Teresa Cremin: Becoming Poetry Detectives

Outside the classroom, children’s lives are packed with poetry. They freely engage in language play, experiment with jingles, jokes and lyrics and imbibe rhymes, songs, chants, often heard and voiced, as well as felt, in the blood and along the bones?

However, do they see this as poetry?

Do we?

Do we celebrate the rich diversity of poetry in life – online and off- in our classrooms?

Do we recognise poetry voiced both as spoken interaction and as word play and language pattern?

Or do we, as educators, tend to profile poetry as written – found in the printed pages of recognisably distinct and often separately shelved ‘poetry books’. 

As Michael Rosen (1989) argued long ago, poetry and fiction have their roots in everyday speech, and, from their earliest years, children meet poetry in word play, nursery rhyme, rhythm and song, taking particular pleasure in the playful and often subversive nature of poetic language. They hear the tunes and runes, the rhythms and patterns of language, and feel the beat on the street and in their homes and communities. On and offline they are treated to the cadence of others’ voices and their popular cultural worlds ring out with poetries of many kinds.

So, why not invite your class to become poetry detectives -hunting out the power and potency of poetry in as many places as they can? If you join in, then you’ll be going on an extended poetry hunt together. Once on the lookout /earout for poetry, they may well be surprised at the places and spaces it lives and breathes in. They might spot it – see it – hear it- feel it – for example:

  • in graffiti on the street
  • in adverts online and on TV
  • in slogans and word play in newspapers and magazines
  • in songs in community clubs and popular music
  • in clapping games and two ball chants on the playground
  • in the lyrics of hymns and patterns of faith texts in assembly
  • in picture fiction, hidden in the pages of Joe Coelho’s fabulous Our Tower or the more overtly rhyming text of Hannah Lee’s My Hair for example
  • in novels where the protagonist writes, such as in Stewart Foster’s Can You Feel the Noise? or Helen Rutter’s The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh
  • in verse novels such asSharon Creech’s Love that Dog and Hate that Cat
  • in performances at Poetry Slams, festivals or readings from the brilliant  Poetry Archive
  • and of course in their own class’s poetry collections.

The combined investigations of a class of 32 Poetry Detectives and one poetry teacher will make a stunning display! Such explorations are also likely to lead to renewed attentiveness to the sounds and succour of words and to conversations about the language of poetry, the aural and the written. Critically, they may also widen your own and the children’s conceptualisations of poetry, its form and nature. Why not become Poetry Detectives and see what you find?

Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of developing teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa’s research focuses on teachers’ and children’s literate identities and practices. Her new edited collection is Reading Teachers: Nurturing reading for pleasure  (with Helen Hendry, Lucy Rodriguez Leon, Natalia Kucirkova, 24 teachers and 8 colleagues). Teaching English Creatively is about to go into a 3rd edition (both Routledge).

Teresa is passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website based on her research into volitional reading.

@TeresaCremin

Roger Stevens: Haiku, A Love Affair

My first ever published poem was a haiku:

When I write haiku

I always seem to have one

Syllable left o

This was back in 1998. Which makes that poem 24 years old. The only problem is, of course, it’s not actually a haiku.

My love of Japanese poetry began at art college in the late 1960s. I became fascinated with a book I found in the college library – Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. This ‘collection of Japanese poems and stories’ immediately became a great influence on my writing, as well as on my art and music.

Back then it didn’t occur to me that the haiku in that book didn’t each have 17 syllables arranged in lines of 5,7,5. Later, I realised this was because they had been translated into English from the Japanese. But they maintained the essence of haiku by saying so much, so sparingly. One of the great haiku masters is Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

The old pond

A frog leaps in.

Sound of the water

When I became a fully-fledged children’s poet, I would include what I thought were haiku in my own collections and anthologies I edited and found the 5,7,5 format great fun to share with children in workshops when I visited schools.

It’s a great discipline and children enjoy trying to fit their ideas to the form. I remember the teacher who couldn’t believe the enthusiasm of two boys in her class, who had hardly written anything creative before, writing verse after verse… because it involved counting.

I often still write poems in the 5,7,5 format. But I now like to, more accurately, describe them as ‘written in the haiku style’.

