The Poets Are Us
Senior English lecturer and long-time Independent Thinking Associate Martin Illingworth
offers some suggestions to bring alive the teaching of poetry in our schools.
At a time in their lives when teenagers are striving to become adult, poetry can annoyingly remind them of being a child; nursery rhymes and the sing-song cadences of adults talking to children.
No wonder their default position can be this is no pursuit for a wannabe grown up.
Coupled with this is the sense that poets are some professional class of people that school pupils do not belong to, someone other, someone beyond them. Teachers ask, 'What is the poet doing here?', 'Why has the poet used this word?', 'What do you think the poet means with this last line?' Always someone else: writing in riddling rhymes and rhyming riddles to frustrate a student's attempts to understand.
Who are these poets anyway?
Poetry as a part of our world
The poets need to be us. We need to see the potential for poetry to be a part of our world; to see the power of words to inspire, to move and to help us understand our perspectives, thoughts and feelings.
Pulling apart a poem that's 'important' for an exam is of no tangible value and reduces poetry to a question on an exam paper that can be forgotten the second we leave the exam hall. Some of it might be covered by an exam (and we can think about that nearer the time) but our purpose is bigger here.
We are learning to be articulate and confident so that we can join in with the world around us - understanding that world and being able to contribute to it.
Writing is voice; it is expression; it is guide. It helps us unravel this thing called ‘self’ and its place in this world around us.
Enter, the poets!
So, let's have the poets in the room. How? Let us be the poets, all of us.
Take the following draft of a poem that I’ve written. It’s a first attempt and I've clearly got work to do. But I’m a poet and it’s a poem and we’re all in this together.
I can now talk to my pupils about my fledgling poem, where I am up to and the sorts of help that I need from them.
'Ask away Roger' stands in the middle of the street
And makes his offer; stands up his pitch.
'Go on; ask me anything… anything at all.'
And no one ever asks him anything.
'I know stuff - go on, ask away… anything at all.'
His eyes circle for a taker… any taker at all.
'Go on… fill your boots! I'm brim full,
Brim full of stories. Go on… ask away.'
Ask away Roger can ask away all he likes,
No one is going to ask him anything at all.
Curious, vicious teenagers look over,
Consider the fun that might be had,
But think better of it… and ask nothing.
Difference separates Ask away Roger from the scuttlers passing by
His smiling is lined with pain and it becomes a distance no one will cross.
OK class. A little help please:
- My poem doesn't yet have a title. I could do with some suggestions
- I'm not 100% sure what I mean by this character I have created, Ask Away Roger. What do my pupils make of him?
- I can see the potential for rhyming in this poem. It isn't organised like that yet. Could my pupils have a go at sorting a rhyme scheme? Try it out and see if it helps or gets in the way of what the poem is saying
- Why does Roger want people to talk to him so much? Why does no one want to talk to him? What does this say about humans/ society?
- Two of the lines at the end are much longer than the others. Does this matter?
- Is there a verse pattern that would help to bring out the meaning of my poem?
- You get the idea...
Because this is my poem, two things immediately apply:
Firstly, I am attaching importance to the writing of poems and demonstrating that this is not just ‘schoolwork’ we are doing in the lesson. This is real. Something people do. Something I do.
I am their teacher and the things that I value have value attached to them for the pupils because of my ownership.
Secondly, the poet (me) is in the room. This means we can make use of the poet's actual knowledge of what they are trying to do with the poem. We're not second guessing what some writer who is not here was hoping to do.
My pupils can help me to develop my poem. Changing a word; writing another verse; redrafting; editing; making it shorter; making it longer; making it better.
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You're a Poet and You Know It
Write a poem - or the beginnings of a poem - yourself and then be the poet in the room.
Talk about your poem. Explain where you are up to with the writing. Take questions about it. The questions can set up the work that then ensues in developing your writing.
The next step, of course, is applying the thinking and talking about your poem to the pupils writing their own pieces.
Perhaps you could ask your students to think of their own character, similar to Ask Away Roger; someone that represents something more than just them. Have your pupils write their initial drafts.
In preparing for a first conversation with a partner in the lesson, pupils could annotate their poems with questions they would like to explore. They might write a commentary down the side of the poem explaining some of the decisions that they have made with, for example, word choices or line length.
Give the pupils time and space to act on the advice and reflections that come from the conversations.
One final thing, poems are sociable animals. They like to be out and about, not cooped up in an exercise book. So, once you have brought the poet into the room, it’s time to release the poetry into the wild.
Publish and Be Damned!
Let's not pretend to be poets. Let's be poets. And that means to share the poems with others. After all, the very sense that the poem will be published with a life - and an audience - of its own heightens its importance and encourages them to do their best with this activity.
These days, you can 'publish' in so many ways.
- Create a website for your featured poets and poems; a space for the poems to be viewed and for the poets to speak about their work. Short interviews with the poets are always good for promoting the idea that your pupils are genuine poets.
- Your class visits another class for a poetry reading/spoken word event. The following lesson, the other group comes to you. Or you take your pupils to visit different year groups and have that audience commission poetry that they would like to read or hear.
- Contribute spoken word pieces to Arts evenings at school. Alongside the music and drama performances, offer spoken word.
- Check out the many, many ways to publish poetry on-line. Google 'publish poetry' and you will see that you have genuine options, many of which are completely free.
- Some on-line communities offer feedback and encouragement to new poets as well as the chance to interact with like-minded souls.
- As a group, publish your own collection of poems. A small scale booklet style collection can go home with every contributor.
- Send poems as entries to poetry competitions. Google 'poetry competitions' - the choice is endless.
- Have pupils speak to adults in the school about their poetry. Get the pupils to write out/print out 'best' versions of poems that you laminate and then the pupil picks a significant adult at school to show/ perform and discuss the poem with.
- Publication can mean something as simple as having poems displayed on the wall. Taking five minutes for a reading of the poem before it joins the others up there on the wall creates a sense of the poem being 'launched' and having its moment.
Being a poet (and a published one, no less!) will support their understanding of the process and purposes of writing poetry.
What's more, the same can be said of any form of writing, not just poetry.
After all, linguists can take English exams. [ITL]
A longer version of this article first appeared in NATE magazine ‘Teaching English’ (Issue 31: Spring 2023)
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