Poems for Children – selected by Bei Dao

One of the world’s great poets, Bei Dao 北岛, was shocked when his son, then in first grade, brought home a poem he was to learn by heart for a Hong Kong schools competition. The poem was If I were a piece of chalk, and it went like this: “If I were a piece of chalk / I would happily sacrifice myself / to let teachers write on the blackboard / to let classmates draw on the blackboard / I don’t need you all to protect me / but please don’t let my chalk body break.”

Bei Dao tried to read it aloud, but his face kept twisting with outrage.  How could the schools give the children such drivel? How dare they stunt the children’s imagination like this? He resolved that day to create an anthology of poems for his son and other children, and this book is the result. It took two to three years to produce, and Bei Dao, his assistant Zhang Qi 张祈 and the editorial team have brought together 101 poems (70 by foreign poets, 31 by Chinese poets). The poems are arranged chronologically, and beneath each poem is the name of the translator and a very concise biography of the poet, typically a couple of sentences giving his (they are predominantly male) Chinese and foreign name, dates, nationality and key works – just enough information to help a young reader to explore further. At the back of the book there is a useful list of the original foreign titles, in the original scripts. This small volume is beautifully produced. The comfortable size, the quality of the materials and elegant presentation, and the distinctive dust jacket (with cheery illustrations reminiscent of Edward Lear) make this a book to keep.

bei-dao-poems-for-children

北岛选编   《给孩子的诗》  Poems for Children – selected and edited by Bei Dao (China CITIC Press, 2014). ISBN 9787508646664) – you can “click to look inside” on amazon.cn

In his Preface, titled “Letter to Young Friends”, Bei Dao says that when selecting the poems, he looked first for the music, then the feeling, and finally whether the poem was a classic. He explains that when he was a child, during the summer holidays his father would have him learn poems by heart. He seldom understood them but the music in the poems helped him to remember them until that joyous moment when the meaning became clear.

Addressing his young readers, Bei Dao says “On the journey of life, and especially when we are young, poems are like signposts, helping us to find the way, to appreciate life, to give a name to things… Every child that is born will, as he grows up, go through different stages, especially in his youth, when he is particularly sensitive, or going through changes, and all of a sudden, will cross over into different worlds, opening up his imagination and creativity. I believe that when youth meets poetry, there is often a particular instant in which a spark fires, a touchstone turns to gold, blood boils, and something lights inside us, waking us suddenly from drowsiness and lethargy.”

Bei Dao created this anthology for Chinese young readers. But he is a poet of international acclaim, and his personal selection of 101 poems for young readers is surely of international interest. For this reason, I have created a list in English of the 101 poems (see below), taking the information from the book, and searching for English language versions online. I’ve also created a bilingual list of the 101 poems, which you can see here.

This is the first book in the “For Children” series (给孩子的系列), which has Bei Dao as the series editor. To date, there are 5 volumes: Poems for Children 《给孩子的诗》 (selected by Bei Dao), Essays for Children 《给孩子的散文》 (selected by LI Tuo 李陀 and Bei Dao), Ancient Chinese Poems for Children 《给孩子的古诗词》 (selected by Chia-ying YEH 叶嘉莹, illustrated by XU Bing 徐冰), Animal Fables for Children 《给孩子的动物寓言》 (written and illustrated by HUANG Yongyu 黄永玉), and The Kingdom of Chinese Characters for Children 《给孩子的汉字王国》  (by Cecilia Lindqvist 林西莉, translated from the Swedish by LI Zhiyi 李之义) .

Poems for Children – selected and edited by Bei Dao

Contents (running no., poet, title in English, page no.)

