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.

Shauna Darling Robertson: Guerrilla Poetry

Guerrilla Poetry

I love being surprised by poetry, whether that means finding a poem in a fresh voice, an unusual style, a different format or an unexpected place.

In my book Saturdays at the Imaginarium there’s a poem called ‘The Poetry Guerrilla’ featuring a mysterious character who sneaks poems into strange locations for people to find – inside a boiled egg, etched onto an aspirin, etc. I was thrilled when a London school got in touch to say that the poem inspired them to create their own guerrilla poetry project for National Poetry Day, which got me thinking about some of the wonderful things I’ve come across since I started getting interested in poetry guerrilla-ing. Here are a few of them, in the hope that one or two might inspire some guerrilla tactics of your own!

Poetry ‘bombing’ What if cities that have suffered wartime bombings could experience a different sort of ‘bombing’ – one where poems rain down instead of missiles? Chilean art collective Casagrande staged five ‘Poetry Rain’ projects in different cities, as a protest against war. In this video you can see what happened when 100,000 poems were dropped from a helicopter over London’s Southbank. “But I don’t have access to a helicopter,” I hear you say. Okay, so how might you adapt this concept to do something on a smaller scale?

Pay with a poem Did you know that you can pay for a coffee with a handwritten poem on World Poetry Day each March? Coffee company Julius Meinl kicked off the idea in 2013 and it went global, with people around the world penning limericks for lattes and elegies for espressos. Here’s a video from the 2016 event. No need to wait for coffee time though… how else might you turn poems into valuable currency?

The street sign poet Stroll around London’s Kentish Town and you might see ‘the parachute of intrigue’, ‘the girl made of mist’ or ‘the heart is a crazy bus driver’. “There is a street sign outside our place on Islip Street,” explains local poet Mark Waddell. “It’s there to make folks think, chuckle and ruminate.” Discover more at Mark Waddell’s blog.

Poem in Your Pocket Day Poem in Your Pocket Day takes place every year in the USA (April 29th in 2021). The idea began in New York City, then spread across the USA and into Canada. UK, anyone? The basic idea is to carry a poem in your pocket and share it with everyone you meet that day. More info and ideas here.

Wear a poem Miami-based artist Augustina Woodgate sewed paper tags carrying lines of poetry into second-hand clothes for sale in charity shops. Buy a t-shirt, find a poem! You can read more in this news article. If you’re working with kids, needles and sneaking into shops are probably out. But there are lots of ways to ‘wear a poem’, right?

Edible poems Guerillas need to keep their strength up, and what better food than poetry! Poetry Digest, edited by Swithun Cooper and Chrissy Williams, was a magazine that iced poems onto cakes – and invited the Young Poets Network to join in. Find out more and read the poems (which, luckily, were photographed before being gobbled) at The Young Poets Network.

That’s all for now (though I do have more if you’re interested!). I’d love to hear about any guerrilla poetry projects you might create or come across. Drop me a line or tag me on twitter at @ShaunaDarRob,

PS. If you’re going to get into poetry guerrilla-ing, do keep your common sense about you. Stay safe, respect others and the natural environment, and never confuse a poetry guerrilla with a poetry gorilla.

Shauna Darling Robertson

Shauna Darling Robertson’s poems for adults and children have been performed by actors, displayed on buses, used as song lyrics, turned into comic art, made into short films and published in a variety of books and magazines. Her first solo collection for children is Saturdays at the Imaginarium (Troika, 2020). A second, You Are Not Alone, written with support from Arts Council England, is forthcoming (Troika, 2022). www.shaunadarlingrobertson.com @ShaunaDarRob

Rachel Piercey: Tyger Tyger

Introducing Tyger Tyger Magazine

I am thrilled to introduce Tyger Tyger Magazine, a new online journal of poems for children which will soon be accepting submissions for the first issue. Establishing a magazine of children’s poetry is something I’ve been dreaming of for a long time – and now I’ve finally taken the leap.

© Imogen Foxell

Once a term, Tyger Tyger Magazine will publish twelve poems on a shared theme, by contemporary writers from across the world. Selected poems in each issue will come with free teaching resources, and each poem will be available as a free, downloadable, printable poster. I love how the walls of primary school classrooms are always bright and bustling with creativity, and this will make it easy to add a poem or two into the mix. I want these poems to roar in as many dimensions as possible!

