Fay Lant: A Whole Voice

A whole voice

What’s the word for a joke so unfunny you can’t help but laugh? The word for the amount of water you can hold in your hand? Or the word for the feeling you get when you listen to a story and feel that you are actually there in the world of the story?

The job of a poet is often to convey complex ideas and emotions in a concise and meaningful way. But there really are single words for each of those meanings:

  • A joke so unfunny you can’t help but laugh – “Jayus” (Indonesian)
  • The amount of water you can hold in your hand – “Gurfa” (Arabic)
  • The feeling you get when you listen to a story and feel that you are actually there in the world of the story – “Goya” (Urdu)

At the National Literacy Trust we’ve been working to deliver poetry projects in schools across the country for nearly ten years and we are still excited to see the ways that children use words to create new meanings. But for a while we’ve been aware that for the multi-lingual learners in our classrooms, we are only hearing a part of their creative voice. This year we are working closely with Bradford-based poet and teacher Nabeela Ahmed to put this right.

This year children will have the chance to see and explore poems written in a voice unique to the poet. They will have the opportunity to see how poets use dialect and borrowed words to convey ideas and meaning. The children will have the chance visit a local landmark – the Brontë Parsonage – and interpret their experience using all of the words and meanings available to them. They will be the expert in how their words are written and spoken. The words that are special to them and their families will be shared with their whole class and celebrated. In other words, the children will be given permission to use their whole voice.

From Kashmir to Yorkshire

From Kashmir to Yorkshire

From lush hills and noisy streams

To patchwork moors and crashing weirs

From kachmach, bathuwa and kachnaar for spinach curries

Lasoore for pickles, patakari for haandi, shehtoot and phuware for snacks

Beir dried for winter, devoured around a firepit

Hills covered with fallen clouds, skies full of stars, moonlights of a thousand watts

I left all behind for my lifetime home, Yorkshire

Reservoirs, Brontë moors, canals, rivers, rushing streams and waterfalls

Purply pink heather, taller than me bracken, mossy rocks and mighty oaks

Cheek reddening air, eye soothing waters, postcard perfect hills

Red currants for jelly, gooseberries for chutney and blackberries for jam

Bill berries, raspberries and apples for nourishing treats with friends on long walks

From a strong Kashmiri girl to a tough Yorkshire woman

My landscapes are like me

Not just pretty to look at

© Nabeela Ahmed 2021

Fay Lant

Fay Lant is Head of School Programmes at the National Literacy Trust where she leads on writing and libraries. She has formerly been a secondary school English teacher and delivered education projects for the British Council. 

The National Literacy Trust is dedicated to transforming the lives of children from the UK’s most disadvantaged communities through literacy by improving their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The Trust’s research underpins several programmes, campaigns and policy work which have supported the literacy skills of 268,490 children during the last year alone.

Rachel Piercey: Introducing Tyger Tyger Magazine, Issue 1: Beginnings

Introducing Tyger Tyger Magazine, Issue 1: Beginnings

In my last post for the blog, I announced the launch of Tyger Tyger Magazine, a new online journal of children’s poetry. The first issue has just launched, and I would like to introduce the twelve poems we ended up choosing, from a wonderful pool of submissions, along with short extracts and some of my thoughts on these lovely pieces.

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The delightful ‘Assembly’, by Rob Walton, puts us in the shoes of a child who just can’t stop asking questions. They may come across as cheeky, but we can see that they are genuinely probing at language and meaning.

We have an Assembly about new beginnings.

I put my hand up and ask if it’s possible

to have old beginnings

*

‘In the beginning’, by Carole Bromley, perfectly captures that feeling when a small fib gets out of control. The resolution of the story is gleefully undermined by its last line, and we start wondering about truth and lies all over again…

[…] it was just a little fib

but it GREW.

Nobody checked the facts,

nobody knew.

*

‘Indian Cradle Song’ by Piu DasGupta reflects the circular, interconnected nature of Earth with its beautiful circular structure. It is a poem of mighty contrasts and song-like repetitions.

