A few weeks ago now I travelled down to a university on the south coast to work with a group of trainee English teachers. I’d been planning this for a few weeks and was excited to run a workshop with a group who already loved literature. The plan was to run a two hour session about how to engage students creatively with poetry. I had a whole load of poetry pamphlets with me to share, and some of my own to sell. (If anyone has not come across the beautifully made pamphlets by The Emma Press, I can highly recommend them. Steven Sexton’s ‘Oils’ is stunning, and ‘Dragonish’ by Emma Simon and ‘Goose Fair Night’ by Kathy Pimlott contain some of my favourite poems ever).
This particular university is where I did my PGCE in English teaching. I remembered my own naïve over-excitement and tendency towards wanting to teach everything I could in as exciting a way as possible. I was expecting a similar level of enthusiasm but had forgotten that I was a writer, that I was, chiefly, a poet, and that we are not all the same.
The students were clearly very focused and devoted. There were seventeen of them, mostly women but with a good number of male trainees too and, although they were mostly young, there were individuals there from a range of age backgrounds. One woman appeared a few minutes early, flustered but smiling and explained she wasn’t certain she would have been able to stay for the afternoon session because of childcare issues, but had made a huge effort to rearrange because she loved poetry and did not want to miss out. I felt this boded well.
This is where the positive signs stopped.
It’s not that they were not an attentive, open, thoughtful and willing group. It’s not that they were not willing to have their minds changed. It was the age-old adage that your school days follow you around like a sick puppy, to which you are tethered because you have caught it’s sickness and cannot find the cure. I will explain.
We began the session by brainstorming two things: what the students were looking forward to when it came to teaching poetry, and what they were afraid of. When we fed back, we began with ‘the excitements’. We managed a grand total of five. We were not, on the whole, excited. What we did come up with was:
- It’s short and easy to get through
- It can be completed in a lesson
- It offers ways for the students to look at things from other perspectives
- The language is often very beautiful.
- Children like the rhythm.
Our fears, however, provoked a great deal more animation. We decided that poetry was:
- Made us feel stupid
- Not important any more
- For posh people
- For posh white people
- For posh white dead people
- For posh white dead male people
- Not very fun
- Not very interesting.
The list went on and on. And on.
At first I felt slightly put out. Then I felt mildly irritated. Then I felt a tad overwhelmed at the task ahead of me. Then I felt sad.
This was not the incredible, versatile, fluid, inclusive and powerful art form that had dragged me from the depths of depression and given me control over what might otherwise me a crippling anxiety disorder. It was not the art I had discovered in a backroom of a pub, listening to an incredibly talented Nigerian poet perform a moving verse whist standing on his head. It was not the politically charged, emotionally striking, linguistically intelligent art I had fallen in love with, that had saved me time and time again and that had leant its power to me when I felt no one and nothing was there to hear me. I stepped back from my scribblings on the white board and asked,
“out of interest, how many of you have read a poem—any poem—for pleasure since finishing your degree?”
Three hands went up. Three. Out of seventeen. “Well,” I said, “There’s your problem.”
It was slightly reductive. This, in itself, was not the problem. The problem was that none of these intelligent, educated, devoted, well-read human beings—none but three—saw poetry as a valid and valuable reading experience. The problem was that none of them had sat up in bed with a poetry book and a cup of tea and let the incredible beauty of the language wash over them. None of them had curled up on the sofa and read Ted Hughes to their cat, or cried into Eugenia Leigh with Alanis Morisette playing in the background, or found strength after a break up in the powerful lines of Sarah Kay. None of them had heard the war cries, the protests, the offerings of contemporary poetry. None of them knew. And I found myself thinking ‘How sad.’ How sad that they had not had this incredible experience.
So, I got to work. I read them Jamaal May, we looked at some of my poetry, we looked at the poetry of Helen Mort. I got them to write. And really, there is not much difference between a reluctant writer who’s just hit fifteen, and one that’s just hit twenty-five. The same hilarious things ensue; the look of creative despair, the huffing and reluctant sighs, the scribblings out, the ‘I-can’t-do-this!’, the ‘No, you can’t read mine!’, the ‘don’t judge me!’. We forget that writing, creating through language, is a trauma. It’s a trauma because it forces us into the recesses of ourselves, into the narratives that live within us, born of our unique experience, the purest of which, can be found in poetry.
