Michael Rosen and Marina Boroditskaya discuss children’s poetry and the state in this issue of Modern Poetry in Translation. The discussion begins by considering the children’s poet Kornei Chukovsky, whose poems and stories were banned in the Soviet Union for decades after Chukovsky’s work was publicly attacked by Lenin’s wife, the educator Nadezhda Krupskaya in 1929. Krupskaya complained in a ‘resolution’ passed by the parents of the Kremlin’s kindergarten that Chukovsky’s work did not address social themes and the children in his poems had neither social feeling nor desire to further the aims of the collective. She added that the work encouraged superstition and anxiety and praised the kulaks and the petit bourgeois. According to Krupskaya, Chukovsky’s famous poem ‘Crocodile’ gave an ‘incorrect representation of the world of animals and insects’:
There was once
Who would wander through the streets and smile
Smoking all the while
(And speaking fluent Turkish)
O Crocodile, Mr C Rocodile
But it is sobering to remember that, for Chukovsky, Krupskaya’s absurd claims and the subsequent litany of attacks on him and his poetry were personally devastating. His misery can be felt in his letters, prose and memoirs, ‘My name has become a term of insult’, he writes. ‘I haven’t written a line for three years’. Desperate, hard- up and lonely, in the winter of 1929 Chukovsky was persuaded to sign a letter renouncing his own work and it contained the following haunting prophecy: ‘I realized that anyone who refuses to take part in the collective work of creating a new existence is either a criminal or a corpse.’
Krupskaya considered literature to be an instrument to educate and impart certain social values. But the idea of children’s literature as a pedagogical ‘tool’ is not limited to the worst years of Soviet history: both Michael and Marina discuss how harmful such ideas are in the contemporary world. Marina details the frightening crackdown on Russian children’s literature under Putin, and the banning of work that promotes lifestyles that seem ‘deviant’ to Russian politicians.
Closer to home and less obviously malign, the new primary syllabus in the UK encourages the reading of poetry at primary level but, as Michael Rosen points out, the poems are mere instruments to test comprehension. They are simply vessels for ‘meaning’. Robbed of all their other joyful and unruly attributes, poems are made into rather unreliable workhorses, forcing teachers to ask the deeply misguided question ‘what does the poet want to say?’ as if the poet would have expressed herself in a clearer fashion had she stuck to prose.
After such exercises children will be right to wonder what the point of poetry is. This is sad because my experience in schools tells me that children instinctively know what poetry does, whereas adults have forgotten. Teachers would be better off asking questions which allowed children to show them how to read a poem. Children understand that a poem is a thing to be opened up and entered, and not to be closed and sewn tight with the thread of meaning.
The introductions to the poems in the children’s focus have been written with children in mind. We hope every reader will share a poem with a child.