poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘Last Post’ by Carol Ann Duffy
Remembrance can be a tricky theme for teachers to approach with children. Now that we live in a world with no surviving participant in The Great War, the collective memory is entirely second hand. The same will all too soon be true of World War Two, which only adds to the importance of remembrance within the teaching of present and future generations. Teachers face an increasingly daunting task. As remembrance gradually loses its direct link to personal memories and drifts entirely into the realms of history, how do teachers themselves retain enough of an understanding of what we mean by remembrance in order to keep it alive in the minds of their pupils? How do we keep the symbolism of the poppy appropriately linked to its various associations: sacrifice, loss, mourning, suffering, the passage of time, memory, love? How do we prevent the events that Remembrance Day commemorates from fading to the same degree as those of the wars of the more distant past?
Fortunately, there is poetry. The poetry of Owen, Brooke, Sassoon, Graves, Edward Thomas, and others who experienced war at first hand, has stood, and will continue to stand, the test of time, providing eternal and salient reminders of why the world should never forget. The works of these poets will always be at the disposal of teachers wishing to enable their pupils to grasp what we mean when we say ‘remembrance’ and to understand why we continue to place importance upon it. In addition, however, there are the poems written by poets of subsequent generations, who, in spite of having no direct personal involvement in conflict, have enabled the genre of war poetry to develop and to remain as relevant as ever. Teachers, and more importantly, children themselves can play an important role in this continued development.
It may seem to be rather a big ask to get children to write war poetry. Aside from the obvious difficulties presented by a lack of meaningful context or personal experience, there is the risk that cliche takes over and the end result renders banal that which ought to be at the very least moving and profound. Some might argue that children’s minds are simply not sophisticated enough to deal with the complexities of war, let alone convey anything new or meaningful about it on paper. My own opinion, however, is that children are indeed capable of addressing ‘grown-up’ concepts such as war, provided that they are given a suitable frame of reference. This is why ‘remembrance’ - as opposed to ‘war’ - provides a potentially more useful starting point from which to cover the same ground.
Carol Ann Duffy’s 2009 poem ‘Last Post’, for instance, is more of a poem of remembrance than it is a war poem. Written at the request of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to commemorate the deaths of Harry Patch and Henry Allingham, Britain’s last surviving veterans of the Great War, Duffy’s poem is a response to Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. She imagines a soldier-poet, possibly Owen himself, overseeing a magical rewinding of tragic events, bringing about the resurrection of ‘all those thousands dead’ through the power of his words. Of course, such miracles cannot happen:
‘If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.’
This, however, should not stop the poet from trying, from hoping that words might somehow save lives. Here is a message from which children can benefit and a wish to which we can encourage them to aspire.
Working with my own Year 7 and 8 pupils, within the context of the World War One centenary commemorations in November 2014, I asked them to emulate Duffy’s example by writing not directly about war, but rather to use war only as a reference point to write about what they thought the word ‘remembrance’ means. Classroom discussions, therefore, focused on questions such as “Are there things which should be forgotten?” or “What are the best ways of remembering?” rather than anything directly alluding to war. War, of course, inevitably came into our conversations, but by opening up the broader connotations of remembrance, the children were able to explore ideas that made sense to them from their own experience, as opposed to ideas acquired second-hand from the media and history books. We compared Duffy’s ‘Last Post’ with other poems of remembrance, such as the following:
Gunpowder Plot by Vernon Scannell
‘The Plumber’ by Gillian Clarke
‘MCMXIV’ by Philip Larkin
These three poems interest me for their use of settings outside of wartime. In this sense, they are not ‘war’ poems in the usual sense of the word. ‘Gunpowder Plot’ deals with a memory of war reawakened on a subsequent Bonfire Night; ‘The Plumber’ focuses upon Harry Patch’s post-war career; ‘MCMXIV’ reimagines the innocence of Edwardian England in August 1914 at the moment when The Great War was declared. The poets are commenting not so much on war per se, but on human stories that surround it. We are all touched by war, however indirectly it may be, and poetry of remembrance will therefore always serve a purpose. For many children lucky enough to live in countries like the UK, life may pass from day to day without any specific thought given to war and its consequences. The occasional sobering reminder in the form of contact with poems such as these, together with the opportunity to respond, can help to ensure that children remain aware of the mistakes of the past and keep a mindful eye on the present.
When planning their poems, the children were asked to brainstorm what the word ‘remembrance’ (or ‘remember’) means to them. I asked them to use whatever means they wished to in order join the dots between the present day as they experience it and the events of the two world wars. Some of them drew family trees and made inquiries at home to find out about their ancestors’ wartime experiences. Others used Google to research the background to certain familiar places, for example, their home village’s war memorial. Certain children were able to bring in treasured artefacts including letters written from the Somme, medals and items of kit brought back from the battlefields. The opportunity to handle and discuss authentic pieces of history added a gravitas to the process. I asked them to consider the journey of the objects that they were looking at. How, where, when and why were they originally created? Where have they been over the intervening years? How did they make it here today, to a classroom in Cambridge in 2014? All of this preparatory work was intended to make sure that the children felt a tangible link between the past and the present. Rather than thinking that remembrance is solely a question of recalling historical events, they needed to get a feel for the complex web that connects those events to each and every one of us in the here and now.
Once they began writing, I was pleased to see how the children were as conscious of the present as they were of the past. They wanted to explore stories from their own families and their own experience, rather than attempting to write poems around entirely imagined historical scenarios. The end results are moving for their simplicity and believability.
I understand it all now
The gun you said was an air rifle
The cap badge you said you’d picked up
In the old antique shop with your friend who walked with on one leg
You weren’t a tin miner
Who lost his arm when a boulder fell on it - at least not all your life
I understand the musty tin that put tears in your eyes
That you’d never open, with a queer picture of some monarch on
Why you always piled your savings into
The tin of the Help for Heroes lady
And why you always closed your eyes for a moment
When I got out my tin soldiers
You never talked about the war
But I realised when finally I saw the identification card
Proctor, James - A7004915 B.E.F Lancashire Fusiliers
and a picture of a dashing young man in suit and tie
He knows I know, so I always lay a poppy at his tomb
As he lies in the frozen grave in Houghton, England
The line on the old stone grave reads:
He who fought with God, rests in peace.
Rupert, aged 13
Great-Great Uncle Charlie
I never met you, but I heard stories.
Not very often, but still sometimes
They said that you died very quickly,
In the first week of WW1.
I wish I knew more about you.
I picture you wearing an old-fashioned hunting jacket,
Holding a great shiny gun, perhaps with a dog or two,
A man with dark hair and a strong jaw, like my brother.
They named him after you.
My big brother Charles, but they call him Charlie like you,
Once Granny said he was just like you. She was your niece.
They said you weren’t very brave or good at fighting, but I don’t care.
I think that you were brave.
I will remember you. You with your poppy.
Chiara, aged 12
In school we’re always told to remember things:
And ‘important dates and mistakes’.
But Grandpa was in a war, and he doesn’t want to remember that
He tells us that we shouldn’t need to know.
He always talks about before the war,
He always talks about after the war,
But he never speaks about the war itself.
He lost his friends,
That’s what Grandma said.
George, aged 13
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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.