I first came across ‘Birth of the Foal’ at the recommendation of the great Cliff Yates. He told me he’d been using it in his teaching with some success and why didn’t I have a go with it, too? As we all know, anything Cliff does or says in the classroom (or anywhere else) is to be taken very seriously indeed, so naturally I considered the gauntlet thrown at my feet.

As readers of this blog will know I am a fan of Mark Halliday, not least his hilarious and poignant dissection of his own teaching in his essay Moose Failure. Let me tell you now, what ‘The Moose’ is to Halliday, ‘Birth of the Foal’ means to me.  I love it with a passion, to the extent that I feel I’d give my arm to write lines like:

And the foal slept at her side,

a heap of feathers ripped from a bed.

Straw never spread as soft as this.

Milk or snow never slept like a foal.

But there are other, less kind, parallels. Friends, I murdered this poem in the classroom. Let’s call it Foal Failure.

A bit of background. To generate data for my PhD study of teaching poetry writing with primary-aged schoolchildren I taught a two-hour class of  thirty nine and ten-year old children once a week for two years. We read, performed, analysed, cut up, talked about, argued over and wrote poems each week, with varying degrees of success and joy and comfort.

Even though I did not really know what I was doing I think it was one of the happiest times in my life. I am still learning from it now.

Of all the poems we looked at the gap between my expectations, based on my deep love of the poem concerned, and what actually occurred was probably greatest with ‘Birth of the Foal’. And not for one minute do I blame this on the children.

I wanted them to love it as much as I did, so ran lessons on it for three consecutive weeks. It was spring; the poem was about spring. They loved animals; the poem was about animals. They had been studying life-cycles; the poem was about life-cycles. What was not to love? What could possibly go wrong?

By the end of this time I think I had pretty much undone all the goodwill towards poetry that I had painstakingly built up during the previous year. If I had listened I would have seen that the children struggled with the poem almost from the word go. I would have seen that the intensely metaphorical gaze of the poem was beyond the capacity of those children at that time to sustain meaningful engagement with. I would have seen that they had started to behave disruptively. Like a fool, I pressed on. For six hours, over three weeks. I would have seen that they hated it. And me.

Foal Failure.

If any of them are out there reading this (I guess they’d be in their mid-twenties by now) I’d like to say sorry. But I’d also hope they might give the poem just one more chance. I’d like to think it still might get them all ‘talking at once’, with or without their envy withering ‘the last stars’.


Birth of the Foal


As May was opening the rosebuds,
elder and lilac beginning to bloom.
it was time for the mare to foal.
She’d rest herself or hobble lazily

after the boy who sang as he led her
to pasture, wading through the meadowflowers.
They wandered back at dusk, bone-tired,
the moon perched on a blue shoulder of sky.

Then the mare lay down,
sweating and trembling, on her straw in the stable.
The drowsy, heavy-bellied cows
surrounded her, waiting, watching, snuffing.

Later, when even the hay slept
and the shaft of the Plough pointed south,
the foal was born. Hours the mare
spent licking the foal with its glue-blind eyes.

And the foal slept at her side,
a heap of feathers ripped from a bed.
Straw never spread as soft as this.
Milk or snow never slept like a foal.

Dawn bounced up in a bright red hat,
waved at the world and skipped away.
Up staggered the foal,
its hooves were jelly-knots of foam.

Then day sniffed its blue nose
through the open stable window, and found them –
the foal nuzzling its mother,
velvet fumbling for her milk.

Then all the trees were talking at once,
chickens scrabbled in the yard,
like golden flowers
envy withered the last stars.


Ferenc Juhasz (translated from the Hungarian by David Wevill), from The Rattlebag.

Lifesaving Poems