Becky Fisher: A dream is like a pile of cotton floating in the sky – young poets and their writing

Amid all the doom and gloom of slashed PGCE bursaries, university English departments being threatened with cuts and closures, and the general frustration and anxiety that COVID-19 has brought to all of us, I have felt very fortunate to have two bright spots in the past week – all thanks to some wonderful young poets. 

Artist: James Brown

I was really lucky to be able to attend the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Ceremony, an afternoon celebrating the brilliant young writers who had been selected as winners. During the ceremony, we heard from a selection of the young poets who had tackled challenging issues personal to them through their passionate, courageous, creative poems. Death, loss, and grief; love, friendship, and community; uncertainty, familiarity, and cultural traditions were all woven through the astonishing work. I found myself closing my eyes to be able to take in all the sounds and shapes the poets were conjuring. More than once, I smiled; my eyes filled with tears; I laughed out loud. If you’re finding things hard going at the moment, and you need a little lift, I encourage you to settle in with a brew and take a moment to listen to the poets reading their work

The Poetry Society Cafe Window illustrating the winning 100 Foyles Poems. Artwork by Imogen Foxell – 7th October 2020 Photo: Hayley Madden.

Another boost to my spirits was the opportunity to observe the inspiring poet, writer, and teacher Kate Clanchy as she ran the first of three workshops in the Poetry Possibility series. Delivered by the Forward Arts Foundation in partnership with the University of the West of England, Reading University, and the English Association, these workshops introduce new and trainee English teachers to ways of teaching poetry in school that focus on enjoyment and creativity. The first workshop was all about creative word games that lead to a poem, and which Kate has used to great success in the classroom. For example, we started by playing the Surrealist Game: grab yourself a piece of A4 paper and a pen and have a go now!

Step 1: Fold your piece of A4 paper in half then in half again, then tear along the fold lines to get four smaller pieces of paper.

Step 2: On the first piece of paper, write a concrete noun.

Step 3: On the second piece of paper, write the definition of your concrete noun.

Step 4: On the third piece of paper, write an abstract noun.

Step Five: On the fourth piece of paper, write the definition of your abstract noun.

Now for the fun part! Match your concrete noun up with the definition of your abstract noun and see what you end up with… For example, you might mix up the definition of ‘a glass’ and ‘hope’ to end up with a statement like: ‘hope is a vessel used to contain liquids that we drink to quench our thirst’. I’ve played the game myself a few times in the days afterwards; the experience is a bit like laying out a spread of tarot cards and looking for the meaning hidden within. 

Kate then led the group through a period of quiet, individual writing, where we used our image-collages to build a poem of our own. Throughout the workshop, Kate shared the incredible work of the young poets she has taught in the past: they had produced such impactful, poignant poems that I actually found it a bit intimidating to write my own – but if I were heading into my classroom the next day I would have felt excited to try this technique with my class. If I haven’t inspired you yet, just turn to Kate’s Twitter account, where she shares the work of her young poets with the world; I promise you will find something there that speaks to you. 

Finally, I’ll leave you with some of the unedited work created by a Year 9 class in Bradford on Avon, led by teacher Amy Battensby. Her class played the Surrealist Game live online, inspired by Kate’s workshop. Many thanks to Amy and her class for sharing these poems with us.

Ella:

Wealth


“Wealth” is a disease that changes your life,

And the life of the people around you.

It fills your mind with countless desires,

And sickens the view of you in other’s eyes.

You become so ill you see people differently,

So sick you treat them differently.

And unless you can find a cure,

Everyone you know is suffering.

Isla:

Sadness

Sadness 

it is grey and colourless 

it smells like the ashes left from a fire 

it tastes bitter and sounds empty 

and it lives alone. 

 

Sophia:

My own poem – Endless thoughts 

 

Thoughts sing and dance around, 

They fly high above the clouds, 

But they fall through doors, 

Of endless sounds, 

And end up Lost to man.  

