Ferelith Hordon: Falling in Love with Poetry

Where does a love for poetry come from? What was the inspiration? Was it that special teacher at school? Picture books in rhyme? Did I ever meet a “live” poet as a child? I don’t think so but certainly I was surrounded by verse – or poetry. Lear was there, the Nonsense Songs so much part of everyday reading and recitation that the distant hills of Perthshire as we drove across the moors were definitely the Hills of the Chankly Bore. And, of course, I knew why the poor Pobble had lost his toes while the Dong wandered across my imagination, his luminous nose shining brightly. There was Lewis Carroll and Old Father William standing on his head while the Lobsters eagerly lined the shore.

Was this poetry? Perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson; his childhood home was not so far from us. My great aunt knew him and set poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses to music so Dark brown is the River is forever singing in my memory.

Windy Nights                Robert Louis Stevenson

Whenever the moon and stars are set,

Whenever the wind is high,

All night long in the dark and wet,

A man goes riding by.

Late in the night when the fires are out,

Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,

And ships are tossed at sea,

By, on the highway, low and loud,

By at the gallop goes he.

By at the gallop he goes, and then

By he comes back at the gallop again.

Walter de la Mare and Eleanor Farjeon, Rose Fyleman and the Taylors – Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, not a nursery rhyme but a poem written for children, four verses sung to us by Mother to what must be an Edwardian tune – certainly not Mozart.  I don’t think I ever thought of these as poetry; they were part of the fabric of childhood, recited by adults, peppered across the Beacon Readers (a beloved source of reading for me). They had rhyme, rhythm and imagination. But poetry?  I never thought about it and I don’t recall it being part of any lesson until later.

I was ill – or deemed to be ill. I think it may have been chicken pox though I don’t remember any spots or even feeling ill. I must have been 10 or 11. Quarantined upstairs, alone in the bedroom, I wasn’t reading but listening to that magical radio programme, The Children’s Hour, a programme that enchanted and instructed.

This evening the programme was about a poet and a poem – Keats and his Ode to a Nightingale. I was transfixed. There was, naturally, a romantic tragic poet to meet, but it was the poem itself that captured my attention. I had never really appreciated language could be so beautiful, that images could be so vivid, so real, so layered and that there were references that led you to other stories, adding depth. I fell in love with poetry. At the first opportunity – I think it might even have been that same evening – I learnt the Ode by heart.

An anthology of poems would always feature among books borrowed from the library from then on. I discovered Other Men’s Flowers – the anthology compiled by A P Wavell (Field-Marshall Earl Wavell). Maybe many of the poems he loved might not be so popular now – but they opened doors to me. Then there was Walter de la Mare’s Come Hither with his fascinating notes. I know I am a romantic and find angry poems difficult. It is the words, vocabulary that has a history but also looks forward, words that ring in the mind, dramatic stories to grab the attention as you follow Don John of Austria to war or weep with the ladies over Sir Patrick Spens.

And if you think I am looking back too much, Yeats, Eliot, Carol Ann Duffy… new poets, new poems.  I am still discovering new worlds, taking new journeys with poets I meet on the Underground, on the radio, casually tossed into a novel or in the exciting anthologies that are appearing, aiming to capture young readers with their web of words.

I fell in love with poetry as a child and I haven’t looked back. It was a chance encounter – I am sure there will be plenty of children who like me are waiting to fall under the spell of words created by a poem. It might be through school but I think far more likely a voice, either leaping off a page or spoken.  Read poems aloud and relish the sounds – just read. The teaching comes much later, I believe.

Ferelith Hordon

Ferelith Hordon has been a Children’s Librarian with Wandsworth for almost the whole of her career. Though now retired she remains active in the children’s book world serving on the committees of Youth Library Group, IBBY UK and Children’s Books History Society, as well as assisting with Books for Keeps.

Joshua Seigal: EMC Poetry Playlist, Contemporary Voices for the Classroom

I would like to draw everyone’s attention to a new publication from the fantastic English and Media Centre in London. EMC Poetry Playlist: Contemporary Voices for the Classroom is a collection of 130 poems for 11-16 year olds. This blog post cannot really be called a review, as I am not impartial – I feel extremely honoured to have a poem included in the anthology, alongside famous writers and some of my own poetic heroes like Simon Armitage and Michael Rosen. I’d just like to say a few words about why I think the anthology is indispensable in the KS3 classroom, and to pick out a few of my favourite poems.