The earth’s crust begins in the ocean  

The ocean begins in the moon-tides […]

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‘Blueberries’ by Jérôme Luc Martin is a triolet with an empowering message for young readers. The repeated blue whales / blueberries image delights and surprises me every time I read it!

Start small, if you begin at all.  

Blue whales begin as blueberries.

*

Hilary Elder’s ‘Catching a Yawn / Catching a Wave’ compares the experience of yawning, line by line, to a cresting wave. Together, the poems form a sort of living simile.

The wave caps,

Catching the bottom of the sky

And it holds on, on tippy-toes.

*

‘The Morning is Quiet’, by Robert Schechter, explores how quiet is just as complex and alive as noise: the lion may not be roaring, but it’s still there!

I think there’s a riot

of hush in my ear […]

Illustration: Imogen Foxwell

‘New Baby’, by Paula Thompson, warmly captures a child’s thoughts about the arrival of a new sibling. As baby paraphernalia fills the house, doubts and anxieties fill the speaker’s mind.

I’ll have to share

            their love; my stuff.

*

Andy Nuttall’s ‘The Platform Clock’ thrums with the excitement of train travel, conjuring a child’s sense of scale, potential and adventure. There’s a timeless, fairy-tale quality to the poem.

Up the line the track is singing;

Silver rails are faintly ringing.

*

Sarah Ziman’s speaker in ‘In-betweener’ is interested in the philosophy of beginnings – because it’s the summer holidays, and they’ve finished year six, but not yet started year seven…

Well, here is a puzzle I can’t seem to fix

Am I in year seven? Or still a year six?

*

In Amlanjyoti Goswami’s ‘Seeing it new’, the speaker also stands poised between the old year and the new, feeling suddenly nervous. The poem explores different understandings of a ‘new’ year and ends with a line of exquisite beauty.

But that door is knocking. I hear a bell.

Wait, I shout, not time yet […]

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‘On Your Marks…’ by Jay Brazeau is a poem of joyful exuberance and highly satisfying repetition, firing the starting pistol for everything from bakers to bedbugs. Definitely one for performance!

runner, runner

              ready, set, go!

baker, baker

              ready, set, dough!

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The final poem, ‘Night’s Begun’ by Lisa Varchol Perron, soothes us with beautiful imagery and an abundance of ‘s’ and ‘l’ sounds, leaving us on the threshold of a gentle new adventure in dreamland.

Stillness settles, soft and deep.

Quiet lulls and leads to sleep […]

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I am so happy with this beginning for Tyger Tyger Magazine. Thank you to my fantastic editorial team: Rakhshan Rizwan, Helen Steffens and Kate Wakeling. Each poem features on a free, downloadable poem poster and there are teaching resources to accompany ‘On Your Marks’, ‘Blueberries’ and ‘Catching a Wave / Yawn’. Happy New Year and happy reading!

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a poet and tutor, and the editor of Tyger Tyger Magazine, an online journal of poems for children. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press, taught courses on writing children’s poems for The Poetry School, and regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in primary schools. Rachel has written a poetry search-and-find book, If You Go Down the Woods Today (Magic Cat, 2021), and three pamphlets of poems for adults. https://tygertyger.net/

Teresa Cremin: Quickfire Poetry that Matters

Quickfire Poetry that Matters

Are you and the children setting yourselves any New Year’s resolutions? What are their hopes and dreams as they enter another year with the pandemic a backdrop to their lives?  How might poetry play a part in expressing these?

Children often write effectively about issues that matter to them: that have emotional relevance and connect to their values, concerns and future focused desires.   You can support them by discussing these, recognising them as rich writing material and perhaps simply sharing possible intentions in 2s or 3s. For example, I want to… read more, exercise more, smile more, help others, go to bed earlier, be kinder to the environment, eat more fruit, listen first, be more positive and so forth. You could also jot some down on strips of paper to pass round as examples to use, add to and adapt.

