Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Feature • CONNECTING CONVERSATIONS with MICHAEL ROSEN • 2008

Michael Rosen in 2009 [Wikimedia]

Michael Rosen in 2009 [Wikimedia]

I was not sure what to expect when I turned up to this event at The Institute of Psychoanalysis. Was the celebrated children’s author and poet Michael Rosen – the words of whose book We’re Going On a Bear Hunt were worn by repetition into deep grooves in my brain some years ago – going to be psychoanalysed? He was not; he was, in fact, doing exactly what it said on the packet, taking part in a conversation, but in the most civilised sense of the word. He was connecting. And if psychoanalysis is all about making connections, connections that stretch back into the brain, towards the closed cupboards of childhood and then out into the world, Michael Rosen is an extremely interesting conversational partner, because his childhood cupboards are flung wide open.

Michael Rosen has written over 140 books and was the first poet in this country to write free verse for children. He is also a veteran performer of his work at the chalk face, going into schools, engaging with children, parents and teachers. Rosen’s work speaks directly to children, using their own language. The author of Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy who, incidentally looks just like an illustration by Quentin Blake, through being able to access his own childhood so freely, has found the source of his creativity.

“So”, asked psychoanalyst Hannah Solemani “what do you think are the links between unconscious processes and the creative work?” At which Rosen gave us a fabulous description of his own creativity as a ping-pong ball going round in his head; his job being to release it and give it the shape that written language can give it. It reminded me of Ted Hughes picturing his own creativity as a wounded fox. Poets are not like the rest of us; they possess their own iconography

Looking at what he has written, Rosen finds he is looking at himself from an angle he couldn’t see before. He claims to have no idea whether the work is any good – all he can do is sense when he has been “authentic to the feelings I was trying to get at”.

Solemani zeroed in on what, one imagines, is a psychoanalysts’ holy grail. Was what he had created the truth? But Rosen had problems with “truth”. “People make meanings out of what they read out of who they are”, he claimed in his deceptively simple fashion. In other words, we all, whether creators or readers, filter the world through our own characters. An audience member, probably of a psychoanalytical disposition, would not let the question drop. But Rosen stood firm; had not our ideas of ‘self’ changed throughout the centuries and with them our understanding of what might be the truth? He quoted Shakespeare’s ‘What a piece of work is man…’ and John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’ as historical moments from literature that changed the way man saw himself, thereby altering his view of the world around him.

From intangible concepts of creativity and truth, Hannah Solemani then steered the conversation towards children and reading. Surprisingly, Rosen doesn’t see himself as a children’s writer. Picture books are for children and for adults; “mediated and shared” they are less children’s books than, say, a Jacqueline Wilson read by the child alone. His simple, heartbreaking Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, written after the death of his son Eddie at 18, is “a book that goes into the relationships between adults and children and is therefore as much for adults”. It was becoming clear that Rosen is not a man to be pigeonholed and that beneath the joyous, anarchical spirit of much of his work lurks a concerned humanist

Here we arrived at an issue very close to Rosen’s heart – the current government’s target-based preoccupation with teaching children to read, contrasted with their apathy at encouraging them to “read books widely and often for pleasure”. “What does reading widely and often do?” asked Solemani. “It gives you easier access to discursive thought, multiplicity of viewpoint and a key to unlock the whole of school-based learning and to negotiate the media world”. No small matter, then. In fact, we ignore these words at our peril. If children don’t learn to enjoy reading widely, we disenfranchise them, not just from the more educated world, but from an emotional and imaginative engagement that cannot be measured by OFSTED.

Rosen has a simple thought that the Government might like to take on board. Capture the parents outside the school gate – in those early years when they all turn up – and, once a week, bring them into the school to read with their children. Not a difficult project, but one that could make a big difference in schools, such as the Welsh primary Rosen has just visited, where there are no reading books at all apart from the Oxford Reading Tree and where here none of the children knew of the existence of the local library and were amazed to discover that they could actually borrow books for free.

And we should teach parents that reading with children doesn’t consist of putting a book in front of them and telling them off every time they get a word wrong. Rosen is right – yes, it is massively important to get the technicalities of learning to read mastered, but it is equally, if not more, important that early reading should be about adults and children sharing and enjoying.

This was an exhilarating conversation, and one with no hidden agenda of books to plug. ‘Only connect’, as EM Forster said: psychoanalysis and literature, writers and readers, children and adults – the more connecting conversations we have, the better.

Claire Ingrams © 2008

Originally published on R&V 30-09-08

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