poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘Neighbours’ by Gillian Clarke
Around the time of our Year 7 trip to the Scott Polar Research Institute, I asked my Year 8 pupils to write about another place that I could be fairly confident none of them had visited: namely, Chernobyl, together with its ghost city of Pripyat. Abandoned in the space of two days following the catastrophic meltdown of the city’s nearby nuclear power station in 1986, Pripyat now exists essentially as a virtual entity on the internet: access to its physical remains is still strictly restricted due to continued contamination from nuclear fallout. Pretty much unseen by the rest of the world during the first decade of its post-apocalyptic sleep, Pripyat now lives again for anyone who cares to look via satellite images taken from Google Earth, Youtube documentaries and countless haunting photo montages. The children were encouraged to conduct their own researches into the story of Chernobyl and Pripyat, referring to these and other sources. It intrigued them that this event, which so profoundly affected the previous generation, was something about which they had heard little, if anything, in spite of the increasing wealth of information about it to be found within seconds on the internet. Simply telling them to ‘Google’ the word ‘Chernobyl’ is all that was required to open up a world and a story which these children could scarcely believe to be true. We also looked at Gillian Clarke’s response to the disaster in her poem ‘Neighbours’ asking the question: ‘Do you need to go to a place to be able to write about it?’ The overwhelming answer was no. The children felt that what we know about a place was just as important as knowing the place at first hand. This conclusion gave them the confidence to write about Chernobyl themselves:
You are alone
The dust has long been gathered
Your houses are silent, abandoned
No life lives between your lifeless arms
No one plays, laughs, cries upon your back
You lie there, your heart rusting
Cracking under the heavy air
Meddlesome moss crawling upon shrunken shoes.
The houses are fragile like thin glass
Your earth sprouts rare greenery
To wither and fall once again.
Emily (aged 12)
John Betjeman Poetry Competition 2013 - Highly Commended
Tranquil as a cyclone, the explosion of a town
Hushed up by a country in search of renown
Transparent fire lights up the sky
Invisible to the human eye
As songbirds fell from an invisible hand
That dropped them on an unsuspecting land
And the first sign of the coming storm
Was the loud silence in the light of morn
And the thunder came on a normal day
When children went out in the rain to play.
Lucy (aged 13)
What helps to make these two poems particularly moving is the way in which the writers have tapped into what they can relate to, within the context of something beyond their personal experience. Although they may never have been to the place in question and have never experienced the terror of dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe, they have been able to focus in on the familiar within the sources that we studied. Photos of children’s shoes overgrown with moss, limbless dolls, rusted school desks and derelict swimming pools helped the writers to imagine what their own world would be like in the event of a similar disaster. Their images of a recognizable world transformed into a nightmare carry a universal weight. Their writing says: “This could happen again, anywhere, to anyone. What if it happened here, to me?” Children are particularly good at using this thought experiment, whatever the source or inspiration and their ability to empathise is often, as here, particularly striking.
What is a place?
Or something special.
The Nobel prize would say
Molecules of air
Atoms of oxygen.
But that is a space.
Maybe a place has to be lived in:
A nest filled with blue eggs
Or a lake of filigree dragonflies.
Maybe emotion can live there
In a baby’s cot
Or a graveyard of red poppies.
Maybe it is inside your head,
A place where you feel safe.
But whatever a place is
Where is it?
Anna, aged 12
Some of the poetry which endures the most in the collective public imagination is that which evokes a sense of place. But, as Anna’s poem above reveals, a place is not quite so fixed and definable as we might at first think. Consider for how many people the word ‘Adlestrop’ would be entirely meaningless but for Edward Thomas’ sixteen simple lines:
‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas
Yes. I remember Adlestrop--
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
from Poems (1917)
The number of people who have actually been there, when compared to the number who know it only through the poem, must be tiny, and yet, when we do read the poem, we do ‘recognise’ it. Not literally, of course, for the majority of us, but as an experience of place. We have all been to places that resonate with us, through connection to distant memories, through a curious sense of déjà vu, through a sense of emotional belonging or through the deliciousness of the new. Children are no exception, and whilst their range of experience of different places will inevitably be less than that of most adults, their ability to convey a sense of place, either through memory or imagination, can help to create real poetic power.