As well as the sheer variety of styles and themes on display, it is notable that none of the poems seems, in any obvious sense, to have been written for 11-16 year olds. By this I mean that the poems, whilst chosen for their accessibility to young people, have an appeal to everyone. In some sense I do not believe there is such a thing as ‘children’s poetry’; there is simply poetry, some of which might (or might not) appeal to children. The best children’s poetry always goes beyond this narrow remit, and this is very much borne out in EMC Poetry Playlist.


A unique feature of the anthology is that individual poets were invited to curate their own ‘playlists’. These poets are all well known for their work with young people, and include Jacob Sam-La Rose, my MA mentor at Goldsmiths College. Each of these poets also comments on their selection, homing in on a specific poem and explaining why they chose it. Of particular interest was Hollie McNish’s choice of ‘Smile’ by Maria Ferguson. The poem tackles something that is a perennial bugbear of mine: when people tell other people to ‘smile’. Ferguson concludes her piece with ‘And maybe I can’t, you know?/ Maybe I can’t.’ McNish says of the poem: “It reminds me it’s ok to be serious about things and that you’re not a ‘killjoy’ if you don’t giggle or smile on demand.” This is a message I would definitely have been grateful to receive as a young person.

Another piece that captured my attention was ‘The Falcon to the Falconer’ by Jonathan Steffen. The poem expresses a desire on the part of the bird to be free – ‘unleash me from your hand’. Repetition is used to great effect, mirroring the return of the bird to its handler, and some of the language is sumptuous. The alliteration in ‘I will lance the light for you’, coupled with the sibilance in the word ‘lance’, reflects the direct, quickfire flight of the bird, and the final lines, ‘O, give me back my wings/That they may bring me back to you’, emphasises that, all along, the relationship between the falcon and the falconer is one of symbiosis and mutual respect.

Talking of birds, Caroline Bird has two cracking poems in the book. Both are surreal, funny and accessible in equal measure. I especially enjoyed ‘Megan Married Herself’, which is a paean to self-love. The image of a woman marrying herself, accompanied by all the trappings of a traditional wedding, is highly comic, but carries an important message for young people, namely to be as devoted to themselves and their own wellbeing as to any putative partner. Especially poignant, I think, is the remark of one of the wedding guests to himself: “I’m the only one who will truly understand you”. After all, as Rabbi Hillel famously remarked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is an internationally renowned poet, performer and educator. His first book with Bloomsbury, I Don’t Like Poetry, was nominated for the Laugh Out Loud Book Awards in 2017, an award Joshua subsequently won in 2020 with his collection I Bet I Can Make You Laugh. Joshua was also the recipient of The People’s Book Prize in 2022, and has performed at schools and festivals around the world, including the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and the Dubai Literature Festival. He is an Official Ambassador for National Poetry Day, and has been commissioned to write and perform for the BBC. He can normally be found running poetry workshops and performances in schools, either online or in real life. www.joshuaseigal.co.uk

Brian Moses: Writing with Second Language Children

One of the benefits of being a writer who visits schools is that sometimes you get invited abroad to work in International Schools. I was fortunate in making many such trips and on three occasions I worked with Spanish children in Madrid and Cordoba encouraging them to write poetry in English.

As someone who struggled with schoolboy French, being bilingual has always seemed to me to be a kind of linguistic wealth. One boy I met in Cordoba had been born in Turkey, learnt Spanish when he moved to Madrid and was now writing poetry in English.  It was all part of a day’s work to him.

I took a few ideas with me from the American poet and educationalist Kenneth Koch. He wrote a seminal book in the early seventies about getting children to write poetry – Wishes, Lies and Dreams.

In one section, he was trying to show children how knowing more than one language could be an advantage, as they would have special insights into language, rhythm, imagination and experience, being the product of two cultures.

An idea of Koch’s that I used was where we first thought of words connected with Christmas. (Fortunately this was November and the idea seemed relevant.)

I wrote the words on the board in English and then asked for their Spanish equivalents to write alongside them… star (estrella), dove (paloma) etc.

The children were then asked to invent a new holiday and write a poem about it. The holiday should have new customs, new ceremonies, new characters (like Santa Claus) and be in a new place. These new ideas could be in Spanish.

Unfortunately I’ve mislaid the examples I had but I’d like to offer one of Kenneth Koch’s:

Christmas on my planet

On my planeta named Carambona La Paloma

We have a fiesta called Luna Estrella.

A funny looking hombre comes to our homes.

