poems to get kids putting pen to paper
‘City Jungle’ by Pie Corbett
Pie Corbett’s ‘City Jungle’ is a wonderful poem for encouraging children to observe the world around them in original and exciting ways. I have used the title as the inspiration for a slideshow lesson starter, in which each slide features a city picture juxtaposed with one from a jungle. (Spending ten minutes before your lesson trawling Google Images for suitable pictures will quickly reveal interesting points of comparison to which you will be able to draw the children’s attention.) For example, a photo that I came across depicting entangled rainforest lianas went particularly well with a photo of the interwoven night-time carriageways of Spaghetti Junction. When shown the two together and simply asked to comment, before even any mention of poetry had been made, the children immediately began to volunteer their own similes and metaphors which would later help to form some anchoring ideas for their poems. We looked at another five or so similar juxtapositions, using not only the city/jungle pairing, but also other man-made/natural comparisons, e.g. traffic jams/herds of zebras and wildebeest; empty city streets/Sahara desert sand dunes; skyscrapers/Giant Redwood trees etc. Many of the points of comparison are, of course, obvious, but it is this very simplicity that helps to open up the mind of even the most literal-minded child to the possibilities of metaphor. If they can see for themselves how ‘x’ can be (like) ‘y’ with the help of a visual stimulus, the challenge of putting it into words becomes much less daunting and, in all likelihood, much more fun.
Moving on to the text of ‘City Jungle’ itself, there is much useful mileage to be had in asking the children work in pairs, groups or as a whole class to discuss exactly what the various figures of speech are doing. Sometimes there will be general agreement amongst the children; sometimes there will be considerable debate and differences of opinion. For example, the children will tend to agree as to the meaning and effect of ‘the gutter gargles’ or ‘A motorbike snarls’, but other lines such as ‘Rain splinters town’, ‘hunched houses cough’ and ‘dustbins flinch’ are more open to a variety of possible interpretations. With enough time given to discussing the variety of possible ways in which Corbett brings his city to life through the extended jungle metaphor, it should be possible for the children to then move on to developing their own ideas. Joe, aged 11, decided to compare our school - which at the time was undergoing some major construction work - to a zoo:
Is It Still School?
The eagle crane strains to eat the chain
Then spits it out again
Navy blue netting lurches like ruined spider webs
Turtles wander for roofs
The green wall – the prison barrier - stands guard
Stake-like scaffolding sways
Pneumatic drills bay like lions
School will never be the same again.
Joe, aged 11
Camillo, meanwhile, focused upon his native New York city and, without making any direct allusion to one particular point of comparison, created a collage of living similes and metaphors to give an impressionistic view of the place:
The emerald park glittered in the sunlight,
As seagulls soared overhead,
As the waves of the Hudson swished and swashed,
As people swarmed like ants over the colossal roads
The skyscrapers like hands reaching for the sky,
The museum’s noise was like a rhino’s wrath,
As barges steamed down the rough river,
And the tiny lighthouse, spraying light, even in the darkest of nights.
Camillo, aged 10
‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ by Craig Raine
One final method by which it is possible to get children spontaneously creating their own similes and metaphors without the need for over-explanation is to make the following little philosophical detour: “If you weren’t a human being, how would you make sense of the world?” Once this question is introduced, it does not take the children long to start realising that, without recourse to language, memory and shared experience, understanding and explaining what ‘a chair’, ‘the sky’ or ‘anger’ is becomes something of a conundrum to say the least! However, this is precisely the kind of problem that children revel in trying to solve. Raine’s 1979 poem illustrates the idea beautifully. By granting his Martian a reasonably thorough command of the English language, Raine is able, in his various snapshots of Earth as seen through alien eyes, to create a guessing game for the reader, whose job it is to work out the various things that the alien is describing for the folks back home. The use of the proper nouns ‘Caxtons’ (to signify books) and ‘Model T’ (to signify cars) helps to convey both the Martian’s partial grasp of the facts and his ability to perceive things outside of human time constraints and rational thought. Names from the past co-exist with more modern terms like ‘television’. There really do appear to be ‘ghosts’ within machines and the lines between the senses are blurred: ‘everyone’s pain has a different smell’.
Every time I have used this poem with children, the ‘craziness’ of the alien’s interpretation of the world - which somehow just about makes sense when the human ability to abstract and empathise comes into play - has never ceased to intrigue them and to inspire great writing. Having read through the poem together and discussed what we think each of the things referred to by the Martian might be, I like to show images on the interactive whiteboard, juxtaposed with the relevant lines of the poem. That way, we can discuss in closer detail why the Martian has interpreted each thing in his particular way. When he gets something wrong, why does he do so? Are his errors in understanding explicable? Does he, in any sense, interpret anything ‘human’ in a more interesting way than we ourselves might? (The final lines dealing with the alien take on dreams are ones which many of the children have felt to be particularly apposite.) A way of extending the fun before getting down to the writing might be to come up with some ‘Martian’ interpretations of your own, either prior to the lesson or spontaneously, and ask the children to guess what you, in the guise of the Martian, are thinking of, e.g.