Their wings take them everywhere, 

But fail on them when they get too far, 

Because in the end they need a break, 

But cannot find anywhere to rest, 

As they fall so slow so fast, 

They find peace in the past. 

You find them in the deepest parts,  

Where one got trapped and another got free 

But they wind up fighting but escape nobody, 

And they submit to the mistakes, 

Made by the wings on their own body   

Chloe:

ate is a feeling like a burning house
One that doesn’t make you feel happy

Izzy:

A dream is like a pile of cotton floating in the sky, when your sad it rains, when your happy it snows and there may not be one at all, a dream may follow you, guide you, be your shadow, it always knows how you feel, a dream may be angry and may bring a storm, it may cloud the sky with darkness, when that is gone and you awake there will always be a rainbow

Harvey:

Time is a child and a coffin.
It is an biography for all things when they started and ended,
Yet there is no entry for it.
It can stretch bend the rules of the universe with no consequence, but does it like a curious child
Does it plays and watches the forever go on and on
Time rules over everything, but it’s forever so does it even see who it rules over for the blink of an eye
Does everyone pass by it before it can say hello?
Is it alone? It is along in the everything forever universe
Does it lie down rest and sleep because it can’t do anything with its omnipotence
It is a coffin? Is it a child and a coffin?

Freya:

Sexism

It floats around the world despite it being 2020
It controls women’s confidence, it controls their body
When was it okay for men to tell women what to wear and what not to wear?
How to look, how to act, what to do
To stay at home, to clean, to look after te children
Since when was that their personality
When was it decided that men should have a higher standard to lige?
Why does it still go on..?

How does it still go on?
Why is it there have such a pay gap?
But when raised, just told to shush

Becky Fisher

Becky Fisher is CEO of the English Association.

Nikita Gill: Slam!

Slam!

All poetry is real poetry.

Walk into a room and ask anyone for their definition of poetry.

No two people will be able to give you the same answer. Poetry’s

become the fastest growing art form in Britain and that isn’t just

from traditional poets or from printed collections. It is in no

small part due to the resilient and powerful work of performance

poets and spoken word artists.

When I write poems, I approach the mediums I place them

on with equal importance – whether I put them on a blog, on

Instagram or submit them to literary journals. It never occurred

to me that posting my work in a certain medium would mean I

would then be defined by that medium. This is why I find such a

kinship with performance-based poets.

To define a poet who performs their work as a ‘slam poet’,

and to suggest that ‘slam poets’ aren’t ‘real poets’ is a myopic

misrepresentation of the work they do. There is no such thing as

slam poetry – simply poetry that works in slams. There are no slam

poets, only poets who, with immense craft, have the added the skill of

performing their work in a way that enthralls an audience. One

kind of poetry is not superior to another due to the format it is

produced or shared in.

For years, poetry has been misconceived as an area of elite

literature which is for the privileged few to craft, learn or teach a

certain way. It has been sequestered to the classroom as something

that made us groan as we studied and peeled layer after layer off

Milton’s work in an attempt to understand just what he meant.

But what if there was a different version of poetry? What if we

let it out of the classroom and put it on stage? What if poetry is

remembered to be what it is: the language of fire, fury and freedom?

What if, and bear with me, poetry was for everyone again?

This is exactly what performance poetry is about. It reminds us

of the revolution poetry incites. People from all walks of life flock

to venues or YouTube to watch their favourite poets perform on

stage, using language they can relate to, incorporating humour with

tragedy in an almost Shakespearean way. Slams are an inclusive,

open space, giving poets from under-represented communities a

supportive environment to share their truth, and presenting it in

a format so easily accessible and unpretentious, that people who’d

never engaged with poetry before are finally able to

Slam!, the anthology curated this year, is a manifesto for

change in many ways. It is a manifesto for performance poetry,

the craft and beauty of it and the way it resonates with millions of people. It is a manifesto for

poetry itself, as poets are natural truth-tellers and bring us face

to face with honesty in a time where fact is being dismissed for

opinion. It is a manifesto for compassion and how important it

is in a world that is ever more divided.