He has four heads: a leon head, an oso head, a mono head

    and a culebra head.

We do a baile names Mar of Nieve.

On this fiesta we eat platos.

That’s how we celebrate Christmas on my planet.


With the youngest groups there are often a number of translation questions – How do you say this in English? Moving up the age ranges, such questions are fewer as the older children stop thinking in Spanish and then translating, and begin to think in English.

With bilingual children though I really wanted to focus on their peculiar experiences, the moving around, the going from country to country, school to school that many of them would have had.

And so another trigger could be houses.

When you left your house, what did you miss?

I tell them my experiences when I left my house by the sea and then ask for theirs.

When I left my house

I missed the sixth stair that creaked so loudly

when we trod on it at night.

I missed the family of ducks

that appeared in the lane each Spring.

I missed…

A structure like this also promotes rhythm through repetition of ….I missed, and works with anything you leave behind… street, town, school etc

I tried reversing this too, with children thinking about the fresh insights they have gained from moving to a new country.

Before I moved here

I had never seen…

I had never tasted…

I had never smelt…

One final idea that I used with the very young ones:

Brian Moses

Brian Moses writes poetry and picture books for children. His new poetry book Selfies With Komodos has just been published by Otter-Barry Books and a new collection, On Poetry Street will be available from Scallywag Press in February 2024. His website is www.brianmoses.co.uk and he blogs about children’s writing at brian-moses.blogspot.com Follow on twitter for daily poetry prompts @moses_brian

Shauna Darling Robertson: Using Poetry to Talk About Young People’s Mental Health

Poetry can be a great resource for exploring our thoughts and feelings, providing a ‘way in’ to help us connect with different voices inside ourselves and to share them with others. Also, by talking about scenarios or characters in a poem, we can reflect on personal topics from a safe distance.

My new poetry collection, You Are Not Alone (Troika, 2023) is written with teens and young adults in mind and is all about young people’s mental health and wellbeing. I’m working on a series of themed resources to accompany the book – all freely available at www.troikabooks.com/you-are-not-alone – and this exercise is taken from one of them.

From ‘Let’s Talk About… Anxiety’

Exploring the poem in a therapeutic, classroom, community or family setting.

The complete resource includes some suggestions for working with these questions in larger group settings such as classrooms.

  1. What do you think the relationship between the two people in the poem could be? See how many different possibilities come to mind.
  2. Why might inviting someone to meet for coffee feel like this? Why do you think that the risks listed get bigger and bigger?
  3. Read through the poem again and, for each couplet (pair of lines), note down a few feelings the person in the poem might be experiencing at that point. Include some physical sensations in the body as well as emotions.
  4. How do you feel about the ending of the poem? Do you think it’s true that ‘the risks involved were way, way too great’? Why / why not?
  5. The poet has made a short film based on her poem, which you can view below. Does watching the multimedia film affect your experience of the poem? Why / how?

Extension activity: the ‘what ifs’

  1. Think of a situation that you feel (or have felt in the past) anxious about. If nothing comes to mind, or if you’d rather not work with a real situation right now, feel free to imagine one. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into three sections.

In section 1, write down some of your fears about the situation, starting each one with ‘What if…’.

In section 2, continue writing ‘What if…’ fears, but now make them deliberately exaggerated, maybe even bizarre, surreal or comedic.

In section 3, your ‘What if…’ list is going to be all of the things that could go right, or turn out even better than expected. This time, you can mix up realistic and surreal examples.

  • Take a few moments to reflect on how it felt for you to work on each of the three sections above. How did it feel to think about real fears versus exaggerated or surreal ones?  How did it feel to focus on fear versus positive anticipation?
  • Could you write, draw or make something inspired by your lists in the previous exercise? This might be a poem, a short-short story or some prose snippets. Or it could be some artwork (a drawing or painting, collage, 3D object, etc), a cartoon or comic strip, some music, a video, or a even short playlist of 3-5 songs – totally your call!

In group settings, you might like to set part 3 as ‘homework’ and invite participants to share their creations in a mini exhibition / performance in a subsequent session.

If you use any of these exercises, feel free to drop me a line, I’d love to hear how you got on!

