When I speak to trainee primary school teachers about their views of poetry I am often struck by their divergent experiences of it at school. One student said to me recently that she was completely turned off poetry after having met a Senior British Poet at a GCSE reading who answered her questions in monosyllables. She was shocked, she said, by their arrogance. Another student commented that their appreciation of poetry began with a school visit by Spike Milligan. It was chaotic, they said, but wonderful. She has never forgotten it.
This reminds me of something I heard Roger McGough once say, that all poets, whether they sign up to it or not, are unofficial ambassadors of ‘planet poetry’ in everything they do, poetry-related or not. It is not exactly rocket science.
When I go into schools to work with teachers and children, and on my course here at Exeter, I strive to remind, convince and persuade those with both warm and unfriendly memories of poetry that poetry can be for them. Where do you start? they ask. Read out loud poems you enjoy yourself, I tell them. Make the connection between the poetry you know (jokes, puns, riddles, rhymes, songs and jingles) and the poetry the children know.
Perform poems alongside your class. Enact the social aspect of poetry by memorising poems, chanting them, singing them, and yes, doing the actions. Make it a challenge. Create a poetry choir (you do not have to learn the whole of a poem to do this). Play with language, in terms of sound, with name-rhymes, for example. And on the page, by typing out lines of poetry into prose and asking the class to write it out as poetry, in their own unique versions. See if it matches the original. (Getting it right is not the point).
Take a line of a poem they like and see how many ways there are to write it down. Take a single word and rearrange it on the page so that it enacts its own meaning. (‘Grasshopper’ is a good one to start with. So is ‘Firework’). Respect their responses, I tell them. Be ‘over-inclusive’ as somebody once said. Finally, encourage them to write and to write often. As Michael Rosen says, encourage them to trust in the energy of their own voices and in the voices of those around them, to find their material in their lived and actual lives and to decide on the forms to put them in.
I am always hopeful after these sessions, and a little exhausted, too. I finish with reading them the poem below, by a ten-year-old girl, because it reminds me of what I am aiming for in my poetry-teaching. So much of what we do in schools is linear and logical, and for good reason. But I passionately believe that a lot of what children have to offer us can be expressed in symbol, nonsense and playfulness. Allowing children access to the potential of that is as important for some of them as anything else they will do in school.
The goal, here, is to get to the place in the final line of the poem, where we can sit scribbling with delight, even if we are not sure how we got there or whether anyone else came with us.
Underneath the mathematics of time
was a theatre
around the corner from the ballerina statues
where the gradients covered the world
beside the books that covered India
next door to the flowers
who danced with the drill
where the Impressionists used spiky yellow art
where the language of education sat scribbling with delight
from The Poetry Book for Primary Schools (Anthony Wilson andSiân Hughes, The Poetry Society, 1998)