Saturday, 5 September 2015

Cautionary Tales

I am something of a traditionalist when it comes to poetry and fairy tales for children. I want them to have their imaginations expanded, I want them to be caught up in storytelling, I want them to feel like they're a part of the story.

I also want to scare the pants off them. I don't want them going into the forest at night. I don't want them talking to strangers and letting people they don't know into their home. I do want them to respect their elders, to learn to listen more than speak, to pay attention to what they see, to figure out that they don't always know everything that's going on...

When I was growing up, the bootleg poetry tapes featured some poems by Hilaire Belloc, including The Yak and The Frog, James, who ran away from his Nurse at the Zoo and was eaten by a Lion, and Matilda, who told Lies and was burned to Death. The poems about James and Matilda were part of a collection called Cautionary Tales For Small Children, poems that depicted the unfortunate things that could happen to children who were unruly and poorly behaved and which years later were ably succeeded by Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes and Dirty Beasts.

That being said, there were other poems in the ether that I loved, even at a young age. I still enjoy scary movies, from time to time - when I was a child, I liked (and still do) scary stories. The fairy tale I loved the most was about Snow White, a version where after a corset is cut off, a hair comb is removed, and a piece of apple knocked loose, Snow White's wicked queen stepmother is forced by the seven dwarfs to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance in them until she drops dead.

Sure. A little mean. Definitely a bit macabre.

Three of the poems in my Oxford collection follow here (all by Anon, that gifted genius!):
There was a little girl, and she wore a little curl
Right down the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good,
But what she was bad, she was horrid!

One day she went upstairs, while her parents, unawares,
In the kitchen down below were occupied with meals,
And she stood upon her head, on her little truckle bed,
And she then began hurraying with her heels.

Her mother heard the noise, and thought it was the boys
A-playing at a combat in the attic,
But when she climbed the stair and saw Jemima there,
She took and she did whip her most emphatic.
The first stanza was a verse I heard plenty around the traps growing up. My sister could be horrid sometimes... but the verse was usually by older people about girls from other families who were hellions. My niece has very curly hair and I'm trying hard to not let this kind of thing pop out of my mouth (or even into my thoughts) when I see her becoming a bit... challenging for her mother.
My mother said I never should
Play with the gipsies in the wood;
If I did, she would say,
Naughty girl to disobey.
Your hair shan't curl
And your shoes shan't shine,
You gipsy girl,
You shan't be mine.
And my father said that if I did
He's rap my head with the tea-pot lid.
The wood was dark; the grass was green;
in came Sally with a tambourine.
I went to the sea - no ship to get across;
I paid ten shillings for a blind white horse;
I up on his back and was off in a crack,
Sally tell my mother I shall never come back.
We had no gypsies in the area when I was growing up but the idea of running away with the gypsies - as opposed to being... spirited away - always had a certain appeal. We used to watch The Famous Five on after-school television and there were always gypsies in the background, living in caravans. Ironic that years later I've become addicted to watching videos on YouTube about the tiny house movement - people choosing to downsize and live in small spaces, small lofted houses frequently built on long-frame trailers.

This was about not getting into cars with strangers, or accepting sweets from people you didn't know. It was about parents being scared that they might lose their children and their injunction against playing "with the gipsies in the wood" was actually a cover for that fear. Thirty-five, forty years ago, seems to me, that kids playing in the wood might be more likely found asleep by the creek under a bush, or in a wooden fort in a park that kids thought adults didn't really know about. Now, it seems to me, the threat is more real. Whether that comes with age and a greater understanding of the things that can go awry, or if the world really has gone that much further down the toilet is anyone's guess. I suspect it's a bit of both.
Don't-care didn't care;
Don't-care was wild.
Don't-care stole plum and pear
Like any beggar's child.

Don't-care was made to care,
Don't-care was hung;
Don't-care was put in the pot
And boiled til he was done.
Wilful disobedience and an unruly nature that refuses to be ruled, defies where it should respect, and breaks all the rules it should keep, can only come to one end.


Okay, so maybe that's going a bit far. Brian Wildsmith's painting of the child in the pot, however, captures the petulant face of a child who won't go to sleep, won't eat his dinner, won't take his bath, won't do as he's told.

I don't know that I was ever explicitly told so but I came to the conclusion readily enough that, sooner or later, there was a level of bullshit that my parents just would not put up with. Eventually, I would be packed in a suitcase or a shipping crate with a tin of Milo and a spoon and a roll of toilet paper, put on an airplane, and shipped off to somewhere in Africa. Or South America. Or Asia. Somewhere else - where I would have no family, no-one who cared, and where, if I didn't do what I was told, I may indeed end up in a pot in someone else's kitchen.

