Kyra Ho: Who is ‘Children’s Poetry’ Really For?

At the age of 9 I knew the following about ‘children’s poetry’: rhyme and rhythm and the recognisable can soothe the grown-up as much as the growing-up.

My grandma used to drive me to primary school. On particularly bright winter mornings she’d take issue with the sun’s position in the sky, pull over to the side of the road, and wait for it to move. As I became steadily later to school, she’d have me sing the same song (and a song is a poem and a poem a song) over and over.  Mr. Tumble’s ‘There’s a Worm at the Bottom of the Garden’ is now burnt into my brain. But it is not the act of reciting that I remember: it is the change in my grandma’s face and mood after hearing it. I have no memories of children’s poetry in an academic context, but I remember needing it and it being needed as a bridge to a loved one in a distant moment.

Readers of this blog know the support and spread of children’s poetry to be vital. It’s difficult to argue against young people getting to grips with a form of self-expression, cultural engagement, tool of empathy, world of wonder, etc.  And yes, children need children’s poetry, but what I’ve been learning during my time with The Poetry Society’s Education team is that grown-ups need it just as much. We find children reading, reciting, explaining, and falling in love with poetry so adorable that I’m starting to think it might be trialled as an alternative medicine.

Two experiences during my time with The Poetry Society stand out in particular:

Every year, The Poetry Society runs Look North More Often, an education project celebrating the gift of the Christmas tree from the Mayor of Oslo and the Norwegian Embassy in Trafalgar Square. They commission a children’s poet to write a poem for the occasion which students from a local primary school recite at the annual ceremony – after some coaching from another children’s poet. This year, I got to meet everyone involved and interview the children about how they found the experience for a Poetry Society podcast. I got to hear them recite Kate Wakeling’s ‘and a tree’ more times than I can count and ask them what the poem meant to them. I got to see and hear people who have been on this earth for less than a decade get excited about words! If that’s not lovely, what on earth is?

Another experience that I can’t seem to get out of my head is reading the entries to Young Poets Network’s (many and varied) challenges set for 5-25 year olds.  A particular challenge, ‘Your Name is a Poem’ in collaboration with Modern Poetry in Translation, asked for poems about the meanings of a name. I couldn’t believe how many primary school children were entering the competition with nomenclature-based musings that were, actually, pretty beautiful. Several times I had to ask whether they were likely to have been written by parents seeking glory instead, the response to which was always ‘no’. I’d love to list all the lines of (actual) children’s poetry that gave me that ‘oh that’s a good way of saying something’ feeling, but you can see them all here anyway.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learnt from my short time with Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society’s projects with children’s poetry is something we’ve always known: children should never be underestimated. Their love for poetry is as much our gain as it is theirs.

Kyra Ho

Kyra Ho is a Publishing and Participation Trainee with The Poetry Society. She recently completed her master’s in Francophone and Hispanophone poetry and runs a podcast dedicated to poetry in translation: In Another Voice. https://www.inanothervoicepodcast.com/

Charlotte Hacking: See a Poet, Be a Poet

A visit from a poet can seem like a big investment for schools, particularly in the current financial climate. But, if done right, it can be a valuable learning experience for the children, engaging them in a love of reading as well as enhancing and extending ideas and enthusiasm for writing.

An opportunity to see and learn from professional poets is aspirational for children. It brings poetry to life, enabling them to see creativity and writing as a profession. Poets speaking about their work, reading or performing poems and leading writing workshops or exercises brings a greater level of depth to learning about authentic writing processes.

Matt Goodfellow with children from Swaffield Primary and Manor Leas Primary schools

To get the most out of a poet visit and to make it as successful as possible, here are a few top tips.

Before the visit:

  • Do your research first. Find out as much as possible about potential poets, considering how they might engage and appeal to your children. Many poets have audio or video resources on their websites. The Poet section of the CLPE website contains poet performances, and the Children’s Poetry Archive have a wide range of audio recordings, which will give you a good idea of what you might expect.
  • Make contact with your chosen poet to agree a timetable well in advance. It is important that this is a collaborative process, so that the visit is part of a planned programme of learning rather than being something of a ‘strange interruption’.
  • Communicate clearly with the poet, finding out what they offer and what a realistic programme might be. Will the visit be in person or virtual? Do they need any particular resources? Do they have any specific dietary or access requirements?
  • Be realistic about your expectations – you’d never expect a Year 6 teacher to teach every child in the school on the same day, so don’t expect this from a poet! Some poets may have a range of poems that work for children of all ages, but some might want to focus on a specific phase. Lean into where they feel they will make the most impact. A good model might be a whole school introduction, with the poet reading poems in an assembly, enabling every child to be able to feel part of the experience, followed by focussed work in classes where the poet’s work is most relevant.
  • Set the scene beforehand. Allow the children to get to know the poet through their website or any video or audio resources you can find, and read a few poems by them.
  • Consider including a book sale at the end of the school day where parents can take their children to buy books and have them signed as a memento, engaging a local bookseller to support with this. Some poets may wish to sell books themselves.
Matt Goodfellow with children from Swaffield Primary and Manor Leas Primary schools

