Foal Failure


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


  1. Dear Anto,

    Thought you’d like this:

    By Briony Jean Antonopoulos

    As if you were not there,

    the skies ignite and thunder,

    rivers tear their banks asunder,

    thieves and nature storm and plunder:

    all beware;

    as if you were not there.

    As if you were not there,

    famine and flood together

    usher death, disease and terror;

    stricken mothers wonder whether

    God heeds our prayer; as if you were not there.

    As if you were not there,

    we televise the dying,

    watch the helpless victims crying,

    salve our consciences by sighing

    ‘life’s unfair!’

    As if you were not there.

    As if you were not there,

    your Son, when faith defied him,

    faced a crowd which crucified him,

    leaving friends who had denied him

    in despair;

    as if you were not there.

    Because he rose again

    and showed God’s love is vaster

    than the ultimate disaster,

    we entreat you now to master

    strife and pain;

    because he rose again.

    A very happy belated Easter to all of you. We didn’t go down to Colislinn as it was too cold! We had the neighbours over for lunch – which was nice – and are going down this weekend.

    Hope you are well and would love to see you soon,

    Xxx Charlotte


    1. Hi Charlotte
      Thanks so much for this, it’s stunning. We have been enjoying having Bendy home and my birthday. Lots of sunshine but still freezing, probably not as much as you guys. All love as ever and thanks so much for the poem again -Anthony xx


  2. It’s a gorgeous poem, which I am pretty sure I have read before. Teaching poetry seems like such a tough call. It does make me a bit sad that so many people (sometimes even people who like reading otherwise) say “I hate poetry because of how it was taught in school.” I often tend to feel that this is some kind of excuse for their intellectual laziness. 😉 But I’m not sure. Grade school didn’t do a lot to “get me into” poetry, I must say. It sort of didn’t put me off (and was in some cases my first exposure to poets who later became favourites) but it also didn’t turn me on particularly. I was reading Yeats and a few others on my own in my teens, and then I had a few classes at university (particularly Modern British Poetry and Modern Canadian Poetry) which were life-changing.

    If you like “foal” poems, you may enjoy this one by Vernon Watkins, if you haven’t read it yet, which I reproduced and wrote about here:
    It is one of my favourite poems of all time.


    1. Dear Clarissa Thank you for you kind and insightful comment and especially for supplying the Watkins foal poem. I did not know it. There must be something about them that gets poets going.

      I think I was lucky in school: I was not put off. I often wonder how many people in the same classes as me went on to share the same passion for it…. nature/nurture etc…

      As ever with best wishes and thanks Anthony Anthony Wilson

      Love for Now, my memoir of cancer, is availablehere

      Riddance, my new book of poems, is availablehere



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