Rhythm, Rhyme and Form: How Causley Changed Poetry Writing for Kids
One of Charles Causley’s greatest talents—of which there were many– was his ability to write accessible but unpatronising poetry for younger audiences. Causley wrote lots of work for the enjoyment of children, collated in his popular book Collected Poems for Children (2000), containing many wonderful poems with surprising depth. We’re calling on this legacy of his this month at The Maker, recruiting our excellent authors far and wide to write children’s stories and poetry worthy of standing next to Causley’s. As such, we’d like to kick off the proceedings with an exploration into how Causley wrote for kids, in hopes that our writers might sneak a few pointers on how to approach the writing process.
One of Causley’s more well-known poems for kids is ‘I saw a Jolly Hunter,’ which details the humorous story of a hunter who accidently shoots himself rather than an innocent hare. Its most effective stanza is probably its last, in which Causley repeats the word ‘jolly’ four times in as many lines (in fact, the word pops up throughout the poem a total of seventeen times). Though at first glance this repetition may be seen as simplification for young audiences, Causley utilises the different contexts to create different meanings. Used an adjective when next to ‘gun’ and ‘hare’, the word changes its shape into a clarifying adverb, meaning extremely, fully; it was ‘jolly good’ that the hunter ended up ‘jolly dead’, according to the speaker (the ‘I’ of the poem) who shows up in the last line to voice his opinion on the event; one of disdain for the hunter’s pursuit and contentment at justice having been done, despite the violent means. Through this clever (but not confusing) wordplay, Causley teaches children the flexibility of meaning; a word—even a deceptively simple one—can mean a million different things when put in different contexts. Causley teaches young children they need not use extensively embellished or overly complex language to arrive at rich meanings.
The poem is succinct, clearly structured, and reaches a satisfying end. Young audiences can easily recognise the poetic techniques and structures utilised in this piece, showing them how they might effectively apply poetic form to their own work without it needing to become complex or uninteresting. After all, this is still a comedic poem, and its sole purpose must be to engage young readers with poetry, opening their imagination to the world of literature around them.
‘I Saw a Jolly Hunter’ is not the only example of Causley’s poetry for children which reveals hidden depths on analysis. A lesser-known work of Causley’s, ‘My Mother Saw a Dancing Bear,’ holds strong moralistic messages for his young readership. The poem recounts a mother’s tale where she saw a dancing bear by the schoolyard. Though at first read the concept of a dancing bear sounds humorous, Causley goes onto delineate the cruelty the bear faces from his keeper, who forces it to march, perform roly-polys and somersaults for the amusement of others. Causley hints at the dangers of animal cruelty, providing an important lesson to his young readers to treat all living things as equals. His poems did not just set out to entertain children but also to educate them. He did this by never patronising them, nor by preaching to them, but instead by embedding moral messages in entertaining rhymes and entrancing imagery, easily missed if one is reading for surface pleasure. In this sense he differed from many traditional fairytales or bible stories that usually informed moral conduct in children which favoured direct, clear messages about right and wrong over an enjoying story with fun characters. While many of Causley’s poems for kids have a child-like singsong quality about them, when removed from these first impressions his formal poetic structure exposes mature concepts often difficult to grasp even for adults. Causley respected the intelligence of children, and valued their capacity to reach strong moral conclusions without being spoon-fed.
Perhaps in no small part informed by his 35-year stint as a schoolteacher in Launceston, Causley knew his audience and what type of poetic forms they responded to. He valued the joy of children as heartily as that of adults, perhaps more so, and above all was passionate about making poetry accessible at all levels of society by writing poetry for a range of audiences.
Today at the Trust we keep Causley’s passion for children’s poetry alive through our annual Young People’s Poetry Competition, which invites kids aged 5-18 to submit their creative work. Furthermore, with The Maker’s current submissions theme of children’s writing, we’re excited to see how our writers will adapt their style to suit different audiences, to make poetry accessible to all.
Written by Anna Craig, The Maker’s digital intern