When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, back in 2016, there was a collective gasp from the literary establishment. While some critics leapt to the defence of the Nobel committee’s decision, others devoted reams of newsprint to the inevitable question: ‘Can song lyrics be poetry?’
Back in 2008, the renowned poet Simon Armitage had spoken for many when he confidently asserted that ‘songwriters are not poets’, going on to say that ‘songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted clichés and mixed metaphors’ (and this was in an article in which he professed his love for the Arctic Monkeys. Rather than saying that songs were bad per se, he was suggesting that we take them on their own merits).
It is true to say that few children are exposed to much of what many people would consider true ‘poetry’. ‘Poetry’ can so often be seen as something ‘difficult’, and certainly when I was at school a number of teachers analysed the joy out of it, so that what should have been an enriching experience became a dull one. Syllabuses these days focus less on dead white males than they used to, but nonetheless the notion of ‘poetry’ has, in some circles at least, retained that rather elitist veneer.
But what children are exposed to are songs and rhymes, ranging from skipping rhymes in the playground to the latest rap lyrics (and it is worth noting that Seamus Heaney, himself studied on many school courses, praised the ‘verbal energy’ of rap artist Eminem). Take one of the playground rhymes I learned as a child (chanted while throwing balls against a wall):
‘Please, Miss, my mother, Miss,
Forgot to tell you this, Miss,
That I, Miss, won’t, Miss,
Be in school tomorrow, Miss’.
Doggerel? Perhaps. And yet there’s a lot to learn from it. That repeated use of ‘Miss’, providing the verse with its rhythm. The ‘this, Miss’ – two rhyming words jostling against each other within a line, marking both a rhythmic change and one in the rhyme structure. Or how about the skipping rhyme:
‘On the mountain stands a lady,
Who she is I do not know.
All she wants is gold and silver
All she wants is a nice young man.
All right, [girl’s name], I’ll tell your mother,
Kissing [boy’s name] round the corner!
How many kisses did she give him?
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty…’
Not much poetry in there, you might think, and it’s true it wouldn’t win any prizes (not least because of the appalling sexism of ‘all she wants is a nice young man’, although in its defence we also sang ‘all he wants is a nice young girl’ on the few occasions when the boys joined in). And yet the words have a strong beat, and the abrupt change in rhythm in the fourth line is one worth noting.
Or take the lyrics from Stormzy’s ‘Blinded by Your Grace’. I can’t pretend I know much about rap music – my main exposure comes from one of the characters in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty who is an aspiring rapper, and his lyrics are very clever (perhaps unsurprising given that they’re in fact written by a prize-winning novelist whose brother is himself a rapper). But here’s Stormzy with some blinding half-rhymes in Blinded by Your Grace:
On the main stage runnin’ ’round topless
I phone Flipz and I tell him that we got this
This is God’s plan, they can never stop this
Like wait right there, could you stop my verse?
You saved this kid and I’m not your first
It’s not by blood and it’s not by birth
But oh my God what a God I serve
Can we not, when learning poetry, note this and learn from this too? The ‘topless’ juxtaposed with ‘got this’ and ‘stop this’ in the next lines? That repeated use of ‘God’ that punctuates the final line that I’ve quoted?
Whether or not such examples are ‘poetry’, is, for me, something of a moot point. Rather than arguing over genre divisions, perhaps we are better off seeing the potential for poetic learning in so much of the ‘verbal energy’, to use Heaney’s phrase, which surrounds us on an everyday basis. Maybe what we should be doing is using children’s lived experiences – through songs, through rap, through rhymes – as a springboard from which to discover other uses of language (while at the same time not falling into the trap of making value judgements about which linguistics usages are ‘better’).
Bob Dylan famously dithered over accepting the Nobel prize, in part because of his own doubts about whether he deserved it. Perhaps this could be summed up by the oft-quoted (and presumably anonymous) lines ‘I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it’.
But maybe all of us, even young children, can say the same.
‘I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it’.
Elli Woollard is a writer of picture books, young fiction and poetry. Her new poetry book for younger children, Perfectly Peculiar Pets, publishes on 21st March 2019 and is available for pre-order now.