Because, in 2012, I attended an online haiku writing course, along with Liz Brownlee and several other well-known children’s poets, given by Alan Summers, a haiku specialist who has won awards in Japan for his poems and is the president of the United Haiku and Tanka Society.

And it turns out that haiku are much more complicated than I first thought. I haven’t the space to list all the rules and subtleties of writing haiku here. But to begin with, a haiku must have three elements: a reference to nature (kigo), two juxtaposed images and a kireji, or ‘cutting word,’ which marks a transition in the verse and pulls the poem together. An individual image must occupy lines 1 and 2, with the third line containing the kireji. During the course, I only managed to write one haiku that passed muster:

sky before rain

a Rackham tree

catches a hat

I also discovered senryu – and found these were what I had been writing all along. Because while senryu obeys many haiku rules, they can be about people, or society and are often satirical or funny. I know now that my first published poem was, in fact, a senryu.

I like to think that, along with the mesostic, I’ve done my bit as a poet, anthologist and educator to popularise senryu. I devote some time to discussing these Japanese forms in my book Is This a Poem (Bloomsbury, 2016.)

Is This a Poem?, Roger Stevens, Illustrated by Spike Gerrell, Bloomsbury

I do enjoy the challenge of writing true haiku; so few words say something that exactly catches a moment, an idea or a feeling. A good haiku brings out the sun, just for a moment, on a grey, rainy day.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has had nearly 40 books published: novels, numerous solo poetry collections and edited poetry collections. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses; and of course runs the award-winning and most excellent poetry website PoetryZone.

Jay Bhadricha: National Poetry Day – The Environment

National Poetry Day (NPD to its friends) is essentially a PR campaign for poetry, we’re in the business of image control. Poetry is so much more than the pervasive image that somehow formulates about it. You know, lying on the banks of the river Wye recalling Wordsworth with fold away camping chairs and twin thermoses. I thought poetry was only read by that person, that it only spoke to that person, that it was only for that person. But then it spoke to me.

Poetry can capture a moment, and right now, it feels like several moments are happening all at once. This summer, the river Wye went down to 2cm due to drought. Pakistan just flooded. What would Wordsworth have to say about all this?

The theme of this year’s NPD is The Environment, a germane topic for a poetry event. Not only because poetry has an ability to capture nature’s fleeting beauty perhaps better than any other art form but also because it is a topic that is at the forefront of young people’s minds.

Young people today are angry about the way in which more and more aspects of their future are being mortgaged away. How can poetry help capture or channel these global emergencies which are rolling down onto their shoulders?

What we hope to forge through NPD is the connection between young people and poetry that lasts a lifetime.

Anyone reading this blog probably already knows what we are talking about – the first poem that got you and spoke to you all through your wilfully-sceptical-deliberately-scathing-secretly-in-love teenage brain. The feeling of YES! I AGREE! THAT’S IT! Young people deserve their poetry to say that to them now. We hope we can help them find that.

In all the poems we have featured on our website, there is a shared consciousness very different to Wordsworth’s ripening memory kind. The poems speak to us about the emergencies unfolding around us and fuse the micro and macro, the way that poetry can. Not far from the Wye, a glut of ripe apples hits the ground untasted due to a lack of pickers in ‘What was left in the Orchard’ by Rhiannon Hooson, a literal economic symptom of Covid. Joseph Coelho writes about the denial of childhood experience with the decline of amphibians in ‘February’. Malika Booker explores the impact of our colonial past through the quintessentially British wood ‘Mahogany’. They’re all nuanced and multi-faceted and ripe for young minds to interpret. And as always, there are resources for school staff to use from our poetry and education wunderkind partners.

We hope to inspire action this NPD too. 

We’ve partnered with Greenpeace and will run the first ‘Poems for the planet’ competition open to all ages. There’s a legacy of poetry and protest and we hope to spotlight this via this competition.  

Our call to action this year is poems of praise and protest – we want to see poems in praise of those doing something about the environmental crisis and poems complaining about what still needs to be done.

We know that poetry is an active, living form. And, who knows, maybe some of these poems will inspire action in others or will find their way to those who can make a difference.