On the day:

  • Share a photo of the poet with all the staff and children – including school office staff – letting them know they are coming and making sure they are ready to welcome them.
  • Ensure resources, including technological requirements for a virtual visit, are ready and available.
  • If the poet comes in person, make sure they are welcomed, know where facilities are, and are shown to a space where they can make themselves comfortable and where they can get water, tea or coffee.
  • Don’t fill every available break with additional activities like pupil interviews or book signings; it is important that adequate breaks and lunch are provided.
  • Ensure activities run to schedule so the day doesn’t become too long for the poet, especially if a signing is included. Attaching post it notes to books with names for dedications will help to speed things up.

Afterwards:

  • Send a thank you card, letter or email to the poet.
  • Make sure the poet is paid promptly – it’s important to realise that visits are often a poet’s main source of income.
  • Create a central display with the poet’s books, alongside photographs and work from the visit.
  • Share the event on your website, in your newsletter, or in local press, helping to raise the profile of poetry in the school and wider community.
  • Follow up and extend the work done in your English lessons. The poetry plans on CLPE’s website can be used direct or drawn upon to support schools’ own plans. This gives the visit added purpose and allows the flame of excitement on the visit day to burn for longer.

As poet Matt Goodfellow reflects, “Poetry is an area that teachers and children often lack confidence in. A visit shows poets are real life people, and can show a different side to writing, facilitating creativity outside of the usual constraints of the curriculum. It’s often the children who are usually reluctant to engage in literacy that shine and their teachers see a side of them that’s not been seen before. They feel free to discuss their thoughts, feelings and ideas using their own words; they’re often the natural born poets.”

Charlotte Hacking

Charlotte Hacking is the Learning and Programme Director at the Centre for Literacy in Primary (CLPE) Education and a judge on the CLPE Poetry Award, the CLiPPA. This year, the CLPE are working with Macmillan to celebrate 30 Years of Macmillan Children’s Poetry. This includes conducting the Big Amazing Poetry Survey, to gain a picture of poetry practice and provision in primary schools. Primary teachers can fill in the survey and contribute to this important research between 16th January and 6th February 2023.

Ana Sampson: On Trees and Poems

On Trees and Poems 

They cut down a tree on our road this week.

My daughters and I were sad, and cross. Although already we couldn’t quite remember the exact shape and character of the tree – the branches had been efficiently disposed of, only the stump remained – we were bereft. It had been a kindly tree, throwing green shade over a bench on which people and dogs and occasionally the street’s reigning cat, Binky, sat to watch the world go by.

My six year old ran up to the stump, to its shocking new bright flat top, and hugged it. And then my nine year old joined her, and they made me do it too (although I might have done it anyway.) We counted its rings, and we missed it. I’m sure we looked deeply eccentric, but I’m also sure that any one of our neighbours, seeing that stark and sliced trunk, would have understood the response. Perhaps some of them might even have joined in.

It is difficult to write about trees without writing poetry. They are a wonderful example of an everyday object that can be transfigured by the kind of close attention you have to pay to something in order to write about it. What I love most about poetry is the new ways of looking at the world it offers us. Children, whose perspectives are fresher and less calcified than ours, instinctively respond to this. And when you ask them to look – to really look – at something, they will surprise and delight you with their responses.

In order to write a poem about a tree, you need to have a very good look at it… and they are magic. You need to watch and think about the movement of the leaves, to listen to the whisper of the boughs and the chattering of the squirrels. It’s important to stroke the bark, lie stretched out beneath it and look up into its canopy, inhale its scent, give it a hug. You may have walked past it a thousand times, but it might still be a tree whose shape you wouldn’t be able to recall if it was suddenly gone. 

