poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘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.
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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.