poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney
A poem with a similar theme to ‘For My Grandmother Knitting’, which I use in conjunction with it, is Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’. I remember first coming across this poem during my A-Level English Literature studies and being fascinated by the skill with which Heaney’s carefully chosen words bring the image of his father’s work into such sharp relief. He truly does ‘dig deep’ for the ‘good turf’ of linguistic clarity and poetic beauty. The parallels that he manages to draw between the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of farm labouring and writing helped me to appreciate for the first time the true value of creative writing, the sheer effort that goes into it and the meaningful, satisfying, life-giving product that comes from it.
Studying ‘Digging’ with Year 7 children, I encourage them to ‘go digging’ in keeping with the spirit of the poem. I ask them to put their favourite words from the poem onto a Mindmap and make any links that interest them. I don’t give them a set approach; the important thing is that they delve into the words and see what they find. Some children prefer to take a thematic approach, creating a ‘DIGGING’ bubble and a ‘WRITING’ bubble and mapping out words which connect the two. This can yield some fascinating ideas that might otherwise be missed in more of a linear reading. For example, Matthew, aged 11, was drawn to the description of the writer’s pen as ‘squat’, as it made him visualise the father squatting down to dig. He added that it also helped him to hear the splat of the soggy peat. Jenny, also 11, asked what potato drills were. On finding out that they were the furrows in which the potatoes are planted, she connected that to her ‘WRITING’ bubble with the comment that the lines of ploughed furrows are like the lines of words produced by a poet. She added that her mother would often talk about spelling ‘drills’ and so this had now created a new link in her mind between the use of words and the ploughing of fields.
These explorations of the hidden links between words, images and sounds enabled the children to understand the need for rigour in their own poetry. Seeing the parallels between a hard day’s work in the field, with its accompanying sense of satisfaction, and the work of the writer who dedicates proper time and effort to the ultimate benefit of the end product is a lesson well worth giving. If children can assimilate the idea that writing for pleasure is a serious undertaking, that is worth doing properly, they will certainly reap the rewards in the form of better quality writing and improved overall literacy.
The House of Memories
I remember our house
The life I used to live in it
The joy of my bedroom like a wide smile
And the excitement on the trampoline
It would make me surge with happiness
The days of laughter and love
The days of creation and courage
It was as sweet as shiny sugar
On a warm day being caramelised
Your imagination will drip away from you
Like sticky, sweet, melted sugar
Oscar, aged 12
‘For my Grandmother Knitting’ by Liz Lochhead
As Mandy Coe states in her chapter of Making Poetry Happen:
“By assuming a poem starts with pen and paper, we fail to value where it really begins: in real or imagined experiences made even more vivid by the writerly habit of close observation.”
I find this quotation especially apposite when considered alongside a poem such as Liz Lochhead’s ‘For My Grandmother Knitting’. The poet’s reminiscences of her grandmother engaged in her habitual knitting focus in on the finer details, most notably the hands that perform the action. Every movement, every sound and every texture of those hands is clearly at the forefront of the writer’s memory, which itself seems to be intricately ‘knitted’ together from vivid mental pictures and snatches of overheard conversation. We, as readers, come to know this grandmother not through literal description of the whole person, but through those aspects of her that shine through the poet’s memory. In this way, the poem is very much a close relative of Phoebe Boswall’s ‘Baking’. Whether the latter was influenced directly by the former is hard to know, but their common trope of remembering a person through an activity is what makes both of them excellent source material for getting children writing.
I looked at this poem with a Year 8 class with a view to using it as a choral poem for the 2013 poetry evening. Its sparse use of punctuation gives considerable flexibility to the ways in which it can be read aloud and so I thought it would be an interesting challenge to let the children work out where best to make the transitions from one speaker to the next. I split them into three groups of roughly 7 or 8 children and they set to work with highlighters at the ready. Each group had differing opinions about how best to break the poem up. One group favoured longer sections of 5 or 6 lines per speaker; another chose to make the piece more conversational with lines or half-lines bouncing back and forth between two speakers before moving on to other pairs. The final group had taken an almost mathematical approach, working out how to evenly split the text between all members of their team without spoiling the narrative flow. They were keen to demonstrate why they thought their version was successful and were up at the front of the class performing their version with genuine thought and passion. Actions were brought in by some, such as hands being raised and lowered in unison. All three groups had also given some thought as to how best to ‘stage’ their reading, avoiding the instinctual tendency to stand in a line and instead placing themselves in interesting arrangements, occupying individual spaces, some sitting, some standing. All three readings had their own merits and all had their weaknesses. This was the cause for much discussion and debate, all of which contributed to the final version that we developed as a whole class for the choral reading.