  • Letter to Young Friends(preface)  –    Bei Dao   17                                                                     
  1. William Blake (UK)   –   Auguries of Innocence   23
  2. William Blake (UK)   –   The Tyger   24
  3. Robert Burns (UK)   –   Auld Lang Syne   26
  4. Friedrich Hölderlin (Germany)   –   To Nature   28
  5. Heinrich Heine (Germany)   –   The Stars Have Stood for Ages   29
  6. Alexander Pushkin (Russia)   –   To (Kern)   30
  7. Alexander Pushkin (Russia)   –   Should This Life Sometime Deceive You   32
  8. Victor Hugo (France)   –   Sometimes When Everything’s Sleeping   33
  9. Mikhail Lermontov (Russia)   –   Sail   34
  10. Sándor Petőfi (Hungary)   –   I’d Be Running Water   35
  11. Emily Dickinson (USA)   –   If Recollecting Were Forgetting   37
  12. Rabindranath Tagore (India)   –   I Cannot Remember My Mother   38
  13. William Butler Yeats (UK)   –   When You Are Old   39
  14. William Butler Yeats (UK)   –   The Wild Swans at Coole  40
  15. Robert Frost (USA)   –   The Road Not Taken   42
  16. Robert Frost (USA)   –   To The Thawing Wind   44
  17. Rainer Maria Rilke (Austria)   –   Autumn Day   45
  18. Rainer Maria Rilke (Austria)   –   Solemn Hour   46
  19. Carl Sandburg (USA)   –   Fog   47
  20. Guillaume Apollinaire (France)   –   Mirabeau Bridge   48
  21. Juan Ramón Jiménez (Spain)   –   I Don’t Know How to Leap   50
  22. Fernando Pessoa (Portugal)   –   Each Day You Didn’t Enjoy Wasn’t Yours   51
  23. Osip Mandelstam (Russia)   –   The Music of Your Steps   52
  24. César Vallejo (Peru)   –   Dead Idyll   53
  25. Edith Södergran (Finland)   –   The Stars   54
  26. Edith Södergran (Finland)   –   Evening   55
  27. Marina Tsvetayeva (Russia)   –   In My Great City There is – a Night   56
  28. Marina Tsvetayeva (Russia)   –   We Are Capable of Listening Like…   57
  29. Vladimir Mayakovsky (Russia)   –   Past One O’Clock   58
  30. Paul Éluard (France)   –   Liberty   59
  31. Eugenio Montale (Italy)   –   English Horn   64
  32. Vicente Aleixandre (Spain)   –   Fire   66
  33. Bertolt Brecht (Germany)   –   Of Climbing in Trees    67
  34. Federico García Lorca (Spain)   –   The Little Mute Boy   68
  35. Federico García Lorca (Spain)   –   The Guitar   69
  36. Jacques Prévert (France)   –   The Garden   71
  37. Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina)   –   The Gold of the Tigers   72
  38. Salvatore Quasimodo (Italy)   –   Visible, Invisible   74
  39. Salvatore Quasimodo (Italy)   –   And Suddenly It’s Evening   75
  40. Nâzim Hikmet (Turkey)   –   Let’s Give the World to the Children   76
  41. Kaneko Misuzu (Japan)   –   A Pile of Snow   77
  42. Pablo Neruda (Chile)   –   Loneliness   78
  43. Pablo Neruda (Chile)   –   If Each Day Falls   79
  44. René Char (France)   –   Swift   80
  45. Odysseas Elytis (Greece)   –   I Know the Night No Longer   81
  46. Odysseas Elytis (Greece)   –   Drinking the Sun of Corinth   82
  47. Ronald Stuart Thomas (UK)   –   Children’s Song   83
  48. Ronald Stuart Thomas (UK)   –   A Day in Autumn   84
  49. Octavio Paz (Mexico)   –   Epitaph for a Poet   85
  50. Philip Larkin (UK)   –   Days   86
  51. Yves Bonnefoy (France)   –   Summer’s Night   87
  52. Eugénio de Andrade (Portugal)   –   Still Life with Fruit   88
  53. Zbigniew Herbert (Netherlands)   –   Voice   89
  54. Yehuda Amichai (Israel)   –   Before   91
  55. Yehuda Amichai (Israel)   –   The Creaking Door   92
  56. Kwesi Brew (Ghana)   –   Mending Those Nets   93
  57. Adonis (Syria)   –   Travel Guide to the Forest of Meaning   94
  58. Ulian Farah Siad (Ethiopia)   –   Parting   95
