poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath
Notwithstanding the occasional appearance of poems such as ‘Mushrooms’, ‘You’re’ and ‘Metaphors’ in poetry anthologies for younger readers, Sylvia Plath is a poet who would rarely be mentioned in the same breath as the phrase ‘children’s poetry’. However, as with my earlier examples of Philip Larkin and U A Fanthorpe, I am always willing to use a poem by a writer of abstraction and complexity such as Plath, provided that the underlying ideas are ones with which children can identify. (Even if the language is in parts obscure, all children will be able to handle the general thrust of a ‘difficult’ poem, provided sufficient time is given to class discussion.)
‘Mirror’ is a poem that goes back a long way for me, it having featured in the anthology that formed part of my GCSE studies, namely Touched with Fire, edited by Jack Hydes. It would never have occurred to me to use it with children if, on starting my first teaching job in 2000, I hadn’t rifled through all of my old school folders and found these, written when I was in Year 9:
I turn on the taps
And the steam hides my friend
Behind a misty opaque window
The only way I can bring him back
Is to slap him
And to smear my fingers across
His cold and shapeless face.
So why doesn’t he go away
Or even slap me back?
His glossy eyes give an icy stare
And his smile is faked.
His red face is washed
And his hair combed into strange contortions
Until we are complete.
Then we depart from the strange window,
To return some other time
That we both know,
But without a word spoken
The clocks go back in time and lights
Stand upright from the peeling plastered floor
Like lamp posts.
An eternal row of military images which vanish
Into the distance.
The room revolves,
Crashing ghostly figures into each other unawares.
The room is like a house of cards
Where Kings meet Queens in the middle
But face away.
Siamese Jacks, silently bisected and sewn together
In sudden operations.
In this mad world
The boys wear blouses and the girls wear shirts.
Extra-limbed aliens walk around as if human.
We read in a foreign alphabet
And write wrong-handed.
Then the mirror moves
And the House of Cards comes tumbling down.
And so the memory was triggered. I had written these for my school’s annual poetry competition. Mrs Swigg, my English teacher at the time, had ventured over to the Science labs to borrow a box of the mirrors that they would use for the light reflection experiments in Physics lessons. For homework, we were to take two of the mirrors each and walk around at home or outdoors, observing the different effects that can be created by looking at the world with them. A mirror in front of one eye but not the other. A mirror slightly bent or twisted. One mirror placed at right angles to the other. I had spent a good hour driving my mother mad by walking around the house bumping into things and knocking antiques off tables, so absorbed had I been in this activity. And then, for the rest of the evening, I had drafted and redrafted ‘Meeting’ until I was happy with it. Next day, aware that the rules of the competition allowed everyone to enter two poems, I spent all of double Latin secretly holding the mirrors behind my textbook and reflecting them off the ceiling and a pack of cards that I had to hand (The card game ‘Spit’ was the big craze at the time.) By the end of the lesson, ‘Mirror World’ was finished and I thought I’d throw it into the mix as well, even though I thought ‘Meeting’ was the better poem, because I’d done that one ‘seriously’. However, to my amazement, it was ‘Mirror World’ that Mr Cash, Head of English, preferred and there I was, ‘Highly Commended’ for something I had written in fits and starts in the middle of trying to translate something about slaves and fields from our Latin textbook, Ecce Romani.
What intrigued me on discovering these poems is that, without referring directly to Plath’s ‘Mirror’, my teacher had managed to get her pupils thinking like Plath, engaging with the world directly, physically and in a totally new way in order to write. When studying the Plath for GCSE, it had not occurred to me to look back at my own mirror poems and compare them, never thinking for a moment that they had anything to do with each other. After all, Sylvia Plath was a ‘proper’ poet and I was just someone who liked to show off with big words. However, looking back over my own writing at the start of my teaching career, I realised that, wherever my words came from, however good, bad or just cringeworthy they might seem now after ten years shoved in the bottom drawer, they paint a picture of who I was then and might be used to help my pupils put something of themselves into words. It occurred to me that, by showing children how one of the greatest poets of all time used the theme of the mirror and that anyone can create their own original response to the same theme, this might encourage them to give it a go themselves.
So here is the task that I gave them:
Read these two poems (‘Meeting’ and ‘Mirror World’,) together with Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’.
Then, use the mirror provided to spend a few minutes looking at the world around you.
Note down any ideas that occur to you in rough.
Now, plan your own poem inspired by the theme of looking in (a) mirror(s). Don’t forget to think of the various different types of mirror that are used in everyday life.
Remember that the poem does not have to rhyme if you do not wish it to.
