poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘Not The Furniture Game’ by Simon Armitage
With another class, Luke Wright gave a reading of Simon Armitage’s ‘Not the Furniture Game’, in which a barrage of metaphors describe the poem’s protagonist from head to toe, all building up to a shocking climax when the focus shifts to a woman, described as a ‘chair tipped over backwards’ in an allusion to the poem’s title, who has, we suppose, been attacked or even murdered by her larger-than-life partner.
This was certainly not the kind of poem that one might typically expect Year 7 children to be grappling with, but they responded with incredible maturity and insight, using the regularity of the structure together with the openness of the metaphorical possibilities to make profound statements about things that matter to them. The standout response was by Charlie, an unassuming Year 7 boy, who had never shown any particular inclination towards poetry and had previously struggled to find a voice in his creative writing in general. Requiring no further external input or assistance, he quietly got on with writing this:
His hair was icebergs clashing together
His eyes were whirlpools pulling in ships
And his bite was blacksmiths smashing steel
His neck was a spear
And his shoulders were tree trunks in the autumn
His handshake was fire
His elbows were knives blunted
His shadow was a cumulonimbus
His legs were steel doors
His feet were bells ringing with every step
His fingers were snipers
His footprints were maps
And his heart was a bus
We were the sword that cut through his cancer.
Charlie, aged 12
When we convened in the school hall for the final hour of Luke’s visit, during which the children were given the opportunity to read their poems aloud to the rest of the school, this was the one poem that stopped everyone in their tracks, pupils and teachers alike. I think it stands as proof of the cathartic effect of poetry on children, allowing them to access and publicly express emotions which they might otherwise be embarrassed or unwilling to share. Poetry, in common with other art forms, creates a protective bubble around its creator, letting them explore that which might be too challenging or awkward in the literal world. It enables them to revisit, dissect and rebuild complex memories in an effort both to discover the truth behind them and to render them more manageable. Seeing his words wield such power over an audience demonstrated to Charlie that this is a great poem. Entirely at his own initiative, he decided to enter ‘Dad’ for the 2015 Hippocrates Young Poets Award and was awarded an honorable mention by the judges. There can be no better proof that children have at their disposal, within their own memories, the material to convey a message that is relevant and profoundly meaningful to anyone and everyone. All that we, as teachers, need to do is to give them the means of sharing these memories.
‘Stansted’ by Luke Wright
Luke Wright paid St John’s College School a visit in September 2013 and this was one of the poems that he read aloud and workshopped with our Year 7 children. It was already a favourite of mine, the village of Stansted being where I have called home for the past five years. To hear it delivered in person, by the voice that owns these words, was a special experience both for me and the children and one that cannot be underestimated. Only the poet himself can imbue his words with the exact nuances of meaning that were originally intended. Only the poet can truly sense the images described and give them their full emotional resonance. The very best readers of poetry can, of course, bring poetry to life and can move the listener deeply, sometimes more so than the poet can. However, performers of other people’s words cannot overcome the fact that they were not there. Much of their skill will necessarily come down to inference, the ability to empathise and educated guesswork. As brilliant as they may be, those who read what they did not themselves write will always inevitably be missing something, however small, however intangible. For this reason, it is invaluable in the school context and beyond for audiences to be allowed to hear the poet reading his or her own work. Whether this be in person or via audiovisual media, the effect is profound and instantaneous.
The children immediately identified with Luke’s poetic voice and the contrast in their reactions - from wild laughter to silent fascination in a matter of seconds - revealed just how fully they were engrossed and wanting not to miss a thing. ‘Stansted’ struck a particular chord because the situation described and its language both resonate perfectly with children of a certain age:
“...whenever Dads were mentioned I’d say:
My Dad was involved with ‘The Stansted Project.’
I’d say: My Dad was like the main boss.
And on occasion, to proud, freckle-faced boys:
Yeah, well, my Dad ... built Stansted Airport.”
The familiar scenario of children boasting about their father’s achievements to hyperbolic extremes is one that all children have been witness to at some point and, importantly, when they are not in the company of adults. Even the simple use of the filler word ‘like’ really helps to gives the poem the feel of a dialogue between the poet and an audience who are on his wavelength. As English language specialist, Professor Clive Upton has noted: “Using "like" in this way is also about signalling membership of a club”
Luke’s reading certainly helped the children to imagine themselves as part of his childhood ‘club’ and, having established common ground, he was then able to gain their full focus for all of the minutely observed ‘Dad’ details that fuel the switch to a more contemplative mode in the latter part of the poem:
“And yet, I never really knew what he did.
Not like I knew his mahogany trouser press,
the brass bowl for his change and errant golf tees,
the way his cheek felt cold when he came back from work,
his black Mac’ jewelled with rain, smelling of trains
and a faint whiff of the morning’s aftershave.”
The children’s task was to reflect upon particular memories of a person that they know (or knew) well and to make notes on whatever details they could remember well, no matter how insignificant or silly they might seem now and out of context. Unlike the majority of the poetry activities that I myself tend to conduct with children, where sound and exchange of ideas are key, this one required time for silent reflection, so Luke encouraged the children to settle down to independent quiet working. It impressed me how long they were able to maintain this silent focus and write from memory, especially given the lack of specific scaffolding in the activity. From this, I learnt to what extent, given an excellent stimulus and the right atmosphere, children can produce an authentic response without the need for further input:
If you show me a briefcase
Or let me hear the footsteps of your dark black shoes
My mind would be transported back to the days
When I would give you your famous Chocolate Orange at Christmas
And then I wait eagerly for you to offer me a piece
I can still hear the words No-point-crying-over-spilt-milk ringing through my ears
I can still smell the strong scent of black coffee
In the huge mug saying Danger! Man at Work
Beatrice, aged 11
Buddhism: that’s what you make me think about,
Always polite, never mean, never rude.
Never boasting and always trying to do what’s right.
When you moved house,
We were given some of your things,
And whenever I look round our house,
I say: “Those are the matching chairs that you had meals on,
That’s the grandfather clock that gave you the time,
That’s the sofa that you read magazines on,
That’s the desk that was covered in scattered around papers,
That’s the lampshade that gave you light at night,
They’re the plates that you had your vegetarian sausages on,
There’s the cutlery that you cut up your roast potatoes with.”
That’s how I remember you.
Lucy, aged 11
She is a bloodthirsty mongoose
Her tantrums a thunderstorm like no other
Hacking me with her plastic sword
She could out-rule Kim Jong Il
All of us slaves of this notorious tyrant
The thuds of her footsteps
Spread fear across the kitchen
Her Majesty the Queen with 5-a-day dress changes
But she is my sister
And that is why I put up with it
Oscar, aged 11
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.