The poets in this book are awe-inspiring. Their work is

transcendent, both on the stage and on the page. Without them,

poetry would not be what it is today: empowering, immensely

emotive, approachable, wise, humorous – and all of this whilst

being stunningly and thoughtfully constructed.

As it has been said by our ancestors in

art, let the work speak for itself. After all, poetry is not a luxury,

certainly not in the world we

live in today. It is a war cry – a battle song. And you’re gonna

wanna hear this.

Nikita Gill

Nikita Gill is a British-Indian writer and poet living in the south of England. With a huge online following her words have entranced hearts and minds all over the world. She is a passionate advocate for poetry in all forms and her collection of rewritten Fierce Fairytales along with her latest book of poetry Wild Embers have taken the world by storm.  

Brian Moses: Spooky Writing for Hallowe’en

Spooky Writing for Hallowe’en

A Good Scary Poem Needs…

A haunted house,

                A pattering mouse,

A spooky feeling,

                A spider-webbed ceiling.

A squeaking door,

                A creaking floor,

A swooping bat,

                 The eyes of a cat.

A dreadful dream,

                  A distant scream,

A ghost that goes ‘BOO’

                  And YOU!

The poet Wes Magee and I used to run spooky writing weekends for children. One of them was held in a 14th Century Manor House on the Isle of Wight, another in the old Carnegie Theatre in Dunfermline, and a third at Hellens House in Herefordshire.

Hellens was just what we needed it to be – shutters, faded tapestries, huge fireplaces with roaring log fires, stern portraits, a spiral staircase, minstrels’ gallery, four poster beds, ancient cupboards, loose floorboards and not just one, but two rooms which were supposedly haunted.

Right at the start we paraded the cliches of the horror movies and quickly dismissed them. Nothing was needed but the house itself and the spooky feelings that it engendered. Anything that felt menacing was made more menacing. We gradually built up the atmosphere, layer on layer.

I touched a mirror that was layered in thick dust,

I saw a candle light that was there and then wasn’t.

I discovered a piece of shattered glass

in which I gazed upon what seemed like a ghostly face.

And in the grounds of the house on a dull November day…

I saw a young tree strangled by ivy,

I saw a feather fall and stab the ground.

These were quite ordinary things made to sound sinister using the language of horror with words like strangled and stab.

By starting each line with ‘I’, a rhythm is established without using rhyme, along with a chant-like quality when read aloud.

A similar sort of exercise can take place in the classroom. Switch off the light, pull down the blinds and imagine yourself in the classroom at midnight.

I heard the computer sigh creepily like the wind moaning.

I heard the trees scratch against the window as if they wanted to get in.

I saw scissors snapping angrily…

At Hellens we toured the building seeking out possible spooky observations from each room. A poem then followed a pattern:

             We went on a ghost hunt.

             We looked into the drawing room.

             We didn’t see a ghost but we saw a chess piece move and      

                    heard a snore from a chair.

             We climbed the central staircase.

             We didn’t see a ghost but a hand passed my shoulder and

                     a guitar was lightly dusted.

Children then described the resident ghost? Where it dwelt, how it revealed itself, how it moved and what its hopes and fears might be…

               His cold lonely face

               Begs for company

               For fear he would be alone for eternity.

These ideas can also be adapted for classroom use with children remembering spooky places that they have visited in the past.

Finally, consider how the writing should be performed. Some pieces can be made more effective through the use of percussion instruments – the slow beat of a drum between each line, the low notes on a piano. Someone with a keyboard and/or computer skills may be able to compose a suitably spooky backing track against which a poem could be read.

Remember too that the voice is also an effective instrument and that menacing feeling in the writing must come across in the reading for the listener to be completely involved.

Brian Moses

Brian Moses is a children’s poet. He has toured his poetry and percussion show around schools, libraries, theatres and festivals in the UK and Europe for the past thirty-two years. Lost Magic: The Very Best of Brian Moses is available from Macmillan and his widely performed poem Walking With My Iguana is now a picture book from Troika Books. A new anthology, The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems will be published by Macmillan in March 2021.

