McGilchrist’s understanding of brain laterality also casts new light on our understanding of language. Whilst it cannot be stressed strongly enough that both sides of the brain are involved in all aspects of cognition, it is predominantly the right hemisphere through which music, emotion, metaphor, connotation, ambiguity—in other words all the elements of poetic language—are processed and understood. Notions about language being processed by the left hemisphere, which persist in pop-psychology, are founded on a very limited understanding of a complex situation. There are therefore neurological grounds for saying that childhood and the poetic are connected by and within the right cerebral hemisphere. As I have argued elsewhere (Pullinger 2017), the connections between poetry and childhood run deep, and part of that connection appears to lie within the brain. So then, if we are seeking evidence of connection and continuity between adult and child within literature, poetry might be a good place to start.
Although poetry and drama written for children are beginning to attract more critical attention, narrative texts are still the case upon which most general children’s literature theory is based. There may be some justification for this in that narrative fiction accounts for a large proportion of what is written, published and read as children’s literature. Poetry, on the other hand, is the mode in which many children still have their first encounter with verbal art. And since the relationship between the text and the child (whether real or constructed) is different in a poem, it offers an alternative and hitherto largely overlooked perspective on the relationships amongst text, author and child—and another way of thinking about the idea of childness.
One indicator of that difference is the presence of the child protagonist, which, Hollindale argues, alone “is characteristic of children’s literature as a genre” (1997, p. 39). Leaving aside the problem of taking prose fiction as the model for all children’s literature, it is true that in most children’s narrative texts the constructed child character looms large. Nodelman, in that other field-defining work, The Hidden Adult (2008), ratifies it as a defining trait, and further suggests that children’s literature is normally focalized through a child (or childlike protagonists, such as animal child-surrogates.) The disruptive fact, however, is that many children’s poems are signally devoid of children. As an exercise within my own doctoral research—an investigation of a corpus that comprised the complete work of seven British children’s poets—I coded every poem according to whether there was child protagonist, child speaker or child addressee. This revealed that nearly three-quarters of the poems (771 out of 1,101) had no child figure. So if children’s poetry has any signs of childness, they generally do not inhere in the child protagonist. Hollindale, certainly, allows for the possibility of a child-free childness, saying, in one of his near-contradictions, that there are some texts which are “a masterpiece of childness without young children” (1997, p. 110).
Another essential property of children’s literature noted by Hollindale is “the aesthetic of linear narrative” (1997, p. 66). Clearly this observation arises from the fact that, as already noted, theorists have concentrated on narrative texts; but it relates, too, to the child protagonist. Concern with the protagonist’s progress through the external world and through time, with their processes of growth and development, means that children’s novels and picturebooks tend towards linearity.
Whilst their applicability to the full spectrum of children’s literature may be questioned, it is interesting to note that these proposed traits relate to structures that characterize the texts as narrative. What children’s poetry therefore offers is the possibility of discovering how those traits, or perhaps “signs of childness,” may be manifested outside the conditions of narrative. We might also speculate that in a poem, those traits or signs might relate to the child in precisely those aspects that characterize it as poetry.
So what “signs of childness” can we detect in such a poem?
The words of poems
The words of poems are nails
which tack the wind to a page,
so that the gone hour
when your kite pulled you over the field
blows in your hair.
Here are the opening lines of “The Words of Poems”, chosen by Duffy to open her volume of New and Collected Poems for Children (2009). It sounds a keynote, in the original, musical sense of that phrase: the note that forms the basis of the musical scale and which sets the tone for the ensuing performance. As such, it offers a poetic observation on the nature of children’s poetry.