We need your help to make this NPD bigger and better than it’s ever been before. We really need to do right by our young people particularly when it comes to this topic.

All I know is that, even though most of those people probably don’t own deckchairs, it’s a good thing poetry is for them.

Jay Bhadricha

Jay Bhadricha is the National Poetry Day Manager at the Forward Arts Foundation. He joined Forward from First Story, where he was their Editorial and Content Manager, responsible for publishing all their anthologies and overseeing their digital content. He has held a variety of roles including Regional Programme Officer, working in Operations, and Project Management for Granta Books.

Pie Corbett: A Profile

As the third in a new series of Poets’ Profiles, we asked

Pie Corbett to talk about being a children’s poet

Who are you?

 Pie Corbett – poet, storyteller and writer, anthologist, ex teacher, Head and Inspector. I run ‘Talk for Writing’ which is an approach to teaching writing used round the world.

How long have you been writing poetry for children?

I started writing my own poetry when I was at school. I met Brian Moses at teacher training college about 43 years ago and we began writing model poems for children.

How did you get started?

Like many poets of about my age, I was influenced by the Liverpool Poets – Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten. Their writing made me feel that I could write something similar… or, at the least, have a go. I read a lot of poetry and had two other influences. Kenneth Koch was an American writer who often used a repeating line such as ‘I wish I was…’ or ‘I used to… but now…’. The poems were very playful and this worked really well in my own writing and in my teaching. In many ways, the total opposite of Koch was the writer Ted Hughes whose writing focussed upon close observation of the natural world and using the writing to capture and celebrate experience. I used his approach in my own writing and in the classroom – we wrote about a stuffed fox, a rusted bicycle, our hands, tree bark, cats, snow fall and so on. As Sally (9 years) said, ‘you have to try and say what things are really like’.

What do you enjoy about writing?

When I am writing, I block out everything else. I love the tussle with words, creating new images or ideas and the way in which something that has never existed before can appear. I always read my writing aloud because I want the writing to flow. I like the way that poetry is a blend of meaning and music. Many of my poems are like diary entries. When I read a poem from years ago, I can remember where I was and what was happening. Poems, when they work, are little nuggets of life and joy that have been preserved. I see them like jars of preserved fruit, sitting on a shelf glowing in the sunlight. Whenever I take a jar down and read the poem, I can still taste the original experience.

Catalysts, Poems for Writing, Pie Corbett, pub: Talk for Writing, only available here.

Have you any poetry writing tips you’d like to share with us?

Like almost every writer, I keep a notebook with me. I raid life for ideas so I am always on the lookout for possibilities. I raid life. When I am writing a poem, I need silence and to concentrate really hard. I keep rereading, as I write, to check the sense and flow and to get the next idea. Three key tips:

  1. Name it’ – it is not a ‘dog’ but a ‘poodle’ – as soon as you ‘name’ the noun, you create a stronger image.
  2. Strengthen verbs – not ‘the dog went’ but ‘the dog bounded’… or ’the dog limped’
  3. Beware of adjectives, e.g. The big giant (aren’t they all big?) – do you need any? Avoid using adjectives that mean the same sort of thing (weary, tired, exhausted, drowsy). Also watch out for adverbs – do you really need to say ‘she whispered quietly’?
Evidence of Dragons, Pie Corbett, Pub: Macmillan

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

My collection Evidence of Dragons (Macmillan Children’s Books) has all my favourite poems. I’ve just published Catalysts – poems for writing’ (available from https://shop.talk4writing.com/products/catalysts-poems-for-writing ) which is a collection of over 130 model poems that can be used for teaching but also by anyone who loves writing. There are some poems in that book that I love – ‘The Dream Catcher’ is a long poem that captures all shades of life.

Which book was most important in your career as a poet?

In about 1983, Brian and I wrote a book together for teachers called Catapults and Kingfishers (Oxford University Press) and that helped us both get noticed. Then the poet-anthologist John Foster published some of my poems in the Oxford Poetry series. This helped me to begin to take my own writing more seriously. Rice, Pie and Moses (Macmillan Children’s Books) gave me a chance to put out a selection of poems, some of which have been published in other parts of the world. The collection was by John Rice, Brian Moses and myself. I’ve enjoyed publishing over 20 anthologies; my favourite was The King’s Pyjamas.

