Mark Wood of The Times of Malta interviews Shaun Traynor

In Malta while on a visit


A poet's calling

We may tell them bedtime stories but how often do we read poems to our children? Mark Wood met the Northern Irish poet and novelist Shaun Traynor who finds it very rewarding to recite poetry in schools... and he says it has a wonderful effect on the kids.

Does poetry have a role to play in child development? The traditional rhyming poetry which has rhythm is great for young children. It builds memory and helps build up a bank of vocabulary. Poetry can also lead to development of thought - consider this amusing enigma: Yesterday upon the stair/I met a man who wasn’t there/He wasn’t there again today/I wish that he would go away.” It’s very amusing, but it makes a child think. Later, at about nine or 10, a child might be introduced to modern poetry which does not necessarily rhyme but is profound and again, says something that a young person can think about.

Did you read poetry to your children when they were young? Well, I made up poems for them. I made it fun and they’d learn them off by heart. Jog-jog poems when I would be carrying them or they were getting tired .. then maybe something calm at night or melodious.

What is the effect of poetry on the young reader? Poetry is supposed to be enchanting. When you are reading a beautiful poem to an eight-year-old which is perhaps difficult to understand, the sound and the melody are as important as meaning; an English poet friend of mine once said a poem should be half melody, half meaning. There should be a sense of mystery, of enchantment. When I read poetry to children in schools you can see they are being enchanted, transfixed. They are taken off to a different level of experience, which need not be analysed. Poetry is not about analysis, it is about moving the heart. And I always see that in the children I read to.

How do you grab their attention? I say a quiet: “Okay, I am going to read a poem now.” That draws them into a magic circle. It’s as if we all make some kind of pact, that we are going to enter something quite mysterious.

Does that work parent to child? That is what one could strive toward: “Okay darling, I am going to read a poem now.” And suddenly it’s sacred. This sort of cue works with children… the parent at that moment becomes a sort of magician or a medium through which something special is going to happen.

Could you recommend some poetry that parents could buy for their children? My own anthology The Poolbeg Book of Irish Poetry for Children follows my ideals but a more comprehensive overview might be had from The Rattle Bag, poems collected by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. But a poem which a parent really likes will communicate a lasting love of poetry.

The poet’s inner child “When I was a university student we had a visiting lecturer who talked about early language development in children and about how a child might discover simple sounds like “mamma”, “dad-da.” On this rhythmic basis the infant would begin to form language. I thought, that’s exactly what poets do. That evening, I was walking by the River Thames - near where I lived at the time - and from the trees, I heard birds singing. I deduced that some of them would be fledglings and would have been learning to sing by imitating their parents. So I began to construct a poem comparing how birds learn to sing with how a child learns to talk, and how a parent takes delight in listening to his or her child learn.

In the mind of the poet there is always a child, because the poet must always be a child; a poet must see everything for the very first time, everything must always be new to him ...


Consider the thrush how it learns to sing,
and then the song that has brought it fame,
remember that this is no ordinary thing,
but something learned in beauty’s name.

Consider the child, how it learns to talk,
before it has gained a foothold in speech,
will turn in its bed and try all the sounds
that would seem to bring words a bit nearer its reach.

Consider the mother of each feather-less bird,
how she warms every egg ’til she hears the first cheep,
and think of a mother’s delight in the word
of a child that can sing as soon as it speaks.

Then consider the poet and fill up his cup,
for the bird it has flown and the child grown up,
the child and the thrush you will find in his head,
consider the poet before he is dead.

Shaun Traynor with Mark Wood