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.
As I say in my previous blog post, I owe my knowledge of ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′ to the great Cliff Yates, specifically his marvellous book of teaching poetry and poetry writing Jumpstart (Poetry Society, 1999). Which means I took it seriously. He quotes the poem in full on page 6, in a section titled ‘What is Poetry?’
Cliff follows it up in the book with Ian McMillan’s ‘Sonny Boy Williamson is Trying to Cook a Rabbit in a Kettle’ and Wendy Cope’s ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’ both of which, like Raworth’s, are playful with language, syntax and meaning. Not least among their pleasures is their explicit questioning of what a poem should do and be. (Jumpstart contains a great short piece by Raworth on his poem and the sequence it comes from which is well worth reading.)
Fool that I was and stung by Foal Failure I took in these poems to the class of nine and ten-year olds I was working with at the time. I had considered ‘Birth of the Foal’ to be a banker of a poem in the classroom. There was no way it could fail. It failed dismally. I had nothing left to lose.
The riot I expected never happened. I am not saying the lessons we did on ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′, Sonny Boy Williamson and ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’ were comfortable or easy, but I will go to my grave knowing those children engaged with them in a way that surprised and delighted me, taking us all into a place of deep discussion and debate I would not have thought possible.
The poems they wrote arising from these discussions were some of the most challenging I have read anywhere, by anybody. Overnight they transformed themselves into the most avant-garde group of writers I have worked with.
I spend a lot of my time reflecting on what we mean by ‘signs of progress’ in the creative work of young writers. I spend just as much time reflecting on what this looks like in the work of beginner teachers. One of my very tentative conclusions goes something like this: it is about risk. Now we can debate for the next ten years what we mean by this, so I am going to use a very narrow definition here to explain what I mean by risk in this instance. I take it to mean the capacity to proceed along a line of action (teaching, writing) knowing at any moment the whole thing could collapse around you but proceeding anyway in good faith with resilience and joy and tenacity. The poets I am drawn to (Jean Sprackland, Peter Carpenter, Andy Brown, Siân Hughes, Ann Gray, Deryn Rees-Jones, Christopher Southgate, Michael Laskey) do this time and again in their poems. Like the geese in Raymond Carver’s ‘Prosser’, I have the feeling they will die for it, to get to the place where they do not wholly know what they are doing.
In simple terms ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′ saved my life one spring afternoon in a classroom in Exeter because it gave to me much more than I had dared hope possible. But it was more than that of course. Everything was suddenly on the line. I had nothing left to lose.
8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970
Tom Raworth (from Jumpstart, ed. Cliff Yates, Poetry Society, 1999)
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
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Below is a summary of some recent research on progress in pupils’ poetry writing and teachers’ metaphors of poetry writing instruction.