Anything else you’d like to tell us?

If you like writing then keep reading, keep writing and bathe yourself in all that life has to offer.

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. 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. 

Philip Gross: Outside In

There’s a child at the back of the class. I don’t know who. But at some point in this poetry session, as if a sash window has slid open, clunk, a snatch of a poem we’re reading will blow in, inside them, and take root. They might not even notice. But thirty years later they’ll find it there, a memory, a sudden feeling of a possibility: yes, I could put words together like that. Somebody’s life will be changed.

No evaluation form will pick this up. The visiting poet may go home feeling pleased to hear the laugh at a punchline, or, in a sad one, the quiet sigh. Meanwhile, somewhere, a seed of the culture has been passed on.

I trust this. I can’t prove it, except to say I was that child at the back, the one who didn’t speak out loud, who would have shrunk to a quivering blob of himself if everyone’s attention had turned to him. That’s still who I write for when I write a children’s poem.

Poetry written for young people can do many things, from the most extrovert, bonding a roomful of children into a single response, to the most private. It can whisper a reminder of a birthright, one under threat in this performative, social-media-skilled age, which easily tips into scorn for the ‘sad’, the introverted – their right to their own inwardness.

There’s a room in my house where nobody goes

            except me:

a still room, a light room,

            a where-I-go-to-write room,

an any-day, any-time, a middle-of-the-night room,

     a feeling-low-and-slow or a high-as-a-kite room.

                                                                 Feel free!

There’s a room in my house where nobody goes.

There are cupboards and corners that nobody knows

            inside me.

The memory I treasure most out of forty-odd years of creative workshops is almost silent. A group of twenty middle school students have been exploring the gardens of Northcourt, on the Isle of Wight, moving between writing and visual art to capture the spirit of the place. The weekend’s theme is inside out/outside in. We pause; now is the time to let it sink in.

We’ve got hold of a forty-metre bolt of muslin from a local scrap store. The group sits down on the grass, in a slightly distanced line, and lift the fabric gently over their heads. This becomes a private space. They aren’t hidden – they can see out, they can lift the fabric aside any time they like. But a quietness spreads through us all. Birdsong sounds louder. And for longer than you’d dream of asking a class to be silent, nobody stirs. The poems they wrote after that were not self-centred. They were full of vivid impressions of the world around them… which also, as poetry does, caught honest sharp reflections of the children’s lives. At the end of the day, asked What was the most memorable thing?  child after child wrote The snake!

That magic happened because all of us were there as writers. They were readers too, but also finding how it felt to choose between that word, that line, that effect. Test this out for yourselves, doesn’t young people’s appetite for poems with nuance and subtlety, with layers to unpick, go up by leaps and bounds the moment they step from consumer (thumbs up, thumbs down, reach for the remote, flick channel) to creator mode? In poetry as in sport, the richest experience gets laid down when we feel like participants.

There’s the paradox – our inner spaces are where we’re at our most engaged. That outside-in place belongs to all of us. And it’s where poetry lives.

Philip Gross

Philip Gross has seen his poetry for adults and for young people as all of a piece through 40 years and some 25 collections. He won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2009 and a Cholmondeley Award in 2017, while children’s collections from Manifold Manor (1989) onwards have won the Signal Award and the CLPE Poetry Award, and he chaired the judging panel for this year’s CLiPPA. There have also been 10 novels for young people and a few librettos along the way. He is a keen collaborator – e.g. with artist Valerie Coffin Price on A Fold In The River (2015) and with scientists on the CLiPPA-shortlisted Dark Sky Park (2018). www.philipgross.co.uk

Cheryl Moskowitz: Translation as Transportation, Liberation and Connection

IMAGE: Hayley Madden

Translation as transportation, liberation and connection

Writing poetry, no matter what language it is written in, always involves a sort of translation. In the first instance, that is the translation of feeling and experience into words. To translate a poem written in one language into another requires further transportation but the reward is that we gain access to feelings and experiences that might be very different from, or sometimes surprisingly similar to our own.