Poets in Schools During a Pandemic

Poets in Schools During a Pandemic

Here at The Poetry Society, we have been placing poets in schools for over 50 years. And never once did we think to prepare for a global pandemic.

When the UK went into lockdown in March, schools were forced to cancel their Poets in Schools bookings. There was nothing either schools or poets could do about it, but it marked the start of a significant loss of income for freelancers who depended on working in schools.

So the Education Team hurriedly donned their sparkly thinking caps. We were able to pay the five poets who had last-minute cancellations what they would have earned, commissioning new resources to help teachers keep teaching poetry from home. Joseph Coelho had great suggestions for poetic forms and Michelle Madsen helped us to imagine ourselves elsewhere, while Joelle Taylor addressed the Covid-19 pandemic directly. One teacher even asked us for a volcanic poetry resource, and Justin Coe provided!

These resources kick-started what would become a major project for us in the Spring and Summer terms – our new Learning from Home section, chock-full of responsive lesson plans, writing prompts and reading suggestions. We asked teachers what they wanted from us, and did our best to provide it, putting together ideas for addressing racism and mental health through poetry, and directing them to the wealth of resources that already existed on Poetryclass.

Meanwhile, we surveyed poets we’d sent into schools in the last two years, asking them what they felt safe doing and about their ideas for digital versions of Poets in Schools. PiS regular Cheryl Moskowitz had been independently visiting schools all through lockdown to put together The Corona Collectionand was helping to steer our thinking. Cheryl also wrote us some ace notes for teachers on how poetry can help students process the pandemic.

By the summer, we were finding that less than a fifth of teachers wanted a Poets in Schools visit that looked exactly as in the past. Poets were agreed that the pandemic presented a chance to do things differently, and that a digital ‘visit’ to a school could be as valuable as an in-person day of workshops and performances. Mandy Coe pointed out that there was fun to be had with the tech, like being carried around a classroom on an iPad, and many poets were already running online workshops for families.

One of our highlights of the summer was Zooming with twenty-odd wonderful Poets in Schools to share questions and findings, and work on creative solutions together. As a result of that consultation, we put together some guidance for poet facilitators in the time of coronavirus, shared some updated safeguarding notes, amended our terms of agreement to include digital visits and made sure to ask important Covid/software related questions at point of enquiry.

Digital workshops and performances are, of course, not perfect. It can be harder to excite students and make sure nobody’s left out when the poet’s not physically in the room, and we know there is disparity in access to technology, both among students and schools. But there are advantages, too –we can now beam in poets to rural schools without adding a big train fare to the bill, and save the poet an early start. There are creative solutions to be had, and we are excited to discover more.

We are very lucky to work with brilliant poet educators who are passionate about inspiring young people. They have been able to adapt to and even embrace the changing circumstances in ways we could never have predicted. As for us at The Poetry Society – we will keep supporting poets and schools, and championing poetry, whatever happens next.

Find out more about Poets in Schools and make an enquiry.

Helen Bowell

Helen Bowell is The Poetry Society’s Education Co-ordinator, and runs both Young Poets Network and Poets in Schools. In her spare time, she is a co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society, resurrecting women writers of the past.

Chris Riddell: Words and Pictures

Chris Riddell

As one of the world’s most admired crafters of illustrated work for children and adults and the political cartoonist for The Observer, Chris Riddell was Children’s Laureate 2015-2017 and in 2019 was awarded an OBE for his services to children’s literature. Alongside his own iconic Ottoline and Goth Girl series, he has illustrated the work of many other writers, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to be published on 15th October 2020. His middle-grade fantasy series The Cloud Horse Chronicles: Guardians of Magic will be published in paperback and Poems To Save The World With, Chris’s third poetry anthology by Macmillan Children’s Books, is available now.

 

Natalia Kucirkova: Using Technology to Create and Share Poetry

Children are poetry natives. They notice intricate details and say things like ‘the Sun is purple today’. Children are less intimidated by screens than adults. Their fingers glide on hotspots without any anxiety over potential risks. This combination of poetry and technology turns children into wonderful digital artists.

