Two weeks ago I had the privilege of spending a week at Arvon with a group of young poets, top winners and commended in the 2020 Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award.
It was an ideal opportunity to find out how these phenomenal young writers got into poetry. Chiefly I was curious to know, how far back did it go? Were there poems that had significant influence on them as young children? Could they identify an ‘aha’ moment, some turning point in their lives that made them become poets?
Interestingly, for most I spoke to, early childhood was not a factor – their interest in poetry came when they were a bit older, at the end of primary school or the beginning of secondary.
April mentioned coming across W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ which she found ‘visually beautiful’ and was inspired to write nature poems of her own. Aged twelve she began to post these on allpoetry.com and got feedback from people of all ages. That led her to Young Poets Network.
“Children have complex emotions,” says April, ‘I wish I could have got into poetry earlier but I wasn’t that interested in the poetry that was being exclusively written for children.” What was important was that the schools these young poets went to encouraged them to enter poetry competitions. Thank goodness they did!
Many liked reading poems written by young poets their own age writing about things they recognise. One remembered their teacher reading a poem ‘Midnight Cat’ to their Yr 5 class explaining ‘this was written by an eleven year old’. That made an impression and really made you sit up and listen!
Entering a competition for these young poets was important in terms of setting the bar high for themselves. Many were appreciative of teachers or older students who organised reading groups where poetry could be discussed in a non-academic way. Discovering there are ‘multiple ways of looking at a poem’, realising that poets generally write about things that trouble them, and recognising poetry as a way in to learning about current affairs, history and science, can lead to new ways of knowing the world, and the self.
Daniel, for example, read a book in his GCSE history class ‘The Making of America’ and was shocked to learn of the violence early Americans inflicted on indigenous people. He became interested in the ‘Trail of Tears’, the displacement of the Cherokee and Navajo peoples, and some of this has gone into his poetry.
Euan told me, “The most vivid poetic encounter I remember from childhood was ‘A Case of Murder’ by Vernon Scannell. Our teacher read it aloud, then gave us a copy. The poem is about a boy tormenting a cat and when the cat tries to escape by running out the door, the boy slams the door just as it passes through and, ‘the cat cracked like a nut’. That is the line that remains clearly in my head, even after six years.”
Euan remembers how the poem frightened him so much so that he eventually had to take it home to discuss there, in particular that piercing image of the cat cracking like a nut.
The poetry that matters most and influences us for the rest of our lives is the stuff that touches us deeply, even uncomfortably so. Euan explains, “I think this experience has shaped my understanding of art. The artistic encounters that have moved me the most are often those that are the most disturbing. My favourite pieces of writing are those which make me most uncomfortable or uneasy.”
Thanks to the Foyle Young Poets for sharing their experiences. Work by April Egan, Daniel Wale and Euan Sinclair can be found here:
Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. Cheryl’s website.
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