The verb ‘translate comes from the old French translater meaning to carry over or transport. I like the idea of translating as a kind of transportation. Like moving house, going on an adventure, or being magically beamed from one world to another.

Much of the work I do in schools as a poet involves me in some way as a creative translator. Some translators speak other languages, however creative translation does not require you to be a linguist. In her recent publication ‘Letters on Liberty’ for the Academy of Ideas, translator and academic Vanessa Pupavac says ‘translation is for all’ and suggests that ‘most of us should take up the liberty of translating or retranslating against our habitual language limits and enhance our liberty of expression.’

Freedom of creative expression has been very much in the news recently in the wake of the recent shocking attack on author Salman Rushdie at a NY event where he was about to speak on that very subject. This comes at a time when, one year into Taliban rule, girls and young women in Afghanistan are still barred from attending secondary school.

Everyone has the human right to express themselves, and Article 13 of the UNCRC makes it clear that this includes children and young people. People should be able to express themselves regardless of their religion, culture or beliefs and they may express themselves in all kinds of different ways as long as they do not do so in a way that causes injury or harm to another. What constitutes injury is of course not always clear but artistic freedom depends on that fact that we do not have to agree with, or even like what is being said by another. Indeed, there can be a great deal of value arising from debate and criticism that comes from engagement with ideas and thoughts that might be profoundly different from our own.

Currently I am in the early stages of developing an exciting creative translation project with the Stephen Spender Trust focussing on Ukraine – over the coming academic year I will be running workshops in schools around the UK working with students to produce their own English translations of poetry written by Ukrainian authors for children. I am working together with a Ukrainian translator in Lviv to source texts and put together materials in preparation for the workshops.

It is a delight to be introduced to the range of poetry being read by children at the moment in Ukraine and in particular the poems that the translator and her children are drawn to in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine war. I can’t wait to see the creative translations produced in response by children in the UK.

Creative translation in poetry doesn’t just involve creating new versions of existing poems but can also involve dialoguing with poets and bringing your own perspective to bear on their work as I have done here with the brilliant young Afghan poet Aryan Ashory. https://ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk/features/

Creative translation can also be a way for multi-lingual families and communities to create a new shared language of poetry together. You can see some lovely examples here in response to my ‘Poems from Home’ initiative for the Stephen Spender Trust. https://www.stephen-spender.org/poems-from-home/

As well as raising the profile of multilingualism, enriching the teaching of modern foreign languages at school and boosting literacy, Creative translation in the classroom (CTiC) promotes collaborative learning, develops intercultural interest and awareness and raises creative aspiration. In a world where conflict between nations is rife and cultural differences continue to spark horrible violence and hate between peoples, creative translation through poetry can work to connect us.

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet. educator and creative translator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. www.cherylmoskowitz.com

Lorraine Mariner: What Rhymes with Rug? Writing Poems for Children

Image: Pete Woodhead

What Rhymes with Rug? Writing Poems for Children

I’ve been writing poems for adults for over 20 years now but it was really through working on Rug Rhymes at the National Poetry Library that I started to write poems for children. I feel like a newbie but I realise it’s almost 9 years since I wrote my first children’s poem. It grew out of some copy we’d written to promote Rug Rhymes: “What rhymes with rug? Join Poetry Library puppets Federico and Firebird on their poem rug to find out!” What does rhyme with rug? I found myself wondering, so I wrote a poem that Federico and Firebird could say:

Rug Rhyme

What rhymes with rug?
            A slow slimy slug
            A buzzy bug
            A pudgy cuddly pug (Woof!)

What rhymes with rug?
            A juice-filled jug
            A milky mug
            A big thirsty glug glug glug

What rhymes with rug?
            A sleepy shrug
            A bath time plug
            My friend’s special hug

Working on Rug Rhymes also coincided with my becoming an aunt which gave me further inspiration for poems for children. I’ve always remembered a quote from Ted Hughes, that when he had his children, poems for them “welled up like mother’s milk”, but a very small portion of adult poets who have children end up writing children’s poems. And some of the best children’s poets never have children of their own. Eleanor Farjeon is one such poet and I find this quote of hers quite heartbreaking, that “In my youth, I dreamed of being a “real” poet, but half-way through my life the dream died, and whatever figments remained went into writing songs and verses for children”. I don’t agree that children’s poets aren’t “real” poets but I find it very intriguing that some poets seem destined to write for children rather than adults and I wonder sometimes if maybe I shouldn’t be attempting to write children’s poems.