Isn’t it interesting that, of all written forms, poetry is the only one children are not expected to be able to write at school? They learn how to write articles, instructions, advice columns, information texts, stories, even reviews. But never are they told that poetry is an art form open to them, one they deserve ownership over just as much as any other. And yet.
My students love poetry. They write it incessantly. We have an artificial tree in the school library absolutely laden with haiku written by KS3 students. We have just had over seventy entries to the school writing competition and the shortlist has twenty stories and poems in it because they are just so good. Ten students performed in our poetry slam and fifteen will contribute to our school anthology. They’ve discovered poetry, they’ve caught the bug. They’re off.
Now, I want to make one thing clear. I do not believe for a single moment that the reluctance of these trainees to engage with poetry was in any way their fault. They are, most of them, the same age as me. They came through the same school system. And I remember how I was taught poetry at school; dry, emotionless, clinical, with the emphasis on only the mechanics of the piece and little to say for a poem’s incredible power. Our young teachers, the keepers of our children’s futures, are no more equipped to empower our young people than the average frog, because they, themselves, were not empowered when they were young.
What we need is a gentle revolution, a quiet uprising, a thoughtful and compassionate unmasking of the hard powers that govern our education in order that we might explode the status quo from the inside. We do not need youngsters who can identify fronted adverbials and explain metaphors. We need youngsters who can outwit fronted adverbials and spin metaphors. We need free thinkers, creators, mavericks, renegades, clowns, comedians, musicians, painters, dancers, theatre-makers. In a world grown thoroughly sick with the rhetoric of exclusion, of us-and-them, or every-man-for-himself, it is artists—it is poets—that will rework the future through their incredible control of language.
Language is important. Make no mistake. It exists in a multi-dimensional space, an elastic space, one that reacts, chameleon-like, to the times. Those that control it will control all of us. And if we do not learn to respect it, to appreciate it, to harness it, we are all at its mercy. Think, teachers; think, artists; think, librarians, social workers, parents and protectors; think to yourselves: who has control of the language now? Who is directing the rhetoric? If that rhetoric were the barrel of a rifle trained on your face, would you stand there and do nothing? If we do nothing else as educators, we must train linguists. We must train playwrights, novelists, bloggers, travel-writers and we must, above all, train poets. Below is a list of poetry collections to read, websites to visit and resources to access. Roll up your sleeves.
Let’s get to work.
- ‘Hum’ by Jamaal May
- ‘Dragonish’ By Emma Simon
- ‘Goose Fair Night’ by Kathy Pimlott
- ‘Pepper Seed’ by Malika Booker
- ‘Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows’ by Eugenia Leigh
- ‘When My Brother Was An Aztec’ by Natalie Diaz
- ‘No Matter The Wreckage’ by Sarah Kay
- ‘Crow’ by Ted Hughes
- ‘Olio’ by Tyehimba Jess
- ‘And She Was’ by Sarah Corbett
- ‘Cove’ by Cynan Jones
- ‘The African Origins of UFOs’ by Anthony Joseph
- ‘Grief is the Thing With Feathers’ by Max Porter
- ‘In Parenthesis’ by David Jones
- ‘Brown Girl Dreaming’ by Jacqueline Woodson
- Any of my collections (Buy Here, enjoy!)
BOOKS FOR STARTING REVOLUTIONS
- ‘Making Poetry Happen’ and ‘Making Poetry Matter’ by Sue Dymoke
- ‘Structure and Surprise’ by Michael Theune
WEBSITES AND RESOURCES
- APPLES AND SNAKES Apples and Snakes is a nationwide organisation promoting spoken word poetry.
- The Society of Authors Support, resources and advice for writers of all kinds.
- The Poetry School Courses, support, advice, blogs and resources to support those new to poetry and those seasoned in writing and reading it.
- The Poetry Society Support, advice and resources for poets and lovers of poetry
- Relit.org An organisation working to support mental health through poetry.