Year 1 pupils at St John’s recently visited the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. To complement their classroom studies of Antarctica, they also worked with me to come up with their own poetic responses to the topic. Although they were in the early stages of learning to write, this certainly did not hold them back, and given the means to express their ideas figuratively and a structure on which to hang their words, they were soon able to work individually, in groups or with adult assistance to produce some great poetry. We started not by looking at words at all, but by listening a sound clip of an Antarctic storm, with the children trying to guess what they were hearing and to describe it in interesting ways, but without my telling them what exactly they were hearing. Some of them thought it was indeed Antarctica, but some suggested that it might be the ocean, whilst others thought it might be a very noisy motorway. When ideas like these were suggested, I made a note of them on the board and we discussed them in closer detail. What particular things did they hear that made them think of these places? Without having to tell them to do so, they were launching straight into the use similes and personification, e.g. “I can hear screaming tyres”, “The waves are roaring like an angry lion”, “I can hear a pack of wolves howling because of the cold” etc. By allowing this open-ended guessing-game approach at the start, the seeds were sown for a broad range of images and points of comparison. Had the lesson started with “We are going to listen to a clip of Antarctica”, this would almost certainly have narrowed the children’s thinking down to preconceived, literal ideas of ‘what Antarctica is like’. Instead, the aim was to keep the children’s mind open to all possible imaginative connections, to let them see that, yes, that does sound like an ocean and, yes, that could be a motorway.
We then watched a video of the same clip, and this time focused on the visual aspect. Although the cat was now out of the bag in terms of what topic we were dealing with, it was interesting to note that just having those few moments of thinking about the sounds of motorways, oceans, jungles, hurricanes, mountains, or whatever had gone through each individual child’s mind, now allowed them to feel free to do a similar thing with what they could see. Numerous suggestions were forthcoming, for example, about how the snow being carried horizontally in the gale looked “like the white hair of an old witch”, “fierce waves” or “big white sharks’ teeth”. This ability to make sophisticated figurative comparisons seems to come naturally to children this young if done in as a group and in a spoken context and I was impressed to see how many of the ideas they had come up with in these early stages of the hour-long lesson were retained right through to the final stages once they got down to the business of writing. Certainly it had helped them to have audiovisual stimuli; in addition to the video clip, I put together my own simple Antarctica poem in the form of a slideshow juxtaposed with engaging images, that the children recited back slide by slide as I read it to them:
The Ice King
You may not have noticed me,
Minding my own business
At the bottom of the Earth
Like a speech bubble stuffed
With snowy silence…
Ignore me at your peril!
I can impale you on my ivory tusk.
In my cold, clutching claws
I can snatch the sneaky, summer sun
And stop him from slinking away.
Or I banish him north for many a month
And just keep my maiden,
The milky moon, for company.
And make her green fairies dance
In the garden of my mind.
I send out my warriors to scour the sea,
In defence of my kingdom,
Each one a bullet in search of a target.
While my strange ballerinas swirl their skirts in the darkness,
Trapped behind glass until I set them free.
I'll drop not one tear of pity
On my wind-parched valleys,
However loud they may howl.
And with the fire in my belly
I'll cough flames from deep down
To torment the terrified air.
I could chew you to pieces
With my tyrannosaur teeth.
Or rip you to ribbons
In one roar from my thundering throat.
Rivers stand still at my command
And cower as they gaze up
At my glittering crown.
Yes, down here,
I am king.
Ignore me at your peril...
One of these days
I might be coming to get you...