© Imogen Foxell

I really hope this will be welcome news for writers of children’s poetry. Poets who write for adults have a vast number of submission opportunities, and I know myself how helpful it is to have a focus for new writing, and how exciting it is to see your work appear in conversation with other new poems. It’s also exhilaratingly easy, as a reader of poetry, to find magazines full of brand-new poems to be stirred, entertained and astonished by. But if you write poems for children, there are far fewer opportunities. And I believe it’s equally important for children’s poets to have a direction, testing ground and showcase for new work. Jonathan Humble has recently launched a children’s poetry magazine too – the gorgeous Dirigible Balloon, already sailing with lots of lovely poems – so there are at least two new places to submit this year. I hope more and more children’s poetry magazines will open up in time!

© Imogen Foxell

The name Tyger Tyger comes, of course, from the poem by William Blake. As soon as it occurred to me, I knew I’d found my title. The real-life creature stalks inside it: wild and mighty, precious and playful. For those who know Blake’s poem, it conjures awe-filled questions about existence. The archaic spelling gifts a twist of strangeness. And there’s the sense of an echo or an invocation in the repetition, which is one of my favourite poetic devices. Blake’s tyger makes you feel something powerful and so do the poems I love best, and which I want to publish in the magazine.

I am extremely lucky to have a wonderful editorial team around me: Rakhshan Rizwan, Kate Wakeling and Helen Steffens. I have spent countless happy hours talking about poetry and writing for children with these incredible women, and they bring a vast range of expertise to the magazine, as readers and writers and lovers of children’s literature. I am excited and honoured that they will be helping me to choose the poems for each issue.

© Imogen Foxell

The artwork for the magazine is by the hugely talented Imogen Foxell. She was the first artist I thought of – I’d encountered her work via The Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, and her magical, characterful illustrations exactly chimed with my vision for the magazine. I absolutely love the logo and the tygers she has created; they are compelling creatures, full of dreamy majesty and mystery, and they pounce and prowl off the page.

The website will be fully launched soon, with details of the first call for submissions, and the first twelve poems will launch in January 2022. In the meantime, you can sign up to the mailing list to keep up to date with new issues and submission opportunities. You can also follow Tyger Tyger Magazine on our new Twitter account, @tygertygermag. Join in and help us to burn bright!

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey writes for adults and for children. Her poetry picture book, If You Go Down to the Woods Today (Magic Cat, illustrated by Freya Hartas), came out in March 2021 and has been translated into nineteen different languages. Her latest poetry pamphlet is Disappointing Alice (HappenStance Press, 2019). www.rachelpierceypoet.com

Chrissie Gittins: Libraries Do Change Lives

Libraries Do Change Lives

I grew up in a household with few books. My parents enjoyed the play of language and my mother was a talented raconteur. My father told me about a local man called Peter Nut (P. Nut) who married a woman called Hazel. My mother received a proposal of marriage from a man called Mr Jump who subsequently married a woman called Mrs Stamp. In school holidays my brother and I would sit down at the dinner table and ask my mother to tell us about ‘the olden days’. She would spin a detail into an elaborate story – the uncle who hung the apple wallpaper upside down, the hole that was knocked into a wall so they could listen to the radio next door.

Poster from the Great School Libraries website

It was through borrowing books from libraries that my interest in literature and language grew – both local and school libraries. It is a statutory, legal right for every community in the UK to have access to a local library. But 773 public libraries, a fifth of the libraries once in service, have closed since 2010. Statistics in a report from the Chartered Institute of Public Finances and Accountancy (CIPFA) show that use of public libraries has fallen by 70% in the past 20 years.

It is well documented that children who read for pleasure make marked progress in Maths and English and benefit greatly from the opportunity to explore their imagination. Children with books at home are six times more likely to read above their expected reading age. But if a family can’t access a library and haven’t spare money to buy books where are they to find them? In their school library perhaps? Astoundingly it is not a statutory requirement for every school to have a library. But it is a statutory requirement for every prison to have a library. In the UK 50% of prisoners are illiterate. How many of those prisoners could have widened their opportunities and avoided incarceration if their literacy had been nurtured through reading at an early age?