It’s easy to move from this brief warm up to exploring more imaginative one-liners framed by a slightly less pragmatic desire. For instance, using the starters I would like to…, I would love to…, I hope to…. and inviting ‘almost impossible’, ‘ingenious’ and ‘novel’ conclusions to the sentence. All the examples have been written by young primary aged poets.

Additionally, you could offer provocative questions on strips of paper, and invite children to write their own ‘challenging to answer’ questions too, then pop them in a top hat for random selection, copying, ‘answering’ and returning the question to the hat to select another.  You might construct it like a game of consequences, with a question written on the top of the sheet, and poets adding their responses underneath. I find occasional peaking and sharing of particularly arresting question-and-answers helps. 

When you open the sheets up, pairs can read and discuss which responses they think are the most effective and why and can then rehearse an evocation of their favourite in a manner which highlights its meaning. I vividly recall three eight-year-olds in London adding an ostinato to the question ‘What is anger?’ The word ‘anger’ was repeated before, during and after the poetic Q and A as if it were bubbling up and threatening to boil over, they created a real sense of frisson in the room. Using body percussion can also work. Sometimes though, a simple slow repeated voicing is the most effective and there is always a moment of delight as the unknowing young poet in the classroom recognises their own words.

Personally, I have often been amazed at children’s depth of thinking and feeling when presented with such questions, though much depends on the openness, early affirmations and exploratory, accept-all manner of the activity. To start with more ordinary responses will surface, but with time, sharing and celebrating rich ideas, (yours and any other adults, as well as the children’s) more allusive and imaginative ideas emerge. As Ted Hughes (1967) noted “the latent talent for self-expression in any child is immeasurable”.

Longer poems can also be sculpted out of these one-liners, by combining some or adding additional lines or repeating refrains or verses. Reducing the ask increases the space to think through the issues, capture thoughts and convey just ‘the best words in the best order’ in Coleridge’s words.

Quickfire poetry can help us voice our hopes and share our thoughts- why not try it in 2022?

 Teresa Cremin

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of developing teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa’s research focuses on teachers’ and children’s literate identities and practices. Her new edited collection Reading Teachers: Nurturing reading for pleasure (with Helen Hendry, Lucy Rodriguez Leon, Natalia Kucirkova and 31 teachers and academics is due out in 2022), alongside the 3rd edition of Teaching English Creatively (both Routledge).

Teresa is passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website based on her research into volitional reading. In 2022, the site is supporting over 100 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 34 HEI partnerships across the country to develop children’s and teachers’ pleasure in reading. @TeresaCremin

Allie Esiri: Who Should be Included in a 2021 Poetry Anthology?

Writing in his 1821 essay ‘The Defence of Poetry’, the Romantic poet Percy Shelley famously declared that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. A bold statement, it captures the rather paradoxical nature of the poet – at once a figure who has the potential to shape the world irrevocably with just a handful of well-chosen words, and one who is also perpetually overlooked and under-appreciated by society at large.

This new anthology seeks to shed light on the place and influence poets hold in the world – as forces of change and witnesses of history; as chroniclers of the everyday and architects of transcendent images – and to make sure that their genius is very much appreciated. Within the pages of the book you will discover an array of some of the greatest poems ever written by 366 different poets – one for each day of the (leap) year.

Poetry at its best has always, from Homer in Ancient Greece to contemporary greats such as Kae Tempest, Simon Armitage and Amanda Gorman, enabled us to see different worlds, or rather, our own world differently. And yet so many similar collections of verse have focused almost entirely on white, western male writers, creating an even more unacknowledged class among the already unacknowledged exceptional women, LGBTQIA+ and minority poets. It is important to redress this wrong and include a huge range of writers from across the globe and across time, going as far back as 2000 bc. Sitting alongside canonical titans such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wordsworth are lesser known names such as Enheduanna and Charlotte Mew.

