Michael Rosen’s going on an ‘old dead poet’ hunt at Keats House
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
The former children’s poet laureate is taking over as poet in residence at the Hampstead insitution next week, finds Bridget Galton.
He’s been the children’s laureate. He is Professor of Children’s literature at Goldsmiths. Now Michael Rosen dips his nib into the ink as poet in residence at Keats House.
As the annual Keats Festival kicks off today, the 69-year-old becomes the latest contemporary writer charged with keeping alive the Romantic poet’s flame.
As someone who’s done more than most to engage young readers with the magic of verse, he’s a brilliant choice to make what he calls “an old dead poet” accessible.
“All of us (writers in residence) are interested in performing, reading in public, engaging with people afterwards.
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“You get to open the doors and say, ‘You can come and sit and be absorbed by the place and get the vibe.’
“The nice thing about being engaged with an old dead poet and being a writer yourself is you don’t have to pretend to objectivity. You can’t leave yourself out of it. I want to pick up from the spirit of Keats. Re-engage with the same themes, give it a go and see where I go with it.
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“I’m interested in looking at stuff in the British Museum and wondering how or why those Greek artists could fix a moment.”
Poets like Keats, he worries, can seem distant without relevance to modern lives.
“But the way he expressed his emotions is no different from the latest song,” he enthuses.
So over the next year, expect Rosen to bring local schools and families to the poet’s former Hampstead home to explain “why these old dead geezers wrote poems”.
Growing up in Pinner and Muswell Hill, Rosen was the child of teachers who read to him every night.
When young fans ask how he fell into the job, he always tells them “It’s because I was lucky enough to have parents who were interested in poems. My mum used to recite bits of verse, and my dad would walk around the house shouting Shakespeare.
“I was immersed in old dead poets from the day I was born. I can’t pretend I sprang from nothing.”
He continually harvests this literary upbringing and rich reference in verse whose quirky humour and biographical honesty has helped endear him to thousands of young readers.
“Poets are scavengers. We grab ways of expressing things around us, an ad, a song, an old poet, something from our own lives, we nick the sounds and ideas going way back to the Ancient Greeks.”
A youth theatre member who later acted in plays while at Oxford University, there was always a strong performance theme in Rosen’s life.
After Uni he landed a graduate traineeship at the BBC but was asked to go freelance, he says, because ‘M15 had an office in Broadcasting House and recommended I was sacked’ (for left-wing activities).
Broadcasting’s loss was publishing’s gain as he began writing poetry and visiting schools.
His idiosyncratic performance style can be traced to an event at one school in Kensal Rise.
“I used to hide behind a book. Stand at the front and read the poems in what I thought was an expressive voice,” he says.
“One day a teacher snatched the book out of my hand and said: ‘We know that poem, don’t we?’
“The whole school sang the poem back to me. It was an epiphany, a lightbulb moment when I realised instead of all that talky stuff I had been doing, I could put the book down, wave my hands, act it out. I could see in that moment an infectious way to transmit poetry with all of your body, those very physical skills of traditional storytelling.
“That was 1978; I’ve been doing it every day since.”
Shortly afterwards he began seeking out children’s verse and oral rhymes to adapt for his performances.
It was one such American summer camp song about a bear hunt that was spotted by a publisher at Walker Books who “married” him up with Hampstead illustrator Helen Oxenbury.
She turned We’re Going on a Bear Hunt into a picture book about a father’s ill-advised hunting trip; its enduring appeal springs from an instantly memorable refrain learned by heart by young children the world over.
“I was playing football in Finsbury Park with my 10-year-old the other day and we overheard a two-year-old saying: ‘Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it’, says the dad of five.
“We stood there quiet, pretending we were doing the football as they walked past us. It was so lovely. That’s the magic of two things: the folk tradition producing a rhyme, and Helen creating pictures that made an epic family drama out of it, that are so absorbing it’s engaged that two-year-old.”
He confesses that when he first saw Oxenbury’s illustrations he thought, ‘What are the kids I work with in Hackney going to make of that?’
“I was so wrong. They might never have been to a cave yet the magic of it is they feel as though they can and have. It’s so narrow to think children won’t engage with an experience they haven’t had first hand.”
People, he says, imagine that writing books for two-year-olds is as simple as being one. But he believes the picture book deserves to stand alongside other great art forms.
“To engage a two-year-old is just as important a job in the world of literature history and art as to engage an adult.”
He believes stories like Bear Hunt function as a means of processing fears.
“Dangers expressed in a book for children are overcome. People escape. The drama for the child is they can experience that fear and get over it. Each time you see the child hugging herself with the fear and pleasure that we have survived. It’s an elemental reason human beings invented literature so they can experience the narrative of coping with fear and danger.”
Rosen spent much of his adult life in Hackney, before moving back to Muswell Hill four years ago - only to find the Parkland Walk in place of the train line he used to know.
“I can remember sitting on a fence at Crescent Road and waving at the trains like the railway children!”
An often outspoken critic of Government literacy policy he’s currently fearful that Standard Assessment Tests to “count, proscribe and measure children’s reactions to a poem, or confine it to exact or correct meanings”, are suppressing their imaginations.
The dictat “phonics first, fast and only”, he says, is at odds with the open-ended nature of stories.
“Some have removed picture books from the classrooms of reception and year one because children find them ‘confusing’. But as well as teaching us to read, nursery rhymes and stories show why we learn to read.
“Do I see that as a threat to reading? You bloody bet I do. Teachers feel unable to share non-phonically driven text, depriving children of the purpose of literature itself which is ultimately to be better more compassionate human beings.”
Equally guidance on the SATS seven-year-olds will sit next May depressingly focus on retrieving, inferring and extracting correct information.
“What they are asking children to do is so deadly, dull and boring, on a narrow retrieval or inference basis where any interpretation is wrong and teachers are forced to teach children how to think narrowly,” says Rosen, who goes on to give an example of how a child can reasonably answer a question and be “wrong”:
It is raining. Bob is wearing a blue hat.
Question: Why is Bob wearing a blue hat?
Correct answer: Bob is wearing a blue hat because it is raining.
Wrong answer: Bob is wearing a blue hat because he supports Chelsea.
“The problem is it narrows teachers’ approaches to poetry. No-one writes poems to be inferred, we write so people will interpret in an open ended way, we want to start conversations, to express big ideas, talk about identity, and culture, to play with language without having to be literal. Keats wanted you to think about beauty being truth and truth beauty, it was a revolutionary idea at the time that you should be free to interpret what you read and look at.
“Being free to think what you like is a fundamental human right.”
Keats Festival is a series of performances, talks, workshops and family activities running until a finale on June 7 when Dalit Nagra officially hands over to Michael Rosen as poet in residence. Details at cityoflondon.gov.uk