Poetry as a Mirror
I was in a school for the first time since lockdown at the beginning of October. One of the teachers recounted a lesson she’d had with some disenchanted young boys in a former school. She’d told them they were going to be doing poetry and was bombarded with groans and cries of “Boring!” So she challenged them.
“I bet I can make you change your mind.”
They were not convinced.
She then brought out one of my books and at the end of the lesson one of the boys came up to her and confessed that she’d changed his mind about poetry. He was now an enthusiast.
I was reminded of an experience I had as a newly qualified English teacher in Jamaica. I went back to teach English in my old school, where the classes were streamed, with A being the most academically gifted. One of my classes was 9V.
In the first lesson, I found myself talking to the walls as the ‘children’ who were mostly boys and mostly bigger than I was, jumped on the desks, threw things at each other, climbed the walls and completely ignored me. The second class went more or less the same way.
In desperation I took in a copy of Jamaica Labrish, a book of poems by the late Honourable Louise Bennett (Miss Lou), written in Jamaican. I stood at the front of the class and started to read one of the poems. One by one they returned to their seats and sat listening in silence, except for bursts of laughter at the comic sections. Afterwards, they clamoured for more but, thinking on my feet I said, “No, it’s your time.”
I divided the poem among them and formed an impromptu speech choir. They were brilliant. So brilliant that I conceived of a plan to enter them in the National Speech Festival. They won a gold medal and became the toast of the school. The next year many of them were promoted to the A stream.
A few years later I returned to Jamaica and met one of those young men in Kingston. He was on his way to the National Gallery where he was mounting an exhibition of his work.
“It’s all because of you, Miss,” he said.
But he was wrong. It was all because of Miss Lou and her poetry.
Two of my poems were included in the NEAB GCSE syllabus. Both were written in Jamaican. Sometime afterwards I was performing in Leicester when a young lady approached me.
“I had to come and say thank you,” she said. “For helping me to pass my English exam.”
At my puzzled look she explained that she’d had no interest in English, that she couldn’t understand any of it until she saw my poem. She was convinced she would not have passed her exam but for the poem written in Jamaican.
The common thread in these episodes is that in all instances the children could see themselves in the poems. So many of my fellow writers have said they started writing because they couldn’t see themselves in the books that were available to them. It’s getting better, but the importance of letting children see themselves in poetry books cannot be stressed enough.
Poetry helps us make sense of our world. It’s harder to make sense of a world that’s unrecognisable. When the poem mirrors a child’s experience, the child can place herself in the poem. Conversely, if she can’t see herself in the poetry books, she’ll feel those books belong to others, but not to her.
Poems are not just mirrors. They’re windows through which we look into others’ lives, so diversity in poetry benefits everyone. As well as seeing themselves, children benefit from learning about and understanding other cultures, other experiences. In order to help our children become well-rounded adults, respecting others, we need to help them look into the mirrors and through the windows of diverse poetry books.
Valerie Bloom MBE was born and grew up in Jamaica. She is the author of several volumes of poetry for adults and children, picture books, pre-teen and teenage novels and stories for children, and has edited a number of collections of poetry for children. Val has presented poetry programmes for the BBC, and has contributed to various radio and television programmes. She performs her poetry, runs writing workshops, and conducts training courses for teachers worldwide.