Various Writings on Poetry
1) Answers for That’s Life, July 2008
2) Answers for Young Times, June 2008
3) Piece for Lovereading.com, July 2008
4) For the Poetry Society 100 Poets in 100 Schools, May 2008
5) For World Book Day, October 2007
6) Answers for Sunday Express, May 2008
7) Junior Education article on poetry, May 2008
8) Interview for National Poetry Foundation website, November 2007
9) Not so much a lesson, more a song and dance – Guardian Online, Oct 2007
10) Take the thing into your hands – poem for Times Cheltenham Festival
11) What is a window – poem for Guardian Dec 2007
12) Junior Education poetry review – May 2008
13) What is a bong tree? Lecture for CLPE official event, September 2007
What makes poetry valuable?
Poetry is valuable for all of us for many reasons: it was invented as a good way to remember important things and interesting things. It still does this, through its musical sounds, rhythms and rhymes. It’s also a good way to play with the language around us and playing pleases us. Life goes by very quickly. Poetry is a way of stopping things for a moment and pointing out something to us. It gives us time to reflect. But poems don’t have to tell the whole story. They can be mysteries, questions without answers. This leaves us plenty of space to wonder about what’s been said, or wonder about ourselves. We need time to do this, and if we grab poetry, poetry will give us that opportunity.
Is rhyme important?
It’s one of the musical instruments in a poet’s box of tricks. Sometimes it’s important, sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it doesn’t quite work. It all depends.
Has poetry always been important to you and your family?
When I was boy, my parents used to play us recordings of poets reading their own poets. My brother and I used to like imitating that. My mother did poetry programmes for BBC Schools Radio and I liked them. Nearly all my children have liked poetry when they were young.
How much was it part of your own childhood?
Should all children be encouraged to write as well as read poetry? Why?
If children get a chance to write poems, it gives them an opportunity to play with language in a way that no other activity lets them. If you think, schools are places where language comes at them as finished and sorted. It doesn’t belong to them. When they write poems, they have a chance to take charge of the language and see what it can do. It also helps them reflect on the world around them and who they are. Poems are like photos in a photo album: moments, objects, people – frozen for us to look at. If you do that with the moments, objects and people in your own life, it gives you a chance to look at yourself. Rather like the way people do when they’ve got two mirrors!
Is poetry something that children today tend to lose interest in – or
which becomes overshadowed by other forms of writing?
Yes, I think it is. I fear that’s because we start asking children too many questions about poems, rather than encouraging them to write and perform their own.
What is your experience of children’s responses to poetry – can you
think of any solid examples of how it has had an effect on kids
I’ve seen many children who don’t write and won’t write, suddenly discover that they can make poems, patterns of words, interesting ideas. I’ve been told by many teachers that after they’ve done workshops or seen poets, there are children who suddenly ‘get it’ – the business of writing, reading and thinking.
What can parents do to encourage and appreciation of poetry – and
what are they giving their children in doing so?
The very best thing parents can do is read poetry out loud with their children. If they know any poems, no matter how short, say them out loud in the car, or over the kitchen table, or wherever. Let the sound of poetry go in their ears. There are all sorts of poems that are fun to make up, limericks, little two line jingles and you can always take a poem or song and make up new words to it. There’s an ad at the moment which takes Rod Stewart’s line ‘We are sailing…’ and has turned it into ‘We are saving…’ Parents could do that sort of thing. It gives children the sound and feel of poetry.
What is so great about poetry?
Poetry is a great way of talking about things that matter to you. You can make music by making the words have rhythms or rhymes. Or you can repeat things in a way that helps people join in or you can make the sounds of words (the consonants and vowels) echo each other. Poetry is very flexible: it can be short or long, any shape you like. This means that it can suit any mood, any thought, and style you like.
Who was your favourite poet when you were a child?
When I was a child, I liked it when my parents played the poems of Dylan Thomas to us on vinyl records.
How did you first start writing poetry?
The very first poem I wrote was in school when I was 11 and I wrote about a train slowing down! The second poem was again in school when I was 13 and the teacher read us some poems by Robert Browning and asked us to write a ‘dramatic monologue’. (That means a speech, written in the voice of someone, rather like a speech from a play. The speech should tell us something about the person speaking, something about where he or she is, and something about the situation they are in. The most famous one by Robert Browning is about a rather arrogant man, who reveals (without meaning to) that he has probably murdered his wife, a duchess.) I wrote about a man who is begging to be helped but I left him to die on a beach! And the third poem I wrote entirely out of choice was about a moth flying round my room, after I read a poem by D.H. Lawrence about a bat.
When the idea comes to you for a new poem, does the image or subject come to you first or is it the words that you begin with?
Either it’s when a phrase comes to me, often with a bit of rhythm to it or it’s a memory of something that happened to me.
Which collections of poems or poets would you recommend as a starting point for getting into reading poetry?
If you read collections of poems by Adrian Mitchell, Roger McGough, Jackie Kay, John Agard, Brian Patten, Kit Wright, Caron Ann Duffy, Steve Turner, Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephaniah, you’ll probably be well set up. If you’re an experienced reader, then you might well enjoy the family sonnets in Tony Harrison’s ‘Selected Poems’, any of the books by Simon Armitage or Wendy Cope.
If Young Times readers would like to start writing their own poetry, how would you suggest they begin?
One way to start is to think about ‘impossible’ writing. By this I mean that you turn the world round. So instead of saying people went into the building, you say that the building swallowed or ate the people. Try looking at a scene and reverse the way you would usually describe it.
Another place to start is to think about yourself and consider how others see you and how you really feel about yourself. What are the differences? Assemble your thoughts about that. Perhaps it’ll come out in pairs of sayings that’ll give you a shape.
Another place is picking a moment in a book, a play, a film or a painting. Think of what the person in that moment is thinking. Write a speech in that person’s voice to represent what that person is thinking. The greatest model for how this is done, is Shakespeare. You might like to look at Macbeth’s speech that begins, ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow…’
Another place to start is to write a speech to say to someone who is no longer in your life – perhaps they died, or disappeared or you’ve moved away. Tell them why you want to speak to them, what you think about them and what you want from them.
Finally, think of any sentence or phrase that matters to you – let’s say it’s ‘I had a dream’ by Martin Luther King. Try to think of all the ways there are things you think that have something to do with your favourite phrase. Is it a mood? An idea? A feeling? Write these down and see if you want to repeat the phrase as a chorus. Or perhaps you might want to re-write the phrase.
Poetry is a special way of talking and writing. Poems are often musical, playing with the sounds of language while they tell stories, reveal feelings, make pictures and give us ideas. We all find this pleasurable, but children especially so. I guess that’s because for very young children, language often comes at them as something they hear without necessarily understanding it. Then poems come along and hit the same channel, sound, rhythm, rhyme, repetition and all the other tricks in the poet’s bag.
Poems can be snapshots: small pictures of a moment, an object, a scene, a feeling. They can be like photos in the family album: a moment frozen which we can look at over and over again and wonder why it matters to us.
Poems are also places where you don’t have to say it all, they don’t have to tie it up in a neat knot in the way that stories usually do. Poems can end with questions. Poems can end with no answers. Poems can pose problems. And that’s fine, because life doesn’t usually finish with neat little endings. Life itself is full of questions and problems. Particularly for children.
Poems are great for exploring those fascinating questions once posed by the painter Paul Gauguin: where do we come from? Where are we know? Where are we going? These are questions about what kind of background we have, what kinds of things we believe in and care about, what do we want our lives to look like in the future. Poems often explore these themes. And they do it in personal, direct ways, saying, in a thousand different ways: this is me, this is us, I wonder what kind of person I am, I wonder what’s going to happen, and so on. And aren’t these questions that children ask over and over again?
Poetry is great for what is almost the opposite of this: pretending we aren’t who we say we are. Poets write poems where they pretend to be goddesses, houses, worms, graves, long dead ancestors, aliens. This allows poets to explore feelings they didn’t know they had, and in so doing, they invite children to wonder about other lives, other states of existence, other possibilities.
Poetry can be impossible. As we proceed along our logical, sensible lines, relying on gravity to keep our plates on the table, days to follow nights, our blood to flow round our bodies, poems don’t have to obey these rules. Whether it’s through nonsense (remember the dish who ran way with the spoon?) or through making one thing like another, (perhaps our plates aren’t sitting on the table; but rather, the table is tired of carrying the plates) poetry can get us to see the world in strange, new ways and from strange points of view.
