The Poetry of the Playground

My boyfriend gave me an apple

My boyfriend gave me a pear

My boyfriend gave me a kiss on the lips and threw me down the stairs

Kids these days just don’t know how to play. Not properly. Unless they’re jabbing away at a DS or doing some supervised wet felting, they simply stare into space and ask for biscuits. They certainly don’t play lovely imaginative games, or make up brilliant rhymes like we did when we were young. You know, like that one about the Batmobile losing its wheel. On the motorway.

All cobblers of course. But that’s exactly what Iona and Peter Opie were told back in 1947 when they started conducting their field research in playgrounds across Britain. ‘You’re fifty years too late,’ people said. ‘You won’t hear any more rhymes. Children have moved on to new fangled pursuits like hopscotch and bananas’.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. The Opies spent the next few decades meeting thousands of children in their own territory, the playground. I Saw Esau presented the first fruits of their wonderful labour; an amazing book of rhymes, taunts and nonsense. It’s one of the funniest collections of poetry and song you’ll read, crackling with a love of language.

I gave him back his apple

I gave him back his pear

I gave him back his kiss on the lips and threw him down the stair

But where did it all come from? The Opies were told that the rhymes must have been remnants of pre-historic rituals – of war, religion or marriage. People couldn’t quite believe that primary school children were capable of making this stuff up themselves.

But the Opies weren’t particularly interested in these arguments. They weren’t there to analyse, or editorialise. They were anthologists of folklore. What was important to them was collecting as much of this stuff as possible, recording it exactly as it was told, before it disappeared forever.

The subtitle of the book is ‘The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book’. According to Iona Opie it served a very specific function, helping children survive school.

‘Many (of the rhymes) are directly concerned with the exigencies of school life: the need of a stinging reply when verbally attacked; the need for comic complaints in the face of persecution or the grinding drudgery of school work; the need to know some clever rhymes by heart, with which to win popularity’.

I took him to the sweet shop

To buy some bubble gum

But when he wasn’t looking I stuck it up his bum

Nearly half a century after it was first published a copy of the book found its way into the pocket of Maurice Sendak. It was one of those perfect pairings. Sendak’s output had slowed down to a trickle in the decade since Outside Over There (1991), but this new book seemed to re-ignite some of the old fire.

‘He would scribble on the pages and fill in the spaces whenever he felt like it’. Opie wrote. ‘With Sendak illustrations, the book has a new strength and an extra dimension. It is more than ever a declaration of a child’s brave defiance in the face of daunting odds.’

The spirit of Max and Mickey lives on through the words of real children. Sendak shows them gathered in little gangs, strong together and armed with rhymes to face down some truly horrible individuals. People like Tommy Johnson, Hangy Bangy or ‘Eaper Weaper, chimney sweeper – had a wife and couldn’t keep her. Had another, didn’t love her – Up the chimney he did shove her’.

Michael Rosen revisited the work of the Opies a few years ago for a Radio 4 series based around Iona’s later book, The People in the Playground. He wondered whether the love of rhyme they’d found in I Saw Esau, and the array of playground games they documented in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren still had any place in children’s play today.

Of course it does. To prove it Rosen recorded a little ditty which has been going round playgrounds in various forms over the last few decades, one which would definitely make the pages of a new edition of I Saw Esau.

I made him lick the dishes

I made him lick the floor

I made him lick the babies bum in 1994

The culture of the playground, and the health of children’s imaginations is as lively as it ever was. As it’s national poetry day, why not read this book and rediscover a little of the undiluted energy and joy that we experience when we first begin to play with words.


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