Shauna Darling Robertson

Shauna Darling Robertson grew up in the north-east of England and now lives in the south-west. She has two poetry collections for young people: Saturdays at the Imaginarium (Troika, 2020), a National Poetry Day 2021 selection, and You Are Not Alone (Troika, 2023). Shauna’s a keen collaborator and her poems for children and adults have been performed by actors, displayed on buses, used as song lyrics, made into short films and turned into comic art. www.shaunadarlingrobertson.com

Shauna is grateful to have received funding from Arts Council England‘s  ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ programme to support work on You Are Not Alone.

Andrea Reece: Poetry Matters – Celebrating 20 Years of the CLiPPA (CLPE Children’s Poetry Award)

“We’re in a golden age of children’s poetry” says former Children’s Laureate and illustrator par excellence, Chris Riddell.

He should know: an accomplished poetry anthologist, Chris is chair of judges for the 2023 CLiPPA (CLPE Children’s Poetry Award), the UK’s leading award for published poetry for children.

For 20 years, the CLiPPA has highlighted the best new poetry for children. The very first prize in 2003 was awarded to John Agard and Grace Nichols for their anthology Under the Moon and Over the Sea (Walker Books) and since then winners have include Michael Rosen (twice), Jackie Kay, Roger McGough, and our current Waterstones Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho; Valerie Bloom won in 2022 with her collection Stars with Flaming Tails.

Children’s poetry in the UK is booming partly because of the spotlight placed on it by the CLiPPA, and organiser CLPE, aka the National Poetry Centre for Primary Schools, do amazing things to celebrate the shortlist and winners, never more so than in this its 20th anniversary year. The shortlist was revealed in an online event featuring live poetry performances from the shortlisted poets.

Just under 100 schools signed up, as well as many VIP guests, and the announcement was watched by over 2,500 poetry fans. What’s more, Charlotte Hacking of CLPE was able to announce at the event that the winner will be announced at the CLiPPA Poetry Show, live onstage at the Olivier, the largest of the National Theatre’s three theatres, on Monday 10 July, before an audience 1,000-strong.

The 2023 shortlist itself “reflects the wealth of talent in today’s poetry for children” says Chris Riddell. It features Joseph Coelho, with his gorgeous collection for the very young, Blow a Kiss, Catch a Kiss, alongside celebrated US poets Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek with Marshmallow Clouds, illustrated by Richard Jones. Matt Goodfellow makes his third consecutive appearance on the CLiPPA shortlist with Let’s Chase Stars Together, and Nikita Gill features for the second time in three years, this time for her collection These are the Words. Nicola Davies’ powerful examination of the refugee experience, Choose Love has also been selected.

The shortlist in full is:

Blow a Kiss, Catch a Kiss by Waterstones Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Nicola Killen, Andersen Press.

‘A well-written, carefully considered first collection for the very young, full of poems which catch and reflect their emotions’, said the judges, who also praised its moments of sophistication.

Choose Love by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Petr Horáček, Graffeg.

Choose Love provides insight into the real-life experiences of refugees forced to leave their homes to face an unknown future. In the judges’ words, it is ‘Angry, compassionate, campaigning and written from the heart’. They also described it as ‘humane and uplifting – what poetry is for’.

These are the Words by Nikita Gill, Macmillan Children’s Books.

Nikita Gill’s collection features poems of rage, consolation, solidarity, hope and love and is ‘a book that readers will hold to their hearts’, said the judges, who highlight the way it connects so strongly with its audience.

Let’s Chase Stars Together, by Matt Goodfellow, Bloomsbury Education.

‘This is also a book that fully considers its intended audience’ said the judges, ‘Matt Goodfellow explores the power of poetry to make sense of their experiences in poems that are heartfelt and moving, alongside others that are simply very funny.’

Marshmallow Clouds by Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek, illustrated by Richard Jones, Walker Books.

The judges said, ‘Marshmallow Clouds is a beautiful book and we loved the feel of it as much as the poetry. With its beautifully crafted verse, it’s a book that demonstrates that good poetry for children transcends age barriers.’

Ranging from preschool to YA and beyond with beautiful books to appeal to all ages, the 20th anniversary shortlist will provide wonderful opportunities for the unique CLiPPA Shadowing Scheme, the jewel in the CLiPPA crown, which brings the poets and poetry on the shortlist into classrooms across the UK and encourages children to perform the poems out loud. CLPE expect over 30,000 children to take part in this its 20th anniversary year. Here’s to many more happy returns for the CLiPPA!

Andrea Reece

Andrea Reece works with CLPE on the CLiPPA (CLPE Children’s Poetry Award) and with The Full English on the Poetry By Heart national competition.