This was a prime example of how the democratic process can elicit wonderful results in the poetry classroom. The tendency for many teachers teaching poetry is to think that they must have all the ideas (or answers) in advance and get the children to understand them. In fact, when a teacher puts enough trust in his or her pupils to let them formulate their own ideas and interpretations and then engage in collective discussion and sharing of opinions, the process of studying poetry can be so much more satisfying for all concerned. It also has the added benefit of giving the children a sense of the validity of their own ideas when they come to commit their memories to paper, as can be seen in Lucy’s response to ‘For My Grandmother Knitting’ and ‘Baking’, which also has some poignant echoes of Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’:
You always had apple pie.
You were insulted once when she forgot to make it
When we came down to visit.
You infested the house with the smell of your pipe.
Once she made you stand outside in the rain to smoke it
And when I came home all my clothes would smell of it.
You took us down to the playground
And lifted us onto the seesaw
And laughed when neither side went up or down.
You pushed us on the swings
So high, and we were laughing.
Your allotment, with the falling down shed
The runner beans and the broad ones
Your tomatoes in the greenhouse
The raspberries in the garden
The apple trees…
I helped to pick them.
When you were even older
Mum took you down to the hospital.
You stood in the car park with your pipe
And used the no-smoking sign as a windshield.
Now the house will be sold,
The allotment has a new shed
And the pipe is never lit.
Lucy, aged 13
‘Baking’ by Phoebe Boswall
With children in the classroom, we often have the tendency to shy away from the topic of death. There will always be one who has recently lost a grandparent, sometimes another who has lost a parent and occasionally one who has lost a sibling. As teachers, our instinct is to tread carefully and not to ‘open up old wounds’. Safer to avoid the issue altogether and stick to something innocuous or jovial. This attitude, whilst understandable, does children a disservice. It places the teacher in the position of protector from reality, when, in fact, our role is better served in helping children to recognise reality and come to terms with it. By resisting the temptation to place a cotton wool barrier between a child and his or her emotions, teachers of poetry can in fact help children to facilitate the process of healthy exploration - as opposed to instinctive repression - of deep-seated feelings. As we have already seen in the example of Charlie’s ‘Dad’, written in response to Simon Armitage’s ‘Not the Furniture Game’, the unforeseeable connection that he was able to make between the source poem and his own personal situation, which he had hitherto refrained from discussing at all at school, resulted not only in stunning poetry but in a happier, more confident child. One of the prime concerns of children for whom life is difficult at home, whether it be due to illness, separation, death or any other reason, is how to handle what those at school do and do not know. Worrying about how friends and teachers will react upon finding out what had previously only been known within the family can weigh heavily upon children’s minds, especially when the full picture is maybe not known to the child. Children may not be fully aware of what their parents have discussed privately or what they have shared with the school, all of which leaves them in a vulnerable position, unsure of what can and cannot be said to whom. The fear of that which they cannot control at home is potentially heightened by the further lack of control over what is known outside of the home. Using poetry that deals with the kind of difficult issues that children are likely to face as the inspiration for writing has the power give them a voice that they can control. They can choose to explore their own thoughts and express them either in a directly autobiographical style, as in Phoebe Boswall’s ‘Baking’, or write more anonymously, wrapping a fiction around the hidden truth as a layer of protection.
With the above thoughts in mind, I decided to use ‘Baking’ when I was asked by The Poetry Society to write lesson plans on two of their fifteen Foyle Young Poets winners of 2012. Dealing with death in poetry for children is often seen as too morbid an undertaking, likely to result in writing that drips with too much teenage angst and alienates the reader. Phoebe Boswall’s poem, however, is far from morbid, exuding joy and life that modifies the underlying sadness quite beautifully. I like the vivid sensuality of interlinked images that reproduce the poet’s memory with Proustian precision. The second-person subject of the poem comes to life through each highly focused snapshot and, even though the reader never explicitly sees the full person, we come to know them intimately through the medium of the poet’s own memory. Such is the richness of the description that we can create our own imaginary ‘you’ to fill in the gaps, with our own specific memories substituting those that don’t quite match. For me, my own maternal grandmother seems to be looking back at me from between the lines. It is her striped apron that I can see hanging on the back of the kitchen door, except in blue rather than red. It feels somehow impolite to do this: to invade the poet’s memory and alter things to suit our own. But this is precisely what good poetry always makes the reader do. What’s more, children are particularly adept at doing this. In my experience, given a poem with even the merest glimmer of recognisable common ground, they are capable of riding on the back of poet’s memory in order to re-access their own, as in these examples by Year 8 children:
The feel of fur reminds me of you.
Old coats, still in the cupboard.