  59. Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden)   –   From March 1979   96
  60. Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden)   –   Snow-melting Time – 66   97
  61. Tanikawa Shuntarō (Japan)   –   River   98
  62. Tanikawa Shuntarō (Japan)   –   When Birds Disappeared from the Sky   99
  63. Ingrid Jonker (South Africa)   –   If you write again   101
  64. Gennady Aygi (Russia)   –   Snow   102
  65. Inger Christensen (Denmark)   –   Alphabet   104
  66. Margaret Atwood (Canada)   –   Variation on the Word Sleep   105
  67. Bob Dylan (USA)   –   Blowing in the Wind   107
  68. Mahmoud Darwish (Palestine)   –   Think of Others   109
  69. Henrik Nordbrandt (Denmark)   –   The Homecoming   110
  70. Kevin John Hart (Australia)   –   A History of the Future   111
  71. FEI Ming 废名 (China)   –   The Night of 19th December   115
  72. FENG Zhi 冯至 (China)   –   Deep Night is also a Deep Mountain   116
  73. BIAN Zhilin 卞之琳 (China)   –   Traces   117
  74. JI Xian 纪弦 (China)   –   Your Name   118
  75. HE Qifang 何其芳 (China)   –   Joy   120
  76. CHEN Zunrong 陈敬荣 (China)   –   Mountains and Seas   121
  77. CAI Qijiao 蔡其矫 (China)   –   Waves   123
  78. ZHENG Min 郑敏 (China)   –   Golden Rice Bundles   125
  79. ZHOU Mengde 周梦蝶 (China)   –   Nine Lines   126
  80. NIU Han 牛汉 (China)   –   Root   127
  81. YA Xian 瘂弦 (China)   –   Umbrella   128
  82. YU Guangzhong 余光中 (China)   –   Homesickness   130
  83. SHANG Qin 商禽 (China)   –   Thinking With Feet   131
  84. CHANG Yao 昌耀 (China)   –   Scented Plants   132
  85. SHI Zhi 食指 (China)   –   When you set out   133
  86. SHI Zhi 食指 (China)   –   This is Beijing at 4.08   136
  87. YI Qun 依群 (China)   –   Hello, sorrow   137
  88. YE Si 也斯 (China)   –   Cityscape   138
  89. BEI Dao 北岛 (China)   –   One Bundle   140
  90. MANG Ke 芒克 (China)   –   I am the Wind   142
  91. DUO Duo 多多 (China)   –   To the Sun   145
  92. SHU Ting 舒婷 (China)   –   To the Rubber Tree   146
  93. YAN Li 严力 (China)   –   Giving It Back to You   148
  94. GU Cheng 顾城 (China)   –   I am a child with individuality     149
  95. OUYANG Jianghe 欧阳江河 (China)   –   Silence   153
  96. HAN Dong 韩东 (China)   –   One kind of darkness   154
  97. LU Yimin 陆忆敏 (China)   –   Year End   155
  98. ZHANG Zao 张枣 (China)   –   In the Mirror   156
  99. CHE Qianzi 车前子 (China)   –   Three Primary Colours   157
  100. XI Chuan 西川 (China)   –   Drinking Water   158
  101. HAI Zi 海子 (China)   –   Facing the Sea, Flowers Open in Spring Warmth   160
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5 thoughts on “Poems for Children – selected by Bei Dao

  1. Thank you for sharing this list! All of us should read (eat) more poetry: “Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.” ― Maurice Sendak

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  2. Dear Helen, I entirely agree with Bei Dao’s sentiments. I write poetry for the blind and partially sighted, and to understand what is essential for one’s readers, whether or not they are adults or children, is critical.
    When I was at school, from the age of nine, we had to write down a poem and create a picture for it on the opposite page. We were then told to learn the poem by heart.
    On learning ‘About Ben Adhem’ by Leigh Hunt at the age of eleven, it became my favourite, together with ‘Leisure’ by W. H Davies which, of course begins – ‘What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare . . .’
    Kind regards, Dorothy.

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  3. Pingback: 12 Books for the Holidays | Chinese books for young readers

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