Mandy Coe: Howling a poem

Image: Anna Crokill

Who watches the news and feels like howling, a head back, full-on wolfish howl? Not a wholesome image for a poet writing for children… or is it? Children can be wolfish too, playful, alert to the world and alive to the senses ‒ and surely a howl is a kind of poem? You know when the train to work is cancelled, or when your workshop for twenty has been bumped up to fifty, there’s this moment when you close your eyes, ask the universe for help, then summon a smile and crack on. I used to be able to do that. Without howling. Like I used to be able to listen to the news.

Radio news was a soundtrack in our house. Every hour on the hour. Then we’d eat dinner, watching the news on TV. But, as each new normal unveiled itself, we began to portion the news out (who can eat, laugh, or potter listening to that?). Now, before tackling the headlines, we buckle up and adopt the brace position.

But poets are good with turbulence, aren’t they? Poetry is a sharp-eyed witness in times of oppression, revealing concealed realities ‒ personal and social. However, when the sustenance of what you create is rooted in the rhythms of nature and the treasures of the everyday, the damage caused by profit trumping all hurts us. What do poets usually do with hurt? They put it into poems. Will those poems be suitable for children? Maybe. Maybe not.

Children’s poetry treads a fine balance of age-appropriateness, of light-heartedness, and being able to tap truth on the nose. Thankfully, this balance doesn’t have to be found in every poem! A body of work lets us delve deeper into both life’s joys and challenges. But there’s no getting away from it; these challenges are getting tougher. If they were the subject of films, they would be rated PG. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that one in four children in the UK is living in poverty (1), and the Child Poverty Action Group puts it at a third (2). In my book, that’s not PG; it’s horror.

How do we write poems about/for children who are homeless or hungry? I guess we do what we already do ‒ seek balance by creating a range of poems. Some will offer the kindness of rhythm and wordplay, some will invite escape through fantasy, and others will explore emotions stirred by the ups and downs of life. This balance is supported by the broader landscapes of bookshops, bodies of work and themed anthologies. My childhood had enough harshness in it to let me recognise the monsters between the lines. I knew sweet from sour and liked both. The world of poetry for children contains all of this.

But how do us poets get beyond the howl? That, I don’t know. I’m struggling with it myself. Maybe with more poems for teens?  Or anthologies of children’s poets speaking out on climate or child poverty? Thankfully, creativity, joy (and howling) are not only the language of poetry for children, they are also the language of resistance and resilience. We write because we must, and in these times, silence is so very dangerous. But for those days when only a howl will do ‒ I hear you.

1 The Joseph Rowntree Foundation Overall UK Poetry Rates

2 Child Poverty Action Group

Mandy Coe

Mandy Coe is the author of nine books, and writes poetry for adults and children. She was a recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship and is a visiting Fellow of the Manchester Writing School. Her poems have received a number of awards and have appeared on BBC television and radio programmes such as CBeebies, Woman’s Hour and Poetry Please. Her work on teaching poetry is widely published.

“It sings, so your heart does too.” Nicolette Jones, Sunday Times (Belonging Street)

“A gentle, relatable book full of humour and the wonder of being alive… finely observed poems to share between parents and children, and poems that can be used as models for children’s own writing….” Poetry Roundabout 5 Star review (Belonging Street)

“This effervescent volume brings poetry to life for a 21st century audience. From poems about nature and protecting the planet to verses about family life and belonging, there’s something here for everyone.” The Independent 10 Best Kids’ Poetry Books (Belonging Street)

Teresa Cremin: Poetry, Pleasure, Play and Repetition

Poems entice readers to read and revisit them, again and again. In this way poetry is like music, children (and adults) often return to the same pieces, recognising and appreciating something about them that speaks and satisfies.

I wonder though, as educators, especially in the junior years, do we tend to profile the complexity of poetry first, studying such texts at the relative expense of developing children’s pleasure in the sounds, patterns and meanings of words at play? Perhaps we could build in more space for pleasure, play and repetition?

In a rich literacy curriculum, the teaching of and playful engagement with poetry are interrelated. But if we really value poetry, then surely we can allow ourselves to trust the form more? Surely we can allow its brevity and diversity to involve and affectively engage the young? Maybe we can achieve a better balance by offering a rich range, and invoking repetition and revisitation as key principles, especially in class readings and performances? There are parallels again here with music; we revisit many songs in assemblies and children experience the security of the known, sing along with pleasure and develop a positive attitude to song.

