On Thursday 21 October 2021, Wes Magee, well-known children’s poet and author, passed away peacefully in his sleep.
Here is a selection of his poems, published with permission, chosen by just a few of those who admired his wonderful work.
Wes Magee was a role model when I first started writing poetry for children. Like me, he was a teacher at that time (later a headteacher) and his classes had inspired him to write his own poems, when he couldn’t find ones relevant to the work in hand. I remember a four page booklet of poems about dinosaurs which the children in my classes loved to hear, and then in 1989 there were two books from Cambridge University Press, Morning Break and The Witch’s Brew.
These were such diverse collections from someone who understood children, their lives and what made them tick. Wes was a master craftsman too. His poems were finely tuned and there was something for everyone – spooky poems, funny poems, sad poems and poems that begged to be read aloud. Reading aloud was something Wes did brilliantly. We shared the stage on a number of occasions and I was always struck by the way he quickly developed a relationship with his audience, no matter what age. He was particularly at home with younger children, and they listened intently as if he was imparting the kind of secrets that they needed to see them through life.
Recently Wes toured Northern Ireland on several occasions. I talked with him once after he’d spent the day in a school in Belfast with 12 classes. “I visited every one,” he said. I envied his energy and his stamina. Fortunately his poems are recorded on the Poetry Archive. Do give them a listen.
I have many favourite poems but for me, this short one is near perfect.
A hot day at the school
All day long the sun glared
as fiercely as a cross Headteacher.
Out on the brown, parched field
we trained hard for next week’s Sports day.
Hedges wilted in the heat;
teachers’ cars sweltered on the tarmac.
In the distance, a grenade of thunder
exploded across the glass sky.
Wes, of course, wrote many school-based poems which children can easily relate to but I’ve chosen something a little different: VOICES, in which all three verses are linked by the voices of different adults calling the children in.
The first verse begins with four friends ‘adventuring’ in an overgrown garden where ‘ … a tumbledown shed, half lost in waves of weeds/was our pirate ship, sailing uncharted seas’ … a lovely alliterative image of the waves of weeds. In the second verse, cousins are rowing on a lake’s sunlit-wrinkled water and here it is the hand-cupped shout of the boatmen calling them in from the jetty.
In the final verse the poem takes a more sinister turn with its Hansel and Gretel reference of a crabbed old woman inviting the children lost in the wood to rest in her cottage, with its final Come in!/dear children./Come in! It is, we learn, a story being told by a teller who mimics the witch’s final invitation … but we are all aware of the power of story and the children stare intently, dry-mouthed, at the teller!
I love poems that change the mood as they proceed and this would be a wonderful poem to perform; I never heard Wes perform this one but can imagine what a great telling he would give it!
My mother’s voice boomed across the backs of houses,
calling me home as dusk fell that July evening.
But still we played, four friends adventuring
at the end of Mathew’s long, overgrown garden
where a tumbledown shed, half lost in waves of weeds,
was our pirate ship sailing uncharted seas.
Dirt-streaked, and oblivious of the deepening purple dark,
we played on as first stars blinked like harbour lights.
The boatman’s hoarse voice reverberated
across the lake’s sparkling, sunlit-wrinkled water.
Yet my cousins continued to row towards the reed beds
where ducks, moorhens and coots paddled and pecked.
We laughed as heavy oars dipped and splashed,
and gazed when a flight of geese took off, wings clapping.
The rowing boat rocked in the wind and waves,
and still the boatman’s hand-cupped shout from the jetty,
The crabbed old woman smiled toothlessly
as she invited the children lost in the green wood
to rest in her cottage half hidden in the bushes and trees.
I remember how the storyteller added scary sound effects
— an owl’s wavering hoot, wind hushing in the treetops,
and his fingers snapping like dead, woodland twigs.
Dry-mouthed and wide-eyed we stared intently
as he mimicked the witch’s final invitation,
My favourite poems by Wes are either about Thorgill, winter or the annual Christmas card poem in which I felt that Wes was writing about his life. Elegant and finely crafted, this poem slows time to capture and preserve a moment. And every time the poem is read aloud (preferably in Wes’s wonderful rich voice), the moment is recreated and happens again. The poem draws the reader in with ‘you’ and we are there – in the dales, watching the Moon, car lights, cat and bright stars. The poem draws to a magical and comforting closure; a wonder-struck fragment – a prayer.
This Silent Night
(… … on the North York Moors)
Bathed in the back door’s yellow light
you gaze upon a winter’s night
and view the shy Moon’s misty veil
as car beams flick across the dale.
A black cat pads the patio
to leave small paw-prints in the snow,
and air’s aglitter, stars are bright
this Christmas Eve,
this silent night.
I’ve picked What is the Sun, as it was one of my daughter’s favourites when she was little, and I must have read it at hundreds of bedtimes. What, at first encounter, could be seen as a string of metaphors, is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. Each word is carefully chosen and placed so that the lines rise and fall, like a gentle incoming tide, as each soothing image follows the last. It is irresistible to read aloud, slowly, and bathe in its rhythmic calm.
What is the Sun?
The Sun is an orange dinghy
sailing across a calm sea
it is a gold coin
dropped down a drain in Heaven
the Sun is a yellow beach ball
kicked high into the summer sky
it is a red thumb-print
on a sheet of pale blue paper
the Sun is a milk bottle’s gold top
floating in a puddle
Being invited to select a single poem from Wes Magee’s vast collection of poetry for children is like choosing a favourite child! There is so much to admire in his work, so apt, What is a million?, so clever with words, Deep down in the darkness, so sensitive, Tracey’s tree, – and on occasion, so full of fun, Miss Jones, football teacher, that the task is almost impossible.
But here goes! The children in my Years 3 and 4 really enjoyed Down by the school gate. They loved its rhythm, sustained throughout the poem, its fun, and of course, it brings the joy of the countdown. It’s a ‘joining in’ poem and that makes it special for 7-8 year-olds. And indeed, for Special Needs classes who can shout the numbers and thump the floor as it moves to the final triumphant One lollipop man …
In addition, Down at the school gate provides a pattern on which to model the children’s own poems. It is cleverly crafted, yet looks easy – and that shows the poet’s skill.
Wes has left us bereft, we teachers, poets and friends will miss his friendship, his enthusiasm and above all, his way with words.
Down by the School Gate
There goes the bell
it’s half past three
and down by the school gate
you will see . . .
. . . ten mums in coats, talking
nine babes in prams, squawking
eight dads their cars parking
seven dogs on leads barking
six toddlers all squabbling
five grans on bikes wobbling
four child-minders running
three bus drivers sunning
two teenagers dating
one lollipop man waiting. . .
The school is out,
it’s half past three
and the first to the school gate
. . . is me!