But unlike my previous anthologies, which were built around the idea of offering A Poem for Every… the focus here is as much on the writers as their works. Each poet is introduced to you through a short paragraph that will give you a snapshot of their life story, their place in literary history and other pieces of context or anecdotes.

A Poet for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri

Much of this book is dedicated to the promotion of those who have been unfairly all but forgotten. But conversely, it’s also important to address the complex reputations of some of our most beloved writers. How do we go about reconciling the fact that so many writers who were so rich in talent were so inexcusably poor in their treatment of others? Racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, intolerance and cruelty have been found in countless poets – does this diminish the brilliance of their writing?

It is a difficult, sensitive issue with no easy answer, but maybe we can turn to the poets themselves for guidance. W. H. Auden – seemingly one of the good guys, who helped a woman escape from Nazi Germany through a marriage of convenience – once argued for the separation of the artist from their work in his poetic elegy for W. B. Yeats, saying, ‘The death of the poet was kept from his poems.’

But the book also seeks to celebrate all the progress that has been made. Poetry today is less an elitist circle, more an ever-growing community that’s enriched by a plurality of writers who are giving a voice to the historically voiceless and lending an ear to those too often left unheard. I’m proud to have put together an inclusive book that strives to be representative of, and relatable to, readers of all backgrounds.

A collection of such infinite variety fittingly has no set way of being read. You can make it a daily habit – a poem in the morning to invigorate the mind, or every evening to calm the soul – or approach it as a treasure trove of poetic gems to dip into whenever you want. 366 poets are waiting for you within these pages. All they need, dear reader, is you, as, in the words of Walt Whitman, ‘To have great poets, there must be great audiences.’

Allie Esiri

Allie Esiri curates poetry anthologies, audio projects, live shows and film. Her poetry anthologies are A Poem for Every Night of the Year, the bestselling new poetry book of 2016, A Poem for Every Day of the Year and Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year. Credited with bringing poetry into the digital age, Allie Esiri’s apps iF Poems and The Love Book feature readings with actors including Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hiddleston, Bill Nighy and Emma Watson.

Natasha Ryan: Turning Stem into Steam

About Us – turning STEM into STEAM

Join us on an exciting journey through poetry, science and technology, spanning 13.8 billion years!

My name’s Natasha and I’m an Education Officer at The Poetry Society. We’ve launched a new poetry and coding competition for young people aged 4-18 and based in the UK. The theme is ‘connectivity and the universe’ and the deadline is Sunday 19 December 2021. Enter at aboutus.earth

The competition is part of a project called About Us, commissioned for UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK. Developed in collaboration with poets and scientists in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, About Us features a large programme of community engagement and learning opportunities for schools, culminating in a major show that will tour five locations. The show will use projection-mapping technology to explore the many ways life is connected across the universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. Starting with the idea that all the elements we’re made of came from stars, we’ll touch on cellular networks, ecosystems, evolution, linguistic and musical connectivity, technology, and the climate.

The concept of About Us was developed during an extensive R&D phase, in which we were excited to partner with two fantastic organisations: design studio 59 Productions, who created the breath-taking video design for the London Olympic Opening Ceremony; and Stemettes, an organisation that brings young women and non-binary folk into careers in science, technology, engineering and maths.

That collaborative approach drives the project. My last job was in university outreach, focussing on modern languages. I lost count of the number of times secondary school students expressed their anxiety over having to choose between Arts/ Humanities and STEM subjects. For too long, the two disciplines have been siloed. In About Us, we’ve paired up with organisations that have very different experiences and skill sets from us to create a deliberately interdisciplinary project, demonstrating that poetry and science are not mutually exclusive. We’ll show young people that STEM subjects are creative, and that poetry can address a wide variety of themes.

We’re producing free resources for schools, full of poetry and coding activities for all key stages. These resources use poetry to understand scientific topics like cell tissue or symbiosis, and use scientific topics to understand poetry – how can mycelium and language be mutually metaphorical? What’s the relationship between enjambment and epithelium?