With my colleagues in Norway and England, we have been supporting children to create and share books with tablets, smartphones and PCs for several years. When used proportionally and mindfully, screen activities can encourage children think outside the box and explore their inner worlds. Some apps (for example Faces iMake) combine letters, shapes, colours and sound to enlarge children’s experience of stories, art and poetry.  Children can add special effects like the sound of a loud word, or digital glitter or foggy effect over their creations (for example with the Bomomo website). Phonics apps can be used to form rhyme units and colouring apps offer children a variety of patterns, fabrics and textured letters to tinker with.

Children who can decide which colour splash or brush stroke should take up the whole screen feel as empowered as adult poets who give new meanings to words. Such fine-motor experiences give children the skills and confidence they’ll need for participating in multi-media communities of their older peers. Many contemporary poets effectively blend the use of digital art with verses and share their poetic creations on Instagram or Facebook. Photo-poems or filmpoems are an exciting way to experience poetry.

Technologies are not neutral, and there are many digital tools that kill rather than enhance creativity. Adults supporting children need to know how to distinguish between closed and open-ended apps, that is those apps which overwhelm children with fast-paced entertainment and those that are open to children’s imagination and let them make their own art. The latter kind of apps are of particular value to children who do not have access to poetry because of an illness, social disadvantage or, as we have seen in the recent months, a pandemic.

The Covid-19 outbreak reminded us that a disproportionate number of children live in book deserts, surrounded by ugly urban places and with no access to nature. Some children need to take care of their siblings, some even of their parents. For these children, the opportunity to expand their mental images with sounds, words and colourful strokes is a way of countering a dim reality. Poems about nature that are augmented through virtual reality, for example, immerse children into a quiet and peaceful world, where a poet’s voice is not interrupted by a loud siren voice.  Some adults believe that texts, and especially print texts, are the royal route into poetry. From research we know that children learn about the world from static pictorial information in books as well as moving images on screens. These experiences work together, and it is the diversity that is key for expanding children’s poetic minds.

During the recent lockdown, many professional poets have engaged children with verses through the screen. Corona e-books about children’s experiences have been created and shared worldwide. Free poetry workshops or Zoom readings have illustrated that technology can democratize the access to poetry. For young and old, poems help with distancing from an immediate experience and imagining alternative realities. In this respect, poetry-making, in whatever shape or form, is life-affirming.

Natalia Kucirkova

Natalia Kucirkova is professor of Reading and Children’s Development at The Open University, UK and Professor of Early Childhood and Development at the University of Stavanger, Norway. She is also an accomplished poet, with three published pamphlets and her second collection coming out in 2021 from The Black Spring Press Group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joseph Coelho: The Form of a Poem

The Form of a Poem

I love poetic form. And I love that the rules and restrictions that make up form also allow for no rules and no restrictions. Poetry can be both restrained and boundless and there is a magic in that.

Most of us are introduced to form via the simple haiku…

Haiku

3 lines

5 syllables in the first

7 syllables in the second

5 syllables in the third

The haiku does a brilliant job of encapsulating the heart of poetry distilling the crash and roll of life into a single moment. When focusing on the haiku you enter into an act of removal, of pruning away everything and anything that isn’t essential, that doesn’t connect or speak to the truth of the moment.

Most of us then next come across sonnets via Shakespeare…

Shakespearean Sonnet

14 lines

4 verses

1st verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme ABAB

2nd verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme CDCD

3rd verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme EFEF

4th verse, 4 lines with rhyme scheme GG

4th verse often contains a twist to the narrative

The sonnet is short enough to be penned in a park, but long enough to allow for a thorough pondering on a given theme, and that Shakespearean twist brilliantly mirrors our tumbling minds, hashing out a theory only to dash it on the rocks of epiphany.

