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.
I often suggest to children that they should think of writing poetry as performing act of transformation. The shapes and patterns of day-to-day language are reworked and crafted so as to create something new. Similarly with the ideas that underlie the language. Whatever starts in the writer’s mind in the raw syntax of the thought process is changed by the application of poetic technique into something tangibly different, something magically enriched and rendered memorable. How this magic happens is, of course, impossible to pinpoint and is different for each and every writer. Just as any artist would struggle to explain how an initial idea makes its journey from seed to a fully grown, living artwork, the poet is similarly at a loss to map out the workings of the mind that result in a finished poem. For me, at least, the very concept of a ‘finished’ poem is something of a troubling one. Every time I revisit one of my own poems written for the purposes of teaching a particular form or theme, I am compelled to rework it in some way, such that, in some cases, the vestiges of the original piece of writing are few and far between. Just like a car which, over its lifetime, has had each and every part replaced, a poem has the paradoxical potential to be involved in an ongoing process of change whilst still, in some sense, being the ‘same’ poem. In this sense, I have often wondered if the very act of committing poetry to paper and publishing it in a ‘final’ form stands at odds with its true nature. For a poem to be truly ‘alive’, it needs to live alongside its writer and be free to change and develop at the writer’s will. Certainly, when hearing poets give readings of their own works, I love to listen out for the little alterations that they make. Some listeners, of course, would immediately assume that the poet had ‘made a mistake’ or ‘got it wrong’ if, at a subsequent reading, a change had been made from the published text. For me, pretty much the opposite is true: the current version is now the stronger claimant for being the true poem and, even if this version exists only for one reading before reverting to a previous form or changing to another new one, that is all part of what helps to make poetry a living artform. I like to consider the infinite possibilities that spring from the seemingly trivial word choices that poets make. What if Yeats had wished for ‘ten bean rows’ on Innisfree instead of ‘nine’? What if Shakespeare had compared thee to a ‘summer’s eve’ or ‘a summer’s morn’, rather than a ‘summer’s day’? What difference would it make if Jenny Joseph were to wear ‘yellow’ having grown old, not ‘purple’? Much of this, of course, is just the workings of mind that revels in wordplay, but the serious point here is that, when teaching poetry to children, the more their minds are opened up to the infinite possibilities that sit there before them on their enormous palette of words, the more scope there is for them to keep exploring, to keep learning and to keep enjoying the very act of writing poetry.
‘Transformations’ and ‘Proud Songsters’ by Thomas Hardy
Portion of this yew
Is a man my grandsire knew,
Bosomed here at its foot:
This branch may be his wife,
A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot.
These grasses must be made
Of her who often prayed,
Last century, for repose;
And the fair girl long ago
Whom I often tried to know
May be entering this rose.
So, they are not underground,
But as nerves and veins abound
In the growths of upper air,
And they feel the sun and rain,
And the energy again
That made them what they were!
The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all Time were theirs.
These are brand new birds of twelvemonths' growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
But only particles of grain,
And earth and air and rain.
On taking my first teaching job in London in 2000, I found myself living in a studio flat above a mouse-infested secondhand electricals shop, just a stone’s throw from the King’s Cross railway tracks. In the week that I moved in, I was deeply immersed in my brown-jacketed Faber Collected Poems of Philip Larkin and couldn’t help wondering if I had contrived, either by accident or design, to turn myself into Mr Bleaney. If this whole scenario were not already Larkinesque enough, I was soon to learn that the area hid one particular and unexpected connection to one of Larkin’s strongest influences, namely Thomas Hardy. I discovered this quite by chance on one of my summer strolls, which took me past the old gasometers to Old St Pancras Church, not far from Mornington Crescent. Within the churchyard, I came across an intriguing ash tree, around whose trunk are arranged a large number of old gravestones, radiating out like roots. It is known as The Hardy Tree.
Hardy trained as an architect in Dorchester and, after he moved to London in 1862, one of his first jobs involved working on the excavation of Old St Pancras Church graveyard. Many of the graves had to be removed to make way for the route of the Midland Railway into the new London terminus at St Pancras. Hardy oversaw the proper exhumation of the human remains and the gravestones of the affected tombs were placed around the tree at that time, possibly to Hardy’s own instruction and design. Hardy later recalled this time in his 1882 poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard’, the text of which reveals his distress and anger at the sacrilege in which he was required to be complicit in the name of ‘progress’:
“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am!’”
from ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ 1882
Over the years, the tree has grown through and between the gravestones, making a seemingly homogeneous structure, reminiscent of the tree-strangled temples of Angkor Wat. Whether or not Hardy knew, when he originally supervised the creation of this living sculpture in the heart of Victorian London, that it would come to stand as a symbol of his poetic vision is hard to say. However, when reading poems such as ‘Transformations’ or ‘Proud Songsters’, I find it impossible not to think of The Hardy Tree and wonder if it provided the seed from which they grew.
