not poem, numbers. All these are serious deficiencies in a book that has so much potential for use in the classroom.

 

Kathryn Walls teaches an Honours course in New Zealand Children’s Literature in the School of English, Film, Theatre, and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in Children, Literature, Poetry and Review
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