For most of us, a delve into poetic form stops there, we may read a form poem without realising the form it hides such as Dylan’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ which hides a perfect villanelle. Villanelles are tricky beasts with a complex repeating rhyme scheme that needs a subject that merits the revisiting and the developing of ideas.

The sestina is my favourite form – a 7-verse poem where the end words of each line in each verse repeat to a set patten in each verse that follows. The sestina requires even more careful handling and consideration of those repeating words if it’s not to feel forced and clunky.

Working with form forces you to think in a new way opening up unexpected and surprising juxtapositions of ideas and language. It was for this reason that I was keen to feature form poems in my latest book The Girl Who Became A Tree which I’ve classed as a ‘Story Told in Poems’ because ‘verse novel’ didn’t feel right. I adore verse novels, the way they take a reader and invite them to ride a story through a roller-coaster of free verse. But for this book I wanted to keep hold of a core of poetry so that the themes of death, mourning, magic and rebirth could be given space to grow and transform. Very much like the heroine Daphne who, like her namesake in the Greek myth, is turned into a tree but not by her river god father. My Daphne is turned by a foul and sinister creature called Hoc who plans to keep her imprisoned in a dark forest that hides in a library.

Exploring form in this book with pantoums and ballads, rondels and villanelles opened up new ways into the story forcing me to delve deep into the language-worlds of books, trees, technology and memory. I also got to have fun with far simpler forms like shape poems and so I was able to create pictures of keys and trees with words. These poems complement Kate Milner’s glorious illustrations which are themselves poems in picture form.

If you haven’t written a form poem for a while, or at all, give one a go and remember that at its heart poetry should be fun, it is after all a tool for us to play with language.

The Girl Who Became A Tree – A Story Told in Poems, Illustrated by Kate Milner, Published by Otter-Barry Books

Joseph Coelho

Joseph Coelho is a multi-award winning children’s author and poet. His debut children’s collection Werewolf Club Rules is published by Frances Lincoln and was the winner of CLPE’s CLiPPA Poetry Award. His Collection for older readers, Overheard In A Tower Block, appeared on numerous long and short-listings for various awards including the Carnegie Medal. His picture book If All The World Were… illustrated by Allison Colpoys won the Independent Bookshop Week Book Award. He wrote and presented Teach Poetry – a 10-part BBC online series that aims to make the writing of poetry fun and accessible to all.

Pie Corbett: Lists

Lists

The Japanese poet Sei Shonagon wrote list poems. These were collected in ‘The Pillow Book’, about 1000 AD. Lists are a great way to write as you can have a long list or a short list.  Sei wrote hundreds of lists about shiny things, soft things, hard things, worries, things that make me annoyed, sad things, things that worry me, rare things, cats, awkward things, disconcerting things, things that give a clean/ unclean feeling, things that should be large/ short, features I like and so on. The book contains lists, poems and gossip. I suppose it was an early form of blogging.

During lockdown, I asked children on the radio show RadioBlogging to make lists of secret, special and delicate things. Here is a list of twelve things, sort them into two groups – delicate and strong.

Leaf skeleton   Lace    Butterfly wing   Spider’s leg    Eyeball    Fishing line    Bubble    Snowflake     Dried seaweed    Cat’s tail Snake’s kin    Cloud    Rainbow    Electricity     Elastic band

Delicate things are frail, fragile and easily broken. What would be your list of delicate things? Rapidly jot down ideas. This is often a good way to start writing. Gather lots of ideas very rapidly. It doesn’t matter if they look messy. You won’t use all the ideas when you write. Jot them down in your magpie book or writing journal.

Now choose from your list your special ideas. Choose things that only you know about. Look around the room that you are in. Look out of the window. Look into your mind to places that you know well. Try to spot small, delicate things. Make each idea different and choose your words carefully.

Writing tip:  choose things to write about that only you may have seen or noticed or thought about. That way, your list of ideas will be a special way of capturing your life. Try to avoid the temptation of borrowing other people’s ideas. To get ideas look around where you are, look out of the window and then look inside your head at places you know well. There will be hundreds of things to notice. Make each one special by choosing your words to describe them with care, perhaps revealing a unique detail.