‘Walkers are fragile bent suns that hide in silver
Until they are found. They disappear down deep tunnels, crying for help.’ (CRISPS)
The use of brand names, echoing Raine’s use of ‘Caxtons’ and ‘Model T’, is something that really fires the children’s imagination, particularly where words with contrasting original and newer meanings throw up interesting or comical ambiguities, e.g. ‘apple’ vs ‘Apple’:
A Martian Sends A Postcard Home
Apple: a strange fuzzy thing with a bright blue skin
Small buttons to click
The noise that comes out with the human’s strange movement
Putting little wires into their ears and listening to it speaking
Tickling its tummy
Making it sing.
Matthew, aged 10
A Martian Sends a Postcard Home
‘STAEDTLERS’ are wasps with a sting of grey
And for reasons unknown the humans torture them on purpose
By skinning them alive.
This makes the STAEDTLER angry and find the sting’s mark.
HPs are cloning devices that suck people in and double them out.
Wires are matings between two electronic beings.
Google is the smartest man in the world
Trapped in a Zeus so everybody asks him their queries.
Tom, aged 10
A Martian Sends an E-mail Home
Jimmy Choos are chairs for feet when they are
Walking out of the hollowed-out stone.
Clouds are big white animals that sleep in the sky
When they cry they go grey,
And tears pour down.
Tefals lie down on big boards, then when are tired they sleep.
When they want to wake up they steam
So the human picks it up
Again and soothes it to sleep.
A baby is a machine.
When it runs out of battery
It makes a nasty beep.
The human plugs in the odd charger
Inside. Then it stops beeping.
Ella, aged 11
The Strange Beings
The strange beings lounge around like they have no care in the world
While I keep a weary eye out for predators.
They replace their own eyes with dark, shiny ones
In which the world is trapped.
They bake in the sun,
Changing colour as they get hotter and hotter.
Before they get so hot that they would turn to ash,
They swim like me, praying in between the strokes.
They wear patterned over-skins,
Trying to hide within them.
But their arms and legs are too big to fit.
Love is when the strange beings stare at each other with longing in their eyes.
A longing to be unstuck from the other being’s hand.
They swing their arms about,
Trying to free themselves.
But all the while, a curved line is painted across their face.
Emma, aged 10
The World Through a Dog’s Eyes
My owner leaves
Off to the light home in the small world that moves.
I run and hit the air,
An invisible force which tall tailless calls “glass.”
The great yellow sphere has begun its journey around the out.
Many tall taillesses form a pack.
I only eat at dark when tall tailless has finished his stomach stuffing.
In the middle of the dark
The great white sphere begins its journey.
A barrier guards where tall tailless sleeps.
I am alone now in my sleep place.
I shake as pictures invade my head.
I do not understand.
Isaac, aged 10
The activity is not limited to an imagined alien’s view of the world; as Isaac chose to do, the view of an animal trying to make sense of human behaviour can be just as, or even more, powerful. The process that the children go through with this poem of trying to ‘unknow’ the world around them, to look at it without the benefit of an understood context and prior knowledge, liberates them enormously to be utterly original and inventive. After all, the alien/animal that they are imagining is entirely their own creation; nobody can rubbish the subject’s account of its own experience by saying: “An alien wouldn’t think that!”, “A dog wouldn’t feel that way!” etc. Thus, the child’s innate fear of ‘getting it wrong’, which can be a real block to creative expression, particularly among children with perfectionist tendencies, really does not come into play with this activity. Provided the comparisons made in the poem can be understood by the reader, however vaguely, the writer has succeeded in painting a picture of the world through non-human eyes.
A further joy of this activity is the eagerness that the children tend to show about sharing their work. They are always highly motivated to see if their friends and if you, their teacher, can work out what their alien/animal is referring to in its ‘postcard’. Rather than having to cajole them into reading their work aloud, I usually find that all hands shoot up at once and we have to save a few eager readers to have their turn in the following lesson. By reading their work to their peers, the children have the opportunity to think about their choice of words as they deliver them. They might realise that such and such a word might be better replaced with another one. If they haven’t quite finished, they might have a sudden epiphany about how to do so. One of their friends might comment positively on a particular metaphor or a rhyme and this might motivate them to edit further in order to draw more attention to it. Most importantly, perhaps, they will gain the sense of achievement that their words have gone ‘out there’, rather than merely been stuck within the customary limitations of the teacher-pupil dialogue. However important the feedback of the teacher may be, the feedback of peers should never be underestimated, particularly where creative endeavour is concerned. If children can understand what interests their peers about their writing, it will help them to develop their skills further with their audience in mind, which can only be a good thing.
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.