poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘Don’t Cry, Darling, It’s Blood All Right’ by Ogden Nash
By way of experimentation, I decided to use another Ogden Nash poem the following day with a group of gifted and talented Year 8 pupils. It is easy to slip into the mindset that playing with rhyme is more of an activity for the ‘little ones’ and that, by the time young people’s literacy and range of vocabulary is getting on for adult level, poetry writing time is spent more productively on, say, developing original metaphors. I am certainly guilty of such assumptions and I often think twice about using poems where rhyme is the stand-out feature, for fear that it will block the writer’s way to expressing what they truly wish to convey. However, give them a poem that uses rhyme in a way that they are unlikely to have encountered before and children are instantly intrigued and keen to delve in. They willingly abandon the misconception that the priority of their writing is that it must ‘mean’ something and instead, as the 4-year-olds did above, let the rhyme shape the narrative.
The beauty of using a poet like Nash for rhyme experiments lies not only in his ubiquitous use of rhyming couplets, in which invented words and deliberately ‘wrenched’ rhymes, for example ‘porpoises/corpoises’, are used for comic effect. There is also the equally intentional disregard for metre: as soon as he reaches the word that makes his line rhyme with its predecessor, that is where the line ends, no matter how long or short it is. I chose ‘Don’t Cry Darling, It’s Blood All Right’ to introduce to my Year 8s because I thought that the theme would be something that they would identify with, but open any anthology of Nash’s poetry and you will find that pretty much any his works can be used to inspire a fun rhyming activity. Simply removing the final words from each line and doing a drag and drop activity on the interactive whiteboard is how we got going, reciting each line as we went and then calling out suggestions for the missing word. Such is the narrative clarity of Nash’s poetry, that the missing word seems to just spring into the listener’s mind automatically. Here is another couplet of his, this time from ‘The Adventures of Isabel’:
“She showed no rage and she showed no rancor,
But she turned the witch into milk and _______.”
The fact that the missing ‘word’ is in fact two words (‘drank her’) makes the guessing no less simple. Do the same activity with a couplet like this one from ‘I Do, I Will, I Have’ -
“Moreover, just as I am unsure of the difference between flora and fauna and flotsam and jetsam,
I am quite sure that marriage is the alliance of two people one of whom never remembers birthdays and the other never _________.”
I asked the children what they thought of Nash’s varied line lengths. What did they contribute, if anything, to their enjoyment of the poem? Comments were made to the effect that the ‘wordiness’ made the poem seem more ‘chatty’, that it made the poet seem more ‘real’ to them, because they could tell what he thought about his subject matter. It felt like he was talking to his audience in person and they could get a sense of his humorous and ironic personality. The children also liked the way that his lines seemed to ‘break the rules’, that they hadn’t realised that you could do this kind of thing. This, I found particularly interesting. Somehow, my pupils have developed a sense that poetry has ‘rules’ that must be adhered to, even though they have come across poems of all kinds, written in both fixed forms and free verse. Upon what they supposed the ‘rules’ to be, they could not agree, of course, but something about Ogden Nash’s writing had given them a new sense of the freedom that the poet has to shun what he feels he ought to write and to focus instead upon what and how he wants to write.
To give the children an idea of how to get going, I modelled a couplet that came off the top of my head as I wrote it out:
“If you ever discover that you’ve lost your pet ostrich,
Don’t dismiss the possibility that it’s been kidnapped and taken hostrich (hostage)”
Already, as with the animal poems done previously with the 4-year-olds, a narrative has been seeded from the very constraints of the rhyme and it is not hard to imagine how this poem might be continued in the style of one of Nash’s own weird and wonderful tales. All the children needed now was a free rein to share ideas for rhymes out loud and access to an online rhyming dictionary. Within half an hour, they were coming up with their own homages to Nash, like this one, in which Hugo explores his personal fascination with impossibly long words:
The Anathema of a Hippopotamonstrosaquippedaliphobic
It is necessary to be incredibly stoic,
Especially when one is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliopho’ic,
You must be careful when on the telephone,
For fear of hearing ‘oxyphenbutazone’,
You would much rather end up in a scarier prison
Than saying antidisestablishmentarianism,
You would certainly love to have itchy nosis
If the alternative was suffering from pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,
But this is actually pointless because virtually no one suffers from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia,
So you should probably just ignore it until hell freezes ovia
Hugo (aged 13)
I enjoyed observing the way in which Hugo systematically worked his way through this poem. He knew that he wanted to find a rhyme for ‘hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobic’ as his starting point and quickly discovered that seemingly his only option that avoided repeating the ‘-phobic’ ending was ‘aerobic’, which didn’t seem to help too much. Undeterred, he experimented with Nash-inspired misspellings - ‘-phobbic’, ‘-phopic’ etc. - before having a go at removing letters. His ‘-pho’ic’ suddenly struck a chord and he immediately had ‘stoic’ in hand to play with and to drive his opening couplet. It was then simply a case of working through the likes of ‘oxyphenbutzone’,
to find suitable rhymes. Wanting to bring the poem full circle with a reappearance of ‘hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia’, he set to mindmapping such promising inventions as ‘globier’, ‘noblier’, ‘robier’ and ‘lobe-ear’ before thinking slightly further outside the box and coming up with the inspired ‘(hell freezes) ovia’, aping Nash’s deliberate misspellings in style.
Needless to say, Hugo’s poem, along with several others, way surpassed my expectations at the start of the lesson, which I had envisaged merely as a bit of light relief following a typically joyless examination period, a chance to play with the linguistic Lego bricks before dipping back into the curriculum. If anything, it goes to show that, with poetry at least, when the challenge is there but the pressure is off, children can rise to the occasion and produce more lively and exciting poetry than they might otherwise do in more of a ‘formal’ lesson context.
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.