poems to get kids putting pen to paper
Archaeopteryx fossil cast, taken from the Natural History Museum of Berlin's specimen
© University of Cambridge
‘Archaeopteryx’ by Gillian Clarke
Few poets working today have done as much as Gillian Clarke to promote writing by children without explicitly writing for them. For me, it is this ability to communicate across the generations through her poetry and her teaching of it that makes Gillian Clarke such a fascinating poet to work with, both on the page and in person. Clarke gave a workshop at the University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology in 2013, in which a group of our Year 8 Bronze Arts Award candidates participated. The workshop was part of ‘Thresholds’, a project set up in collaboration between University of Cambridge Museums and Arts Council England to provide poets in residence at ten of the university’s museums and collections. The project provided a unique opportunity for poets to create tangible connections between objects and words, and to share them directly with an audience who might not otherwise choose to engage with poetry.
All of the children whom we took to participate in Clarke’s workshop had an existing keen interest in creative writing and wished to include it within their Bronze Arts Award portfolios, alongside artwork, sculpture, design pieces and musical compositions. Within the framework of the two-hour workshop, they were allowed to examine and handle a number of the museum’s exhibits, including skulls, bones and even an egg which had been brought back from Darwin’s expedition on The Beagle. The museum curators gave detailed explanations of the objects and invited questions about them, whilst Clarke encouraged close observation on a metaphorical level: what does the object look like, feel like, smell like, sound like? The children could also wander around the larger exhibits - whole skeletons and glass cases with stuffed specimens - sketchbook in hand, drawing and noting anything of interest, with the instruction to choose one exhibit which inspired them to write. Having this level of freedom to interact with the exhibits helped to break down some of the ‘distance’ that typically exists for children in the museum experience. The ‘Do Not Touch’ injunction was refreshingly absent from the experience and, by placing an implicit trust in the children to respect the environment of the museum, the curators had freed them up to put the exhibits at the forefront of their minds, not rules and regulations.
When it was time to start writing, Clarke told us about her favourite exhibit at the museum, the Archaeopteryx. She had not yet finished her poem about it, but told us why it had inspired her and told us some of the ideas that she would be including in her writing:
“In my first hour in the exhibition gallery I saw what is still my favourite treasure. It is the fossil of a bird, with a perfectly preserved impression made by its wing-feathers, like when you play ‘Making Angels’ in the snow, lying on your back and sweeping your arms to make wings. The Archaeopteryx is the earliest bird fossil, the size of the magpie that just left its impression in the snow on my lawn. The snow-shadow will melt. Stone has held the Archaeopteryx for millions of years, like a photograph of the Jurassic period. It makes me dizzy, just thinking about it.”
Her instructions for writing were simple: to make connections between the specimen as it is now and how it would have been when it lived, as she herself has done in the finished version of ‘Archaeopteryx’. The stillness of the object is given movement and colour through reflection on the life that it once had, through description of what a muscle, a bone, a tooth or a tusk was originally designed to do. This technique can clearly be seen in the children’s poems below, each of which shows careful consideration of the physiology underlying the history.
Ivory dancing in the marmalade light,
Jawbone balanced with tiptoes,
Rib bone spears splitting muscles,
Shoulder blades charging to defend the golden land
Grey ageing cloth taut
Azure irises flaring
Bellows reverberate inside him
The crimson blood, the helpless cry.
Mind fixed on the sharp outline
A spark was lit, an inferno awakened.
Isabel, aged 13
A membrane of filtered light
Looking through a window of curving bone
Spindly features hollow with light
A faded string of arcing transparencies
Cradling tiny bones, the missing pieces of a jigsaw
Splinters piercing the frail mouth
The sun breathing light into its frail body
Flicking through the sand, the musty dust scattering
As it jolts the sharp notes of the speckled light
Folded bones enclosed in a bracket of skittish vibrancy
Absorbing the light from the cobbled sky
Filling the gaps in its delicate features
Its tiny brain scattered with racing thoughts
The intertwining rims of bone flooded with light
As it scarpered across the plain evading the night,
Crashing the darkness with flecks of colour
Mirrored precisely with tessellating curves
You could never see the emptiness inside
Because life filled the hollow places
That pierced through to the outside
Chloe, aged 12
The mouth, strong and tough,
Teeth that interlock precisely.
When the mouth is open,
It will come down with the force
Of an avalanche.
When the jaw muscles contract,
The icicles dig into the prey.
Under the cover of night,
The stalking of rodents commences.
The cunning badger,
Fooling the mouse into leading him to its nest.
Huw, aged 13
The Darwin Egg
Closed in the palm of your hand
A crack down the middle
Snaking its way across the surface.
Not caused by nature,
But the great man himself,
When cushioning it in a bed.
The spotted tinamu lies on her nest,
Acting like a radiator to the egg,
So delicate it will break at the lightest touch.
She can’t wait until it hatches
Her beautiful baby bird,
Soaring through the air
But, alas, that moment never came.
Emily, aged 12
Life flowed through its blood
Buried in the depth of distant life
With only a handful of truths
Left behind by
Destruction or ruthless guesswork.
Motion - caught, trapped:
Behind thought. Frozen in death
Is the energy
Dropped and lost in
The shadows of those thoughts,
Only few to be uncovered
From the secrets
They lie beneath.
Jessica, aged 13
Like angel fronds,
Carrying the burden of a
Bubbleweight bone in
The deadened, lonely
Of not just water.
In this unforgiving, impossible
Protecting from each powerful movement
Its bearer makes,
In the simple concentration of
To the complex workings we
It is like solid air,
Or concrete feathers.
Isolated, it does not belong,
The need of more.
There is a purpose in
Completion, but at a price;
These fundamental fringes are only fragments,
Lost within the
Bigger picture of the
Jessica, aged 12
As you slowly run your hand over the whale’s ear bone,
You feel the roughness, rigidness and smoothness.
It almost looks like a foetus curled up,
Or a silk woven purse.
As you look inside it, it gets very smooth and deep.
You can nearly hear the crashing of the waves,
Or the crying of the gulls inside it.
Its glimmery skin,
Glistening and glazing,
As it streamlines through the ocean.
Guy, aged 12
For me, each of these poems beautifully captures the essence of the artefact in question as if it were still alive. None of the objects seem to be in any way confined to their museum and the writers have skilfully constructed a bridge between the ‘then’ and the ‘now’. If anything, this experiment in using the museum as a space for poetry illustrates how effectively children can assimilate the past into their present through the act of writing in a meaningful context outside of the classroom. A deeper understanding of the past can be embedded through direct creative engagement with it and this can only be a positive thing for the future both of the arts and of museums.
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.