Children’s earliest encounters with poetry often include repetition (and song), parents re-visit the recurring rhythms of nursery rhymes almost ad infinitum whilst bathing and playing with their youngsters.  Later poetry in books, such as Mike Rosen’s A Great Big Cuddle, and in rhyming picture books such as those by Jeanne Willis, Trish Cooke and Julia Donaldson, also demand repetition. Through repeated readings of these early ‘poems in common’, children learn how the poem/narrative verse ‘goes’, they join in physically, taste the sounds on their tongues and feel the rhythm in their bones. In the process they find pleasure in word play and develop favourites.  By repeating and re-voicing nursery rhymes, two ball games, jokes, playground chants and faith songs for instance, as well as poetry introduced in the curriculum, young people develop an early awareness of rhyme, alliteration and assonance.

Repetition matters in later experiences of poetry too. In many school contexts in which we work to build positive attitudes and interest in poetry, repetition has potential.  Older readers need rich opportunities to revoice for themselves the sounds of poetic texts that tempt, and to hear and participate in poetry as experience, for its own sake, without being expected to offer a response that ‘explains’ the meaning.

Many poems only take a minute or two to read, so surely as teachers we can enable the young to savour the flavours on repeat.  Some teachers read the same poem each day and only discuss it on Fridays, others let themselves be led by the children’s choices, and then read and re-read the top three for instance. Still others invite groups to select poems to illustrate, put to music and/or perform, as this too nudges multiple re-readings. Working playfully together children will revisit the text many times, and, in the process, meanings will surface through their artistic engagement and collaborative interpretations. Class poetry performances operate in the same way too, especially if there is volition and choice around which poems are used and how to re-create them.

Perhaps poetry doesn’t always need as much professional direction and assistance as we feel the need to give it?

Why not try and make more space for poetry, for pleasure, for play and repetition.

Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at The Open University. An advocate of developing teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa researches teachers’ and children’s literate identities and practices. Her recent books include Teaching English Creatively (2023); Reading Teachers: Nurturing reading for pleasure (2022) and Reading for pleasure in the digital age (2020).

Teresa is passionate about developing readers for life and leads a Research and Practice Coalition focused on reading for pleasure.  The work involves supporting over 100 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups annually, 60 + OU Reading Schools to develop rich reading cultures and 36 HEI partnerships in order to enable the development of children’s (and teachers’) reading for pleasure. https://ourfp.org/


Helen Bowell: Young Critics Scheme – 18-25 year olds review the T. S. Eliot Prize 2022 Shortlist

“Taking part in the Young Critics Scheme has helped me to try things I’ve never done before: recording and editing audio as well as filming within a time limit using the basics I already have at home. The world of reviewing feels more accessible to me than ever, like a potential career avenue.” – Young Critic Holly Moberley

At The Poetry Society, we do a lot to encourage young people to write poetry – from the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award for 11-17s, to Young Poets Network’s year-round writing challenges, and Poets in Schools inspiring children and teens in classrooms across the UK. But we know that reading poetry can be just as life-changing as writing it. So when the new Director of the T. S. Eliot Prize, Mike Sims, asked whether we could run a project for young people together, we thought about poetry criticism.

There have been many schemes to support emerging poetry reviewers over the years, from the Ledbury Poetry Critics to the Forward/emagazine Creative Critics competition. Ours had a few new spins: ten 18-25 year olds in the UK and Ireland would participate in online workshops, build a community, and create short videos reviewing each of the books shortlisted for the 2022 T. S. Eliot Prize.

We hoped the scheme would enable these young writers to be a part of the critical conversation around these books, catch the attention of readers online, and gain the skills, confidence and network to continue reviewing beyond the scheme.

From sixty impressive applicants, we selected our ten brilliant Young Critics. In online workshops, they explored what excited them about and alienated them from reviews, considered presenting their critical opinions to camera, and formed a community of engaged young writers. Critic BookTuber Jen Campbell gave a guest workshop and we published two features on Young Poets Network for anyone to use: a guide on how to write a poetry review, and an article with top tips from fifteen leading critics.

And when the critics sent in their video reviews, we were totally blown away. Every one gave an insightful and personal response to each book, looking at both the minute details of word choices and the large-scale structural and thematic decisions. Two of the Young Critics (SZ Shao and Holly Moberley) even played creatively with video footage to illustrate their reviews.