Poems are often full of echoes, gathering together hints and memories of other poems, other stories, films, signs, speeches. They gather up and change words. It’s as if poems like this point us at the very language we see and hear around us and invite us to stop, think and wonder if the words we are used to are right, honest or worthwhile. For children, this is especially important. If you think for a moment, very nearly all children enter school, using a language that is theirs, only to find that school is full of language that seems to belong to other people. If poetry plays with language and, through its music, invites children to remember and imitate it, this becomes a language that they can possess.
It is vital that children hear and see the link between poems on the page and poems in the ear. Poetry is after all ‘memorable speech’ as W.H.Auden once said. The reason why the link is so important is because most poetry has rhythm and you feel rhythm through the airwaves and in your body. The most exciting and interesting way to get hold of the feel and sound of poetry is with the poet who wrote the poem. It also connects poems with real people and real lives. Instead of poetry existing as a strange form of rhetoric stuck between the pages of a school book, it appears in the room, dressed in the clothes of today, with all the quirks of fully living creature. And then the final step is much easier to make: you can make poems too. Anyone and everyone can make poems, whether it’s by writing them, reading them, performing them, making music to them, dancing to them, painting them – however. When you see a live poet doing it, it’s like a kind of infection. You get to think you would like to have a go too. Primary schools need this as they need air and light. Poetry gives children the chance to observe, investigate, reflect and play with words. Poetry treats words with the utmost respect and utmost disrespect. It says, ‘words are all’ but also ‘words are for us to do whatever we want with them’ – both at the same time. While the child’s world is full of words that have to be in a right order, full of words that are about doing this or that in the right way, or according to this or that rule, or about this or that bit of vital knowledge (or not-so vital knowledge), poetry says that words don’t have to be like that. They’re yours to use however you want, tell it like it is, say it because you feel it. And you don’t have to be right in poetry. You can ask questions, you can suggest things. Unlike stories, they don’t have to end. They don’t have to sew things up in a neat ending. Poems can end with the thing that’s puzzling you the most. They can ask the reader or the listener a question because you don’t know the answer. Poems are great for doubt and wonder. We need doubt and wonder in the world, otherwise we’ll be just automatons. Children need doubt and wonder so that they can query the world around them. Poems don’t take anything for granted. Grab a poet now.
Poetry is a way of using language that can easily appear strange to inexperienced readers. It can even be off-putting for people who had unhappy or unpleasant experiences reading it in school when they were young. I think two processes are at work here: the years of poets writing poems that are indeed deliberately strange, weird, compressed, difficult ways of writing; an education system that demands of teachers and students to produce neat, packaged answers to questions about such things as the ‘effectiveness’ of this or that metaphor, or this or that verse structure. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t engage with the fun, mystery, ideas and imagination of poetry.
With this in mind, I keep trying to think of ways in which schools, teachers, students and children can be inspired and excited by poetry. I’m interested in this because when we do engage with poetry, many of us discover that it’s a terrifically powerful way to think closely about things that happen to us, and to reflect deeply on things that we feel. This might be because we get very close to the way a poet has expressed something we care about. Or it might be because we suddenly come to feel that we ourselves can write this sort of stuff. And it gives us pleasure and consolation to do so – pleasure and consolation that we can take through the whole of our lives. Poems aren’t just for Christmas! And you never know when you might need one or indeed when you might want to write one. They are can be our way of supporting our pleasures and our pains. And so cheap with it! If, we discover the delight in all this when we’re young, then we’ll be able to use it as a resource when we’re older.
So, here are some of the things that I’m trying to get happening: a poetry roadshow to tour the country. Perhaps we could get some thirty or so poets on board, and in each venue around the country three or four of them would perform a big public show to thousand or more children. The show could be called ‘The A-Z of poetry, from Agard to Zephaniah – diverse verse for all’.
Or some such.
I’m trying to set up two web-based ideas: a Youtube type interactive website for poetry performance that could combine poets reading their own poems with school children and students performing their own, or other peoples’ poems.
My other idea is to set up an interactive web page for teachers which I’m calling ‘How to make a poetry-friendly classroom’. This is to encourage poets and teachers to talk to each other on the web-page about ways of making classrooms places where poetry can live and flourish. I’ll kick it off with a few paragraphs and short films and then let’s see what we can build out of it – perhaps a book.
I’m also planning an exhibition on the history of children’s poetry at the British Library and perhaps a conference to kick it off. I’m hoping that these will help bring some attention to poetry for children from the press.
So, that’s the plans.
Meanwhile, I’ll carry on visiting schools, doing my poetry and story show and on occasions running workshops for teachers or children. People often ask me what happens when I visit a school, and I must admit, it’s a little difficult to describe. It’s a bit as if someone like Billy Connolly (without the rude jokes) comes to your school, tells the children stories, gets them to join in with poems and songs, talks about how much fun it is to write about these things, and then sings a few books and disappears. Mostly, schools have done wonderful preparation before I arrive, and the children get so much more out of the visit when they do. This may have meant that they’ve read a good deal of what I’ve written, or it may have meant looking very closely at just a few things. This means that they are that engaged and involved when I do my own show and are full of important questions about writing, authorship, books, publishing, illustration and much more.
I send out a sheet with my visits where I say to teachers that though the show may seem a little rambling, a little bit like stand-up comedy, it is in fact a well-worked out routine that tries to incorporate different kinds of language-use, each with a view to enabling children to have a go at writing or collecting such things themselves. So, one moment there might be a street game or playground song, (why not collect these?), and the next an anecdote from my childhood (why not write one?) to something more structured along classic poetic lines, (why not try that too?) along with ideas about how poems grow out of ideas, triggered off by things I’ve heard, seen, thought or remembered.
In my workshops for teachers, I try to emphasise the importance of making your classrooms places that are congenial for poetry and the need to worry less about getting short-term results because you came up with this or that neat little formula to get a poem out of the children. I suggest, for example, that teachers could simply write out a poem on to a giant piece of paper and put it up on the wall. No need to ‘teach it’. Just see what happens. Invite the children to perform poems that they find in the poetry books you bring in. Create a poetry cabaret night for staff, parents and children – reading a mix of poems from books with poems written by staff, parents and children. Take a single collection of poems by a poet, and/or a collection around a theme and turn either into a show, mixing the poems in the book with poems newly written. It could be a mix of poems performed, acted out, mimed, music to accompany or in between. Create a simple set, perhaps have a some kind of narrator or mc to take the audience through the show.
6) Answers for Sunday Express, May 2008
1. My favourite poem of yours is “Say Please” because I love tongue twisters. Which is your favourite poem of yours?
My favourite poem changes every week or so. That’s because the poems you write start off being new and fresh. So at the moment, the one I think about is called ‘The Lift’ and it’s on my website.
2. You write lots of very funny poetry, is this because you were only able to read very serious stuff when you were little?
You’re right about me mostly reading serious stuff when I was little. To tell the truth it was mostly read to me, rather than me reading it to myself. I thought humour and comedy could only come in plays and stories. I’m only guessing here, but I think I got interested in the idea of bringing the humour in plays and stories into poems.
3. My mum says that you also like classic poetry. Which poet do you think would appeal to a 10 year old boy who loves your stuff?!
Actually ‘Anon’ is pretty good (in other words, the authors of ballads and folk rhymes). There are really exciting, awful and incredible ballads. They’re a bit out of fashion these days, but they’re well worth a visit.
4. I love your website and the hypnotiser bit. Did you call it the hypnotiser because once you start watching one, you have to watch them all?!
I called that book ‘The Hypnotiser’ because there’s a poem there about a boy who came to our school and tried to hypnotise us. I then thought ‘The Hypnotiser’ sounded like the name of an old comic and to start off with, I wanted that book to be done like a comic. That never happened, but I’m very glad you like the poems from that book on my website.
5. What’s been the highlight of your year as THE CHILDREN’S LAUAREATE?
I think it’s been planning the things that are coming up: The Roald Dahl Funny Prize and the exhibition and conferences on children’s poetry coming up at the British Library in London.
7) Junior Education article on poetry, May 2008
At present, poetry in many primary school classrooms is, to my mind, stuck in a thorn bush. The National Literacy Strategy laid down when and how poetry should be taught and following from that, materials and anthologies of poems have been published to fit in with this programme. I think this was the wrong approach. Reading and writing poetry shouldn’t be a confined to systems of work that slot neatly into boxes with learning outcomes attached. Reading and writing poetry shouldn’t be a matter of following a nationally fixed progression from this or that kind of poem in year 1 to this or that kind of poem in year 2 and so on up through the school. Reading and writing poetry shouldn’t be something that is paralysed by the kinds of questions that have only one answer. You know the kind of thing: how many adjectives? Can you see the metaphor? Where is the personification?
