Schoolzone: Poetry please

Poetry please

Who writes poetry?
Poetry is seen as a means to unburdening a tormented soul. Wordsworth's famous line from the introduction to the Lyrical Ballads about poetry being, 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings...' inspires poetic release.

But he goes onto say that it is an 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' and 'the music of harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome'. Poetry isn't about an un-fettered outpouring of emotion but an art form where emotion is mediated by thought and crafted into a medium to be shared with an audience.

Why don't we read poetry?
So what makes poetry difficult for people? Poems used to be learnt by heart, nowadays when you hear a song you like, you incorporate it into yourself, singing it over and over again until its memorised.

I believe that we can do this with poetry, that we should be teaching our pupils to do this by listening to it; by reading it out loud; writing it, practising the different forms so that the mechanics of it become as familiar as popular songs.

A rhythmic beginning
It's important to start with young children, laying the foundations for rhythm, rhyme and pleasure in language. But they also need to learn early how to write verse. I had some excellent sonnets from a Y10 class in a tough Sheffield school because they had been taught how to write ballads in their first year at school so metre and rhyme were familiar to them.

There is plenty of good practice in schools but a perception exists that 'poetry is for toffs, brainy people'. In my childhood, poetry and songs were never far away. When my parents had people around for parties, the entertainment was singing and poetry - ballads like Dangerous Dan McGrew, or The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service, for example. It meant that poetry was an act of engaging with other people, that it was pleasurable.

In all the classes I teach, whether they are undergraduates, teenagers or younger children, I get them to read the work to each other just to listen to what sounds odd or good, emphasising the idea that poetry is physical, has sound, that it has to be heard and articulated. Poetry has to work on this level even if the end reading is done privately in the head from a book.

Once any group become familiar with this way of reading, they realise that above all, it can be exhilarating to write and hear your work read by others.

Some lessons for younger children
There are lots of excellent books for teaching poetry and very useful writing ideas to present to classes. This one from Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams' book Teach Yourself Poetry (Hodder & Stoughton) using the poem Who is Who by the Slovenian poet, Tomaž Šalamun.

I modified and used this exercise with a group of 'gifted and talented' 11 year olds in a summer school in Doncaster. It raises lots of issues about self-esteem and the kind of things we are allowed to say about ourselves, which you may want to explore. I started off with an information sheet for the children to fill in so that they would not be coming to the poem unprepared and facing a blank page. You'll need dictionaries.

All About Me
Complete the following statements as best you can.
My name is ..........
Five things I am good at:

  1. ........................................
  2. ........................................
  3. ........................................
  4. ........................................
  5. ........................................

Five things I enjoy doing:
Five words about the kind of person I think I am:
Five good things other people say about me:
Write down five qualities you would like to have when you are grown up:
My five favourite words are:
Find five words that mean marvellous/ wonderful etc:
Find five other words that mean 'king' or 'queen':
Find five celestial words, that is words to do with space, the universe or heavens:

Then read the poem to the class a couple of times. Tell them that they can write their own Who's who poem using the format by Šalamun with their information. Once they feel sure that they can write the most outrageous things about themselves the children get hooked.

One tip: if you want them to read out their work allow the shyer ones to get a friend to read it because some feel uncomfortable saying how wonderful they are. Telling, isn't it?

You're by Sylvia Plath
I use this one with older students 15+ age because the poem is more complex in its use of metaphor. I prepare the students, before showing them the poem, by getting them to think of someone they know well, then playing the 'metaphor game' where you select various categories of nouns, for example cars, weather, fruit, furniture, season, etc., and then say, if this person were a type of car what would they be? Then we read and discuss the poem at length before writing their own. For poetry events around the country visit


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