This is what becomes of children who fail to appreciate all the blessings they have.

Well, I never took them for granted, I think. Or at least, not all the time.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

By Anon, apparently (this person is prolific!)

The flyleaf of my favourite collection of poetry includes this description:
It is a collection that leads children towards an appreciation of the richness and variety of English poetry. They will find humour of all shades, ballads, poems of mystery, delicate tales of faery, songs of the sea and nature and people, with here and there a jingle or limerick, and always the element of surprise. It is a book that will give many kinds of pleasure to any child and any family.
I received the Oxford Book of Poetry For Children, compiled by Edward Blishen and with illustrations by Brian Wildsmith, as a Christmas present in 1982, when I was eight years old, from an aunt and uncle. By this time my aunt was a published author, whose work continued for many years to be used on the New South Wales HSC English syllabus, and I believe that she wanted me to be sorely infected by the rhyme and rhythm of the poetry collected by Blishen.

I knew many of the poems already, as it turned out. We had for many years been keeps of a bootleg audio cassette of recordings we called "Rhyme And Rhythm", put together (as I had the story later on) by elements within the BBC who felt that poetry was being eroded from the collective consciousness of British children and who called upon actors of the theatre and television establishments to deliver these classic, historic, folksy, and humourous poems in an engaging and memorable way to a new generation of children who parents may have had poetry... shocked out of their heads and their hearts by two world wars and the Great Depression. Whether that's true or not, it seems to me to be a wonderful story and a suitable genesis for the recordings known by the colours of their accompanying books: the Red Book, the Green Book, the Blue Book...

In the following years, while I was in grades three, four, and five, part of our weekly lessons included listening to songs on a tape recorder and later singing along with them. These songs appeared in song books prepared by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for use by schools to promote musicality among students and which, by the by, also fostered in many of us a love for music sorely out of joint with the times we were living in. INXS were singing Listen Like Thieves and Kate Bush was taking us to Wuthering Heights with her ethereal voice but in our grey brick classrooms we were learning to sing along with the Carpenters, the Beatles, and the Seekers, along with Peter Coombes, who seemed to make his musical bones with his contributions to the ABC's Sing! series of songbooks - so much so that he now performs live gigs at pubs and clubs singing songs like Spaghetti Bolognaise and Newspaper Mama that see scores of fortysomethings singing along.

This combination of poetry and music left my creative eyes and ears open to all kinds of things, soaking up examples from the muses like some kind of artistic audience version of the Blob. I listen to all kinds of music (some more than others, of course) and read and listen to a wide variety of poetry too (some, again, more than others). I still write poetry (sometimes) and thoroughly enjoy singing along with the radio, or CDs, or my iPod, or karaoke...

This first post is about perhaps my favourote poem and I can't say that I have much more to say about it than I wrote in a zine about my favourite poems, so I will quote the poem here first and my zine commentary "after-words", haha...
And can the physician make sick men well?
And can the magician a fortune divine?
Without lily, germander, and sops-in-wine,
With sweet-briar
And bonfire
And strawberry wire
And columbine.
Within and without, in and out, round as a ball,
With hither and thither, as straight as a line,
With lily, germander, and sops-in-wine,
With sweet-briar
And bonfire
And strawberry wire
And columbine.
When Saturn did live, there lived no poor,
The king and the beggar with roots did dine,
With lily, germander, and sops-in-wine,
With sweet-briar
And bonfire
And strawberry wire
And columbine.
“This is the last in my top ten. I know of no title and I know of no credited author either. In setting the text into this zine, I googled the first line and came up with this as one of the links given: The LiederNet Archive. Apparently it is from a set of lieder, dating back to the 1600s.

All of this is news to me - it has no history to me, no descendants. It is like Melchizedek, the king-priest in the Bible, of whom it is written, “He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life”. To me, the poem simply exists. I think that is its beauty to me. I never puzzled much about it, wondered what it means, who wrote it or why. To speak it aloud feels to me like honey on my lips; it makes me smile.

It’s hard to read at a sedate pace because by halfway through the second stanza I almost feel as if I’m running down a hill and the only option I have left is to stack it now or ride it out - run all the way to the end - and stack it at the bottom. It makes me wonder about the long centuries of British pagan culture that forms such an enormous part of the language and imagery of English.”