Childhood heroes are held to an impossibly high standard. I don’t mean by their bosses at Blue Peter, who can generally be kept happy as long as nobody is taking cocaine with prostitutes, but by the very recipients of their charm and magnetism. When I was very young, in my mind, Big Bird and The Count could literally do no wrong. There were no moral ambiguities to their characters — well, maybe some in the case of The Count — and they held no flaw.
Michael Rosen was probably my ultimate childhood hero. The author of dozens of collections of children’s poetry, from You Wait Till I’m Older Than You to We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Rosen represented something almost magical to me. He was funny, wild looking — like one of the Quentin Blake illustrations that accompany his books, come to life — and, critically, in plentiful supply, by which I mean, because he produced poems and not action men, I could fleece my parents out of the money for another of his anthologies every other week.
Rosen has, until very recently, held the post of Children’s Laureate, a role established by the then-Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, and Michael Morpurgo in 1999 as a way for a particular individual to have a funded mandate to advocate children’s literature. Rosen used the opportunity to fulfil what one might call his raison d’être; making young people enthusiastic about poetry, and changing the way it is taught in schools so that this is allowed to happen. He spends large chunks of his time in schools and at public events, where he performs, teaches, and generally does everything in his power to pass some of his own unbridled passion onto the inevitably enraptured audience before him.
I saw him at a recital in a library about thirteen years ago, and the memory has always stayed with me. Before the event, I held some pretty strong suspicions that such a spectacle could not work. I loved Rosen’s poetry, but the natural solipsism of childhood had endowed me with the unassailable belief that the rest of the audience simply did not. How could they possibly understand what felt like such a private set of jokes? Well, seeing him put those ideas to rest. The experience was revelatory. Rosen spoke to every child in the room — literally and figuratively — and he was unique for every one of us.
Maybe I should have remembered that lesson before I spoke with Rosen earlier this summer, as he was about to hand over the title of Laureate to the acclaimed illustrator Anthony Browne. Just as he was completely distinct for every library attendee, he seemed like a wholly different person now that I was asking questions as a journalist, rather than as an awe-stricken eight year old. I expect (somewhat naively) the same fantastic, luminescent bard, all exaggerated gestures and wild facial expressions. Rosen-the-adult, however, is serious — not at all unfriendly, but business-like and polemical.
This is never more evident than when we discuss what schools are doing so badly when it comes to teaching poetry — and what they should be doing. Rosen could hold forth on this subject for hours: his answers have the flavour of someone who is not only totally, completely committed to the cause, but also well versed in the government’s line and the fine details of English curricula. So, where exactly is everyone going wrong?
“First of all, schools try to turn poetry into a course, as if somehow or other you go from nonsense poetry to free verse, and this is absurd. Poetry can’t be constrained like that, and when it is, you ruin it — it’s like caging an animal. In the words of William Blake: “A robin red breast in a cage, puts all heaven in a rage”. The whole point about poetry is that it’s open-ended, it’s suggestive, it doesn’t come down with firm, fixed conclusions, and unless you free poetry in classrooms, all you’ll get will be dull, mechanistic responses, imitations of other people’s poems, and you don’t go very deep at all.”
The way Rosen considers the question makes his answer seem like some grand manifesto for children’s education. He doesn’t finish there; the liturgy of errors continues rolling eloquently off his tongue.
“The government’s guidelines are totally, totally absurd. I’ve seen the way they’ve worked with my own children, I’ve seen what happens when some people try and squeeze what I do into that framework — and none of us who write poetry like it. And then it gets even worse, because the way in which children are invited to respond to these poems is geared up to tie them into the SATs. The kinds of questions they ask are narrow-based, silly, factual questions about what kind of poem it is, or count-the-adjectives, spot-the-metaphors. This has nothing to do with poetry, and the process of poetry, but everything to do with how to get kids through exams. And then teachers are nervous, they’re worried about their position on the league tables, so they dish out worksheets on poetry to kids.”
The word “worksheets” is spat out with such contempt that I’m afraid Rosen will slam the phone down and the interview will be over. His righteous indignation is slightly terrifying. And he still isn’t quite finished.
“The idea of reducing poetry to worksheets is an utter disaster, and they should be ashamed of themselves”.
Given such a mountain of obstacles, then, can poetry even be taught in schools when there is a curriculum to follow?
“I know it can be. Once you free teachers up and say: “How could you make your classroom poetry-friendly — forget all that SATs stuff — how could you do it?” — suddenly they come up with ideas about poetry corners, doing cabaret, and dramatic ways of exploring anthologies. They might make a whole wall of poetry, and the teacher could write out a poem onto a huge sheet of paper without any questions, just to see what happens. And what happens is the children themselves start asking questions. Then you’re running — not when they answer questions; when they ask them.”
Rosen is obviously optimistic, in spite of the resistance he often comes up against — and not just in the notion that children can learn more effectively, but also that with better teaching, poems can become a truly affecting form for everyone.
“If you say to teachers, “When you a read a poem, only ask questions that you don’t know the answer to,” you completely flip the paradigm. Open-ended questions like ‘did that poem remind you of anything’ make people feel like they’re in a room of equals, and can respond to a poem with equal validity, no matter who they are.”
The performative nature of Rosen’s work is so strong that I am curious as to which he enjoys more: writing poems or speaking them out loud. On this subject, he is yet another kind of Michael Rosen — this one is as contemplative as when he talked about government failings, but all the bitterness has vanished from his voice; replaced with sheer enthusiasm.
“It’s quite difficult to describe, but for me, performance is as important as the writing. Even if I wasn’t writing, I’d be interested in reading poems; I’d be a storyteller. It’s just a great way to explore ideas; feelings; emotions. For many children, this is the way poetry finally comes alive.”
Being awarded the laureateship certainly provided plenty of those opportunities. What, then, does Rosen consider his greatest triumph in his capacity as ambassador of children’s literature?
“Two or three things, really — I was very proud to set up the Roald Dahl Funny Prize for the funniest books of the year — that’s up and running and I’m dead chuffed. And I’ve set up a kind of children’s poetry YouTube called Perform a Poem.”
I will always think of Rosen’s defining achievement as being his 2004 work Michael Rosen’s Sad Book; the book he wrote as a way of dealing with the sudden passing of his son Eddie, who died at the age of nineteen from meningitis. Sad Book, which is so incredibly honest that it transcends any sort of age barrier, must be the one of the most moving treatments of grief ever committed to the page. I feel slightly apprehensive, asking questions about what seems like such an intimate subject — even though Rosen made his feelings open by writing the book. So, choosing the rather cowardly route, I save it for my last question. What drove him to write it?
“I was constantly trying to find ways to express what was going on, and as I tried to express my emotions, suddenly out it popped in the mode of writing I was most used to. And I suddenly thought, ‘hang on a minute, this is interesting and slightly awful,’ because what kept happening is that I’m arriving in schools and children who knew my Eddie poems, as they called them, would say, ‘What happened to Eddie?’ And then I thought, ‘I haven’t got a child-sized way of explaining this.’ Suddenly I found this actually helped me as well. It’s a kind of elemental way of writing; you have to get to the barebones. That’s what the book’s about.”