Poetry itself is a way of using language in exciting, musical and suprising ways in order to ask questions of the world inside our heads and around us in the world. It often suggests and probes things, without coming up with fixed conclusions, happy endings and neat resolutions. It’s not a neat and tidy way of writing. Poems often start right in the middle of a scene or a feeling without explaining where we are. Sometimes they never tell us and we have to guess. Sometimes one part of a poem is attached to another part without the writer explaining why. This makes them very different from stories, that nearly always do explain such things. And across they world of poetry, they are very different from each other. They come out in in different shapes, different lengths and talk of any subject. Sometimes they seem to tell stories, sometimes they just seem to be about looking, or hearing, or thinking. Quite often, they don’t appear to ask anymore of its readers than they should just sit down and have a bit of a think. Sometimes, we re-read poems without knowing why. Perhaps it’s the sound, perhaps it’s the pictures in our heads, perhaps it’s because of a feeling that echoes with a feeling in our own lives.
This is why, to my mind, the approach in the NLS is so inappropriate. Instead, I think we should value and cherish this way poetry has of giving readers suggestions, and leaving them time to think and wonder. And this needs a different way of working. We need to make our schools and classrooms, poetry-friendly. This means inventing ways in which whole schools can possess poetry and make it belong to them. In my experience, I’ve found that the moment a group of teachers is freed up from having to follow the Strategy and invited to come up with ways of enjoying poetry, there’s no shortage of ideas. Here are some I’ve come across as I visit schools:
If we ask, where shall we put poems? then we can say that they’re great for reading and performing in assembly – but only if everyone can hear them – use handheld microphones. Think carefully how the performances can be improved – many poems benefit from repeating lines in chorus. Some are great with pictures projected behind them or accompanied by rhythms on blocks. Some are great with the children taking up the positions as if they’re in a freeze frame or photo, as the poem unfolds.
The corridors and walls of a school are great places to put up poem posters. Get the children to make them or make them yourselves. No need to restrict the poems you put up to the size of an exercise book page. Make them massive. Project them on to walls. If you put a poem up in a classroom, why not suggest that the children can pin post-its to the poem with their questions and thoughts about the poems?
When it comes to reading poems in class, try to find as many ways as you can for these to be just read and enjoyed, without asking questions. This might mean getting the children to record and perform the poems. Bring in a box of poetry books. Invite the children to go off in threes, each group with a book, and come back in twenty minutes with the peformance of one poem. Make it an event and say it’s a poetry show with ten acts. Take a collection of poems (anthology or a book by a single author) and work out a way of turning it into a show for the whole school, using the poems to make monologues, dialogues, choruses, mimes, live music interludes, masks and dance. Don’t be afraid to change and adapt the poems to fit the overall show. Add in poems and lines written by the children inspired by the collection.
When it comes to asking questions about poems, see if you can restrict the questions to ones that you don’t know the answers to. Put the children into groups with a poem with the job of asking: does this poem remind you of anything you’ve seen, read, heard before? What? Why? Bring them back together and write up the questions and answers as they give them to you. Talk about these answers. Value them. Encourage everyone to ask or answer something. Ask: is there anything you’d like to ask anyone or any thing in the poem? Write up the questions where everyone can see them and see if there’s anyone who would like to have a go at being the person or object in the poem to answer the questions. Or is there anything the children would like to ask the poet? Who would like to be the poet and have a go at answering the questions? Use the internet and books to help. Show that you take very question and answer seriously. Add in your own questions in a way that doesn’t inhibit the children asking theirs.
This way, poems become focal points for discussion and debate, where ideas and feelings flow. When someone notices something strange or significant about a poem, foreground it. I promise you, if you trust this whole process, and if you trust the poem and the poet, the older children will take you to the processes of poetry too – the alliteration, the rhyme, the metaphors and similes. They will start to notice the patterns of poetry – how one poem is like or unlike another. And indeed, how they can write like this poet or unlike another.
I’ve written more about this way of working on the Laureate webpage at Booktrust’s website and I’m very keen for teachers to contribute their ideas and work. I think we can all benefit from making this a big conversation.
For more information about the Poetry-Friendly Classroom, for free resources and hot tips from the Children’s Laureate log on to www.childrenslaureate.org.uk
8) Interview for National Poetry Foundation website, November 2007
Questions relating to your new post as Children’s Laureate.
1) What impact has the post had on your own work: positive or negative?
I’d say positive. I find that the more contact I have with other writers the more my mind finds possibilities of other things to write. Obviously there’s a limit to that otherwise I’d never have time to write anything!
2) It’s the first time a poet has been selected as children’s laureate…why is this important?
I’m not sure that it’s terribly important but it does feel like an affirmation for poetry in general. The laureateship is becoming a post that is trying to represent different sectors of the children’s book world. I had a feeling that it would get round to poetry one day, and I was a little surprised but of course delighted that it got there so soon. It does mean that if the question of poetry and education comes up, the media people have got a reference point.
3) How does your post enable you to influence the attitudes of adults and children toward poetry?
I’m not sure that it helps much more than before. That’s to say, I spend a lot of time and energy putting over my point of view about the reading of poetry by children and always have done. The really good thing coming up though is that Booktrust are going to devote a webpage to what I’m calling ‘How to make a poetry-friendly classroom’. It’s an extension of something I’ve been banging on about for some time, but this time it’s going to a proper professional job with the possibility of teachers exchanging views between each other. I’m pretty excited about this and I’ve just done some filming for that, so that can go on to the website to help kick it off.
4) What’s the hardest part of being children’s laureate?
Handling the sheer volume of requests – that’s either readings and performances, or writing articles and doing interviews.
5) And the easiest?
Talking about how wonderful children’s books are.
6) And the most surprising?
The way in which people seem so pleased that I’m doing it. I really didn’t expect that.
7) What’s been your greatest pleasure so far as children’s laureate?
I think it’s been the way that it’s accelerated my thinking around using the internet for the dissemination of ideas about children’s books and the performance of poetry.
8) Has the post changed the way that you approach your own writing?
I’m not sure that the post has done that. It’s the continual meeting up with other writers and hearing what they’ve got to say. That goes into the brain somewhere. I’m always so impressed by the way in which writers seem to be so devoted and committed.
9) Do you have any suggestions for adults who want to help children learn to love poetry?
Just read poems outloud to children. If you know any off by heart, then say them at odd times like when you’re walking down the street or doing the washing up. Leave poetry books lying around the house. Take children to see poets reading their poems.
10) Do you have any words of encouragement for children who want to become poets?
Read and read and read poetry. Keep a notebook for putting ideas, thoughts, and snippings in. A snipping is where you see or hear something that you find interesting or odd. So you snip it and put it in your notebook. One day, these will turn up in your poems, or you’ll change one or some so that they can be in your poems.
II. Questions relating to your voice
1) How did you discover your own voice as a poet?
I think it came about through reading D.H. Lawrence and Carl Sandburg in particular but also the early pages of James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. I think these were the voices that I was interested in at first. I then became fascinated by Gerard Manley Hopkins. However, there were the voices in my life from my parents, my brother, and the people at my schools in north west London. These all contributed to how I wrote and still do, of course.
2) How did schooling impede or enhance your understanding of poetry… and your voice?
I think my priimary school was helpful in that I enjoyed what was called ‘choral speaking’ – a kind of choir got together in order to recite poems. I didn’t like the poetry we did in lesson time. It always seemed so mournful and sad. At secondary school, something fizzed when a teacher in my second year introduced us to dramatic monologues – Browning mostly. I thought that was brilliant.
The next time I remember something good going on was when I did GCE, as it was called then, and my father and I read the ‘Pageant of Modern Poetry’ and it has poems in by Lawrence, Housman, Hopkins and others.
3) Were any teachers or people influential in encouraging you to follow your dream of writing poetry?
The most influential by miles were my parents who both loved poetry and filled the house with it, read it themselves and taught poetry in the schools they worked in and helped judge the national writing competitions run at first by the Daily Mirror and then taken over by W.H. Smith, headed up by Ted Hughes. After that, I’d want to mention one of my father’s colleagues,
Nancy Martin (an educationalist who worked at the Institute of Education, London) who read my early stuff and encouraged me. And there was the effect of Geoffrey Summerfield creating the ‘Voices’ anthologies. He and his editor Martin Lightfoot brought early drafts of these anthologies into our home, laid them out on the floor and invited me to respond to them. My mother, meanwhile, was doing some Schools Radio broadcasts for children on poetry. All that went into the mix.