Splitting a poem up in this way makes it so much more ‘digestible’ for younger children and they can take the time to pause, think and discuss each idea before moving on to the next one. Incidentally, I cannot recommend strongly enough having a go at writing for your pupils as a means of motivating them. If writing a whole poem seems daunting, just a line or two will help both to get the idea across to the children and will inspire them to emulate your example. It doesn’t have to be worthy of the T S Eliot prize. Just showing them that writing can be fun, that you enjoy it and that having a go is more important than ‘getting it right’ should be enough to give even the youngest learners the confidence to get writing in groups or independently. As Nicholas Guinn says in his chapter of Making Poetry Happen:
“It is [...] important - for many pedagogical and ideological reasons - that teachers should write, and share what they write with their students (Andrews, 2008; Ings, 2009; OFSTED, 2009). [...] Sharing one’s own poetry with students can also help to demystify what might otherwise seem to be an arcane process and - perhaps most important of all - reintroduce into the classroom the words which Philip Pullman (2003) felt were missing from early Literacy Strategy documents: fun and enjoyment”
I always feel a creeping sense of embarrassment when sharing my writing with children, if only that I know that I prefer the honesty and freshness of their writing, untainted as it is by self-doubt and self-criticism. However, as soon as I remind myself that I am sharing it not for its inherent quality as poetry, but rather to help others to learn, to emulate and to aspire, I realise that my moment of self-consciousness is worth the fleeting pain, particularly when it helps to get children writing like this:
Antarctica is a sword cracking through the ice
Antarctica’s crown is mountains
Hard like a diamond
Antarctica can rip you apart
Icebergs are crashing
Antarctica eats big ships
It stops the sun going down.
Olivia, Jesse, William, Tabitha, Edmund, Archie (aged 5)
Antarctica is a snow queen wearing an icy crown
She has a sparkly dress
Silky cold skin
Snow bright like the shining sun.
Isla (aged 5)
Notice how the use of simile, metaphor and personification has come naturally to these children, more so than it does to me. Onomatopoeia (e.g. ‘cracking’ and ‘crashing’), alliteration (e.g. ‘...sparkly...Silky cold skin/Snow…) and even assonance (e.g. ‘rip’... ‘big ships’) are all similarly in evidence. Whilst they may not fully understand or appreciate it, here is evidence that very young children do possess an innate sense of the music that exists within words and they are able to make clever choices in order to achieve effects that resonate with the listener/reader.
‘Polar’ by Gillian Clarke
When we look at poetry by older children, it is hardly surprising that this natural affinity for language which has been with them for so long is able to produce some startling work, provided the appropriate skills have been exercised and honed in the interim. By way of example, Year 7 children at St John’s had the opportunity to visit the Scott Polar Research Institute for a poetry workshop with poet-in-residence Kaddy Benyon and me not long after the Year 1 children had paid their visit. They explored the museum, handled exhibits, found out about their origins and how they came to be here in this place. They then chose one particular exhibit and, inspired by Gillian Clarke’s childhood recollection of a polar bear skin rug, their task was to tell the story of the exhibit in the form of a poem. During their writing session at the museum, they took notes and made a start on structuring their ideas, but they were then given three or four weeks in which to revisit, edit and complete their poems, allowing them to develop slowly and ‘organically’. They shared electronic versions with me and the rest of the class throughout the process; that way, we were all able to make suggestions, ask questions and offer encouragement and criticism in order to help the work to improve. Here are some of the finished results:
The Airship “Norge”
When the airship ‘Norge’ made its expedition to the North Pole in 1926, the local Inuit were baffled, having never seen anything like it before. Some even thought that it was a god…
The new king glides over his domain,
Ready to rule,
Ready to lead.
His giant cetacean head acknowledges his newest subjects,
And recognises their flaws,
After the God has seen his loyal peasants,
He moves on,
Satisfied with his impression,
He decides to move on,
See the tribes to the east,
Maybe even the south,
Where the men wear black seals,
And the women wear snowflakes.
Where to, sir?
As soon as we find civilization...
There is civilization here, sir.
Now the God has gone,
No more of him is seen.
Shamans say they talk to him.
His voice is low,
Like the icy waters,
In which his lower forms swim.
They call to him,
Offer water to him,
Offer meat to him,
Offer praise to him.
George (aged 12)
They hold and comfort the weary and they disagree with the cold.
Even though the caribou is dead life still floods through them.
