In 2020, I fell in love with Charles Causley’s poems for children. Like many readers, I had encountered ‘I Saw a Jolly Hunter’ and ‘Timothy Winters’ in anthologies, but in the lull of lockdown I sat down with my Macmillan Collected Poems for Children and devoured the lot. With the poems ringing in my ears, I wrote a blog post for the Children’s Poetry Summit in praise of Causley’s endings; he has such a way with an echoing last line. And then I kept reading and rereading.
When I was invited to design a new ten-week online children’s poetry course for The Poetry School, I knew immediately that I wanted to focus on Causley’s poems, sharing my favourites and workshopping students’ responses. Over five fortnightly assignments, we looked at Causley’s work through the lenses of Ballads and Choruses, ‘Riff-Poems’, Personal Legends and Folk Tales, Nature, and Respecting Children’s Intelligence. The course ran twice, with twelve students each time, and it was joyful– Causley’s unique blend of existential enquiry and high entertainment made for a deeply satisfying experience and produced a wide range of wonderful poems in response.
One of my favourite assignments was ‘Riff-Poems’ – the best catch-all phrase I could find to describe Causley’s endlessly inventive use of repetition, refrain and variation. Causley is skilled at growing a poem around a single word, phrase or idea: for example, there’s the satirical accumulation of “jolly” in ‘I Saw a Jolly Hunter’; the wilful dreaminess of ‘Lie-abed, Loafer’, with its rhythmic synonyms for someone lazy; the pure pleasure in sound of ‘Good morning, Mr Croco-doco-dile’; the haunting folk phrases of ‘Jack’, all using this name in different ways; and the exuberant silliness of ‘Out in the Desert’, where every line rhymes with and echoes the spelling of “sphinx”.
The students’ poems in response were all differently delightful – on a range of subjects, but unified by the riff-poem’s manifest pleasure in language and its many possibilities. The speaker of Carole Bromley’s ‘A Tale of Ten Rivers’, with its folk-inspired first line of each stanza, has a different sensory and/or emotional experience by each waterway:
As I was walking by the Trent
I said some things I never meant
but I was all alone that day
and so my words just blew away.
In ‘Can a Dandelion Roar’, Gemma Koomen roams playfully through weeds and wildflowers, drawing attention to their strange and marvellous names:
Can a Dandelion roar?
Does a Foxglove have paws?
Can a Harebell leap?
Does a Chickweed cheep?
Sarah Ziman’s ‘Dogs’ echoes the proliferation of idioms in Causley’s ‘Jack’, skilfully weaving phrases to do with dogs into rhyming couplets:
A dog in the manger keeps things they can’t use
A dog with a bone won’t give up – they refuse.
And Jacqueline Shirtliff’s ‘Too Many Bottles’ uses a spine of repetition to create an accessible environmental poem, giving voice to the creatures affected by plastic in our oceans:
Too many bottles, said Dolphin.
Too many bags, said Whale.
Too many wrappers, said Great White Shark.
Too many straws, said Snail.
It was a privilege diving so deep into Causley’s work in such good company, and I will continue to enthuse about his work whenever and wherever I can. I recently started an online workshopping group for children’s poets named after Causley’s ‘As I Went Down Zig Zag’. Zig Zag Stanza is part of The Poetry Society’s network of local poetry groups, known as Stanzas, and we often talk about Causley in our sessions. I am so glad I got to know and love his work, and to join the band of devotees who have that particular sprinkling of magic over their lives, thanks to him.
Rachel Piercey is a poet, children’s writer, and the editor of Tyger Tyger Magazine, an online journal of new poems for children. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press, contributes to the Children’s Poetry Summit blog, and regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in primary schools. Rachel has written a poetry search-and-find book, If You Go Down to the Woods Today (Magic Cat, 2021), and three pamphlets of poems for adults; the most recent is Disappointing Alice, published by HappenStance.