4) Did you have the dream of becoming a poet long before you found your voice?
I think possibly I did. Or at least it was there in my mind as my first tentative efforts aged fifteen/sixteen.
5) How did you find the strength or courage or stubborn perseverance to keep writing?
I’m not sure I can answer that. I think any writer has to carry on carrying on. I was very lucky in that Andre Deutsch (Pam Royds was the editor there) published the first set of poems I put together. If that hadn’t happened, it is possible I might have drifted into another kind of writing. There is of course a key relationship between this perseverance and any success you might have.
6) Once you found your voice, how did you know it was suitable for children?
I think that came about because the moment my first book was published I was invited into schools, libraries and children’s book groups to read my poems. I quickly found out which ones interested them and which ones didn’t. This was crucial.
7) How is writing poetry for children different than writing for adults?
I think adults who like poetry have tremendous staying power. They will read and re-read poems because they enjoy the effort of untangling them. I think there is a tiny minority of children like that, but in general poems for children have got to sound interesting enough on a first reading to draw them in. I know I’ve read poems for adults that I didn’t think were interesting on a first reading but thought I’d give them several goes to see if there’s something important I’ve missed. I’m not sure that any sizeable number of children would do that.
8) When did you first realize you were writing for children?
When Pam Royds at Andre Deutsch said that a group of poems I had written could be published as a children’s book. I had thought that they were ‘adult’ but that children might like them. To tell the truth I hadn’t really thought it through. I lived in a house where ‘adult’ poetry was repackaged in anthologies and radio broadcasts and given to children, poems by Dylan Thomas, James Stephens, Robert Graves and the like. So perhaps I thought I was doing that – being an ‘adult’ poet whose poems might be taken up by anthologists putting books together for schools.
9) Are there any constraints that are part of writing for children?
Well, there are what you might call ‘institutional limits’ and these have been created by our systems of control over what is thought appropriate for children’s ears. These tend to focus now on sex, drugs and violence, though in the past it also included almost any bodily function and any use of what were thought to be ‘bad’ words. The system of constraint, as you call it, is invisible but is carried through via a consensus between publishers, editors, librarians, teachers and some degree of coercion from what is called ‘public opinion’ but in truth is sometimes not much more than the Daily Mail writing a shock horror piece about a writer like Melvyn Burgess.
10) What’s the greatest pleasure that you’ve found in writing for children?
Being able to perform my poems in schools.
9) Not so much a lesson, more a song and dance, Tuesday October 2, 2007 The Guardian
To mark National Poetry Day, Michael Rosen suggests fifteen ways to make a classroom poetry friendly.
One of the oddities that has emerged out of years of government-inspired curriculum development is the notion that there are perfect lesson-plans which you follow and these will deliver perfect results. I think the best learning takes place when you create an atmosphere of curiosity and excitement. So, I ask myself, how can we handle poems so that a whole class will be curious and excited enough to want to read, write, perform and think about poems? Poetry has never been written with the intention of making young people irritated, bored, anxious or humiliated, and yet the consequence of the test and exam system often does just that. So, rather than begin with lessons, we can talk about structures with a view to making your classroom poetry-friendly.
1. Find any poem that you think is interesting. Copy it out in your own handwriting on to as big a piece of paper as you can. Pin it up on the wall. Don’t ask any questions about it, don’t set any homework in relation to it. You could try leaving some post-its next to it, so that the class could write things on the post-its and stick them to the poem. If anyone asks you questions about the poem, see if you can ask back a question about how we might find out the answer. Looking in a book? On the internet? Writing a letter to someone? Or how? After a week, take the poem down and put up another one.
2. Read poems to the class when they know that you can’t set them work – that is, just before breaks or at the end of the day.
3. Bring in a pile of poetry books, divide the class into twos or threes and ask them to go away and prepare a poem to perform to the rest of the class in 20 minutes’ time because that’s when you’re going to have a poetry concert.
4. Discuss with the children all the different ways you could perform poems: mime, dance, song, using instruments, cutting bits, adding in repetitions that aren’t in the original poem, turning some of the scenes of the poem into tableaux and so on.
5. Look at a poem together. Ask questions that you don’t know the answers to. Is there any part of the poem that reminds you of anything that has ever happened to you, or that you’ve heard of happening to someone else? Why and how did it remind you? Is there any part of the poem or sound of the poem that reminds you of anything that you’ve ever read before? Why? How? Have you got any questions that you would like to ask about the poem?
Ask if any of your students could have a go at answering these questions. Is there anywhere we could go to find answers? Books? Internet? What if you could ask anyone or anything in the poem a question, what question would it be? Would any of your students like to pretend to be that person or thing and answer that question? What if you could ask the poet or the publisher of the poem a question? What question? Anyone want to pretend to be the poet or the publisher and answer it? Anywhere we could find out more about the author or the time and place that author lived through? Are there any patterns or shapes in the poem that anyone wants to talk about? Do you like these? Or not?
6. Choose a book of poems by one poet. What if we turned that book of poems into a show? We could use any poem or part of a poem, we could make up our own, we can use music, photography, costume …
7. Choose an anthology of poems around a theme. Let’s look at this theme. Can we make up some poems on this theme? Make a show of some of the poems in the book mixing it with your students’ poems.
8. Have a poetry cabaret night with your students’ parents. Everyone is going to bring either a poem they’ve written or a poem they like and perform it. Turn out all the lights, use a microphone and stage lights. The audience will sit round tables and then poets and performers get up out of the audience to perform their poem. Two sets of 20 minutes each with music in between. Interval – juice and cakes made by the parents.
9. Poetry swap time! Have a session where the teacher and the class swap poems they’ve chosen and read them out.
10. Turn the poems that the children write into poem posters, poetry booklets and books.
11. Writing poems can start from many, many different places. Use photographs, moments in stories, dreams, music, dance. Use the soliloquy principle, ie stop the action in any art form, any moment, any scene in your own life and ask the protagonist (or yourself) “What are you thinking?” “What can you see?” “What are you going to do?” The answers can make a poem.
12. Write poems for your class or about your class and with your class. Often!
13. Invite a poet to your school and ask her questions.
14. Go to a poetry reading at the local book festival.
15. If an Ofsted inspector comes into your room, ask him to read a poem to the class.
10) Take the thing into your hands – poem for Times Cheltenham Festival
Take the thing into your hands
and open it.
You can open it anyway you like.
Many people say that there is a front
and a back
A right way up
and an upside down
But don’t be put off by that.
You can open it anyway you like.
You see that door in the side of your head?
Now, move the thing in your hands
in any way you like:
Side to side, round and round,
over and over.
Perhaps you’ll see that there are
sheets that can be turned over.
You can turn them over and back
You can also hold it still
and move your head.
You can hold your head still
and move your eyes.
Has anything started to come through
I hope so.
If things do start coming through
I’m fairly sure that they will
start dancing in the room inside.
or sitting on the chairs.
or standing on the table.
or being rude to people you don’t like.
or even being rude to people you do like.
or going on a boat.
or taking things out of their pockets
and showing them to you.
Some of these things
you may have never seen before.
But now you know them.
Some are as familiar to you as potatoes.
but these potatoes are different.
When you get tired of all this
why not put down the thing in your hands?
And close the door.
Some of the things that came inside
You may well start dressing them up
in things that you like.
You might change the tune they were
You might ask them to keep
taking things out of their pockets.
you might find yourself saying the same
Or you might change the words round
to make them ruder.
You might go on the boat.
You might start kissing.
I won’t say anymore about what else you might do.
If you’ve liked doing all this
I think you’ll probably try to take
another one of these things into your hands
and start all over again.
And then the things that come through
the door the next time
will meet the people who came through
the door last time.
You may even start turning them into each
Look, there’s a man hiding under a sheep
so that a giant won’t eat him.
And there’s a boy running away from
a giant down a beanstalk.
And now you’ve gone and made the man under the sheep
run down a beanstalk.
Well, well, well
11) What is a window? Poem for the Guardian Dec 2007
What is a window?
What is a window?
A word beginning with ‘w’
like the word ‘what’ and the word ‘word’.
A word ending with ‘w’ like ‘ow!’
but that rhymes with ‘cow’ not ‘window’.
A word of two syllables – ‘win’ and ‘dow’?
Windows don’t usually win anything
though you could have a prize window
that won a window competition,
but there’s no such thing as a ‘dow’.
There is something called a ‘dhow’,
which is a boat
which is what
Homer Simpson says.
The two syllables could be ‘wind’ and ‘ow’.