Recent issue of The School Librarian, the quarterly journal of the School Library Association

One in eight schools across England, Wales and Northern Ireland does not have a library. The bleak irony is that children on free school meals are twice as likely to be attending a school which doesn’t have a library. The Great School Libraries Campaign (https://www.greatschoollibraries.org.uk) addresses these inequalities in its objectives which include encouraging Ofsted to recognize libraries and librarians in their school inspection framework, and securing funding for school libraries. This has been a long-standing issue and in 2014 a report from the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group asserted that it was ‘vital’ that all schools ‘have a good library to ensure children … fulfil their potential’. But this has not resulted in statutory school libraries.

Cordwalles Junior School, Surrey, school library. Photograph: Cordwalles Junior School

I was heartened to see that the current Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell, wrote an open letter in April to Boris Johnson calling for ring-fenced funding for school libraries to the tune of £100 million annually. (https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2021/april/libraries-change-lives-read-cressida-cowells-open-letter-to-prime-minister-boris-johnson/) ‘How is it fair,’ she writes, ‘that some children are being given this immeasurable advantage in life, but stark book poverty means many more are denied this same chance to change their future?’ She states that £28m would enable the one in eight primary schools without a library to develop space, stock and expertise; £75m per year would employ a part-time librarian; and £60m per year would allow a school to buy one new book a year for each child. Here’s to this government ensuring that a well-run, well-stocked library is provided for each and every child.

This is the contact information for Boris Johnson should you wish to email your thoughts: https://email.number10.gov.uk

Chrissie Gittins

Chrissie Gittins has had three of her five children’s poetry collections selected 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.

Matt Goodfellow: In Their Voice, About Their Life

In Their Voice, About Their Life

In my opinion, one of the most brilliant and powerful things about poetry is that it can be a vehicle for children to write ‘in their voice, about their life.’ As a former primary school teacher, I’m acutely aware how narrow the writing curriculum can be in some schools, and how much pressure teachers are under to get children writing in a certain way in order to satisfy those incalculable geniuses who set the curriculum.

Poetry can, if welcomed into the classroom, give a space where teachers and children can learn about the enormous breadth and diversity of poetry together – they can read and discuss and perform different poems from different cultures and different times and say ‘Wow, so these are all poems!’ – they can use these as starting points to have a go at shaping their own thoughts, feelings and experiences into poems which are free from the expectations of the rest of the writing curriculum.

Importantly, when exposed on a daily basis to poetry, children begin to understand that poets play with thoughts, feelings and ideas in their own unique voice – and it’s something they can also do too. As a teacher in Manchester, I was forever correcting verbal and written Mancunianisms like ‘Can I go toilet?’ or ‘I went town with Mum last weekend’ into ‘proper English’ – one day a lad in my class who was a pretty shrewd (if awkward) character to deal with stopped me dead in my tracks when he said: ‘Mr Goodfellow, how come you tell me it’s wrong to say ‘Can I go toilet?’ when my Dad says it, and my grandad says it?’ And I got it. I got the fact that the way a family speaks to each other, the way a person thinks is their cultural heritage – and poetry allows that voice to speak.

I see my job as a poet in schools to open the doorway to poetry for both teachers and children and spark discussions that will hopefully continue long after I’ve gone. I read a selection of my poems that range from silly to sad and all things in between – and try to explain to the children that I try to reflect my life when I write – and my life is silly, sad and all the things in between!

Often the most moving encounters I have are when I’ve discussed the difficulties I had in childhood living between two houses that never felt like home, shuttling between two parents who made no secret of their disdain for each other and who had moved onto new relationships with partners that didn’t seem to have time for me and my sister. In every classroom I visit, I am aware there will be children who have the same experience – who feel as lost and displaced and angry as I did – and I try to show that poetry can give a voice to those feelings.

I have been told many times that some of the poems I write that touch ‘difficult’ emotions like sadness and grief are poems which are ‘not for children’. I disagree wholeheartedly. Giving children an invitation to explore their own life in their own words is absolutely crucial.

I’ll leave you with a poem that was handed to me after I’d done a morning workshop in a school a couple of years ago – we’d looked at a model poem and talked about why poetry was different to any other kind of writing and then had a go at our own poems. After the session, the children went out to play and it was as they were on their way back in that a girl handed me a little piece of lined paper – on it was a poem that was nothing like the one we’d looked at in the classroom session – it was her poem, in her voice about her life:

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is an award-winning poet from Manchester. He spent over ten years working as a primary school teacher before embarking on his poetry career. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador and spends his time visiting schools, libraries and festivals where his inspiring performances and workshops open new doors to poetry for both children and adults.