The resources get young people reading and writing poetry and creating animations, which they can enter into the national competition we’re running. In line with the show, the competition invites young people to reflect on the infinite ways in which we are connected to the universe, the natural world, and one another. It’s really important to us that young people have a voice in the final show: the competition winners will have the chance to see their work featured in the show – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – as well as receiving talent development opportunities and goodies.

Alongside the competition, we’ll deliver poetry and coding workshops in primary schools in each of the towns the show will visit. The work the children create will also feature in the final show, so they play a role in ensuring each event is shaped by the community, for the community. Parallel to this, there will be a programme of adult engagement work, involving local choirs and creative workshops. The first of these events kicked off last week with an inflatable planetarium, stargazing events, a headdress-making workshop in Luton, and a parachuting dinosaur!

We hope there’ll be something for everyone in About Us, and we can’t wait to see the young people’s poems and Scratch projects. If you know a young person who would like to enter the competition or discover the resources, head to aboutus.earth

Natasha Ryan

Natasha Ryan is the Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and supports the delivery of slam programmes and Artsmark at The Poetry Society. She has previously worked as an Outreach Officer for the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford, and in 2017 she completed a doctorate on the representation of glass in nineteenth-century French and Belgian poetry.

Brian Moses: Stretching Similes

Stretching Similes

Many of the similes used in everyday speech have been used again and again, so there is no element of surprise:

When he saw the ghost he turned as white as a sheet.

I looked into the cupboard but it was as black as ink.

Whether we are writers, teachers of writing, or both, our job must be to develop the element of surprise wherever we can. James Joyce in The Dubliners writes of ‘…a goods train winding out of Kingsbridge, like a worm with a fiery head winding through the darkness…’

In my sessions with young writers I often ask them to take a well known simile and stretch it till it says something new. As slow as a snail could become as slow as a snail pushing a brick. Make a giraffe even taller by stretching as tall as a giraffe to as tall as a giraffe on stilts.

Other comparisons might be:

As weird as a dandelion clock saying ‘tick-tock’.

As slow as a farmer pushing his tractor up a steep hill.

As fast as a cheetah on roller skates.

As unhappy as a shoe being worn by a smelly foot.

Something Hiding Beneath My Bed – Poems of Childhood Candy Jar Books

I often ask young writers to develop these ideas into a poem which builds on one stretched simile after another. I ask them to choose an animal and turn it into a super creature. Some alliteration can be effective here – my crazy crocodile, my magnificent maggot, my fantastic flamingo.

I always start with a class poem which will act as a model for anyone wishing to follow it, but also emphasise that anyone wishing to adapt the model and take off in another direction should feel free to do so.

Think of a first line, perhaps to do with the creature’s size.

My terrifying tortoise is as heavy as a hippo lifting weights

and as long as the Channel Tunnel.

Then think of its strength and speed:

It is as strong as a weightlifter holding aloft the Eiffel Tower

and as fast as Usain Bolt with rocket boosters.

How noisy is it?

It is as noisy as a howler monkey screeching into a microphone.

We then carry on adding to the poem by thinking about what the creature eats and drinks or how much it eats and drinks. Does it have any special features – claws, wings, a tail? Is it fierce or friendly? Does it need protection or does it protect you?

My Huge Hamster

My huge hamster is as big as an elephant with a pork belly

and as strong as a shark using its tail to lift up the Houses of Parliament.

Its as tall as a twelve storey building on tiptoe

and as heavy as a brick-eating bull.

It is as fierce as a snake when it is bored

and as fast as a cheetah riding a motorbike.

It is as noisy as a lion in a rock band

and as greedy as a panda thats been starved for days.

It is as funky as a chimpanzee in a disco

and is mine, mine, mine.

Nancy

In his book Moon-Whales, Ted Hughes has poems that can provide models and inspiration for further imagination-stretching pieces about space creatures. The Snail of the Moon has a wail ‘…as though something had punctured him. Moon-Heads are ‘shining like lamps and light as balloons’ and Moon-Witches are ‘…looking exactly like cockroaches’.

