I first came across e e cummings’s ‘in Just’ in an anthology, Wordscapes, edited by Barry Maybury (OUP, 1971). A few weeks before I took up my first teaching post I spent the afternoon in the children’s poetry section of the old Dillons store near Goodge Street sitting cross legged on the floor, a wall of slim volumes growing steadily around me.
I did not really know what I was looking for; I was just following my nose. On my PGCE course we had been shown a little of Michael Rosen’s work, so I began with him: Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here and You Tell Me, a joint volume with Roger McGough. (I once heard him tell a theatre of crying people that he called it You Tell Me so that when children went to libraries asking for it they would get into trouble: ‘Excuse me, I’d like a book please.’ ‘Certainly, what’s it called?’ ‘You Tell Me.’ ‘No, you tell me.’ ‘You Tell Me.’ ‘No, you tell me!’ ‘No, that’s what it’s called.’ ‘Oh.’)
I also bought Ted Hughes’s Season Songs, The Rattlebag and Poetry in the Making (for £1.75!), and Allan Ahlberg’s classics Please Mrs Butler and Heard it in the Playground. They are all falling apart now, but I still have each of them.
What I loved about the Wordscapes series was that the books deliberately placed well known poems (‘in Just’, ‘This is just to say’,'Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises’) next to poems by children, extracts from fiction and non-fiction, as well as poems by the genius Anon: playground rhymes, riddles, jingles, epitaphs and tongue twisters.
Like Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices and Junior Voices series the books also contained photographs. Some of these were of obviously ‘poetic’ subject matter, like animals and the sea, but most were not. There were reproductions of Brueghel and Lowry paintings, decontextualised close-ups of inanimate objects, portraits of farm and factory workers, tower blocks.
It was perfectly possible, therefore, to find Shakespeare followed by Carl Sandburg, followed by a sea shanty. When I hear talk of poetry as a ‘democratic’ art-form, these are the books which I think of: where all of human life, and all the ways of saying it, rub shoulders with and draw energy from each other. In this way they are deeply political documents.
I am not sure a publisher would take on the Wordscapes or Voices series now. In an age where poetry is increasingly (but not completely) marginalised in schools it would be a brave editor indeed who decided to publish something similar. In the week where we have been remembering the influence of a single politician in the story a nation tells about itself I wonder if a more potent, questioning (and often untold) story about education, language and history lies in books like these, whose power, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, appears frail, comedic, useless, ‘like grass through concrete’.
In this age and moment when we all need to have an opinion to have it now these books and the poems in them take pause on a slower path, finding and providing ‘a way of saying, a mouth’ (Auden) that fits our breathing and that will not be silenced.
When I began teaching the Year 5 class of children whose work would form the basis of my doctoral study of teaching poetry writing I did not really know what I was doing. (This was in an ‘ordinary’ community primary school in a not particularly salubrious area, and with no strong tradition of poetry teaching). I had a strong hunch, nothing more, that engaging the children in reading, writing and performing poems would somehow be of benefit to them. I think I had the grand idea that I would somehow find a link between ‘improved literacy’ and writing poems. But I was confident that if I read them poems and asked them to talk about them we might have the basis of a conversation which could be transformational. This was not a research finding, it was a hunch; and I was so serious in my belief in it that I spent the next three years investigating it.
I was influenced in my first sessions with the class by something Wendy Cope once told me about her teaching. After reading a poem to a class she would deliberately restrict herself to one question about the poem, and then let discussion about the poem emerge from there. She also tried never to use the same question twice.
On my second visit to the class I decided to read them, among other poems, William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’. I imagined that they would not understand all of it, that they might even find it a bit strange or difficult, but I was convinced they would respond to it. What happened that afternoon changed my whole view of teaching, and teaching literature in particular.
