Photo: © Sam Lane
Who Dares, Writes
“Poetry written by children? But is it any good?” At a funding meeting for the Betjeman Poetry Prize, a board member of an arts foundation asked this very question.
At the time, I was dumbfounded. Whether or not the poetry by 10-13 year olds submitted to the annual poetry prize and judged by poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Brian Patten and Imtiaz Dharker was ‘good’ by adult literary standards (which, presumably, was what the board member meant) was not the point, surely. Later, I began to question myself. Why hold a competition? What was the point of encouraging children to write poetry before – arguably – they had mastered the form? There are now over 100 poetry competitions for under-18s listed on the Poetry’s Society’s Young Poets Network. What is the point of generating all that poetry? Who are the competitions for?
Young poets warming up before a writing session at the Betjeman Poetry Camp 2019 with poet Paul Lyalls, and below, hand-written text showing the workings of a child poet.
Firstly, let’s ask what literature is for: to illuminate, to entertain, to enable readers to see the world afresh, to teach, to moralise, to expose, to dazzle, to help the reader understand the world, to help the reader understand themselves, to make them laugh, to make them cry, to help them feel. These are benefits for the reader. But what of benefits for the writer? Why would any writer put themselves through the heartache, the isolation, the sweat and toil and tears? For some writers, writing is the only way of comprehending their experience; others just want to make money (no guarantee!). For some, it is about curiosity, for others about expressing their inner worlds. For still more it is about the joy of language.
Now let’s translate all these benefits to the space where young people read and write: to feel, to comprehend, to process, to illuminate, to laugh, to cry, to understand, to know, for love of language. Why on earth would we not want our young people to begin all these activities as early as possible?
Year 5 Children from Richard Cobden Primary and Argyle Primary, Camden at St Pancras Station, taking part in a performance of their own poetry for a BPP collaboration project with Paul Lyalls and St Pancras International. They are proudly holding aloft the anthology, Track Record.
Competition as a concept will always provoke debate. Of course. The naysayers will debate the concept on political terms, on emotional terms, on every term (especially school term) under the sun. But this is a debate amongst adults. I would argue that kids understand competition better than adults do and it is often adult projection (vociferous dads on the side of football matches, Hollywood actresses who buy places for their children at university) that creates a monster out of a teaching tool. Competition teaches kids that they cannot win at everything; while it’s important they strive to be the best version of themselves, there will always be someone ‘better’ than them out there.
That established, you might ask why not just hold a football tournament? There are millions of youngsters who prefer football to writing. Sure, but there are also thousands (maybe even millions) of youngsters for whom writing is vital: I write, therefore I am. While writing competitions are not for everyone, they do provide a goal and a platform for those kids. Is their poetry ‘any good’? If their poem strikes a chord in the judge’s heart, the young poets will have done their job. If other kids read the poems selected for commendation, those other kids may be inspired to make their own squiggles and marks on the page which – miraculously! – may articulate what they know in their heads and feel in their hearts.
To my mind, any encouragement of that process is worthwhile. Perfection of form may come later. Surely it is enough to draw out a young person’s voice. How much more roundly developed as adults will the next generation be, if, as youngsters, they have played with language, tried to describe, worked through feelings, expressed an individual opinion and crucially, may have been heard.
Imogen Lycett Green
Imogen Lycett Green is a freelance writer and educator who runs the Betjeman Poetry Prize, an Artsmark charity inspiring children and young people aged 10-13 to read, write and perform poetry. A former staff journalist on the Daily Telegraph, she is the author of biography and children’s fiction, a judge of the Chiddingstone Short Story Prize and a former chair of the UK International Radio Drama Festival. She was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Southampton University and is an English tutor at Brighton Aldridge Academy working with KS 3&4 students. http://www.betjemanpoetryprize.co.uk.