I’ve edited the ‘Rug Rhyme’ poem over the years and can understand why some of the finest children’s poets are also school teachers; having your target audience to try poems out on can be invaluable. I recently added some more alliteration after taking a course on writing poems for children inspired by Charles Causley, probably the most famous teacher children’s poet, led by Rachel Piercey for the Poetry School. One of the things I loved about the course was that for the first time in a long while I got out my rhyming dictionary and thesaurus. My adult writing tends to be very direct and not formally structured and I had a lot of fun tapping into Causley’s rhythms and rhymes and wordplay.

Image – NPL Children’s Collection Shelves by Takis Zontiros

In 2014 we ran a book club at the National Poetry Library looking at classic children’s poets every adult should read and Causley was one of them, along with Eleanor Farjeon. I feel very lucky to have access to over a hundred years of children’s poetry as part of my day job and I would recommend any aspiring children’s poets to join the National Poetry Library.

Books by James Berry

As well as being able to read your way through the back catalogue of the likes of James Berry, Tony Mitton, Grace Nichols, Jack Prelutsky and Naomi Shihab Nye, you can get your hands on the most recent UK children’s poetry publications and make unexpected discoveries. I’ve recently been charmed by the work of Finola Akister who started writing poems to entertain her grandchildren.

Poems by Finola Akister, illustrated by Colin West

If you can’t get to London we also have an eloans collection that includes ebooks for children and young people.

I produce children’s poems at a much slower pace than adult ones. Over the years I’ve attended many courses and I belong to a workshop group and this has really helped me develop my adult poetry but there aren’t so many opportunities for poets starting to write for children. I was thrilled when following her Causley course Rachel Piercey set up an online Poetry Society Stanza group for children’s poets, Zig Zag Stanza. It’s been great to meet other poets writing for children, workshop poems and discuss different aspects of children’s poetry. Hopefully, it will lead to more poems I can pretend Federico and Firebird have written!

Lorraine Mariner

Lorraine Mariner is an Assistant Librarian at the National Poetry Library and has published two poetry collections for adults with Picador, Furniture (2009) and There Will Be No More Nonsense (2014), and two pamphlets Bye For Now(The Rialto, 2005) and Anchorage (Grey Suit Editions, 2020). 

National Poetry Library:
http://www.nationalpoetrylibrary.org.uk

Poetry Society Stanzas:
https://poetrysociety.org.uk/membership/poetry-society-stanzas/

Ana Sampson: On Trees and Poems

On Trees and Poems 

They cut down a tree on our road this week.

My daughters and I were sad, and cross. Although already we couldn’t quite remember the exact shape and character of the tree – the branches had been efficiently disposed of, only the stump remained – we were bereft. It had been a kindly tree, throwing green shade over a bench on which people and dogs and occasionally the street’s reigning cat, Binky, sat to watch the world go by.

My six year old ran up to the stump, to its shocking new bright flat top, and hugged it. And then my nine year old joined her, and they made me do it too (although I might have done it anyway.) We counted its rings, and we missed it. I’m sure we looked deeply eccentric, but I’m also sure that any one of our neighbours, seeing that stark and sliced trunk, would have understood the response. Perhaps some of them might even have joined in.

It is difficult to write about trees without writing poetry. They are a wonderful example of an everyday object that can be transfigured by the kind of close attention you have to pay to something in order to write about it. What I love most about poetry is the new ways of looking at the world it offers us. Children, whose perspectives are fresher and less calcified than ours, instinctively respond to this. And when you ask them to look – to really look – at something, they will surprise and delight you with their responses.

In order to write a poem about a tree, you need to have a very good look at it… and they are magic. You need to watch and think about the movement of the leaves, to listen to the whisper of the boughs and the chattering of the squirrels. It’s important to stroke the bark, lie stretched out beneath it and look up into its canopy, inhale its scent, give it a hug. You may have walked past it a thousand times, but it might still be a tree whose shape you wouldn’t be able to recall if it was suddenly gone. 

