Why poetry matters


The value of poetry is that it should matter … first to the writer and then to the reader. 

Michael Rosen, A Year With Poetry


Poetry matters.  It matters to children, and it matters in schools. It matters in advertising jingles and it matters in stand-up comedy.  In pop songs and football terraces and universities and carry cots.  To politicians, postmen and poets.  It is powerful, though appears vulnerable as a newly born foal.  Useful as a briefcase, bizarre as an okapi.  It is for nothing and in everything.  Painting can contain it and so can the M6.  A cover drive is it and so is rocket science.  DNA is intimately made up of it, Walt Disney knew it when he saw it.  It has need of perhaps just one person.

Poetry matters.  In the way we name our children, in the way we sing them to sleep and in the way we survive the car journey.  Judges use it (sometimes) without knowing it.  It is not the new Rock ‘n Roll, it was the first Rock ‘n Roll.  It is open to the vagaries of fashion, of movements, of ideology (like politics, like education, like fashion itself).  It is above all of these, and also at their mercy.  It will never be a product, even if the National Curriculum says it is a product.

Schools get a taste for it, sometimes, when they invite poets in to read from and talk about their work.  Children get excited by it when, with six minutes to go before lunch on a wet Wednesday in October, a teacher pulls down a book they haven’t seen before, and without any introduction, begins reading.  By the end of the poem the class is completely silent, the quietest they have been for any activity all term.  A boy with reading and behavioural difficulties puts up his hand and says ‘Can we have that again please, Miss?’  The same boy, two weeks later, crosses out some of his work (another first) to make it ‘Sound more like it’s me.’  In his poem about a storm he has written ‘The lightning was coming down and it was coming down.’ His teacher hasn’t put red ink through this sentence but stops at his desk instead to ask him if there were any noises accompanying the lightning.  The boy pauses then says ‘Yes, a crackling noise.’  She asks what the noise reminds him of.  Another pause.  ‘Like a crisp packet.’  The teacher moves on and the boy writes down ‘The lightning flashed/ like a crisp packet/ tearing open.’  Poetry matters, perhaps, most of all, in instances like these, because the search for the right word has lead, as Ted Hughes puts it, to ‘grace’, those looked-for but unpredictable moments of release and intensity which accompany what we call ‘progress’ in a child’s reading and writing.

The promotion of poetry in schools ultimately does not depend on money, arts funding, or even exciting visits from poets.  It depends on the people reading this blog: teachers, readers and poets; and their love of it, their taste for and their reading of and their enthusiasm for it, and how ‘prepared they are to make it happen in their lives’ (Heaney) and in the lives of the children they teach.  Small decisions like deciding to spend time with that boy talking through his poem, these are the moments where poetry is allowed in and people are changed. Schools need poetry because poetry is uniquely placed to allow schoolchildren how to say what they really want to say in the way they want to say it.

Introduction from The Poetry Book for Primary Schools (Poetry Society, 1998)


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