There is the wind
which does sometimes make you say, ‘oh’
when it blows very hard
but ‘oh’ isn’t spelled like ‘ow’.
A famous poet once asked
‘Who has seen the wind?’
In the end she didn’t find out.
Most people have seen windows though.
They’re all over the place on the sides of houses and buildings.
I would say that there are a million types of window.
Here are some: casement, sash, mullion, windscreen, porthole, skylight.
The first people to call a window a ‘window’
lived in Scandinavia.
Some of them sailed across the sea to Britain.
When they landed,
if they built a house that had a window
or if they threw something at a window,
they said ‘window’.
The people living in Britain at the time
didn’t call windows ‘windows’.
After a while,
the people living in Britain did start calling
No one knows why.
Are windows windowy?
Is an elbow elbowy?
Is a chair chairy?
I don’t know about elbows and chairs
but a window is windowy.
In Scandinavia, people knew that it meant wind-eye.
A window is an eye through which the wind blows.
Or is it an eye that sees the wind?
Or is it the eye of the wind,
what the wind sees with?
What does the wind see?
The famous poet could have asked,
‘Who has seen the wind see?’
But she didn’t.
12) Junior Education Poetry Review, May 2008
It’s hard times for young poets writing for children and who want to get their work published. Some are resorting to self-publishing. More established poets are in a luckier situation.
‘My Dog is a Parrot’
A book of poems by John Hegley
This is a wizzy eye-catching bit of design and it does Hegley a great service. His poems are jazzy fragments, fibs, anecdotes, feelings and songs. It’s a great help to have his voice in your ear as you read – a hysterically funny, leering, pausing, emphatic delivery. Every time you find a word that rhymes, give it a nice chunk of vocal effort. This is a book that you should have lying about in your classroom as a provocation. One moment you are hit by the absurd and the next by a heartfelt blow to the emotions.
(boys, girls, older readers, reluctant readers, more able readers, to read aloud)
‘Red, Cherry Red’
By Jackie Kay
Illustrated by Rob Ryan
Audio CD Inside
What a delight to have another collection from Jackie Kay. It’s hard to find poems by women who talk to children about their childhood with seriousness and tenderness. When she says ‘I’, it really feels like ‘I’. Many of these poems are musical and suggestive, weaving mini-myths as they unfold. ‘The moon was married last night/and nobody saw…’ The book is daring: it takes us into love, kissing – as nice and important stuff.
(boys but especially girls, older readers, reluctant and more able, great to read aloud)
By Carol Ann Duffy
Illustrations by David Whittle
I sense that Duffy is reaching ever younger in her thinking. Here, there’s a good deal of a riddling, super-playful frame of mind. She had a nutty simile poem (you could sing it) about a class laughing (laughing like…’the horn of a bright red car’…like ‘the buzz of a honey bee’ and so on.) But between the fun and fireworks, we find something like ‘I believe in sand/because of its thousand whispers/held in my hands’. Rich fare.
(boys and girls, younger and older readers, reluctant and more able, great to read aloud)
‘The Poetry Chest’
A treasure trove of original poems
Foster, the excellent OUP anthologiser, has been quietly amassing his own terrific set of poems and visiting schools by the score over the last thirty years. This is, in effect, his ‘Collected Poems’, considerately themed ‘Family’/’Feelings’/’School’/’Bullying’ etc and Foster has turned his eye on a multitude of topics from Dad shouting at him to a powerful polemic against war and arms-dealers. A section before the end is made up of poems that draw our attention to the form – cinquains, tanka, kennings and haiku amongst them. At the very end are some suggestions on how to write poems yourself.
(boys and girls, older readers, reluctant and more able, great to read aloud)
‘The Carnival of Animals’
Poems inspired by Saint-Saens’ Music
Illustrated by Satsohi Kitamura
This ‘Concept’ collection gives you the CD to listen to and responses from 13 poets including: James Berry, Judith Chernaik, Adrian Mitchell, Gillian Clarke, Wendy Cope and Charles Causley. So, we explore the lion, the cocks and hens, horses, the tortoise, elephants, kangaroos, fish, donkeys, a cuckoo, an aviary of birds, pianists (!), fossils and a swan. It’s a book full of humour, lyricism and satire along with some sumptious artwork from Kitamura. It’s a book made for imitating: grab this CD, or any other, get the children thinking, dreaming and finger-tapping. Ask them, what did they see, what or who was trying to talk to them through the music, what did they feel?
(boys and girls, older readers, reluctant and more able, great for reading aloud)
‘There’s a Hamster in the Fast Lane’
Poems chosen by Brian Moses
illustrated by Jan McCafferty
This is a jokey pet book, full of gags and laughs from a wide range of poets writing now – Valerie Bloom, David Harmer, Ian Souter and many more, as with Matt Simpson’s: ‘You can stick your pretty pussycat/Your cuddly puppy dog/Your snooty prancing ponies/How’s about a squelchy frog?’
(boys and girls, younger and older readers, reluctant and more able, great to read aloud)
‘How to Embarrass Teachers’
Poems chosen by Paul Cookson
Illustrated by David Parkins
Tireless Paul Cookson has armed the children in your class with some terrible ammo: Jill Townsend notices that when teacher comes back from the loo, she had her skirt caught up in her knickers. Miss Smith was seen snogging at the movies by Richard Caley and Roger Stevens sneaks on teacher to Mr Ofsted.
(boys and girls, younger and older, reluctant and more able, great to read aloud)
Chosen by Gaby Morgan
Illustrated by David Eccles
Judith Nicholls looks up and sees that ‘Night spreads like purple heather/over wasteland sky/and marbled earth rolls gently into sleep’. There are also poems here to chant and sing, concrete, visual poems to look at, occasional traditional pieces and even a letter to the sun from Eric Finney.
(boys and girls, younger and older, reluctant and more able, great to read aloud.)
Manky Mingin Rhymes fae a Scottish toun
Edited by Matthew Fitt and James Robertson
Illustrated by Bob Dewar
The UK is full of languages but we’re mostly pretty feeble at honouring the ones whose basis is English. Scots didn’t end with Robert Burns and here it is in fine fettle:
‘We’re the dugs o Deid End Street/We’ll nip yer knees and gar ye greet’, writes Kirsty Grieve. For non-Scots’ readers yet a longtime lover of Burns like me, I would have loved to have had a CD and a glossary.
(boys and girls, younger and older, reluctant and older – but in its present format – mostly Scots, great to read aloud.)
‘The Usborne Book of Poetry’
Collected by Sam Taplin
Illustrated by Kristina Swarner
Some people bemoan the lack of new books of classic children’s verse but here’s one published with full-colour suggestive art work. If you were hunting for Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’, Blake’s ‘Tiger’ and Hardy’s ‘Snow in the Suburbs’, they’re here, along with some modern poets such as Brian Patten, Wendy Cope and Kit Wright. Not so hot on cultural diversity, though.
(boys and girls, younger and older, reluctant and older, great to read aloud)
‘Red, Cherry Red’ Jackie Kay
‘Standing by the river, my face grew
into a flat fish and floated off…’
13) What is a bong tree? Lecture for CLPE official event, September 2007
“Narrative poetry is poetry that tells a story. The most popular form of narrative poetry is probably the ballad, which you’ll remember we looked at last week when we read ‘Lord Randal’. Some narrative poems are long, some are short. Some very long narrative poems are made up of many shorter ones.
Here is a narrative poem:
by Walter De La Mare
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:-
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
The first things I’d like you to do are:
1. Identify the poetic techniques in the poem
2. Do a syllabic count
3. Answer this question: Are there any similarities with the ballad poem we read last week?
Next I’ve got a couple of comprehension questions for you:
1. Who is the traveller?
2. Who are the listeners?
Then I want you to look at the structure of the poem –
and answer these questions:
1. What happens in the poem?
2. Where does one section end and the next begin?
And finally I want you to:
1. Look at the words in the poem which describe sounds,
2. Write down in which sections of the poem there are noises and in which silence? ”
I’m sure that thinking about what I’ve just said has been particularly exciting and stimulating, so let’s just take a step back and ask ourselves a different kind of question:
What have I just been doing? What’s it for?
I began by telling you something about what is often called ‘genre’ – I’ll come back to that in a moment; I’ve read you a poem that has been read in schools from at least as early as 1954, which is when it was first read to me in a state primary school in Pinner, Middlesex; and I’ve asked you a set of questions and cues for activity that have focused on:
what are called ‘poetic techniques’;
comparisons with another poem;
identifying who the protagonists are;
what is called the ‘structure’ of the poem;
words that describe what I presume are regarded by the anonymous questioner as essential or fundamentally important about the poem, namely, ‘noises’ and ‘silence’.
