The Language of the Poem
The Butterfly Magician
Many of these comments are the same as, or similar to, those for my other long poem, ‘The Magic Makers’, because they apply equally to ‘The Butterfly Magician’.
In terms of writing, the most important phase of my career was during my seven years as the Head of English at Pendleton Sixth Form College in Salford. We were a national pilot for the then newly-created English Language ‘A’ Level and for several years were the largest centre in the country. One important aspect of the new syllabus was Writing for Children. This was linked to the study of Child Language Acquisition.
I have always been guided by my knowledge of the stages of child language development but I have never been inhibited by it. This is partly because creativity has its own life and partly because it is important not to lock children into linguistic cells.
It is vital to find ways through to a child’s mind and imagination. Rhythm is central to this. Its music is so powerful that it can excite not just the emotions but also the intellect, leading children to an understanding of vocabularies beyond their notional range. Onomatopoeia has similar potency because sounds and meanings are so closely inter-linked; indeed, some linguists believe that early speech involved both speech and song, with no clear sense that the two were at all different.
Language also extends beyond the auditory range into other senses. Some words feel good in the mouth, having a ‘taste’ of their own so that quite sophisticated vocabulary stays with us and leads us to an understanding because we want to hold it in our mouths and savour it. This is most apparent to me in the lines which mention the different dyes and on the pages which show the fingers of the Dawn. More tenuously, some words have a visual appeal – such as the multi-syllabled ‘incantations’, ‘Threadbare tapestries’, ‘Lepidoptera Kaleidoscope’ and ‘polychrome. These words draw the eye in and give the text an individual architecture.
I also believe in stretching children’s minds, not in the coercive sense of urging children to reach beyond their capabilities but in the belief that the mind is ever seeking greater understanding of itself and of the world at large. Language is the creative engagement of the individual with the mystery of life.
The Butterfly Magician is a myth. It doesn’t set out to tell a true story but to celebrate the beauty of these wonderful creatures and to sing their song in a beguiling language – thus drawing both the mind and the emotions into a response which, I hope, will encourage all readers to have a lifelong commitment to conservation of the natural world.
Reading can be a beautifully solitary experience: the individual mind stimulated by an engaging text. It can also be both social and educational. My notional age group for The Butterfly Magician is ten years and beyond – ‘beyond’ meaning well into adulthood. The adults who have read the book have been intrigued and captivated by it, thus making it a text which they can share with their children and grandchildren in a creative and involving way.