© Pie Corbett 

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice by the Open University. During Lockdown, he produced a daily, interactive radio show based on developing children as readers and writers. Each show featured a guest poet or author and all 60 shows are available for free: https://radioblogging.net

Susannah Herbert: Poetry Bubbles

Poetry bubbles – or how to throw a National Poetry Day party anywhere

A confession. I’ve been involved with National Poetry Day for eight years, but I am still – a little bit – scared of poetry. My favourite Burns Night guests can recite William McGonagall with gusto, glorying in their rubbish Scots accents. Another leaves us spellbound by Christina Rossetti or reduced to gulping laughter by Michael Rosen. I envy them: they enjoy themselves, break the rules. Their relish in the tumbling rhythm re-charges us all.

And that’s the funny thing: once someone has set the poetry ball rolling in a small gathering, self-consciousness dissolves and the rest clamour for their turns. My husband has an incomprehensible weakness for Edwin Morgan’s The Loch Ness Monster’s Song, which starts

Sssnnnwhuffffll?
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?

And he is not alone.

One holiday evening this summer, round a fire, a retired engineer drew my teenage daughters’ attention away from TikTok with a mesmerising Jabberwocky. In German. (Their faces brightened with each stanza as the universal language of nonsense kicked in.)

Eins, Zwei! Eins, Zwei! Und durch und durch
Sein vorpals Schwert zerschnifer-schnück

I suddenly realised I too had something to say that’s out of the ordinary, and permission to say it. I could be someone else, no longer the all-purpose cook-and-bottle-washer but one of Shakespeare’s crazed royals – Leontes, Lear, Richard II – or, better still, the narrator of Tara Bergin’s At the Garage, which begins with an innocent challenge:

Ask me:

Have I fallen in love with the mechanic?

(And just gets, well, dirtier and dirtier):

Perhaps – perhaps, for a moment.
He doesn’t know what it is.
It’s his hands –
so thickly black with engine oil,
so hard-working, and in such high demand.

National Poetry Day has always been about sharing poetry, but 2020, the year of  bubbles and shields, presents a new thrill: sharing poems with neighbours, colleagues, friends and family, rather than with strangers in public places.

Here are some tips, gleaned from experience – and from The Reader Organisation’s Pass on a Poem whose poetry get-togethers throughout the UK are perfect models of community delight.

1) Feature food and drink prominently in your National Poetry Day celebrations on Thursday October 1st. Chocolate biscuits work well: toffees guarantee sound effects. Cake is superb at elevenses, tea-time or moments in-between.

2) Invite people who can’t physically be there, because they’re shielding or just too far away. This is what Zoom is for.

3) A mix of generations means a bigger range. Lots of children have a second language, invite them to share a poem in it and give a translation, as approximate as they please. Grown ups can also do this, if their poem is short.

4) CRUCIAL: Invite people to share a poem that’s not written by themselves. This means that all – poets and poetry-lovers – are equal, and egos are under control.

5) Ask guests to send in their poems in advance so you can print them – or at least the titles – out. I am a sucker for recommendations: National Poetry Day recommended anthology reads include Nikita Gill’s SLAM: You’re Gonna Want to Hear this, Gyles Brandreth’s By the Light of the Moon, Chris Riddell’s Poems to Save the World With, Ana Sampson’s She Will Soar and Cerys Matthews’ Tell Me the Truth About Life. (See below for how you can win copies.)

6) Nominate an EmCee to introduce each reader and call time when you need to eat, or empty the house.

7) Give your National Poetry Day gathering a name and postcode – the Ultimate National Poetry Day Knees-Up, Oct 1, John O Groats KW1 4YT, or The Slap Up Poetry Elevenses, Oct 1, Land’s End TR19 7AA – and log it on the National Poetry Day map by September 10th. Post pictures and playlists using hashtag #NationalPoetryDay and #ShareAPoem.

