Saturday, 7 November 2015

Poetry in English for Children

                          Saturday, 7 November 2015
                                     Bookworm, Taleigao, Goa

I was invited to do a poetry session for Bookworm, Taleigao, Goa way back in August this year. When it finally happened, with Alia's nudgings, this afternoon it was pure magic. 

I had been following NGO Bookworm’s very interesting activities like poetry on the beach and the signature pre-school mornings on Saturdays billed as ‘a fun early literacy programme.’ When Dwayne (4) began his holiday yesterday I snapped up the opportunity to have him attend the pre-school morning today. This week’s story was ‘Pot of Light’ between 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. Fee Rs. 250.

Mini lunch was at Café Sao Minguel, just across from Bookworm, with chicken biryani, chicken curry and flavoured jeera rice, finished off with some heavenly serra durra. When we trooped in for the session at 2 p.m. I had no idea how it would turn out, but the ambience of Bookworm put me at ease. When I was directed upstairs in the cosy meeting place where the team all sat down on dhurries I knew we were on a good wicket.         

I began by problematizing the title, viz. ‘Poetry in English for Children.’ Deepali pointed out that we need to take on board other languages as well while teaching poetry. This was right on target as much or all poetry for children is assumed to be in English! Poetry needs to be able to transit between languages to be effective in the Indian context. 'Tambde Rosa' in Konkani and 'Pausa Pausa' in Marathi were shared by the team as useful in establishing a connect with L2 learners and a route to poetry in English. I shared my experience of translating my poem 'Barefoot Child' (2006) into Hindi for children who listened with rapt attention at the NGO Salaam Baalak trust in the lane opposite New Delhi station. 

Poetry combats the desensitization and the drivel of mass media and sometimes of social media. Though one may enter a poem at any age and at any level it is useful to classify poetry for children within the school format. Dwayne rose to the occasion and recited all the poems he knew at the Lower KG. ‘I hear thunder,’ ‘Teddy bear,’ and ‘Two little monkeys’ all had their day. We took up for discussion the poem:


Leaves are falling (2)
To the ground
Without a sound.

Days are getting shorter
Nights are getting longer
Fall is here (2)

This beautiful poem ‘shows’ how Fall /Autumn is, rather than ‘tells’ us the way it is. This is a crucial difference between an successful poem and a mediocre one. Like out of a scene from the movie Forrest Gump we saw a yellow leaf cascade onto the road from on high when we were driving in from Vasco.

The group debated on the word ‘fall’ and its efficacy in the Indian context.  Would an Indian child understand its nuances? Samuel said the word ‘fall’ is used as a noun and a verb. Sujata observed that the clutch of poems taught in India did not have the same semantic density as ‘Fall.’ The switch to more difficult poems later becomes that much harder, she felt. We need to free-fall into poetry with no inhibitions. Only then can we become worthy to be anointed at its fount.

Several poems were read across classes 1-8 with particular emphasis on figures of speech like, alliteration and repetition. Themes like freedom and the immensity of nature were mulled upon. Several times we paused in mid-sentence ravished by the visual in the accompanying power-point presentation. I then asked the group to write a poem on the visual. Many laudable attempts were made – one even a haiku.

Poems are contextual. When we read 'At the Seaside' by R.L. Stevenson, Sujata queried whether a child living inland would be able to identify with it. The group came round to the awareness that poetry gives you the gift of imagination. A child must be able to 'feel' the pain of another child in war-torn Sarajevo through a connection with the images on the page. 'The Balloon Man' by Rose Fyleman made us ponder over the lines in the last verse which begin with, 'Some day perhaps he'll let them go . . .' What do possessions mean to us? Can we let them go, just for them to 'look pretty in the sky'? Sarojini Naidu took us 'In the Bazaars of Hyderabad' with the somber realization that all the baubles and all the silks lead to garlands, 'Sheets of white blossoms / To perfume the sleep of the dead.'

I tried to coax the group to find their own poetic voice inspired by the zillion images India offers. Unheeding this warning would lead us to be parasites on Western models like Frost and Dahl. For this we need to be receptive to unlisted and unknown authors as well. As long as a poem touches you, for me that author is great. To beckon the muse Niju gallantly served tea and coffee to the group.

Queenie shared with the group the case of a child who was abandoned in a dustbin in dead of night with its mouth taped. The child survived till the next morning and when the tape was removed it promptly smiled! This resilience is what characterizes the children to whom Bookworm is dedicated.   

It is critical for Goa to tell its own stories and even more so for children to read them. Completing a decade in reawakening the reading habit among children, Bookworm is now into publishing. I was presented with 3 creations from their stable, viz. Once Upon a Feast (2012) by Mia Lourenço, set in Velim, Goa describes, through the eyes of a child, what happens at the feast Mass of St. Francis Xavier. My Godri Anthology (2013) by Merle Almeida is a stitching together of memories of events in the life of a grandmother in Goa in the 1900s. The last is Threading Texts within Contexts (2015) by Maxine Bernsten edited by Jane Sahi and Sujata Noronha. In a happy exchange of books, Bookworm graciously bought a copy of my self-published books of poems, viz. Last Bus to Vasco: Poems from Goa (2006) and A Peace of India: Poems in Transit (2011).

Sujata Noronha, Director, Bookworm, and me had exchanged emails in 2009 when I had drawn on their work known as the Paithona project for a research paper on ‘ELT Publishing in India’ at a conference in Udaipur, Rajasthan November that year.* At that time I was single and an executive in a publishing house in Delhi. Today I came as a parent, and as an educator having made the choice to return to Goa, to give back to Goa.

The soiree into the land of poetry ebbed to a close with Sujata reading ‘Pilar’ from A Peace of India. She had deemed it necessary to do a session on poetry as a professional development exercise for the Bookworm team as 'the team needs the time and space to explore this genre before we take the magic and possibility outward.' As we reluctantly made our way out of Bookworm at 4.30 p.m. I was hoping we made a beginning.

Let me end with a poem:

Forgive a Child

-Monica Tibb

Forgive a child, it is so young
As young and innocent it can be
The wrong, it comes not from its heart
Its mind is what wanders far.

It knows not of the step it trod
While prancing lightly in this world
The world that is so large so crude
Whose comprehension’s not for it.

The wind can carry it away
So blow that far with forgiveness
Prick not the child with ugly thorns –
Tickle it with living flowers.

Lead it not to the walls of men
For it will shut itself within
And find too late that strong they are
It is so much like soft clay now.#
Pix courtesy < See 'Barefoot Child' at *Published in Issues in English Language Teaching and Research edited by H.S. Chandalia and G.K. Sukhwal, Jaipur: RBSA Publishers, 2011. ISBN 978-81-7611-549-0. #Milestones in My Life (2009) by Monica Aurora, Cinnamonteal Publishing, Goa. 

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