Mandy Coe: Poetry as the Language of Child

Poetry as the Language of Child

Maybe this is why poets and poetry-loving-teachers encounter such enthusiasm in the classroom, maybe this is why poetry is a multigenerational conversation as jubilant as the dawn chorus! Like much of the arts, poetry is so child-friendly, that if adults present poems with even the slightest hint of invite-to-write, children will respond in kind.

How to best get poetry into the classroom is a common issue for educators; perhaps aimed at boys, reluctant readers, or those excluded from literacy. But what if the poetry is already there?  As we know, poems love classrooms – flapping through doors and fluttering down chimneys. In fact, the only way to keep poetry under control, is to use it as a club to whack-a-mole learning-targets (at which point it flies right out the window!). Hey ho, art is fickle, and a poem is as likely to start a fire as put one out.

But bring a free-range poem into the classroom and watch those writers set to – gnawing at pencils, until up goes the sea of hands, each child excited to be heard. Those who teach poetry have always known it as this: a two-way process of questioning and listening, bringing poems in and drawing them out. Even reading a poem is conversational: what do you think? the poem asks, inviting us to lay our thoughts in the spaces the poet left blank. Perhaps this is why poetry crosses boundaries of age, geography, culture and eras (even translation is dialogue), and perhaps this potential is down to commonality. Poetry as the language of child?

For children, life unfolds as an astonishing, hilarious metaphor of bamboozling goings-on; snow has a taste, animals have magic powers, colours speak and wishes come true, and let’s not forget the heartbeat rhythms and drowsy comfort of repetition. Where do most adults go, inside themselves, to write or read a poem (not the craft; that’s learned), what I mean is, where do we go to pursue the spark of it? Deep down and way back, that’s where. To a time when bees named themselves buzz and the world was a poem. Let’s face it, if children retained the copyright of poetry as a first-language, us adults would be left with catchphrases.

Belonging Street, Otter-Barry Books, Cover Art by Chie Hosaka

I write for adults and children, and on the occasions that I write myself to a point where the two paths meet, I feel… at home. In ‘Belonging Street’ I aimed for a place where this dialogue thrives, between nannas and children, parents and toddlers, between reader and poem (and the book is full of ‘invites-to-write’).

So, let’s keep up our end of the dialogue by taking poetry into schools (and us children’s poets need readers in these times, more than ever!). Poets, illustrators, publishers and librarians pride themselves on creating books perfect for schools: classic, contemporary, funny and serious, poems on nature, the universe and each child’s uniqueness – and not forgetting the call for more books reflecting the rich diversity of our communities.  

But this poetry-conversation centres on the child, and when access/funding to poetry and art in schools is cut again, I am not going to just shake my head, summoning resolve to create yet more projects proving without a doubt that poetry in schools is invaluable. After all, those who dictate curriculum-content have the same access as we do, to decades of research evidencing this to be so. Instead, I shall see it for what it is: censorship, a severance from mother-tongue, and silencing of dialogue. Let’s keep this mother-tongue spoken daily, children are not the poets of tomorrow; they are the poets of today.

Mandy Coe

Mandy Coe is the author of 9 books, and writes poetry for adults and children. She was a recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship and is a visiting Fellow of the Manchester Writing School. Her poems have received a number of awards and have appeared on BBC television and radio programmes such as CBeebies, Woman’s Hour and Poetry Please. Her work on teaching poetry is widely published.

“It sings, so your heart does too.” Nicolette Jones, Sunday Times (Belonging Street)

“A gentle, relatable book full of humour and the wonder of being alive… finely observed poems to share between parents and children, and poems that can be used as models for children’s own writing….” Poetry Roundabout 5 Star review (Belonging Street)

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