I first came across ‘Transformations’ and ‘Proud Songsters’ when I was studying that other great poem of Hardy’s, namely ‘The Voice’, which was one of my set texts for GCSE. So fascinated was I by this poem that I can even recall phrases from the essays that I wrote about it. I remember getting a ‘Wow!’ in the margin from Miss Hulse for describing the rhythm of the first line as being ‘dry as a funeral drum’, for which I hereby belatedly apologise: I assume she didn’t notice that I had plagiarised this simile verbatim from Pink Floyd’s ‘One of My Turns’. (It had long been an earworm lyric for me, my Dad being in the habit of having ‘The Wall’ album on constant loop in the car on the way to school.) ‘The Voice’ sent me exploring further and - along with ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ and ‘Drummer Hodge’ - ‘Transformations’ and ‘Proud Songsters’ soon became and remain firm favourites.
I rediscovered these poems again recently thanks to Alan Bennett’s beautiful 2014 anthology Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin. I wanted to share with my pupils why Hardy has had such a profound effect not only upon casual readers like me, but, as Bennett explains in his anthology, upon some of the greatest poets to have followed in his footsteps, Auden, Betjeman and Larkin to name but three of Bennett’s other subjects. We took ourselves into the garden at St John’s, where there happens to be a yew tree. Sadly not the dark, funereal presence that one imagines Hardy’s graveyard yew to be, our yew is rather more of a scrawny teenager hanging around beside the car park gate, as if eager to skulk off at the final bell. Far more promising is our willow tree. It stood tall in the middle of the garden for many a long year until, maybe five or six years ago, a wet summer and waterlogged earth saw it tip over under its own weight. Precariously propped up sixty degrees off the vertical by its lower branches, its fate seemed doomed. However, skilful tree surgery miraculously saved it and now it enjoys a second life as a living climbing frame-cum-Shakespeare stage.
So, we wandered around the garden, reading ‘Transformations’ and ‘Proud Songsters’ as we went, taking turns to read lines in different locations, repeating them, discussing them, trying to reimagine them in this new context. Just as Hardy had tried to imagine where within his natural surroundings the souls and bodies of the departed had gone, I asked the children to think back not just within their own timescales, but in multiples of generations, to a time before the garden, the school, the buildings... What was here when our yew, our hollies or our willow put down their first roots? How many eyes have seen them over the decades and centuries? How many children have run around and between them? How many long-forgotten lives have contributed something to the energy that keeps these trees alive to this day?
These were ideas that fascinated the children. All manner of questions arose from their discussions. If I dropped a tear or a droplet of blood on this spot and it seeped into the ground, would it end up being a part of that tree? Does that mean my DNA would be in the tree? How long would it take for all of the atoms in a body to become parts of other living things? All of these are the kinds of questions that Hardy is himself asking in ‘Transformations’ and ‘Proud Songsters’ and the fact that there are no definitive answers is what makes this such a rich seam for poetry.
The children spent some time rough sketching and making notes on any observations that interested them within the garden. I wanted them to think deeply about all of the implications of Hardy’s words without feeling the need to launch directly into a response. They needed to work out what they thought, what particular questions and possibilities interested them. Then we left the thoughts to ferment. No attempts were made to write poetry on that first day. Over the following couple of weeks, the children started to use their notes and sketches to get writing. I gave them as little direction as possible, asking them only to show a progression from the beginning to the end of the poem: the ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ of their chosen transformation. As regards form, they were free either to emulate Hardy’s loose trimeter or to apply other techniques that they had practised elsewhere. Beth, for example, chose to use pentameter with great success:
Blossom bloomed above you the summer when
I left you under my grand cherry tree
I can see your cheeks in the roses that
Cover the garden you planted with me.
When you died I planted in the garden
A row of bluebells round your cherry grave
In spring they grew into your bright blue eyes
And your teardrops show in the river’s waves.
Your toes came through the ground as spiked toadstools
Trees twist far around you, smooth like your skin
Swaying gently in the sharp icy breeze
Nature around you shows the soul within.
