Review: Ted Hughes: Collected Poems for Children. Faber & Faber, 2005
How do children read? How do they perceive a poem or a story? Ted Hughes was well aware of the dilemma of writing for children. He knew that one could never know for sure how a piece would be perceived, whether it would be understood, or whether it would be successful or not. He solved the problem by settling on a kind of writing that pleased him as an adult and that he felt he would have liked at the age of his imagined audience or that he felt children he knew would like. It was an approach that proved both valid and successful and that made him one of the most accomplished children's poets of his generation.
Ted Hughes's poetic output for children is now available in one book. Collected Poems for Children (October 2005) contains over 250 poems, many of which have not been readily accessible for decades.
The book collects all poems from the various editions of The Mermaid's Purse, The Cat and the Cuckoo, Nessie the Mannerless Monster, Meet My Folks, The Earth-Owl and Other Moon-People, Earth-Moon, Moon-Whales, Under the North Star, What is the Truth, and Season Songs, as well as a few poems that appeared here and there in other collections. There are only a few children's poems missing from this collection. The absence of several little gems that Hughes had already published in collections for children during his lifetime, however, is puzzling (full list below).
Collected Poems for Children comes with illustrations by Raymond Briggs of Fungus the Bogeyman fame. The publishers seem to have aimed at one illustration per poem, which has given some of the pages a crowded feel. Briggs seems a safe choice by comparison to the original illustrators such as Leonard Baskin or Chris Riddell. Nevertheless, many children will be familiar with Briggs's style and I am sure that the pictures will work well for most young reader.
Collected Poems for Children offers countless contexts and settings. So, children, parents and other readers will have plenty to choose from, whether its seasonal poetry, animal poems, jaunty descriptive pieces, or the darker and more evocative poems set in or evoking what Hughes called the ›inner world.‹
As many may expect, there are plenty of animal poems here, ranging from the lighter work of The Mermaid's Purse and The Cat and the Cuckoo to the more mythic and fantastic creatures of Under the North Star, to the descriptions of animals from different points of view of What is the Truth. The book also brings together the eccentric and, admittedly, whimsical descriptions of imaginary family members (Meet My Folks) and two Nessie poems. Other pieces take a similarly light approach but are clearly set in a deeper, ›inner‹ moon-world, which many children will have fun to explore. And finally, the book collects all the poems from the Season Songs project.
An odd editorial decision is the omission of the framing story from What is the Truth, which clearly provides a wider context for the poems. As a result, some poems, and the interim narrative passages in the What is the Truth section, hang in the air.
Collected Poems for Children is not a scholarly edition as Collected Poems was, but a book to read to children from, aimed chiefly at parents, children, educators. As such, it is ordered by proposed accessibility (reading age), and it lacks any critical appendix, foreword or notes. A small critical apparatus would have been a useful addition, giving readers an opportunity to determine how Hughes altered the original books (dropping and adding poems), or to identify poems originally intended for adults and later also published for children and vice versa.
Nevertheless, unless you already own the individual publications, Collected Poems for Children is a book much worth getting – and one that will be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
Poems missing from Collected Poems for Children but previously published in children's collections:
from Moon-Bells and other Poems :
from The Iron Wolf:
Many thanks to Andy Armitage for pointing out mistakes and weaker points in the original draft.
I am also indepted to Faber & Faber for making this review copy available.
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