I used that phrase ‘so-called’ or ‘what are called’ several times just then, because I’d like to challenge some of the ideas that lie behind what’s going on here.
First, the idea of ‘genre’ in poetry.
I’m not clear why anyone thinks that it’s a good way to spend time and energy telling children that this or that poem could or should be clumped with another poem on the basis of an arbitrary category or other. Another way of raising this matter with children is, as some of you will be well aware, that one that goes:
‘What type of text is it, how do we know?’
As that’s a question that has been puzzling literary critics for several thousand years, I’m not sure why or how primary school children are supposed to know, unless they come up with the answers that have been so over-simplified by the official education documents that they are probably fibs. You know the sort of thing: “it’s got rhythm and rhyme so it must be a poem”. Well, the explanations of rhyming slang have rhythm and rhyme: ‘Your plates are your feet, plates of meat, feet.’ But even a slack definer like me would probably say that isn’t really a poem.
There are of course many problems with allotting categories or indeed with wanting to do it in the first place.
When we say that dogs are a different breed or species from cats, we have an important piece of material reality to back us up: neither in their behaviour nor in their chemistry are they able to combine sexually. They are, in part, defined by what they’re not.
When it comes to literary or more specifically, poetic genres, we have two kinds of chaos going on: the one that plucks a set of characteristics out of the world of poetry and deems these particular characteristics significant enough to become a category; and that once this category has been chosen, a poem that fits this set of characteristics belongs to this category and not another.
So, someone a long time ago thought that it was significant that a distinction be made between, say, narrative and lyric poetry, the one ‘telling a story’ and the other, supposedly, more ‘personal’. However, a quick glance across articles and books that like doing this sort of thing, and we find the business of genre expanded into a wonderfully disorderly, un-systematic range of categories. One moment the word is used to describe something to do with the form of a poem, as with the supposed ‘genre’ of ‘prose poetry’, the next with a poetic effect, such as, ‘satirical poetry’. It doesn’t take long to figure out that a poem could be, say, a personal, satirical, narrative prose poem combining all these so-called genres in one. In fact, I’ve been trying to write such things for years. Where does one genre end and another begin? And if they really are categories, then just as you can’t have in real life – (though you can in stories, poems and jokes) – a catty dog or a doggy cat, surely you shouldn’t be able to have a mix of genres? Or is that OK in the world of literary genres that we keep trying to teach children about?
So, to make my position clear, I have nothing against people hanging on to their jobs, and if coming up with poetic genres and defending them against barbarians like me who say that it’s a nonsense, keeps them in work – fair enough. But telling children that it’s important or useful to know that ‘The Listeners’ is a ‘narrative poem’ because…er…it’s a ‘narrative’, then I say, no, I don’t think so.
Of course, it’s very handy for the purposes of testing because, in the event of the question being asked in an exam, ‘What genre of poem is this?’ or ‘What type of text is it, how do we know?’- the examiner will have a check list, and the answer, ‘a narrative poem’, will be the only one to score. It’s a markable factoid. This process enlists the reading of poetry into the power-game of education which alludes to a mystical authority which lies outside, beyond and above the confines of classrooms and schools; an authority that knows that the category of ‘narrative poetry’ simply exists and must be learnt. Teachers become the janitors and schools the store-houses for this mystical, mostly unauthored knowledge and they are required to pass it on in a mystical way, that is: stating things as definite and certain when they’re not, saying that processes or literary happenings are facts rather than leaving them open to investigation and discovery.
So, ‘The Listeners’ is a narrative poem and that’s that.
Now to ‘poetic techniques’.
Two processes are at work here, a false dualism and fetishism.
This is the problem: whatsoever we would like to express in poetry, is expressed in words, or, if you prefer, ‘signifiers’. It is the selection and arrangement of these signifiers (or ‘form’ if you prefer) in a poem, that readers will negotiate in order to make meaning. A reader reading a poem (or listening to it) cannot get at some kind of content outside of, or beyond the poem in any way other than doing it through the signifiers. The way Yeats expressed it was to say that you cannot see the dance without the dancer. Yes, as Terry Eagleton points out, you can refer in an abstract way to a dance (the fox-trot, the jive) but you can’t actually see it or do it without a body doing it. Yes, you can read or know material outside of a poem, and this material may or may not tell you, say, that the ‘I’ in ‘Daffodils’ refers to a person and that this person is William Wordsworth. (Though, of course, even this may not be true, as an alternative story tells us that the ‘I’ of ‘Daffodils’ refers to the consciousness of both William and his sister, Dorothy and it was she who gave him the idea that it was a ‘cloud’ he might be ‘wandering as lonely as’. Things aren’t always what they seem in poetry. The word ‘I’ can be as big an invention as the Jabberwock.)
But I don’t want to be overly dogmatic here. Just as we can talk about kinds of dance without seeing the dancer, we can talk about poetic techniques, because as humans we are quite capable of creating abstractions out of concrete situations. The question, though, is does it do young children reading poems any favours, or is it, yet again, a means by which poems can be reduced to markable factoids, that get you gold stars or smiley faces on the end of your worksheets?
But we do know that there’s another agenda behind the ‘poetic techniques’ game, don’t we? It’s the one exercise that has dominated the teaching of literature for at least fifty years. This is the one that not only identifies the poetic techniques but asks, why are they ‘effective’? Oh what a big deal is wrapped up in this little word, ‘effective’. How many millions of children and students have sat in lessons and exams trying to figure out what is in a teacher’s or an examiner’s head as they write their paragraph on why this or that bit of alliteration or this or that metaphor is effective. Once again, the great mystical authority who stands in a land beyond the classroom is invoked; the authority who has at some point determined that this simile or that verse structure has been effective and so it shall be. And it has of course also determined that the very process of saying that it is effective is an important and useful activity too. There is an alternative notion: that to debate and discuss and re-enact how a piece of writing has affected you is perhaps a more significant activity. More of that anon.
Pause a moment, and let’s hear it for ‘the forest’s ferny floor’.
Using my 1950s education, I can tell you that that is alliteration. Using my training in guessing what is in examiners’ minds, I might suggest that it’s effective because the letter ‘f’ is a soft sound and contributes mood and quiet to the moment of ‘silence’ that comes after the Traveller has just shouted. But of course, we don’t really know that it contributes to that mood, because we haven’t got anything to compare it with. This isn’t a science experiment with a control group of poems about other travellers knocking on moonlit doors and shouting followed by a line of poetry with no ferny forest floors in it, whereby we could prove that alliterative ‘f’s’ are genuinely and definitely and proveably effective in doing softness. No matter. I reckon I’d get my mark for saying my bit just there. I have reunited the form (alliteration) with the content (feelings of softness). The idiocy that I’ve just expressed, however, comes about because, as I’ve said, the only way I could get to the softness feeling or the softness meaning is through the words that have expressed it. If, say, someone else reads those three words and connoted the letter ‘f’ with a kind of hissing, and read it as, let’s say, the contempt of the forest for the traveller who has arrived and disrupted the peace – there is no one who can argue with it. In spite of the strenuous efforts of generations of critics, buttressed by generations of examiners, no one can ever quite succeed in deducing definitive meanings from form. All they can do is pretend that they can as part of a curriculum method.
And so to the most intriguing questions of all:
‘Who is the Traveller?’ and ‘Who are the Listeners?’.
Now, I have to say, of all the questions so far, these are the ones that have me stumped. In all honesty, I don’t know who the traveller and the listeners are. In all the many times I’ve read the poem – I even spent a few weeks learning how to perform it as part of an interschool choral verse-speaking competition in 1955 – I have never known who the traveller and the listeners are, and I suspect I never will. And do you know, I’m actually quite happy with that. It’s quite possible for me to enjoy something about the poem without needing to know or even wanting to know who they are.
And here we might have landed on something important about poetry. In most, but not all, stories, our expectations given to us from thousands of years of story-telling give us a need or a desire. It goes like this: in the event of us being told that the main protagonist is a traveller who arrives somewhere and knocks on a door and then, in the event of us being told that there some phantom listeners doing some listening, we have a desire to be told who they are within the story and a legitimate expectation that we will be told. That’s what most stories do. They give us whys and wherefores and recognisable outcomes. Yes, I know Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras don’t but that’s why I said ‘most stories’ and not ‘all’. One of the distinctive features of poetry is that we, as experienced readers, will often read poems from start to finish and, without even being aware of it, suspend our desire to know exactly who is talking, who the protagonist is, where we are, or even why people do things. I cannot stress how important this is. I would even go so far as to say that one of the reasons we read poetry for pleasure is precisely because many poems have this quality of withholding many of the specifics we have come to expect in stories.
