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A Slice of Butterworth-Toast: Writing Poems for Children

I think I could spot a Charles Causley children’s poem a mile away, in the dark. All of them bear a unique fingerprint of magic, music, and respect for the reader’s wish to be entertained – but it’s also true that no two Causley poems are alike. Flip through his Collected Poems for Children and you’ll find rollicking ballads, surreal ditties, nature poems, war poems, personal legends, naval tales, ghost stories, school stories, playground rhymes, portrait poems, existential enquiries, probing non-preachy morals, gleeful nonsense in the anarchic spirit of Edward Lear, beautiful lyricism, and sheer, unapologetic enchantment.

Here, for example, are two extracts, from the wickedly funny ‘I Saw a Jolly Hunter’ and the achingly tender ‘King Ezra’, a portrait poem of a poor drover whose understanding of animals transforms him, for Causley, into a king:

In the jolly meadow

   Sat a jolly hare.

Saw the jolly hunter.

   Took jolly care.

Hunter jolly eager –

   Sight of jolly prey.

Forgot gun pointing

   Wrong jolly way […]


King Ezra was a drover

Walked the grey miles to town,

His sceptre was a hazel stick,

A billycock his crown […]

And if the flock was hasty

Or herd was slow to hand,

He spoke the secret language

All creatures understand […]

Causley is well-known for his use of traditional form, as is evidenced in these two poems. This can give a simple, sing-song impression on first reading. But his lightly worn formal structures support a deep and expansive understanding of human nature, every bit as complex as a more ‘difficult’ poet’s. As he said himself, “The mere fact of a poem appearing simple in language and construction bears no relation whatsoever to the profundity of ideas it may contain.” His combination of simplicity and profundity is what makes him such an extraordinary and effective children’s poet.

Love rhyme? Causley is the poet for you! Prefer free verse, at least some of the time? Causley is still the poet for you! The spirit of Charles Causley is made up of myriad qualities which we will investigate and enjoy, all of them highly relevant to the contemporary children’s poet interested in respecting children’s intelligence, representing the world in all its complexity, and showing the reader a jolly good time.

And as I am halfway through running the spring term version of this course, I can attest that Causley is endlessly inspiring. My group has written an incredible selection of poems, no two the same, but all with the Causley charm upon them. We have been having the loveliest, liveliest time, and I am delighted to be staying in the world of Charles Causley for another term. Beginners, children’s poets, and poets-for-adults interested in writing for a new audience – you are all warmly welcome. Join me and let Causley cast his spell on you, too!

To explore this topic further, join Rachel Piercey’s upcoming Summer Term course, A Slice of Butterworth-Toast: Writing Poems for Childrenwhich will run 10 May – 19 July.

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