Beth, aged 12
I have mentioned her fourth line - “Cover the garden you planted with me” - previously in Chapter 4 and how this reminded me instantly of the dactyls in Hardy’s ‘The Voice’. Even though Beth had never read come across ‘The Voice’ herself, the coincidence did make me wonder if maybe there is some hidden quality of each individual poet’s voice - no pun intended - that moves undetected from one poem to another and resonates on the same frequency in the reader’s mind. Certainly, there seems to me to be something intangibly ‘Hardy-esque’ in Beth’s poem that goes deeper than the theme or the imagery and right to the heart Hardy’s poetic sensibility.
Other children went in very different formal and stylistic directions, yet still managed to convey something of Hardy’s spirit in their poems, at least to my ears:
It stood swaying in the wind
Not like the willow
Different from all
Yet the same
The bark frosted over
Cold to the touch
Its long sleep of winter had just begun
Day after day it stood there
Waiting for a change
As the ground changed around it
As the years passed the school built around it
And it knew what
No one else was to know
Tom, aged 13
He lies there
His roots scarring the ground
He looks over in envy at the children playing
His playing days are over
He remembers how it was to feel, touch and smell
Now it is silent
The children have gone
Sap oozes out of his ancient bark
He looks up at the sky
It is littered with stars
It is an icy evening
The wind whistles
The breeze bellows
But all is still
He wonders about his family
Do they still think about me?
Or am I a distant memory?
Rory, aged 11
Will You Remember Me?
Underneath the old apple tree
I can still taste the dirt
That I swallowed as I hit the floor
I can still feel the stones
That dug into my skin
And so I fell
Onto the cold ground
And slowly I rotted away
Abandoned, discarded, forgotten
Rotting feels horrible
I don’t recommend it
And I fertilized the soil
A sprout appeared
Over the years that sprout
Grew taller and taller
Then it blossomed
An apple tree
My apple tree
Tom, aged 11
Though life is fleeting,
We live on.
Though we may die,
We live on.
Though we may not
Forever see the light,
We live on.
We: a cat, a dog, a frog;
We live on.
You: a rose, a bee, a tree;
You live on.
I: a man, an owl, a fowl;
I live on.
Seb, aged 12
During the writing process, we also looked at Harry Nilsson’s song ‘Think About Your Troubles’, taken from his 1971 philosophical album and animated film entitled ‘The Point!’
‘Think About Your Troubles’ by Harry Nilsson
Sit beside the breakfast table
Think about your troubles
Pour yourself a cup of tea
And think about the bubbles
You could take your teardrops
And drop them in a teacup
Take them down to the riverside
And throw them over the side
To be swept up by a current
And taken to the ocean
To be eaten by some fishes
Who were eaten by some fishes
And swallowed by a whale
Who grew so old, he decomposed
He died and left his body
To the bottom of the ocean
Now everybody knows
That when a body decomposes
The basic elements
Are given back to the ocean
And the sea does what it ought'a
And soon there's salty water
(Not too good for drinking)
'Cause it tastes just like a teardrop
(So we run it through a filter)
And it comes out from the faucet
(And pours into a teapot)
Which is just about to bubble
Think about your troubles
We discussed the meaning behind Nilsson’s song and to what extent his ‘Why worry?’ philosophy recycles Hardy’s idea and gives it a modern twist with which children can identify perhaps more easily. Inspired by this alternative take on Hardy’s idea, some adapted their ideas to go beyond the garden to other locations, such as rivers or oceans.
Amongst these waves,
There just might be,
A washed-up tear,
Belonging to me,
Or between my toes,
The crumbling sand,
Perhaps slipped between
The fingers of my hand,
If it so happens,
That from long ago,
Among the grass should grow
Maybe if I go back,
I could see a blossom,
In full bloom
Heather, aged 12
The river by my house
Holds the lives of many.
The tears that fall
From family past
Get picked up by the river blue.
Another one cries in it too
And that is how the river blue
Holds a part of both me and you.
Alie, aged 12
This exercise seemed to elicit from the children a genuine, deep understanding of the workings of the cosmos that invisibly operate all around, within and throughout our day-to-day lives. Nilsson’s film asks in a punningly literal manner whether everything must have a ‘point’, in other words, come to a definitive end. Can we not instead imagine ourselves as part of a cycle of ‘eternal return’? Would we not be ultimately happier if we were to do so? The children’s poems show a full engagement with this manner of thinking and an attempt to ‘work things out’ for themselves. In this sense, writing poetry can be a useful tool in allowing children to find a path through the labyrinth of life’s ‘big questions’.
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.