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Infinity and Beyond: The Poetic List in Children’s Poetry

Abstract

Amongst the wide variety of poetic forms found across children’s poetry, the list is strikingly prevalent. Drawing on Umberto Eco’s theory of lists, the article examines how the poetic list plays out in the work of a number of children’s poets, distinguishing four sub-categories, each of which operates in a slightly different way. After a brief consideration of early exponents, including Christina Rossetti, it focuses on the children’s poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, Ted Hughes, Philip Gross and Allan Ahlberg to demonstrate how list poems may create complex effects that belie the simplicity of the form, pointing beyond themselves to the infinite and the ineffable, even as they contain them within embodied language.

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Notes

  1. This survey, which I undertook in the course of a wider doctoral research project on children’s poetry, was based on a corpus of 1,101 poems, comprising all the children’s poetry of Christina Rossetti (first published in 1872), Ted Hughes (published 1961–1993), Charles Causley (published 1970–1994), Michael Rosen (published 1974–2009), John Agard (published 1990–2011), Philip Gross (published 1993–2011) and Carol Ann Duffy (published 1999–2009).

  2. It appears that written symbols, as opposed to representative drawings, were developed for accounting purposes (Wolf, 2008; Robinson, 2007). One of the very earliest known examples of pictogram writing is a set of clay tablets from Uruk, about 3300 BC, listing sacks of cereal and heads of cattle.

  3. Oral compositions typically use additive style, also known as parataxis: a relatively simple syntactical structure in which phrases are straightforwardly added, and if conjoined at all are linked only by co-ordination—that is, marked by the conjunction “and” or “then.” One thing and another. This then that. This stands in contrast to hypotaxis, the elaborate grammatical and syntactical subordinative structures characteristic of written expression, in which logical relationships between elements are made explicit, creating a layered or more three-dimensional representation of the world (like this sentence).

  4. In his seminal work on the psychodynamics of orality, Walter Ong states that “orality knows no lists and figures” (Ong, 2002, p. 97). However, it is clear from his discussion that Ong does not mean that lists do not exist in oral culture. Rather, he is referring to the fact that primary oral cultures’ lists have a different function.

  5. The Infinity of Lists is essentially an annotated anthology, but embedded in its annotation is a developed theory of how and why we make lists. A similar though not identical theory is advanced by Robert Belknap (2004).

  6. In the Iliad.

  7. A duality perfectly encapsulated in the recent publishing trend, which has produced a steady flow of titles with the formula, “50 things to see/do/eat/etc. before you die.”

  8. “Prattle” in Wordsworth is a recurring motif that connotes the young child’s ability to break apart verbal sound symbols and meanings (Rowland, 2012).

  9. The meaning of ‘city plum’ seems a little uncertain, but several sources suggest it was slang for someone possessing £100,000.

  10. Coined by John Rowe Townsend (1965), the term refers to the sea change in the early 1970s, in which children’s poetry broke free of its romanticised (in the popular sense) view of childhood and from traditional poetic forms, adopting vernacular speech and making forays into free verse.

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Correspondence to Debbie Pullinger.

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Debbie Pullinger is a Research Associate on the Poetry and Memory project at the University of Cambridge, where she also teaches on Children’s Literature courses. Her doctoral project, completed in 2013 at the University of Cambridge, was on orality and textuality in poetry written for children.

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Pullinger, D. Infinity and Beyond: The Poetic List in Children’s Poetry. Child Lit Educ 46, 207–225 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10583-014-9230-2

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Keywords

  • Children’s poetry
  • Poetry
  • Lists
  • Orality
  • Carol Ann Duffy
  • Ted Hughes
  • Philip Gross
  • Alan Ahlberg