We released the videos ahead of the T. S. Eliot Prize Readings, and excerpted them for social media. Altogether the films were played more than 25,000 times. It was especially lovely to see established critics like the Telegraph’s Tristram Fane Saunders and prize-winning writer April Yee shouting about the videos, and even some of the shortlisted poets themselves, too.

Since the scheme, we’ve been supporting the Young Critics further – one of them will have a review published in an upcoming issue of The Poetry Review, and Poetry London’s Reviews Editor is in touch too. Over half of the Critics told us they’re already working on their next reviewing project, so keep your eyes peeled for what they do next.

You can watch all the videos here:

If you’re a young person or a teacher looking for tips on how to review poetry books, performances, films (etc!), check out the guide we published and start by considering these questions, as the Young Critics did in their first workshop:

  • What is your favourite thing about this text? Why?
  • What is this book trying to do? Answer a question? Further a conversation? Tell a story? How far does it succeed?
  • Who is the audience of your review? How does that change your review? How would you talk to a friend about this text? And a stranger?
  • What else do you need to research before you start writing your review, such as the history, culture, experiences or poetic forms explored?

Find out more about the Young Critics Scheme here.

Helen Bowell is an Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She is also a Ledbury Poetry Critic, a co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society and the author of The Barman (Bad Betty Press, 2022), which was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice.

Roger Stevens: A Profile

In our continuing series of Poet Profiles, we asked Roger Stevens to tell us about being a children’s poet:

Who are you?

I am a writer, a musician and an artist.

How long have you been writing poetry for children?

I have always written poetry, since I was a child. One of my early memories is of my teacher praising me for using the phrase “a multitude of rags” in a piece about a tramp. Not a great phrase but a reminder of how these little nuggets of praise are so important to children. After art college, I taught at a large comprehensive school in the Midlands and wrote a couple of novels for adults (never published). Then I wrote a children’s novel, The Howen, which was published by Penguin to really good reviews. As was my second book, Creeper. But it was when I moved to teach at a primary school, about 30 years ago, that I met Brian Moses. He ran a poetry workshop in my classroom and performed for the whole school and I thought – that’s it, I’d like to be a children’s poet.

Which is your favourite amongst the books you’ve written?

I’d have to mention three. The Journal of Danny Chaucer (Orion), the first verse novel for children published in the UK. It garnered great praise and became the afternoon play on Radio 4. Secondly, Apes to Zebras – an A-Z of Shape Poems (Bloomsbury) with Liz Brownlee and Sue-Hardy Dawson. It is, even if I do say so myself, a beautiful book. And thirdly, Razzmatazz (Otter-Barry), a collection of my best and most popular poems.

Which book was most important in your career?

That would have to be I Did Not Eat the Goldfish (Macmillan) which was my first solo collection. Holding your firstborn in your arms for the first time is a magical moment.

What have been your influences in your writing.

As a young child, I read Alice in Wonderland. It was a huge hardback that I found in my parents’ bookcase. I loved the story, the illustrations and the brilliant poems, which planted a seed in my brain that poetry could take many different forms. Much later, at secondary school, we had two English teachers. Mr Nichols (Old Nick) taught Shakespeare, Chaucer and Byron, all of which I enjoyed. The other teacher, whose name I’ve lost, taught us about more contemporary poets such as e.e.cummings. At the time his lack of punctuation and NO CAPITAL LETTERS was exotic! He is still a favourite. The Mersey Poets were a big influence, showing that poetry could be about ordinary, everyday things. Then, of course, Bob Dylan, who taught me that song lyrics could be also be poetry.

What have been your career highlights?

Performing on the last day of the Edinburgh Book Festival in the big tent would have to be up there. But, actually it’s every time I visit a school to perform or run workshops. To share poetry with children, to motivate them, to help them find new ways to express themselves, and communicate through writing, and to have fun being creative, that has to be the very best thing.

When you visit schools do children ever ask you odd things?

All the time. Do you have two brains? Yes. I keep the spare one in my pocket. Do you live in a mansion? Yes, but I only use the west wing.

What do you think makes a good poem?

A good poem is one that gets a response, emotional or intellectual. For me, it’s simple. If a funny poem makes me laugh, if a sad poem makes me feel tearful, if a poem is so clever that at the end I go WOW! Then, for me, that’s a really good poem.

Have you any poetry writing tips?

I’ve talked to many authors and poets about this and it boils down to two things: Always keep a notebook by your side – and use it. Read widely and often.

Tell us about The Poetry Zone.