Joshua Seigal: Animal Poetry

Animals are great, aren’t they? So much variety; so many opportunities for writing. Since my family got our first pet twelve years ago (a belligerent Lhasa Apso dog named Winston) I have been a big animal lover, and many of my poems feature cats, dogs, and even the odd lemur. What I’d like to do in this blog is share two ideas for writing animal-based poetry, suitable for younger and older children respectively.

If I Were/I Would…

If I were a lion

I would prowl to school baring sharpened fangs

If I were a dog

I would gobble my delicious dinner out of a gleaming golden bowl

If I were a monkey

I would swing from tree to tree in my lush, green garden

If I were a shark

I would glide delicately through a sparkling swimming pool…

I never did get round to finishing this poem. Why not ask pupils to have a go at imagining themselves as different animals, and thinking what they would do if they were to assume animal form. Either as shared or individual writing, children can use the structure ‘If I were/I would’ to continue the poem above. Particular attention should be paid to the use of powerful verbs (the lion doesn’t walk, she prowls) and adjectives (‘lush’, ‘sparkling’). This is a really simple way of writing a fun animal poem that can be taken in any number of different directions. And remember: the children are considering not merely what animals themselves do, but what they (the children) would do if they were an animal.

When I Met…

Ask students to close their eyes and think of an emotion. Next, ask them to imagine: if their emotion was an animal, what would it be? As a writing warm up, give the students five minutes or so to take some notes describing their animal, paying particular attention to the five senses. If it helps them, they can draw and label pictures. Once each student has gathered a bank of ideas, you can share the following as-yet unpublished poem of mine:

The Tiger

doesn’t want you

to look into her eyes.

You can marvel at her stance

and the way her tongue flicks

across her fangs;

you can cower at her claws

and the stripes that streak

like poison down her back;

you can even draw up close

to catch her bitter breath

but the tiger doesn’t want you

to look into her eyes

for

should you do so

you might see nothing more

than another little housecat

blinking

      back at you.

In this poem, the tiger represents fear. You can have a discussion: what does the poet’s encounter with the tiger say about what happens when fear is confronted? What literary techniques are used in the poem? In the light of the poem, and using their ideas from the warm up, students can have a go at writing a poem in which they come face to face with their animal. If it helps, they can use the phrase ‘When I met…’ as a sentence starter. Here are some of the intriguing animals students have met during my workshops:

The crow of jealousy

The elephant of sadness

The donkey of shyness

The peacock of joy

So there you have it: two ideas for creating animal-based poetry. These ideas constitute bare bones, and I am intrigued to see the different ways workshop leaders and students alike are able to flesh them out. And remember: please visit my website for lots of free poetry and videos!

Joshua Seigal

Joshua Seigal is a poet, performer and workshop leader based in London. His latest collection, Welcome To My Crazy Life, is published by Bloomsbury, and he was the recipient of the 2020 Laugh Out Loud Book Award. Please visit http://www.joshuaseigal.co.uk for more info.

Shauna Darling Robertson: Children’s Poetry in Translation

Children’s Poetry in Translation

A few years ago I subscribed to Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT). The magazine was started by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in 1965 so it’s older than me – just! Clare Pollard is the current editor and each issue has a ‘focus’ section which hones in on topics from dead women poets to Japan, from extinction to the Caribbean, and from the Maghreb to LGBTQ+ poetry.

The Summer 2015 issue focused on world poetry for children, with new translations of poems from Russia, Taiwan, Samoa, Mexico, Eritrea and more. I still have my copy and I’d love to share a couple of its treasures.

Toon Tellegen is one of Holland’s best-known poets, with a long list of awards to his name. I have two of his adult collections, Raptors and About Love and About Nothing Else. Philip Fried, founding editor of The Manhattan Review wrote, “Tellegen’s poems are parables for grown-up children. Their world is stripped-down, urgent, playful, quirky, familiar as children’s games yet strangely disorienting.” I hadn’t realised that Tellegen is also a popular and prolific children’s author until a Wikipedia search revealed a list of around 40 children’s titles!