Children build kingdoms among the trees. Whether we clambered high into the branches or looked for fairies or beetles among the roots, trees were our playgrounds. We hoarded their treasures, gathered from the parks and pavements: glossy conkers, sycamore spinners, cherry stones, acorn cups for tiny feasts, tumbled blossom, sticky buds to uncurl in a milk bottle. They furnished us with swords, pilgrims’ staffs and magic wands. They were milestones and boundaries, and a certain well-loved tree might have been – might still be – the landmark that tells us: “You are home.”

Within my private forest of remembered trees stand a friendly magnolia, regularly scrambled up in childhood, and the horse chestnut – in my mind, always bearing its pale candles – visible from a window I last gazed from decades ago. Further in, a hilltop monkey puzzle stretches its sinuous fingers, an ancient oak spreads, and every Christmas tree I have ever loved (which is all of them, perhaps especially the scrawny ones) shines. I also have trees immortalised by poets and writers in my mental forest: from nursery rhyme nut trees to Shakespeare’s bare ruin’d choirs, from Housman’s lovely cherry to Hopkins’ Binsey Poplars.

We need trees and we need people who will plant them, not cut them down. It’s why Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris included Willow, Acorn and Conker in the beautiful spell book The Lost Words, incantations for words excised from the children’s dictionary due to underuse. To lie, once in a while, under a tree and look up through its leaves is a pure and primeval kind of medicine. It is an incredible gift to be able to give and, even for those of us whose days in the classroom are far behind us, a lesson we could all do with learning.

Ana Sampson

Ana Sampson is the editor of, among other anthologies, Wonder: The Natural History Poetry Book (Macmillan Children’s Books) which contains some lovely poems about trees.

Rebecca Simpson-Hargreaves: Breaking Down Barriers

Poetry… it can feel like some mythical creature that you know is beautiful, but you’re not sure whether reading it will bring you untold treasures or that it will simply cloud your brain, leaving you feeling empty and confused. I’ve always been willing to take that risk, as a child reading as much poetry as I could get my hands on, enjoying the journey. However, I do remember a little moment of hesitation when a teacher I admired insisted we could never truly understand poetry if we did not appreciate classic poets such as Southey (who felt completely unrelatable). Left feeling like I was some kind of charlatan, I was saved by librarians and parents who quietened that teacher’s voice, and my confidence to enjoy poetry once again grew.

The experiences we have in the classroom as children have far reaching implications for us as adults, even more so if we are teachers. The willingness to teach poetry can be a real issue. Not because teachers don’t feel it’s important, but more because they don’t want to ‘let their children down’.  Whether you are experienced or new to the profession, the fear can be very real. The worry of not knowing what the poet was really thinking or feeling can leave us paralysed.

Midnight Feasts, chosen by A F Harrold, Illust; Katy Riddell, Bloomsbury Education.

In my role as a teacher educator I feel excited sharing the world of poetry with my students. When I cast my eyes over their sea of faces, I see some smiles, however the looks of trepidation are far more plentiful. So how do you break that barrier? I always start with a question about how they feel about poetry. If I want them to be able to teach it, they have to understand what could get in the way of them doing it and enjoying it! Year on year their histories all follow the same pattern; poetry experienced in school is usually completely unrelatable to what is going on in their lives and when given the chance to write they are vilified for not following some nonsensical made-up rule. I shudder to think how many hearts are broken by having to add in needless words using a purple polishing pen.

Being Me, by Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha, illust: Victoria Jane Wheeler, Otter-Barry Books

During the session we look at a wide range of children’s poets’ work, visit subjects that all can relate to such as food or everyday life. A good place to begin are the works of poets such as A F Harrold, our Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho or perhaps the poetry of Liz Brownlee, Matt Goodfellow and Laura Mucha. Trainees engage in activities that allow them to talk, really, really talk. I’ve yet to encounter a trainee telling me that they love a poem because it has at least three adjectives and an adverb in; it’s all about feelings.