Again find alliterative titles – The Jaguars of Jupiter, the Slithering Snakes of Saturn, the Voles of Venus. This time as well as describing these creatures in colourful language, think of how they interact with others. Do the Monkeys of Mercury visit the Pythons of Pluto or fight with the Newts of Neptune.

Alternatively, come back to Earth again and find nasty creatures in the local environment – the Ogre of Oswestry, the Terrifying Troll of Tring or the Dreadful Dragon of Dorchester…

The Dreadful Dragon of Dorchester

Was as plump as and old oak and tall as a willow.

His footstep was an earthquake,

a mountain was his pillow.

Brian Moses

Brian Moses has been a professional children’s poet since 1988. To date he has over 220 books published including volumes of his own poetry such as Lost Magic and I Thought I Heard a Tree Sneeze anthologies such as The Secret Lives of Teachers and the recently published The Best Ever Book of Funny Poems and picture books such as Walking With My Iguana and Dreamer. Over 1 million copies of Brian’s poetry books have now been sold.

Fiona Waters: What Exactly is an Anthologist?

Every now and again I am asked ‘What exactly is an anthologist?’ Followed rapidly by ‘Any fool can collect a pile of poems.’ Well yes, but would that make an anthology, or would it just remain a random collection of poems?  Even more dispiriting was the poet, who will remain anonymous, she muttered sadly, who said (in public) that I couldn’t be any kind of a good anthologist because I didn’t write poetry myself. I was completely taken aback as I had never questioned my credentials to be an anthologist, but the wonderful John Mole rode to my defence with ‘You don’t have to be a carpenter to appreciate a Chippendale chair.’ Just so.

The best anthologists have many skills. You need the ability to put together a collection that has plenty which is new and will intrigue and stimulate, as well as enough of the old favourites to make the browser feel comfortable, but is not a mere rehash of collections already out there. It is a constant quest to find that which is new, not only just-written new but also newly discovered by the anthologist. (And that never stops however widely read the anthologist is.) A true sense of one poem leading into another is required, either by association of subject or thought, but also the bravery to inject a powerful poem that will whack the reader in the solar plexus.

I AM THE SEED THAT GREW THE TREE, A nature poem for every day of the year, selected by Fiona Waters, Illustrated by Fran Preston-Gannon

A real knowledge of diverse poetry from many cultures and a span of the classic verses from centuries back. The poems can be beautiful, heart rending, hilarious, memorable, and long or short. And when talking about a children’s anthology, the anthologist should have the courage to include that which might be considered ‘too challenging’ for a child. I have never let any such demarcation get in the way of offering a poem that sings to the soul. All children lack is experience, otherwise they have all the emotions, feelings and passion that so called grown- ups possess.

Embarking on a new anthology elicits a real sense of adventure, where shall I start? When Nosy Crow asked me to compile a new collection of animal poems to follow I am the Seed that Grew the Tree, my initial reaction was such delight, which was almost immediately replaced by a great sense of the enormity of the task. I knew there were plenty of poems about lions and tigers, giraffes and kangaroos, penguins and owls but what about anteaters or porcupines, snails or seahorses, and, of course, the pangolin? But my anxiety was soon washed away, they were all there, queuing up to be included. The permission quest was, as ever, fraught with seemingly insurmountable convolutions but that in itself is part of the thrill of the chase.

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright! An animal poem for every day of the year, selected by Fiona Waters, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup

Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright was my biggest undertaking to date but I had the wonderful Nosy Crow team by my side, particularly the exceptional and poetry loving Louise Bolongaro. That is another essential for a good anthologist – a supportive and encouraging publisher. I have been greatly aided and guided by Su Swallow and Gaby Morgan, both knowledgeable poetry lovers, in other collections. And, of course, Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright would only be half the great beast it is without the incomparable Britta Teckentrup. Her illustrations are so atmospheric and fill the page with vibrant subtlety.  