The poems featured in MPT are from a sublime book called I Wish, which pairs 33 poems prompted by the statement ‘I wish’ (translated by David Colmer) with a gallery of portraits by artist Ingrid Godon. The faces stare out with strange and serious expressions alongside Tellegen’s outstanding confessions of yearning. Sailor wishes to be music so he’ll be heard; Anton wishes courage was something you could buy; Marie and Rose wish to be the only people who don’t know about death, and Marcel wishes to have an alibi for every circumstance. Here’s Carl’s wish –

You can find out more and watch a video on the publisher’s website at https://elsewhereeditions.org/books/i-wish

Wojciech Bonowicz has published eight poetry collections in Poland. His poems have appeared in English translation in various magazines but I haven’t been able to track down a translated full collection. There are just a few prose-poem fragments by Bonowicz in MPT, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.

The fragments, referred to as ‘stories’, take the form of brief observations and aphorisms and come from a collection called Bajki Misia Fisia, which I think translates as the fairy tales of a bear called Fisia. “These stories are very short because ‘Nutty Teddy’ can concentrate only for a very short time,” says the introduction!

The fragments are sometimes funny, sometimes sad and are both strange and insightful. Here’s one of the longer ones (available online at www.modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/beard).

Gabriela Cantú Westendarp was born in the north of Mexico and is a poet, teacher and translator. She has six poetry books, one of which – Poemas del Árbol / Poems from a Tree – is for younger readers. Sadly I can’t find any record of an English translation, but two poems translated by Lawrence Schimel were featured in MPT. Both come from the book’s second half, called ‘Claudio Discovers the World’, in which the poems are dialogues between mother and son. Here’s one (also available at www.modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/the-language-of-ghosts).

In the years since that issue of MPT I’ve often fantasized about editing an anthology of children’s poetry in translation, though I have no idea if such a thing would be commercially viable! Still, in the fantasy I’m pacing the corridors of the Bologna Book Fair rooting out poets from all over the world, spending hours pouring over the International Children’s Digital Library (an incredible-looking resource of children’s literature in multiple languages), and – best of all – making a chance discovery of some amazing writer in the Pacific Islands and being sent to track them down. Poets, eh – such dreamers!

Shauna Darling Robertson

Shauna Darling Robertson’s poems for adults and children have been performed by actors, displayed on buses, used as song lyrics, turned into comic art and made into short films. Shauna has two chapbooks for adults and a collection for children, Saturdays at the Imaginarium (Troika, 2020) which explores the human imagination. She’s currently working on a new collection for teen/YA readers on the theme of mental health: You Are Not Alone, with support from Arts Council England. http://www.shaunadarlingrobertson.com @ShaunaDarRob

Liz Brownlee: Shaping the Words

After every poem, job or project that involves shape poems I think, never again. They are uniquely testing in every conceivable way, and perhaps that is why, despite the agony, I inevitably find myself contemplating another shaping idea – because the challenge of, and the enjoyment in interlacing words, poem and art, is irresistible.

In 2018 I proposed editing an anthology of shape poems about people who have shaped our world, called Shaping the World.

Shape poems must start with an excellent poem, and require a certain degree of artistic talent, experience to know what will and won’t work, piles of patience and a skill and joy in playing with form. I received numerous excellent poems, some already brilliantly shaped, and a number with ideas for a shape, many of which worked and some which didn’t.

There are a plurality of things to consider – too many words and too few words can both present problems. The way a form lies on a page – it might be too wide for instance for the dimensions of the book. When presented as a shape, the poem must still be easy to read, and read left to right as much as possible.

Concrete poems are made entirely from words that convey the subject of the poem. They do not have to be the shape of the subject, but do communicate the meaning – this is Jane Clarke’s concrete poem about Socrates in Shaping the World, which uses only words to make the shape:

Socrates, © Jane Clarke, from an idea by Jane Clarke, shaped by Liz Brownlee

Sue Hardy Dawson’s Florence Nightingale poem is a shape poem, using words plus shapes available in the word processor of the computer:

Florence Nightingale and Athena, poem and shape © Sue Hardy-Dawson

Kate Wakeling’s Rosa Parks poem fills a shape already made:

Rosa Parks, poem and shape © Kate Wakeling

I use everything available in the word processor, whatever makes the most engaging shape!

Which brings me to Word. Word is amazingly powerful. Put a word into a text box and another tab opens in the top of your document – in this tab, ‘shape format’, you can remove the background to your text box, remove or add a line around it, and most thrillingly, you can warp the text in numerous ways within the text box. This is very helpful when making a shape. You can also insert a geometric shape, and warp it using ‘edit points’ to produce small details, things which have proved impossible to make in letters or words – a beak perhaps, or a foot.