Children build kingdoms among the trees. Whether we clambered high into the branches or looked for fairies or beetles among the roots, trees were our playgrounds. We hoarded their treasures, gathered from the parks and pavements: glossy conkers, sycamore spinners, cherry stones, acorn cups for tiny feasts, tumbled blossom, sticky buds to uncurl in a milk bottle. They furnished us with swords, pilgrims’ staffs and magic wands. They were milestones and boundaries, and a certain well-loved tree might have been – might still be – the landmark that tells us: “You are home.”

Within my private forest of remembered trees stand a friendly magnolia, regularly scrambled up in childhood, and the horse chestnut – in my mind, always bearing its pale candles – visible from a window I last gazed from decades ago. Further in, a hilltop monkey puzzle stretches its sinuous fingers, an ancient oak spreads, and every Christmas tree I have ever loved (which is all of them, perhaps especially the scrawny ones) shines. I also have trees immortalised by poets and writers in my mental forest: from nursery rhyme nut trees to Shakespeare’s bare ruin’d choirs, from Housman’s lovely cherry to Hopkins’ Binsey Poplars.

We need trees and we need people who will plant them, not cut them down. It’s why Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris included Willow, Acorn and Conker in the beautiful spell book The Lost Words, incantations for words excised from the children’s dictionary due to underuse. To lie, once in a while, under a tree and look up through its leaves is a pure and primeval kind of medicine. It is an incredible gift to be able to give and, even for those of us whose days in the classroom are far behind us, a lesson we could all do with learning.

Ana Sampson

Ana Sampson is the editor of, among other anthologies, Wonder: The Natural History Poetry Book (Macmillan Children’s Books) which contains some lovely poems about trees.

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.

Becky Fisher: My first memory of a poem – and the three things it taught me.

My very first memory of poetry is being taught a poem that my mum herself had learned off-by-heart as a student at university. ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’, a short poem of just nine lines, has a wonderful story of its own: it came to the poet, Caedmon, in a dream, after he fled a party at which he was supposed to perform. Caedmon, you see, is terrified of speaking in front of people, and so he slips out of the party before his turn comes around. He falls asleep, and is visited by a mysterious figure who tells him to sing of “the beginning of all things”. To Caedmon’s surprise, the words start flowing and he is able to perform his poem to all the other monks. There’s one more interesting fact about this poem that you need to know: it’s written in Old English, the language spoken in England between (roughly) the sixth and twelfth century.

In hearing Caedmon’s story and his poem, I learned three important things:

1) You can experience a poem without understanding it

The language of Old English feels familiar to us in its rhythms and sounds, but it’s not easy to understand the words themselves. Our vocabulary and pronunciation has changed so much over the intervening centuries that we can’t just jump into an Old English poem and get it right away.

But I found that that doesn’t really matter. In fact, the experience of letting the sounds wash over me, and of learning to form those unfamiliar words with my own mouth, was an enjoyable and valid experience in itself. Perhaps you could try listening to a poem read in a language not your own: what can you understand from the pace, the rhythm, the music of the words as you listen?

2) Inspiration can strike unexpectedly

Caedmon’s inspiration comes to him in a completely unexpected way. We might not all be so lucky as to resolve our writer’s block thanks to a dream of a mysterious stranger, but there’s something about listening out for inspiration and being ready to respond. When we’re stuck with a piece of work, doing something completely different like going for a walk or listening to a piece of music can be just what we need to unlock our inspiration. Perhaps now is a good time to look around you – really look, with an open mind as well as open eyes – and find something to inspire you to write a poem of your own.

3) Poems connect us

When I was little, I remember feeling that this poem connected me to what seemed an impossibly ancient world, of songs and dreams, and I have since always looked at poems as a way to connect me to someone else’s experience. Now more than ever, we need these connections to help us understand each other, and to keep our bonds strong while we’re apart.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that I went on to write my own poems (just for me) throughout my childhood, as a way to tell stories and create glimpses into different worlds. I also studied Old English at university, and eventually wrote my doctoral thesis about this wonderful, confounding, intricate language. I now work as the CEO of the English Association, a learned society for English, and a charity which works to further the knowledge, enjoyment, and understanding of the English language and its literatures. It is a privilege to share the joy of high-quality children’s books through English 4-11 Picture Book Awards, a competition which recognises the best children’s picture books as recommended by teachers and education experts.

Becky Fisher

Becky Fisher is CEO of the English Association.

 

Photo of Caedmon’s Cross by Rich Tea, by Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0