Overheard in a Tower Block, Joseph Coelho, Illust: Kate Milner, Otter-Barry Books

So that is the way in. Just like the importance of having a wide knowledge of children’s literature, the same can be said about poetic forms. We visit lesser-known types such as the Hai (na) ku, a poem that is formed of three lines and only six words (no counting syllables needed). Trainees are encouraged to write alongside their children.

My refrain is that you cannot teach what you have not tried yourself. Children need a poetry rich diet to tempt and inspire them, fill it with music (poetry set to a melody), spoken word, rap, poetry from around the world, the possibilities are endless. Find what speaks to you and your children, what can they relate to? Which poems can open up the world to them? Relationships are fundamental. You don’t have to have a psychic hotline to the poet to ‘get poetry’. It’s all about the connection and that is the true secret to teaching poetry.

Rebecca Simpson-Hargreaves

Rebecca Simpson-Hargreaves is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Manchester. She is passionate about using children’s literature to develop children’s empathy and self-awareness. She enjoys discovering old and global forms of poetry and creating workshops around these for teachers. Her research is centred around facilitating younger children’s voices, particularly in the realm of human rights.

Natasha Ryan: About Us – Getting Back into Schools

Hi! I’m Natasha, Education Officer at The Poetry Society. Over the past year, The Poetry Society has worked on a project called About Us, one of ten commissions for UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK.  The project explores the many ways we’re connected to the universe, the natural world and one another.

A major live show toured the UK in spring 2022, visiting Paisley (Scotland), Derry-Londonderry (Northern Ireland), Caernarfon (Wales), and Luton and Hull (England). Combining projection-mapping technology, poetry and music, the show told our shared story from the Big Bang to the present. Watch it here:

An extensive learning and participation programme supported the show. A nationwide poetry and coding competition invited young people to respond to the theme of ‘connectivity and the universe’, with the winning entries incorporated into the show. And primary schools in the show’s locations received poetry and coding workshops.

At The Poetry Society, we’ve been running a Poets in Schools service for years and have some schools we regularly support to receive a poet visit, as well as others with whom our relationship is more ephemeral. About Us gave us the opportunity to reach a new set of schools we’d never worked with before – this was especially true in contexts outside England. For the first time ever, we delivered workshops entirely in Welsh and Irish.

Natasha with  The Poetry Society’s other Education Officers, Helen Bowell and Rachel Cleverly, at the About Us show in Luton. Image: Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society.

Of course, different contexts meant navigating different school systems, so this was also a chance to expand our organisational expertise. Working with many poets from across the UK who were new to us, we learned from their knowledge of their local contexts while also sharing our experience. Working with local poets was so important: not only did they have insider knowledge about the area, but because they lived only a few miles away from the schools, the children had real role models, showing them poetry is possible for people who look and sound like them.

For my own part, I visited the schools once the workshops had happened and filmed the children performing the poems they’d written. The moment I entered the first school in Paisley, I realised how much I’d missed being in a school environment: missed seeing kids’ drawings on the walls alongside healthy eating and bikeability posters; missed seeing young people excitedly sharing their poems; missed the way every receptionist offers you a cup of tea when you walk through the doors. Schools are such vibrant, versatile places, and this project reaffirmed my admiration for teachers. Despite the Covid chaos, every school went above and beyond to make this opportunity work for their students.

Once filmed, we exhibited the children’s poems on giant plinths as part of the show, giving the children a tangible goal to work towards when writing, and shaping each of the show’s iterations to the place in which it was delivered. The poems were collaborative so that each of the 1600 children who participated saw their own words celebrated in the heart of the community.

And the feeling of connection lives on. Because we now have a wonderful archive of films of primary school children performing their class poems. Browsing through them, the diversity of voices and backgrounds represented quickly becomes evident. But so too does the sense that all the children came away with a universal pride in their creativity. As the young residents of Derry put it: “It’s quite special our little city got picked to be a part of this project… I couldn’t believe for a single minute I’d get to recite the poem! I felt so proud.” Watch their poems here.

If you’re aged 4-18, there’s still time to get involved with About Us! The poetry competition is open for a second round until 31 August. Enter at aboutus.earth/competition

Natasha Ryan

Natasha Ryan is an Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the About Us project and supports The Poetry Society’s slam projects and Artsmark, having previously worked on the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.