My own love of poetry stemmed from an early spell-binding encounter. I must have been about 7 when I heard Gabriel Woolf reading The Lady of Shalott and I was hooked for life. Not long ago I rediscovered a faded exercise book filled with my favourite poems all written out in my best copperplate. My first anthology? I like to think so.

Fiona Waters

During her fifty-two years in the world of books, Edinburgh-born Fiona Waters has worn many hats. From John Smith’s Booksellers in Glasgow, she moved to Cambridge to run Heffers Children’s Bookshop for eight years before going to join The Bodley Head. Her last move took her to Dorset where she was the Editorial Director of Troubadour, then the largest independent Book Fair Company in the United Kingdom. She is renowned in the world of children’s books for her passion and enthusiasm, and her encyclopaedic knowledge of children’s poetry.

Roger Stevens: Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

Are Song Lyrics Poetry?

As well as being a poet I am a musician, and I write songs. This year, on the suggestion of my record label, I published a book of the words to my songs, called Lyrics (2001 to 2021). This, of course, raised the inevitable question: Can lyrics stand on their own, can they be poetry? Or do they only really work when they are part of a song, being held up by a good tune?

Two of the world’s best songwriters recently joined the debate. Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 for having created new poetic expressions within the Great American Song tradition. There was, and still is, some controversy over this. But how can lines like

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

(from Visions of Johanna)

or

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way

(from Mississippi)

not be read as poems?

Paul McCartney, too, is publishing a book with a title not unlike mine. As well as containing his lyrics, it tells the stories behind the words and about the songs they inhabit. Interestingly, the book has been edited by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon who, himself, has published a collection called The Word on the Street, poems that double as rock songs.

Fans of Shel Silverstein’s children’s poetry are often unaware that he wrote hits for Doctor Hook and Johnny Cash. Many contemporary children’s poets use their guitars, or percussion, to perform poems to music – e.g. Brian Moses, James Carter, Eric Ode. 

Folk singers often draw on the ballad tradition where stories (often about politics or a special event or remarkable person) have become poems which then turned into songs. 

The lyrics of many singer-songwriters stand up very well on their own. I’m thinking Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. And in the rock genre, Patti Smith. I don’t think Dylan set out to write poetry – he sees himself primarily as a songwriter. But the structure of lyrics and songs do have much in common.

Generally lyrics also need their tune. Dylan’s lyrics work well on the page, but come alive when they are sung. The words to Waterloo Sunset, written by Ray Davies, are lovely – Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station, Every Friday night – but they really conjure up special pictures when sung by the Kinks. 

It can work in reverse, too. Many classical poems have been set to music. In German these are Liede; as a collection they are known as a Song Cycle. In more recent times, when I ran a school choir, we found some of Allan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler poems set to music. They sound as brilliant as a choral work as they do as poems. 

Most of us learn some of our first words through poetry – for that is what a nursery rhyme is; and many picture books feature verse. We learn rhythms and rhymes as babies and toddlers and with nursery rhymes this is often set to music. Songs, lyrics and poems are hugely important at the beginning of our lives and we hold them in our subconscious. Music often takes centre stage later on. Some music does not honour or showcase the lyrics but it still speaks to you – but when songs do allow the words to be clearly heard, what really matters is that they move you, through your head or your heart, in some way. Perhaps it’s when the words are as important as the music that the lyrics have become a poem as well as words to a song. 

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens is a National Poetry Day Ambassador, a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses and runs the award-winning website PoetryZone for children and teachers, which has just been going for more than 20 years. He has published forty books for children. A Million Brilliant Poems (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the CLPE prize and his book Apes to Zebras – an A to Z of shape poems (Bloomsbury) won the prestigious NSTB award.

Pie Corbett: Working with Idioms and Proverbs

Working with Idioms and Proverbs

Take a proverb (a popular expression) and innovate.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’

might become

‘A camel in the park is worth six in the theatre aisle’.

In Cornwall, they have an interesting idiom that is worth discussing, ‘the tongue-less man gets his land took’. I innovated on that expression:

In Cornwall they say,

The tongue-less man gets his tongue took.

