poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘Blessing’ by Imtiaz Dharker
Carol Ann Duffy has stated that ‘poetry is the music of being human’. Given that much of what it means to be human revolves around water - where we live, how we live, whether we live - it is no surprise that water can provide such rich inspiration for poetry. Just as the rain lends movement and vitality to the scene described in ‘Football, Kuala Lumpur’, Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘Blessing’ provides a moving description of the joyful celebration inspired by water’s unexpected arrival.
When studying this poem with children, there is a great deal of mileage to be had in discussing how the poet conveys the huge importance of water, when it is considered in the context of poverty. ‘There is never enough water’ not only because the place described happens to be a hot country, but because access to whatever water there is is limited by circumstance. In this Mumbai slum, there is no running water within each individual dwelling, so the residents must go to collect water as per their daily requirements. For many, this will involve walking a significant distance, will require considerable effort and will be hugely time-consuming. “Why don’t the people just break the pipe to get at the water?” the Year 7 children with whom I typically use this poem will often ask in the thick of our discussions. “Because it’s so precious to them,” someone will quickly respond, and it is clear that the poet has achieved her intention of highlighting the huge value of water to those who struggle to access it. The references to ‘silver’, ‘fortune’, ‘voice of a kindly god’ and ‘blessing’ immediately gain resonance for the children and that ‘lightbulb’ moment happens. They quickly start to notice the religious connotations of ‘god’, ‘congregation’, ‘sings’ and ‘blessing’ and some children have commented that the final lines of the poem remind them of a baptism. On our most recent study of ‘Blessing’, one girl cleverly spotted a ‘mistake’ in the poem. “There should be commas between ‘man woman child’,” she said. Her friend quickly responded, “No, I think that’s deliberate. The poet wants to make it more of a rush to show how everybody is all coming together to collect the water before it gets wasted.” Another then added, “Without the commas, it makes them all seem like they are united. They all want the same thing. That’s why they are a ‘congregation’.” These fascinating insights were, amongst others too numerous to mention, produced independently by mixed ability Year 7 pupils. Merely introducing the children to the poem and keeping the discussion flowing with open-ended questions along the lines of “So, what does anybody think about…?” or “Does anybody want to discuss a favourite line or image?” enables the children to gain much more than taking a more typical teacher-led dissection of every poetic device. Giving the children the freedom engage in this way with a source poem can then lead to some highly sophisticated writing. They have looked at water in new ways and can then go off and explore what they want to say about it, as in these examples:
Imagine an underwater world
And you, stuck in it
When your line to the surface,
The lifeline, breaks.
Imagine the water pushing down on you
Like an unstoppable force
Your arms and legs flailing
Like a bird without wings trying to fly
Suddenly, a blessing
So strong, so clear
A rope that will save you
And bring you back home
And in a minute, you’re on top
Not surrounded by silver water
But by a warm towel
And a sweet, smooth sky.
Beth, aged 11
A Small Stream
A few drops patter lightly on my sheet of water
The ripples turn into a shower
Me, a small stream who does not want to be in a storm.
I am dreaming about bouncing children in the beaming sun,
But I am nothing here.
Me, a small stream, who does not want to be in a storm.
Isabel, aged 11
I am rain
I am resurrected
The flood and tsunami were my parents
But evaporated water
My son, the waterfall
Lake, my daughter
We are the family of water.
Tenison, aged 11
As the rain falls on the rocks at the top of the hill,
A baby is born on a hospital bed.
As the stream starts tumbling and never stands still,
A toddler starts crawling and wants to be fed.
As the water gathers pace and carves its own way,
A boy goes to school and starts his new life
As the river matures and goes through night and day,
A teenager learns about love and strife.
As two rivers unite and go their own way,
A young man celebrates his wedding day.
As the middle age life slows the man down,
The river continues far below the town.
As his life draws on to its natural close,
The river towards the cold sea flows
As his spirit rises and takes its goodbye,
The sea vapour floats up to the skies…
Edward, aged 11
Clearly, Beth’s poem has been most strongly influenced by the vocabulary of Dharker’s ‘Blessing’, but she has cleverly turned the original idea on its head, with a salvation from water becoming her focus, as opposed to salvation by it. Her poem shows how children can skillfully use a handful of well chosen words from a source text - ‘imagine’, ‘blessing’, ‘silver’ - as a scaffold around which to structure their own idea.
Isabel has created echoes of both ‘Blessing’ and ‘Football, Kuala Lumpur’ in her ‘bouncing children in the beaming sun’, whilst Tenison’s ‘family of water’ perhaps shows the influence of Dharker’s ‘every man woman / child’. Edward, finally, seems to have moved the furthest away from the original inspiration, but there are still some echoes of Dharker’s religious motifs in his nods to baptisms, weddings and funerals.
All four of these poems, I feel, help to illustrate the extent to which, given a thought-provoking source poem and sufficient time to discuss and absorb it, children of all abilities are capable of creating their own original response, formed from their own experiences and observations.
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.