Smoke still lingers in the room
Toys lay on the table. I always play with them
Different trinkets you collected.
The helicopterhum shimmers in my mind
Times you made me smile, laugh
You played with me, played with words.
I pick up your lighter, the cold pearlplastic shell,
A rainbow of your tricks, your magic, your fun,
The tickle against my arms, your cashmere hands.
I tried to hold on to them, I grasped them tight
But they still slipped away. Your velvety hands.
I remember mine fitted around your thumb
Safe, wrapped, clasping your fingers.
My hands are too big now: they don’t reach anymore.
I have to let go of you
I have to let go.
Betty, aged 12
I never knew you well.
The childish times
Overshadowed by older children.
I never cherished those times
Never understood their importance.
A hug at Christmas,
Racing through your frosted firs
Shying from the cold.
I did that with you sometimes.
Ran up and down the staircases
Up one, down the other
High on roast pork and new potatoes.
When the news came
I was eating a mince pie.
They told me that you had
‘Gone to a better place’.
I wasn’t hungry anymore.
Lucy, aged 13
Summer afternoons, a vibrant wave in the air.
Traffic buzzes outside, and the Buenos Aires humidity is so thick
It might as well be honey.
All the kitchen windows are open and you
Do a mixture of bouncing and dancing to your precious
Chacarera, along with your singing.
My silly questions, like ‘What is the difference between tango and chacarera?’
You look shocked, then start laughing.
‘Silly boy, you know nothing about folklore’.
We laugh, and meanwhile you prepare the pastry.
You flounce about, adding onion to mincemeat.
You comment on how River beat Boca, triumphantly
Boasting about the fifty-first minute goal.
Then you remind me that only River fans eat in this household.
The empanadas are ready, and you stuff the load of
Pastry-covered meat in the oven.
The smell hypnotises me.
But now I’m here, and not there.
Who’s feeding my happiness now?
Jacques, aged 12
I found that these young writers responded well to the suggestion that they use the second person to address the subject directly, as in ‘Baking’. It freed them up not to be constrained by what I think of as the third person’s all-seeing eye, which tends to push the writer towards an excess of visual description. Using ‘you’ seemed to enable them to access memories triggered by sound, smell, taste and touch more easily, resulting in poetry which provides a satisfying and truer balance of all the senses.
Whilst the children were in the process of drafting these poems, we used ‘Baking’ as the source text for another video adaptation to accompany our 2013 poetry evening. The children recorded each other reciting lines from the poem directly to the camera against a plain white backdrop. They then worked in groups to edit the lines together to make a complete version of the poem. It was interesting to note how this process encouraged them to listen closely to the quality of each recording and to compare this with the visual effect, affording importance to both. From this, they were able to make decisions as to which pieces of footage to include and which ones to reject.
The only other imagery that we created all together was a simple photo of an apron hanging on a peg. This image was used to ‘bookend’ the poem. Other than that, the video effects, transitions and sound quality were managed by the children themselves. At the end of the editing process, we watched the various finished films and the children voted for their favourite to be shown at the poetry evening. What impressed me more than anything was the care with which the children had created their montages, paying heed to punctuation and the weight of particular words, ensuring that the poem flowed beautifully, as intended by the poet. They were meticulous about removing overly long pauses and balancing the differences in volume and tone of the numerous recorded voices. This project serves to demonstrate how, if time and resources allow, letting children record and edit poetry can take the understanding of the words and ideas to a whole new level.