Grandpa adores them with all his heart,
But I would prefer the caribou alive,
Running free and bounding in the snow
Instead of silencing his sorrow.
I remember touching his nose that felt like rough honeycomb
And as I watched him playing
I thought I heard him laugh.
The scarlet felt that lines the slippers
Reminds me of the scarlet blood that stained the snow
And my Grandfather’s continuous snore
Reminds me of the caribou’s soft grunts
And I only now begin to realise that the caribou is still with me
Reflected in my own eyes.
Mia (aged 12)
An aging man hugging onto life,
His last strength poured into his letter.
Does he not know his words await tears?
His determination to finish makes him stubborn.
His words trickle onto a page like teardrops,
His last lines of life, his letters of love.
His frozen lifeless body alone, spiritless.
All is gone, resting in peace, but for his letter.
Scott’s lifetime of ice concealed on a page
Like a bird trapped in a cage
Was death his biggest enemy or was it words?
Did he let those words of defeat run over him?
The patchworked mind full of paragraphs,
Scott in his perplexed state of mind,
Lost in those words. For him it felt like forever,
Just him and those words perishing together
Eleanor (aged 12)
The Frozen Biscuit Wrapper
The last hope of a hungry man
The phantom of the biscuit,
Trapped in stone cold frigidity
Frozen to a dead man’s tomb
Corners flapping feebly in the roaring whiteout
Waiting, waiting for the sun
For the comfort of caressing rays
Dreaming of release
From a long, long, wait.
But it’s still there
On the bottom of our globe
Affixed to a grave
Looking out at the bright light
Waiting, day in, day out
For a new life and purpose
A new biscuit.
Laura (aged 12)
Gliding along through a barren waste
The carved paddle
I pull myself through the chilly waters
I will die if I spend a minute below this land of ice floes
Inside its freezing, churning belly.
The sleek frame, covered in seal hide,
One leak and I’ll never go home
I will live in the land of the dead
Under the frozen wastes
Of a land I know so well
Everything in reach
Even a floating map so if it’s dropped
I’ll not be lost
A paddle, my food, my water, my spear...
They will last me for eternity
Rupert (aged 12)
Clearly, direct contact with genuine artefacts has inspired these young writers. They may only have been at the museum for two hours, but their imagination has been transported to the spiritual home of their chosen subject matter and their interest in it has driven them to find out more about it, to bring it to life again within its original context. This illustrates perfectly how the use of objects can help to elicit convincing poetic renderings of places to which you cannot physically take your pupils. A favourite dictum of teachers of creative writing to their students is: “Write about what you know.” However, introduce them to something (or somewhere) totally new and, provided you have given them the time and the means to engage with it and form an emotional connection with it, you may well find that they are just as capable of evoking it as they would be able to do with, say, their garden or their bedroom. Indeed, I agree with Ted Hughes’ point in Poetry in the Making, his seminal handbook for teachers of poetry, when he says:
“It will usually be found that children write more rewardingly - both for themselves and for the reader - about strange or extreme landscapes than about anything they know well. It is as if what they know well can only become imagination, and available to the pen, when they have somehow left it. Deserts, steppes, the Antarctic, the moon, all come more easily than the view from their bedroom window.”
One possible further reason as to why children today are capable of writing convincingly outside of their own experience is the prevalence of the internet in their day-to-day lives. With information about anything and everything at their fingertips, children can and do find out what they wish to know about the world around them much more easily than they would have been able to do at the time of Hughes’ writing. They no longer rely upon their parents and teachers to tell them what they don’t know, or indeed, how to go about finding it out. Their explorations in cyberspace are every bit as real and meaningful as the explorations of dusty attics, rock pools and treetops that previous generations would have thought of as the staples of childhood discovery. Thus, whether or not a child has been fortunate enough to have walked down the streets of Tokyo, watched the sun setting over the pyramids of Giza or watched the northern lights shimmering through the glass roof of a Swedish igloo, they are now empowered to write about it in ways that most of today’s adults can never have imagined doing at their age.
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.