Back to ‘Daffodils’ – which, as you’ll know, wasn’t called that by Wordsworth. He gave it no title, but we have written that part of the poem for him. Another example of a gap in a poem that readers fill, perhaps. He might have wanted to call it ‘Inner eye’ or ‘My couch’ or ‘A Day out with Dorothy’. No matter.
For experienced readers, the poem comes attached to Wordsworth and the Lake District. But that’s only because we’ve been told it is. There is nothing intrinsic in the poem that tells us that the ‘I’ is a man from two hundred years ago, living in a particular place and time, walking and thinking in a particular place and time. In other words, poetry offers us the possibility, should we so choose, to read a poem without knowing or needing to know this sort of thing. It’s as if, this kind of poem says to us, ‘You don’t need to know all that stuff about what I had for breakfast before I went for the walk, or who I was with, or anything else that happened that day. I don’t need to tell you what happened to the daffodils. I’m drawing your attention to what I’m drawing your attention to which is that when I got home I thought about the daffodils.”
This is at the heart of why poetry is a kind of writing that refuses to be tied down. It keeps slipping out of a critic’s grasp. Very often, there just isn’t enough stuff there for us to make the definitive statement. What’s more, the very act of trying to wring this statement out of the poem – or worse – out of children, is anti-poem. It runs against the grain of the poetic impulse, which more often than not, is an impulse to suggest, imply, hint, infer and to withhold even as it reveals.
With de la Mare’s poem, I can of course do that exam thing of culling info from the poem. This will tell me for example that the traveller is male , he’s on a horse, he’s travelled at night, he can smite, he is capable of being perplexed, he has grey eyes, either he or his call (or both) are lonely, he can ‘feel in his heart’ the ‘strangeness’ of something he can’t see or hear, and yet he also feels he can address this strangeness; he has some kind of undefined relationship with a ‘them’ which refers to a plural entity he has come to see; he has some sense that he wants this entity to know that he’s a man of his word. We also know that his horse’s hooves are shod.
Who is the traveller? I have no idea beyond saying that he appears to be someone that someone called Walter de la Mare wrote some words about in a poem called ‘The Listeners’. At this point in my thinking, the traveller is all text.
Who are the listeners? Well, they’re ‘phantom’. And that doesn’t mean much more than that they’re made up, which, as it’s a poem, we kind of knew anyway.
So, quite why I’m being asked the questions who is the traveller and who are the listeners is not clear. In fact, I’m quite cross I’ve been asked these questions. I feel that I’m being asked something that I shouldn’t have to answer. What’s more, because I don’t know the answers, I feel embarrassed and uncomfortable because I’ve got quite a good idea that other people in the room do know who they are. And the teacher or examiner knows. And I don’t. I am not good enough to know. I’m not good enough to understand this poem. In fact, it’s not turned into quite a horrible poem…
And as we all know, one of the first and most important lessons many of us learn from reading poetry in school is that quite often and for a large number of children, it’s a mildly humiliating experience. It’s a means by which we learn that we aren’t quite good enough. Just beyond reach, there is a right answer out there, an answer that someone knows and that someone for sure ain’t me.
Now, I think there might be interesting ways of asking questions about the traveller and the listeners – note that I’ve conceded that they’re worth asking questions about.
I’ll give it a go:
Who might the traveller be? (And I might add here, that I don’t know who he is. Honestly I don’t. Really.)
Who might he have been coming to see? (Same again, I really don’t know) But who do you think it could be?
Why do you think he came?
If you could talk to the traveller, is there anything you’d like to ask him, or tell him? Is there anyone here who would like to be the traveller?
Now, who would like to ask him anything?
Do you think there are some listeners of some kind or has the traveller imagined them?
Let’s all pretend to be a traveller who’s just arrived at an empty house in the middle of the night in the middle of the forest…
How do we feel?
Let’s all pretend to be listeners watching someone arrive at the empty house where we hang out…
How does that feel?
Does anyone want to ask one of the listeners what’s going on?
Now I’m going to make a suggestion here. I don’t really know what ‘The Listeners’ is about; or more accurately, I don’t really know what the poem means for me.
I might surmise some things about its role in our national life, though. I could perhaps describe its iconic status in the teaching of poetry over the last fifty years. I could even offer up some answers as to why that is – like…perhaps we like giving children literature that has some kind of respectable mystery at the heart of it. By ‘respectable mystery’, I mean a mystery that doesn’t appear to be about sex, drugs or rock’n’roll, or indeed anything nasty to do with how children get on with each other or with the adults in their lives. Literature, through a poem like this, can serve its time not only as a means of test-led instruction, but also as a means by which we can lead children into the land of unexplained mystery. In fact, I could suggest that by asking the very questions that avoid the active engagement of the reader, we sustain the status of a poem like this in the land of the respectable mystery. It can exist sealed off from us, unexplored.
But that said, before engaging with the poem, I don’t know what ‘The Listeners’ is for. However, I not only don’t think this matters -that is, I don’t have to know what it’s for – but I also think that its unknowability might be what’s important or interesting about it. In other words, there is a strange contrast between the purposefulness of the traveller, smiting on the door, and the complete lack of revealed matter about who he is or what he’s doing or what he’s doing it for. We know he’s got a purpose but we don’t know what it is.
So this leaves us with another kind of prospect. We can ask of the poem not the kind of question we might ask of a play or a novel – like, say, what are the protagonists’ motives? Or what do you think of the outcome of the poem, in this case: what do you think about what happened to the traveller at the end – but instead, we can ask ourselves: is there anything about the feeling of the poem and the feeling of its scenes that we might say are in some way or another representative, or transferable? That’s too abstract a question to ask in most classrooms, so in terms of asking questions of you or a class, this could be phrased thus:
Is there anything about the poem, or characters in the poem or scenes in the poem, or the sounds of the poem that remind you of anything that’s ever happened to you, or anything that you’ve ever read?
Now that’s a simple question that conceals a whole load of theory.
If I ask you does this poem remind you of anything you’ve ever read, I’m asking you a question about intertextuality – that process by which every text we ever read is, through the minds and acts of readers, joined to other texts. In fact, it’s impossible to conceive of a text that isn’t joined to other texts. It’s the nature of texts that they are in a sense constructed out of the shapes, colours, molecules of other texts and that in some way or another (unpredictable at the time of writing) contribute to other texts that come after it. Accessing a poem’s intertextuality through a class’s intertextual investigations and questions might be a way by which we can get to know more about who someone like the traveller or the listeners are. After all, these characters are in part, perhaps mostly, perhaps entirely (I won’t get into that) textual entities.
As a way of inviting students to enter into this sea of texts, we can keep it simple and open by asking them the ‘reminding’ question. And there’s no need to get hung up about chronology here. If ‘The Listeners’ reminds a reader of something that was composed years after the composition of ‘The Listeners’ then that can serve to remind us that motifs and themes and phrases and sounds travel about in the world of literature gathering or losing significance, becoming stereotypes and archetypes, gaining or losing their power as the epochs pass.
And if I ask you – does it remind you of something that you’ve experienced in your life? – you’ll note I’m not saying that this poem is about that experience – I’m saying that the best route by which we might access what we could call the ‘symbolic psychology’ or ‘symbolic sociology’ of the poem, is best done through a dialogue with the kinds of experiences that we the readers have had.
So, pause a moment. Back to ‘The Listeners’. Turn to the person next to you. Try those two questions:
were there any moments in the poem
or any sounds of the poem
that reminded you of something else you’ve read
or anything that has happened in your life.
Perhaps you have at some time another been like the traveller, or like the listeners, or alternatively perhaps you know someone who has been like the traveller or like the listeners. You can treat the two questions (that is, reminding you of a text or reminding you of an experience) as separate or together as you wish, because in truth, the way we describe our experiences is itself a text that is informed by other texts.
It may help you to restate what you think is the bare essence of the poem…or it may not…
I’m going to think aloud…
The idea of opening a piece of writing with a question reminds me of several things: the writer Morris Gleitzman once told me that the key to grabbing a reader’s attention is ‘start writing as late on in the action as you can. You can always go back and fill in details if you need to.’ In other words, you don’t have to start a poem, a play, or a novel by describing where we are, or why we are where we are. You can dive straight in with a statement or a question that will intrigue a reader or listener.
So, what pieces of writing do I know, that begin with a question…?
