Chrissie Gittins: Jill Pirrie – ‘All children are embryo poets’

I had intended to write about Jill Pirrie and her book On Common Ground: A Programme for Teaching Poetry, a book which inspired me when I began visiting schools. When I read that she died earlier this year it seemed even more reason to highlight her work.

A notice in The Eastern Daily Press states that she had a national reputation for teaching poetry, was an accomplished poet herself, and that she spent her life in service to the church and the teaching profession. She was the first of her family to have post-14 education and she received an MBE in 1987 for services to the teaching of English.

Jill Pirrie was Head of English at Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk for over 20 years and taught a mixed-ability group of 9-13 year-olds to write poems. In the mid-eighties her pupils won multiple awards in the WH Smith Young Writers Competition and an Observer Prize. In 1993 Bloodaxe Books published an anthology of her award-winning pupils’ work – Apple Fire.

Ted Hughes wrote the forward to On Common Ground. He writes that in order for children to write good poetry ‘teachers don’t need pupils with an ‘evident natural gift’. All they need is ordinary pupils’.

Steve Gardam, a former pupil, bears this out when he described Jill Pirrie’s classroom on Twitter 30/9/2020. It was ‘kind of old-fashioned, and also timeless … it wasn’t just about the ‘smart’ kids who did well in other subjects. It was every child being shown the tools, the way to use them to make magic from words. And we did.’

Asked by the TES if her pupils continued to publish poetry Jill Pirrie commented, ‘I’m not in the business of making poets. I’m interested in teaching mastery of language.’ In an interview with the Independent she said, ‘Poetry has the capacity to empower children to achieve mastery of all literary genres. It encourages reflection and the powers of criticism, for the child to be both intensely involved at the moment of writing the poem and then objectively detached, equipped with all the criteria for assessing the poem.’

In her introduction she talks about how asking children to imagine requires an intense kind of remembering. The pupil then stands back from her/his material in order to craft their poem. She favoured sitting in rows and liked her pupils to work in silence to encourage ‘focus’.

Her favourite nouns were apparently ‘focus’, ‘economy’, and ‘sparseness’. Her approach to poetry was always inclusive – ‘In so far as all children have memories, all children are embryo poets.’ Each chapter reproduces a wide selection of her pupils’ rich poems.

Many chapters draw on poems by well-known poets. The chapter on Process outlines the importance of naming – the verb being seen second in importance only to the noun. ‘Children must learn to write with economy and discrimination, and to guard jealously the power of their nouns.’ She underlines the importance of naming through the senses: ‘the senses are not only the means by which we explore the world and know that we are alive; they are also the means by which we remember’.

The idea I most often use in workshops is from ‘The Impossible Christmas’ section and is perhaps doubly appropriate at this time. Instead of bought presents we’re asked to think about capturing special memories to gift wrap – a special place, a favourite taste, a wonderful sight/sound/smell, a favourable turn of events, a remembered moment with a friend or relative. Using as many of the five senses as possible I ask for a list poem called ‘Possible Presents’.

Jill Pirrie died 12th September 2020 aged 81. R.I.P.

Chrissie Gittins has had three of her five children’s poetry collections as Choices for the Children’s Poetry Bookshelf. Two were shortlisted for the CLiPPA Award. She won the Belmont Poetry prize and was a Manchester Children’s Literature Prize finalist. Her poems feature on Cbeebies and the Poetry Archive. She has judged the Caterpillar Poetry Prize and is a National Poetry Day Ambassador.

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