It involves much trial and error. I look at images and try and find my subject in a position which allows the poem to begin and finish in appropriate places, that will be clearly recognisable made out of words. I might find it hard to shape a bird from above. A bird from the side on a branch is much easier!  This shape uses only Word:

It’s great if you can use a word or letter in its correct place to suggest part of a shape – conjunctions like this are very pleasing, but it’s not always possible. Here the hippo’s ears are made by the B in ‘but’:

Children do enjoy shape poems and are also open to turning the page to follow text as it curls in a spiral or loops to create a shape’s curve. I think a good shape poem should accurately describe the subject of the poem and pique interest in reading the poem itself – as well as be pleasing on the eye. I don’t believe there should be any other rules.

Hopefully there is someone, somewhere reading this, that has been inspired to experiment with their word processor!

Liz Brownlee

Liz Brownlee is an award-winning poet, poetry editor, film-maker and performer at all types of poetry and natural history event. She is the author, collaborator or editor of 7 books of poetry and is proud to be a National Poetry Day Ambassador. Shaping the World, 40 historical Heroes in Verse is published on the 1st April, 2021. Poetry Roundabout LizBrownleePoet @Lizpoet

Rachel Piercey: Loud Objects, A Poetry Workshop

Loud Objects: a Poetry Workshop

Now that all the brilliant teachers are back in the classroom in person, I thought it might be helpful to share a poem-resource which I have used many times and which I’ve found to be a reliable prompt for imaginative responses. It’s pretty quick, easily adaptable, and you can write a simpler poem with KS1 or a more complex one with KS2.

The session is based around this poem of mine:

Voices

Tree considers:

Soil or sky, which is my home?

Stone remembers:

I had wings when I was thrown.

Book exhales:

See me jacketed with dust.

Gate creaks:

Hear me speak, my voice of rust.

Computer whirrs:

My poor head… so fever-full.

Mountain thunders:

Sometimes, I feel small.

Violet pipes:

Oh visit, gold-striped bees.

Swallow’s refrain:

Please send me a feathered breeze.

Maze confesses:

No idea where I am going!

Girl declares:

I’ll write this all into my poem.

After reading the poem, I recap personification and explain that I was wondering what humans would hear if they could listen in on inanimate / non-speaking objects. What emotions, secrets and surprises would be spilled?

I tell them that the first draft of this poem had ‘says’ after every object – but in the redrafting process, I decided this was too repetitive, and that I was missing the chance to use more vivid and interesting verbs to describe the voices of my objects. (Plus one noun – the swallow’s “refrain” – because I listened to a recording of swallow-song and it repeated the same whirrs and trills over and over!)

Then we gather ideas for objects together. We look around the classroom first (a clock is always popular and works well), then think more widely. We gather a big pool of words, making sure to mix up manmade and natural, domestic and grand. If you are focusing on a particular subject in class (from the water cycle to the Victorians and anything in between!) you can narrow the selection to objects related to that theme.

I’ve found that it works best to think first about what the clock / kettle / ocean / games console / tiger / football / top hat etc might want to say. Then after we’ve settled on something surprising or insightful, we choose an interesting verb to go with it. This can be a useful opportunity to use some onomatopoeia as well.  

You can create as many couplets as you have time for. It can be a class poem, or once they’ve got the hang of the structure, pupils can write their own poems individually / in pairs etc.

Finally, when using this for a class poem, I invite new ideas for a title – ‘Voices’ is a bit boring! It’s like a final statement of ownership of the poem and every class I’ve worked with has come up with something really quite beautiful and profound. Poets like to look closely at the world in new ways, and this is exactly what they’ve done!

If you use this prompt with your class, I’d love to see the poems you come up with. Feel free to contact me via my website for some feedback on your pupils’ poems, or tag me on Twitter @RachelPoet / on Instagram @rachelpierceywriter

Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey is a freelance writer and tutor. She has co-edited three children’s poetry anthologies with the Emma Press and regularly performs and runs poetry workshops in schools. If You Go Down to the Woods Today, her picture book set in a magical woodland illustrated by Freya Hartas, full of poems to read and things to find, is published by Magic Cat today! rachelpierceypoet.com

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.