I launched The Poetry Zone in 1989 as I wanted to create somewhere for teenagers and children to send their poems and see them published, albeit online, and, importantly, where they would be taken seriously. To date it has published around 30,000 children’s poems and had over a million visitors. It’s a labour of love.

So what is new?

I’ve a book of robot poems that I’ve written with fellow poet Phil Waddell that’s looking for a publisher. My poetry book for grown-ups, A Sentience of Sycamores (Rabbit Press), has just come out. And I’m writing an album of jazz tunes, which will be recorded live in May with the legendary Charlotte Glasson.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Just a very big thank you. To all the publishers and editors who have had faith in me. To my friends in the world of children’s poetry who have been so kind and supportive. And to all the thousands of children who have joined in and laughed at my jokes.

Roger Stevens PoetryZone

Pie Corbett: The Neverbelieve Flora Workshop

‘The Land of Neverbelieve’ by Norman Messenger is an invitation to create fantastical islands. I used the book as part of a series of online workshops with TeachingLive to create new islands, creatures and plants.

To warm up, we played an oral game in pairs, with a limit of 4 minutes. The children created new flowers from imagined ingredients. We listed different parts of flowers: roots, stem, flower, fruit, leaf, pollen, petals, etc. I provided a simple frame to help generate ideas:

Instructions for making a flower

To make the roots, I would use –

the straggly hair of wild woman,

thick electricity cables

and rats’ tails.

To make the trunk, I would use….

To make the petals, I would use… etc.

Next, I asked the children to name their flower. I showed a list of real flower names many of which are ‘compounds’: snapdragon, milkweed, bluebell, goldenrod, etc. I suggested they create something similar: sunlily, moonrose, streetiris, etc.

Next, they described the different parts of their flower using similes. We wrote together a few ideas before they created their own:

The sunlily’s petals are like paper-thin flags, as soft as Parisian silk and blue as a summer sky.

The rainrose’s roots are like the dark threads from ancient tapestry, as tough as a leather handbag and dark as a mole’s tunnel.

In the next ten minutes, the children wrote using personification to bring their plant alive. I modelled sentences with the class; we banked a list of useful verbs: stand, lean, stoop, whisper, scratch, grasp, etc.

The pincushion flower stands like a soldier with its sharp spikes waiting to scratch.

The goldenlupin stoops when the snow smothers its branches, bowing its skeletal head like an old man at prayer.

Finally, I shared a model poem and asked them to write about their own plants, drawing on a similar structure (open with the name of your plant – then describe parts of the plant, using imagery and personification). My poem is followed by two examples from St Anthony’s Primary School.

Moonflowers blossom

like silver umbrellas,

stretching out green vines

that grasp onto nearby trees.

Their red roots,

like wire, dig deep

into soft soil

that crumbles

easily as fruit cake.

The green stem juts up,

like a flexible straw,

as green as cat’s eyes.

Leaves hang

like soft fingernails.

Pastel pale flowers,

edged with red, yawn

to reveal the secret stash

of pollen gold.

Pie Corbett

Flameblossom trees bend and dance in the breeze,
Like flexible gymnasts.
Their branches lean and creak with grace,
Grabbing at the shining sun.
The trunks are as rough as tractor tires,
Covered in brown, sticky mud.
With bark as shiny as solid gold,
Cracking at every problem it overcomes.
The roots are like stretchy elastic,
Pulling the tree down with all its might.
Twigs as skinny as a clock’s hand,
Snapping at every emotion.
Leaves as smooth as plush velvet,
That fall down every autumn that arrives.

By Poppy

Wintertrees shed beads of frosty sweat,

They skate their branches through the snow,

pushing like a sledge,

speeding down paths of gravel.

Their roots like the icy carcass of a mushroom,

clinging to the ground.

The trunk is sharp like an icicle’s speech, 

staying in the mind forever.

Bark, rough as gnarled hands, withered in the sun.

Leaves, calm as silk, tangerine, tiger and marmalade,

crimson, currant and candy, corn, canary and butter,

smothered in chiffon snow.

Twigs, like fingers, clawing at the sky.

The land, where it sits, is pearl-shaded snow,

with spikes of sapphire icicles dotting here and there.

Memories clinging, in the branches and leaves so kind.

The secret to life, 

hollowed out inside.

Waiting for someone, 

to wonder by…

By Maya

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet. He runs online training for teachers and every Monday works with about 6,000 children on @TeachingLive, running writing sessions of poetry, creative nonfiction and story.