I wrote yesterday about pitching poems in the classroom which are aimed not at the crowd but perhaps one child. I am not arguing for this as a blanket strategy. All teachers know you need to mix it up.
Without doubt the most common remark made to me by teachers and trainee teachers when I conduct poetry workshops and seminars with them is that the over-reliance on analysing poems at school is the single most important factor in putting them off poems. I nod and listen and shake my head. Then I ask: ‘All poems?’ ‘All poems,’ they say.
Then I read them this, by the late Shel Silverstein.
The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.
He may catch all the others, but he
won’t catch me.
No you won’t catch me, old slithergadee,
you may catch all the others, but you wo-
Shel Silverstein, from The Poetry Book for Primary Schools (Poetry Society, 1998)
A murmur begins to go round the room. It grows louder, burgeoning into laughter. Then something odd, beneath it, somewhere between a groan and a sigh of relief. Eventually someone says: ‘He got eaten!’ (they always say ‘he’).
‘How do you know?’
‘Because the poem says.’
‘But it doesn’t say.’
‘Yes, well, it makes you think that’s what’s coming because it just stops.’
‘But how do you know if it doesn’t say?’
‘Because it’s there.’
‘But it’s not there. It just stops, halfway through the word ‘won’t’.’
‘But you still know.’
‘Because it’s made you think about it with the rhyme and everything.’
‘And what’s a Slithergadee by the way?’
‘It’s a monster.’
‘How do you know? The poem doesn’t say.’
‘Because it’s slimy. And it crawls. And it lives in the sea.’
Others are joining in. ‘And it’s got big teeth.’
‘How do you know it’s slimy? It doesn’t say.’
‘You just do. You can work it out.’
‘From the pictures it makes in your mind.’
‘So a little five-line rhyming poem about an imaginary monster with a corny punchline at the end can give you all this information, without even telling you the whole story, am I right?’
Silence. Their heads are nodding.
‘Don’t you think that is amazing, that a small little poem can do so much in such a short space? There isn’t even a footnote! Five-year-olds get it!’
Silence. More nodding.
‘Do you still hate poems?’
‘All except this one,’ they say.