We’ll put all the poetry parties into a hat, and if yours is pulled out, we will send you three gorgeous anthologies from our National Poetry Day recommended reads.

PS. National Poetry Day’s Poetry Map link is here:

Events

Susannah Herbert

Susannah Herbert is the executive director of Forward Arts Foundation, the charity that promotes knowledge and enjoyment of poetry through National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes for Poetry.

She was once paid a penny a line to recite ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by her doting parents, who subsequently paid her still more to stop. A national newspaper journalist for 20 years, she is the former editor of The Sunday Times books pages.

Rachel Piercey: Charles Causley and Endings

Charles Causley and Endings

Like many others, I have spent some of my time during lockdown working through the tottering pile of books I’ve always meant to read. And so, long overdue, I fell head over heels in love with the rollicking and poignant Collected Poems for Children of Charles Causley.

I have a gorgeous, sunset-coloured edition, published by Macmillan and zestily illustrated by John Lawrence. The poems are effortlessly rhymed, mischievous, absurd, thoughtful, intelligent, wondering, steeped in folk traditions, and gently, constructively anarchic. You can find a few examples and a biography on the Children’s Poetry Archive and in this lovely blog post on Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems.

What I’d like to enthuse about specifically here is Causley’s endings. I think he’s so good at them, and they showcase the many ways you can leave a poem reverberating in the reader’s mind. Causley is famous for his use of form – particularly the ballad – and all his poems are strongly metred and rhymed. The lines march, skip and dance, but they never arrive with a thump at a closed-off destination. Instead, they use form to leave the poem hanging, tantalisingly.

Take the fresh and shivery ghost story ‘Miller’s End’. The poem ends with a revelation, simply rhymed, but the poem is far from tidily tied up. Who is the shadowy Miss Wickerby? Or how about the famous ‘Timothy Winters’ – the poem ends with that most final of words, “Amen”, but the reason that Timothy Winters and the speaker are praying is because Timothy’s future is so uncertain. It’s painfully empathetic:

 

So come one angel, come on ten:

Timothy Winters says ‘Amen

Amen amen amen amen.’

Timothy Winters, Lord.

Amen

 

Like Edward Lear, Causley knows the impact of a repeated line and particularly a repeated name. In Lear’s limericks, the last line reworks the first: “There was an old person of Putney” becomes “That romantic old person of Putney”. The effect with both Causley and Lear is the same: the poems explicitly refuse to shut down meaning or interpretation. You’re back where you started, just with a little more context. In ‘Tell, Tell the Bees’, the first and last stanza are identical:

 

Tell, tell the bees,

The bees in the hive,

That Jenny Green is gone away,

Or nothing will thrive.

 

Who is Jenny and what has happened to her? Who is the new “master / Or mistress”? Does anyone tell the bees? The poem leaves us wondering, but sure of the mission’s importance. The repetition and names also reinforce the folk, song-like nature of the poems.

Many of Causley’s poems are narrative and finish in a highly satisfactory way – check out ‘I Saw a Jolly Hunter’ for a gleeful example:

 

Bang went the jolly gun.

Hunter jolly dead.

Jolly hare got clean away.

Jolly good, I said.

 

But just as often, he delights in ambiguity, as at the end of the eerie, earthy ‘Spell’:

 

When I was walking by Tamar spring

I found me a stone, and a plain gold ring.

I stared at the sun, I stared at my shoes.

(Which do you choose? Which do you choose?)

 

Often when I go into schools, I find that children drawn to writing in form are also drawn to very conclusive endings. Such endings have their place, but it’s freeing to experience how a formal poem can leave a question in the air, too. Most contemporary poems leave themselves open rather than closed, and so Causley’s poems blithely bridge a number of traditions, in the most delightful way. I would recommend him to anyone.

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance poet, editor and tutor. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press and regularly performs her work and runs poetry workshops in primary schools. Rachel’s poems for adults have been published in various journals including The Poetry Review, The Rialto and Magma, as well as two pamphlets with the Emma Press and one with HappenStance. She lives in London. www.rachelpierceypoet.com