‘The Everyday Hymn’ by Clare Carlile
The arrival of the anthology of winning poems from The Poetry Society’s annual Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award always attracts a considerable flurry of excitement amongst our Year 7 and 8 pupils. The competition is open to 11 to 18 year olds throughout the English-speaking world and in recent years, each competition has attracted in excess of 15,000 entries from roughly 7,000 budding poets. This is their main opportunity to showcase their talents and gain public recognition for their own poetry. Over the years, St John’s has had three entrants amongst the 85 highly commended poets, but we have yet to make it into the prestigious anthology of 15 winning poems. There is, therefore, always a particular fascination finding out what makes a winning poem. Alongside the usual platitudes about taking part being more important than winning, I always say to my pupils that, whether judging another writer’s poetry or trying to perfect one’s own, there is, of course, no given formula. Good poems just feel right. They will have something to say to any reader, but that will be something subtly different for each and every one of them. Change as little as a single word and the entire weight, meaning or effect of the poem can be radically altered, either for better or for worse. This is not generally what children want to hear. They feel safe if they know that there is a system that they can use, a way to ensure that they achieve the desired result. My saying to them that I simply don’t know the way to produce the perfect poem - indeed, that I don’t believe that there can possibly be such a thing - amounts to my asking them to take a huge leap of faith. They need to have the courage to write and rewrite until not only they are happy with their words, but they have gone as far as they can towards what they want to say. Their writing then needs a reader and, only if it speaks with similar clarity to that reader as well, will they have succeeded in their aim of writing ‘good’ poetry. As Alan Bennett puts it so memorably in his 2004 play The History Boys:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”
Clare Carlile’s ‘The Everyday Hymn’ succeeds in reaching out that hand of recognition to the reader. We all have our own ‘small pleasures’ like those described in the poem, each one simultaneously familiar to anybody and yet utterly personal to us. When we read the poem together in class, the children instantly connected with the idea of finding pleasure in opening a can or cracking an egg. To bring these sensual experiences into even closer focus, we created a video performance of the poem for the Year 8 poetry evening. Interwoven with a montage of the lines recited to camera by numerous voices, we had footage that the children had previously recorded themselves of each other breaking eggs, opening cans and making each other laugh. Simple, inexpensive and quick enough to record, but the effect that the actual doing of the actions had on their subsequent performance of the lines was fascinating to observe. Their fresh memories of the actions somehow allowed them to inject the requisite sensuality into phrases such as ‘hiss/Of hydrogen’, ‘low crunch’ and ‘audible shake’. By actively partaking in the physical experiences described by Clare Carlile, the children had reawoken their senses to these simple acts and it helped them to access the hidden complexity of this deceptively simple poem.
For ‘homework’, I asked the children to carry paper and a pencil around with them all weekend. They were to jot down any simple, everyday actions that they (or anyone else) did that gave them a moment of pleasure. There was no need for them to turn the notes into poetry at this stage: basic notes would be sufficient to trigger the memories later on. Lucy, aged 13, came back into school on the Monday with just two things: tying a ribbon and looking at the sky. She was disappointed on discovering that most of her friends had ten or more ideas to share. By limiting herself and showing discrimination, however, she had unwittingly allowed her two ideas to ‘ferment’ and the resulting poem is quite beautiful:
Like the tying of a ribbon
The creamy cushioned folds soft against my skin
The finishing touch to a gift, a bow in a child’s hair
Or cloud watching
The baking sun on your back
Daydreaming as the daylight melts into the trees
Lucy, aged 13
This is certainly one poetry writing activity in which the ‘less is more’ principle applies. Just as Clare Carlile has not distracted herself with the infinite possibilities of her original idea, but has focused instead on the quality of her three basic images, so Lucy has conveyed the full richness of her two ideas with the eye of a true poet. This exercise serves as a prime example of how useful it can be to ‘keep it simple, stupid’ when delving into the limitless world of remembering.
Arthur, also aged 13, was more of a reluctant writer than Lucy. He complained that he was stuck and could not think of any ‘small pleasures’ to describe. I encouraged him instead to just think back to something he did last night. It didn’t need to stick in his mind as being particularly enjoyable, just the first thing that came back to his memory.
“I didn’t do anything last night,” he grumbled, “except for my homework.”
I persisted. Could he recall anything about doing his homework? Did he do it in a different place to where he normally would? Was there anything else going on at the same time? Could he smell anything cooking in the kitchen?
“No. It was just normal.”
“Did it take more time or less time to do than usual?”
“More time. But only because I couldn’t find a pen.”
“How did you get hold of one in the end?”
“I went and found one in the kitchen drawer.”
“The third one down.”
“Well, there’s your poem,” I said. “The Third Drawer.”
“But that’s rubbish, sir. There’s nothing special about a drawer...”
Here’s what Arthur then came up with:
The Third Drawer
I remember the third drawer full of useless things
Size six Allen keys
Repellent for bees
An unused bottle of factor five sun cream
A McDonald’s figurine
A used box of tissue
An old Big Issue
A rusty toy tractor
Old tickets to X-Factor
A light bulb that doesn’t work
A baby picture of me with a smirk.
Arthur (aged 13)
Using the tried and tested listing approach, perhaps recalling encounters in younger years with Kit Wright’s ‘The Magic Box’ or Ian McMillan’s ‘Ten Things Found in a Wizard’s Pocket’, Arthur has stayed true to the simplicity of Carlile’s ‘The Everyday Hymn’ and given the reader a wonderfully clear and touching insight into his own world. The contents of the drawer - whether they were actually present or not - show us something of the inner workings of the young writer’s mind, his frame of reference. His original reluctance to write on this topic, which I suspect has much to do with not wanting to give away too much of his teenage self, has been overcome by diverting the focus onto something seemingly less referential to him personally. The end result, ironically, is all the more personal and revealing.
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.