In Argyllshire they say,

The thoughtless camel gets its hump stolen.

In Gloucestershire they say,

The worthless crown gets its thorns trimmed.

In Yorkshire they say,

The hopeless hero gets his bravery burned.

In Liverpool they say,

The harmless rumour gets its beard singed

In Galway Bay they say,

The timeless clock gets its hands cuffed.

Try playing the game where expressions are taken literally, e.g.

The detectives said

the books had been cooked.

(They tasted good).

My teacher said we could

have a free hand.

(I added it to my collection).

Some people bottle up

their feelings.

(I keep mine in a jar).

My Mother said,

“Hold your tongue!”

(It was too slippery).

In the school races,

I licked everyone in the class.

(It made my tongue sore).

Here is a bank of possible idioms to play with:

How to Invent new proverbs.

First, take an even number of proverbs.

Next, cut them in half.

Still waters  /   run deep.

Too many cooks  /  spoil the broth.

Finally, stick them together in the wrong order:

Still waters spoil the broth.

Too many cooks run deep.

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice by the Open University. He runs online training for teachers and every Monday works with about 6,000 children on @TeachingLive, running writing sessions of poetry, creative nonfiction and story. 

Lorraine Mariner: NPL IRL! The National Poetry Library is Open!

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NPL IRL! The National Poetry Library is Open!

Since my last post for this blog, about the National Poetry Library eloans collection for children and young people, I’m delighted to say that you can come and visit us again and borrow actual books In Real Life – we’re open!  We are currently having some maintenance work done so we have limited space, please check our website here http://www.nationalpoetrylibrary.org.uk/visit we would be so pleased to see you in the library soon. It was a very special day for the NPL team when we reopened on 28th May and unveiled a new rainbow design on our rolling shelves.

© Takis Zontiros

And a new section for Young Adults:

Having a more prominent Young Adult section was always a dream of my former colleague and Children’s Poetry Summit member Pascal O’Loughlin, who has now moved on to pastures new in the Wirral, so it was a thrill to send him a photo of this and some of our recent Young Adult additions.

We continued to collect books during our closure and here are some of my favourite purchases from the past year for our children’s collection.

Anyone with a UK address can sign up to join the National Poetry Library. Children can become members too and borrow 4 books at a time. We’re open Tuesday 12-6 and Wednesday-Sunday 12-8. You can find us on Level 5 of the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre. If you can’t visit us in London in person you can still sign up to our eloans collection.

Like all other libraries and cultural centres we continue to grapple with the new normal and what the winter months may bring. Our much loved Little Library space for children in our foyer remains closed until early next year and our schools workshops are currently on hold, as is our weekly Rug Rhymes session for under-5s. I miss these sessions very much, especially as my nephew, born during lockdown, has recently learned to roar during ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ and clap during ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’ and has yet to see his auntie lead these songs in a professional capacity. Plus, there are some new rhyming picture books we can’t wait to include at this session. We hope to revamp and relaunch our children’s programme for Spring 2021 and will have some exciting news to share about Southbank Centre’s schools programme in the coming months.

© Takis Zontiros

In the meantime, we’re delighted to announce the return of the National Poetry Library Open Day on Saturday 23rd October on the theme of Friendship as part of the London Literature Festival.

This is a chance for us to display recent acquisitions, including books for children, and specially curated displays. This year we also have two activities, open to children as well as adults, where we’re inviting visitors to get creative on a postcard that we will ink stamp to send to a friend and the chance to make a Friendship themed mini-zine (materials provided).  Come along from 11am and help us create a mini-zine friendship library!

Lorraine Mariner

Lorraine Mariner is an Assistant Librarian at the National Poetry Library and has published two poetry collections for adults with Picador, Furniture (2009) and There Will Be No More Nonsense (2014), and two pamphlets Bye For Now (The Rialto, 2005) and Anchorage (Grey Suit Editions, 2020).