‘Hamlet’ begins with ‘Who’s there?’ There’s a nursery rhyme that begins with ‘How many miles to Babylon?; a folk song begins with ‘Who will shoe your pretty little feet?’; a French folk song begins, ‘Qu’est-ce qui passe ici si tard?’ ‘Who’s that coming here so late?’ In other words, it’s a piece of literary rhetoric, the question as opening gambit, going back hundreds of years, borrowed by de la Mare.
What poems or stories do I know with a man on horse arriving somewhere? There are many, aren’t there? A knight arrives at a castle or a tower to free a lover, or slay a dragon, or meet his fate in a fight with an enemy.
And what poems or stories do I know about listeners? ‘The Borrowers’ perhaps, with those little beings under the floorboards; and literature, particularly Shakespeare is full of people who overhear or eavesdrop…Polonius in ‘Hamlet’; Toby Belch, Feste and Fabian spying on Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’; Oberon and Puck listening to the lovers in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’; there’s the overhearing of Rumplestiltskin revealing his name. And then, of course, there’s a way of thinking of all literature as a means by which we eavesdrop on what people think, say and do. We, the readers, are invited to be eavesdroppers and listeners.
And I could go on like this, thinking about empty houses, forests, knocking on doors and so on and I can build up what I’d call a map of awareness about the themes, motifs and feelings that are in the poem. Any or some of these may well help me find a point of contact with the poem, an entry-point that makes whatever is proving difficult, or odd about the poem, feel more familiar or more accessible. After all, poems are almost by definition strange ways of using language, one moment appearing to say too much; next, appearing to say too little – full of ornament, inversion, compression and comparison, making ordinary things seem extraordinary and extraordinary things seem ordinary. To get at them or into them, I’m grateful for any bridge, any link, any way in which the poem’s charge can leap across to me.
So let me try this: (it’s actually one of the questions that the beastly test-type questions asked us at the beginning of this talk!) how would I describe what happens in the poem… (but I’ll humanise it by adding): if it’s me who’s the traveller?
I arrive with something important to say but there is no one there to hear. I am not heard. I plead that I have been honourable. I’ve kept my side of the bargain. I have a sense of a hidden world that hears, but it is unresponsive. It witnesses but says nothing. The people I wanted to hear me, weren’t there. Instead, I’m surrounded by a landscape that has a life of its own that is indifferent to me.
So, now I’m thinking of those moments when, say, one of my children has asked me a question and as I’ve tried to answer it. Then, the moment I start talking, I’ve become aware that they are instantly bored. They walk off, or suddenly start to find that the grains in the wood on the table are incredibly interesting or that they’ve left a sandwich in their lunch box. And I’m thinking, I’m keeping my side of the bargain, I’m answering your question, but you’re not listening. The rest of the room is listening but it’s inanimate. OK the cat’s there but even the cat isn’t listening. The frying pan isn’t listening. Or is it? And you, you’re there while I’m explaining that thing you asked me to explain…I think it was about clouds or was it about Henry VIII…anyway, you’re not listening. You exist in your own ecology, and anyway then you scamper off and watch Kim Possible on the Disney Channel. So you’re not there. Fine. And I’m here. On my own. In fact, I could do that thing I call ‘recruitment’ where people like me say to themselves or to our children, ‘Well you may not want to do x or y, but there are lots of other children out there who would!’ In a lot of our moments of stress we try to recruit invisible assistants, don’t we? As my mother used to say when looking at me at the end of the day, ‘I’m sure the other children in your class didn’t go to school in shoes they hadn’t polished!’ And when we’re lonely, we can often imagine how much better it would be if only we could get this or that person over for a chat…
(Yes, I know I’ve conflated the absent ‘them’ who I came to see with the listening ‘them’ – but so be it.)
Anyhow, through reading the poem, I’ve accessed something about me. A quirk, a trait. Through my reading, I’ve helped myself become aware of something about me and the way I behave. In some peculiar way, it’s helped me extract something inside me that feels very individual and full of self-importance, and this process has helped me to put these feelings outside of me to contemplate them alongside the poem. It has, as the jargon has it, helped me objectify my experience.
But wait a minute, hasn’t it also thrown me back on what I called the symbolic psychology or symbolic sociology of the poem? And won’t I now need to revise my rather glib account of ‘The Listeners’ standing as some kind of convenient icon for respectable mystery?
In ways, that are difficult to unravel, this poem seems to chime with a sense that I’ve had that there are times when I haven’t been heard. And this is a lonely place to be. And there might be an awareness that there is some kind of ‘other’ out there, who, if they could only be ‘recruited’, I’d feel better, less lonely.
Again, I’ve got a feeling that only by accessing all this, can I get a sense of why or how, what I called this poem’s respectable mystery becomes much more problematic, much less comfortable.
Now, it’s my view that any set of questions, any curriculum plan or strategy in connection to poetry implies a view as to what poetry is for.
The questions that I began this talk with, seem to me to imply an idea that what poetry is for, is that it should stand as a kind of assault course, a training-ground in answering closed-ended questions with an end result that has very little to do with feelings or meaning. The poem and the contact it might or could make with readers through the intermingling of its intertextuality and its reference to experience is secondary or, worse – invisible.
The questions I’ve asked so far, are intended precisely to engage with this potential for contact. I’m trying to avoid constructing artificial points of contact – that’s how I would typify all those questions about ‘effectiveness’. Instead, I’m trying to set up little platforms for readers of all kinds to establish those points of contact for themselves. Even all those questions about alliteration and metaphor don’t need to be phrased in such a way that they appear like the questions in a pub quiz, with the question-master holding the answers in his hand, and these are the only right ones. Anything else, you don’t get your point.
If you want to refine that question about ‘is there anything that reminds you…’etc etc..you can say, are there any sounds, any pictures, any words, any phrases, any way of saying things that remind you of something you’ve seen, heard, or read somewhere else.? What are they? Where are they? How did they remind you? The questions we ask about poetry don’t have to be ones that we know the answers to. That’s my undogmatic way of putting it. My dogmatic way, is to say, the questions we ask about poetry should always be ones that we the questioner don’t know the answers to.
This opens up the possibility of asking a question that invites questions – I’ve mentioned some already in relation to the characters of the poem. But we can also expand that into things like: is there anything we would like to ask the writer? Who would like to be the writer and try and answer those questions? Is there anything we would like to find out about the writer? Or the time and place the writer lived through? There are 211,000 entries for Walter de la Mare on google. I wonder if any of them are interesting. Will any of them give me a point of contact with the poem? Maybe, maybe not.
So, back to our title: what is a Bong Tree?
Well, as we know, Edward Lear created a kind of poetry that lays a false trail. He tells us that something is a spoon, or a tree, or,say, that there is some kind of creature that uses a sieve for a boat but then he obscures the whole thing by calling the thing or the person something we have never heard of: ‘runcible’, ‘bong’ or ‘Jumblies’ and the like. In so doing, he created worlds that had a logic that you can figure out – and yet they do not correspond to the world we know. A sieve is a receptacle but it wouldn’t work as a boat unless you’re a … Jumbly. Quite why it would work, isn’t clear. In other words, this is a world where motives and empirical explanations will work only only up to a point. There is no legitimate ‘yes’ outside of the poem to the question, is it possible for an owl and a pussycat to marry? In fact, why am I asking such a silly question of myself?
So, Lear in a way crystallises the problem at the heart of all poetry and all literature: we create these beings and creatures, these scenes, these dramas, but we readers do not really know who the characters are or why they are. Like the phrase ‘Bong Tree’, the words signify something but the only way I can access this meaning is to find out how they chime with what I’ve read and what I know and what I’ve felt and what I’ve done.
For poetry in schools to be both a significant and enjoyable way to spend time, then I suggest that we have to go back to the reader’s place in the poem in order to find out the poem’s place in the reader and that we put this process at the heart of our activities.
Today I’ve just suggested one or two ways. There are many others – through painting, dance, drama, mime, photography, film, wall displays, yes, even choral speaking, in other words, ways that don’t ask any questions at all.
Very soon, we’ll have a website up on Booktrust’s website where teachers and poets can share ideas of how we can all create poetry-friendly classrooms. I see that the most recent documents to emerge from one of the acronym-laden authorities that speak to schools and teachers are making noises that are, I’d say, more poetry-friendly, with an emphasis on children making their own anthologies, doing poetry performances and the like. Perhaps they’ve suddenly remembers what literature is for…I hope so.
In the meantime, in case anyone was still wondering…
For me, though perhaps not for you,
A Bong Tree is
A Bong Tree is
A Bong Tree is
a tree that goes bongggggggggggggg!