Ana Sampson: Season’s Readings

Each year, at the start of March, a snatch of poetry runs through my head:

March, black ram,

Comes in like a lion,

Goes out like a lamb.

It appeared in a book which gathered stories, rhymes and snippets of seasonal lore about winter that I pored over annually as a child. I can’t find any reference to this version of the proverb now, so I suppose the ram of Aries was added purely to give the sentiment a rhyme and rhythm. It demonstrates the sticking power of poetry, though: the music of those lines caught in my mind forever.

I had a bookish, indoors childhood, despite my parents’ best efforts to exhort me out into the fresh air. A lot of the feelings I amassed about the natural world came from books and poems. It’s no substitute for the real thing, which utterly delights me now as I chivvy my own reluctant children – sorry, kids! – into the cold to exclaim over catkins, but it did build a store of natural knowledge. And for children who don’t have easy access to nature, it can be particularly valuable.

It turns out I (and now, my daughters) can identify a dog violet, thanks to Flower Fairies of the Spring. April cannot dawn without Browning’s ‘Home-Thoughts from Abroad’ coming to mind. I will always be unsettled by frog spawn, thanks to Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’. And every year, when my children complain about bright summer bedtimes, I find myself quoting Robert Louis Stevenson:

In winter I get up at night 
And dress by yellow candle-light.  
In summer, quite the other way, 
I have to go to bed by day.  

Again: sorry, kids.

Later in the year, Rachel Field’s autumnal ‘sagging orchards’ in ‘Something Told the Wild Geese’ come to mind, chased by Nikki Giovanni’s ‘Winter’: ‘once a snowflake fell / on my brow’ and Robert Frost’s traveller in snowy woods with ‘miles to go before I sleep’. Wordsworth, in ‘The Prelude’, captured the exhilaration of whirling about on ice-skates. It feels convincing even to me as a clumsy person, whose few attempts at skating (on suburban rinks resounding with Radio 1) resulted in falls eliciting audible gasps from onlookers and spectacular bruising.

It rarely snowed where I grew up. I was never ambushed by a rabble of farting frogs. I couldn’t see pedestrians’ feet from my bedroom. But poetry has helped me make imaginative leaps: in the treasure house of my mind, I’ve thrilled to a chaffinch in the April orchard, and sailed across frozen lakes under a wintry sky. These experiences were not ‘real’, but they live in me nonetheless and foster a sense of connection to the natural world. The reading can inspire the doing, too, and encourage children to seek experiences in the great outdoors.

The success of Allie Esiri’s seasonal anthologies – A Poem for Every Spring Day, and so on, and the beautiful anthologies edited by Fiona Walters – I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree and Tiger Tiger Burning Bright – show that I’m not alone in valuing poetry as a way in to nature for young readers. Gathering material for Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book, I hoped the poems could inspire young champions for our planet and its wildlife, just as the museum’s collections aim to do. In a world where we’re ever more disconnected from natural rhythms, I do believe books and poetry can help to plug us back in.

Ana Sampson

Ana has edited poetry anthologies including Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book. You can sign up for her newsletter at Newsletter Sign-up — Ana Sampson.

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.

Ana Sampson: Introducing Poetry to Primary School Children

Introducing Poetry to Primary School Children

By the time we leave school, some of us have been rather put off poetry. Actually – confession time, now – I was. Picking it apart and poring over the meanings throughout my education had sucked some of the simple joy out of poetry. I became paralysed by the thought that I must understand every element, rather than just enjoying it – I had to learn to love poetry again.

Primary school children, however, don’t have any of those associations. The earliest things we hear and learn are usually songs and nursery rhymes: from the sun putting his hat on to the little piggies of our toes. We often read rhyming books with our children: my five year old is word perfect on everything from There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly to Room on the Broom, and woe betide me if I try to skip a verse to get to bedtime quicker! Children are at home in rhyme and verse before they learn to talk, so they don’t have any of the associations some adults have of poetry being intimidating, or difficult.

So, my advice on sharing poetry with young children is just to get started! I love Lewis Carroll’s inventive and whimsical poems. Even though today’s children won’t be familiar with the Victorian rhymes many of them parody (though they might enjoy Mary Howitt’s ‘The Spider and the Fly’, which is one of them) the nonsense and fun of ‘The Lobster Quadrille’ or ‘You Are Old, Father William’ will tickle them. Edward Lear’s poems are wonderful too. Ask them to draw a Jaberwocky, the Jumblies in their sea-faring sieve or the Pobble who has no toes, and watch their imaginations soar. There are lots of great modern collections of poetry aimed at children that continue this imaginative tradition.

Reading poems aloud, in as dramatic and over the top a way as possible, is a brilliant way to bring them to life to children. My daughter loves A A Milne’s ‘Disobedience’ with its rapid, building rhythm and repetition of ‘James James Morrison Morrison William George Dupree’. If you feel they’ll respond well to a touch of goriness, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children will appeal – try Jim, who was eaten by a lion.

Researching She Is Fierce I came across some wonderful, lesser known poems by women that even young children will – I hope – enjoy as much as I did. Liz Lochhead’s ‘A Glasgow Nonsense Rhyme for Molly’, and Katherine Mansfield’s playful ‘When I Was A Bird’ are bound to delight younger readers. For slightly older children, the chatty, encouraging tone of ‘God Says Yes to Me’ by Kaylin Haught will appeal. Jan Dean’s ‘Three Good Things’ could inspire a discussion about the three best things to choose from their day. Jean Little’s ‘Today’ – like the poems in Allan Ahlberg’s much-loved Please Mrs Butler – speaks directly to the experience of school-children, and they will be delighted to find themselves reflected there – and with the poem’s rebelliousness!

You’re never too young for poetry and I’d love to hear what poems young readers (and listeners) enjoy! You can tweet me and let me know their favourites at @Anabooks.

Ana Sampson

Ana Sampson is the author of many bestselling anthologies including I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud and Other Poems You Half-Remember from School, Tyger Tyger Burning Bright: Much Loved Poems you Half-Remember, Poems to Learn by Heart, Green and Pleasant Land: Best-Loved Poems of the British Countryside and Best-Loved Poems: A Treasury of Verse. Ana grew up in Kent and studied English Literature at the University of Sheffield. After achieving both a BA and an MA, she began a career in publishing PR and has appeared multiple times on radio and television discussing books and poetry. Ana lives in Surrey with her husband, two daughters and two demanding cats. She is Fierce was her first poetry collection for Macmillan.