After reading ‘The Tyger’ to the class I chose to ask what pictures went through their minds as I was reading the poem. After a few slightly predictable answers about forests and tigers one boy put up his hand and said this: ‘I think it is about a big forest and a little forest. The little forest is trapped inside the big forest and is struggling to escape from it. It is a real struggle. Eventually the little forest breaks free and makes its way to edge of the big forest. It looks out. What it can see on the other side is the First World War.’ There was a silence. Nobody knew what to say next. I thanked the boy for his comment and said that I found it interesting. Then I did something I had not done consciously in my teaching before. Instead of saying what I wanted to say, which was to debate with the boy’s interpretation of the poem, or read another poem perhaps, I asked the class if the boy’s answer had made anyone else think about the poem differently. All of their hands went up. Then I did something else I had not done before: I allowed the children to take control of the discussion. Instead of their comments going through me ‘in the chair’ they began talking and responding to each other, not always in agreement, but with a new energy and purpose.
I thought about this story again at the third Poetry Matters Seminar Series in Leicester in September. During a discussion of a paper by Gary Snapper Michael Rosen encouraged us to reflect on the power relationships at work in the English teaching classroom. It was impossible, he said, to ignore them. Drawing on the work of Foucault, he invited us to consider the connection between the questions we ask in classrooms and the imperative of exams and ‘standards’ and thus policy. Placing poetry in this equation is by definition a disruptive act, he reminded us, because poetry is a democratic and subjective art-form. Sue Dymoke added that taking this kind of risk requires confidence, both in terms of subject and pedagogical knowledge.
Together we considered the paradox of ‘losing’ power in order to gain new kinds of knowledge and confidence by asking questions about poems we do not know the answers to. As Sue Horner remarked later at the Seminar, it is possible to move too speedily from curriculum specifications to decisions about classroom practices without taking the time to engender the trust and the fun and the risk which we know teaching poetry can bring. We can catch glimpses of the Tyger, but these will not be memorable or long-lasting if we go hunting for it using only pre-planned routes.
‘Whenever I work with people – no matter what their age – I try to run a checklist through my mind: are these people investigating, discovering, inventing and cooperating? They don’t have to be doing all four all the time, but is this event, this process, this ‘workshop’ involving at least one of these? In an ideal moment, it’ll be all four. What can I do to increase the amount of whichever one of the four is not happening here? In my experience, things start to happen when all four take place in a group of people.’ Michael Rosen, from the Foreword of Born Creative (Demos).
Reading Michael Rosen’s Foreword to Born Creative this week reminded me of what it felt like to be a participant in Cliff Yates’ workshop at the first Poetry Matters seminar. All four of the elements that Michael describes were happening in the workshop, sometimes all at once, as he says, at others in a more discreet way. To be in the workshop felt joyful, energising, entertaining and demanding. And yet, as I described it later that evening to Myra Barrs in the restaurant, it also felt, in the best possible way, mysterious.
By this I don’t mean that Cliff was in any way playing to the ‘Romantic poet’ archetype, as though to merely hang on his every word would inspire us to be creative. I mean that the combination of very clear writing exercises, the range of poems Cliff read to us and Cliff’s patience and use of silence worked to create a space that felt intensely good to be in, to borrow a phrase of Philip Gross.
I was particularly struck by the way Cliff waited for participants to read their work at the end of each exercise. This was not reading round or taking turns, but more organic and, I think, risky. By leaving the space open for participants to share, rather than setting rules and expectations about who would follow who, Cliff showed us that if you wait long enough someone will usually fill the silence with writing that really matters to them.
Looking back at the work I produced that afternoon I do think there were two instances when my writing dropped down to a different level of engagement. I noticed that the second of these pieces was right at the end of the workshop, when I felt most tired and thought I had used up my last ounce of energy. I wonder if the creative unconscious does indeed have resources of its own that the conscious mind is not fully aware of. To use a phrase you often hear at readings, it was as though the poem ‘wrote itself’ or ‘wrote itself in spite of me’. In truth, I have always baulked at phrases such as these.
Cliff’s workshop has prompted me to re-evaluate my own creative processes, and to think about what can be learned from instances such as this in the context of public education.
I was pleased to present the attached paper at the ESRC-funded Poetry Matters Seminar Series on Wednesday. I am very grateful to all of the participants who gave me such valuable feedback: Andy Goodwyn, Morag Styles, Jane Spiro, Sue Dymoke and Myra Barrs. Your comments have stayed with me and will inform my writing as I finish the full version of the paper.