I didn’t tell them who had written the first two poems until we had read and discussed them together. This gave them the freedom to criticise and compare freely, without any fear that they would offend me with their opinions. Their observations were fascinating. They spotted things in my poems that I had not - pleasing and less pleasing word choices, unintentional alliteration, awkward syntax, interesting line breaks - and treated all three poems as equals. The name ‘Sylvia Plath’ does not, of course, resonate any more strongly in a typical child’s mind than ‘Anonymous’, so their analysis was not distorted by preconceptions (just like Plath’s own mirror). On telling the children - it was a class of Year 7 pupils on the first occasion that I did this activity - that I had written the two anonymous poems when I was fourteen, I could sense the atmosphere sharpen. I was half expecting them to say, ‘Oh, well they’re not proper poems then, are they?’ and feel somehow duped. Far from it. The instant response was along the lines of: ‘Right, I’m going to do that!’ and off they went:
As I stare at the mirror
It stares back at me
Its skin as pale as gruel.
When you think of the world
Inside a mirror
You think of it
Ever so cruel.
Words have no meaning,
Beginning is end,
Paintings hang upside-down on the wall,
Trees all grow downwards,
Heaven lies in the earth,
And aeroplanes begin softly to fall.
Angus, aged 12
He is always there
In every mirror,
Distorted in each piece of cutlery,
Faded, faceless, in every pane of glass
Ready to replace me
If I laugh, he copies
A cold humourless clone
He is only truthful
But it is a half truth
I almost have pity
For one trapped in
A cold, dark reflection.
Aaron, aged 12
I am the mirror on the wall
With ornate frame of gold
And strange temptations like a siren’s call
To bend you to my careful mould
There is no choice
For me nor you
I simply do what I was made to do
You made me, took the decision
To see yourselves backwards
Tom, aged 12
It forms as the rains come;
Gathers when a myriad droplets
Crash, exploding, to the dry ground.
Slowly it seeps from the centre,
Expanding, growing, covering the road
With its silvery surface of reflection.
Then the rains stop.
The mirror stills, shines
Its information brighter.
The eye sees deeper, finding
Changing pictures now
Glimpses of a foreign world.
And as the eye begins to marvel
Drawn closer to this simple pool,
A single stone, source unknown,
Approaches, growing faster, gaining speed,
Until, with a silent explosion,
The world of the mirror shatters
Into a thousand liquid shards.
Paris, aged 11
I am pinned to the wall and hang there,
Watching, waiting, for something to happen
For someone to come past, something to see
So then they can see too.
I bring disappointment, rarely joy,
But cannot help it.
It is strange how they are never satisfied.
I seldom see a single soul that smiles.
People pass, frowning and sighing
And always come back, to sigh once more.
Alex, aged 11
Smashed, stained, abandoned,
Lying in the attic covered in cobwebs,
Unable to make a sound,
Like an idea trying to come back to life,
Only the occasional murmur and running
On the downstairs corridor.
When a fine light shines on its face
And then dimming.
The sound of talking
Echoing around the room like a cave
And at night
Hearing nothing, nothing
But the sound of the cars
And flashing light
Streaming through the window.
Grace, aged 11
Dancing in Anger
I watch her twirl.
Savagely tearing a hole
In her world. She
Becomes a blur of colour,
I watch her stretch,
Viciously creating line after
Line through her hands,
Her elbows, her shoulders.
She is dangerous.
I watch her bow.
Her emotions still outside
Her control, her body.
She shakes and trembles.
I watch her leave.
She sends the studio
Into darkness. I cannot
Reflect anything now.
Surely there is nothing there?
Anna, aged 11
(Foyle’s Young Poets 2011, Highly Commended)
This is just a small selection of what the children produced as a result of this session. All of them were given the opportunity to develop their ideas gradually over time, drafting and redrafting them electronically, in order to ease the process of perfecting the finished result. The ever-increasing use of IT in the educational environment is of enormous advantage to the creative process where writing is concerned. I always encourage the children to move electronic copies of their work over to shared folders as soon as possible, even if it is only in the initial stages of development. That way, they can seek advice not only from me but from all of their peers, as to which images and ideas work well, whether or not they should stick with the rhyme scheme that they have chosen, how they should bring their poem to a satisfying conclusion, and so on. Children respond very positively in my experience to this very open approach to writing poetry, and seeing each other’s work develop organically, far from encouraging ‘copying’, seems to elicit the very opposite, i.e. a desire to plough their own furrow and come up with something truly unique. As we discovered through the Mirror Poems activity, using a common thematic starting point and taking time to revisit the work in progress at regular intervals over several weeks produced a very interesting and varied collection of poems which sought to explore forms, influences and approaches in novel ways.
Sixteen years of teaching poetry to children have furnished me with a wealth of ideas. Do dip in and adapt any of these for your own lessons.