Ana Sampson: Poetic Perspectives on our Planet

Poetic perspectives on our planet

One of the great pleasures of poetry is that the poets’ dazzling feats of imagination can whisk the reader under the sea, to another planet or to view the world from another perspective in the space of just a few lines. When I was choosing poems for Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book, I looked for verses that would help me see the natural world in a new way, as many of the museum’s amazing exhibits do. I hoped this shift in viewpoint would encourage children to connect more deeply with the natural world, and encourage a passion for protecting it.

The narrator of a poem can be anyone – or anything: a child, an astronaut, Charles Darwin’s wife, a duck, a dinosaur, a dodo. Children are used to suspending disbelief for the space of a poem, since we have all gorged on a diet of talking animals and magical happenings, often in rhyme since our earliest days being read to. A poem is a portal the poet asks us to walk through, and on the other side, nothing looks quite the same.

One of the poems I’m most looking forward to sharing with young readers is Gita Ralleigh’s ‘Solar System Candy’.

If I ate the solar system,

the moon would taste

strange and dusty

as Turkish Delight.

Planets would be

giant gobstoppers,

except Saturn and Jupiter –

those gas giants

fizz like sherbert,

or melt like candy floss

in your mouth.

The meteor belt

pops and crackles

like space dust.

Comets leave a minty sting

on your tongue.

Black holes taste of cola bottles.

Or memories

you once had

and lost.

Gita’s poem is full of sensory delights that help readers of all ages to see these distant astral bodies with fresh eyes as they recall familiar tastes and sensations. I had never managed to remember which planets were made of gas, but now they taste like candy floss on my tongue, I’ll never forget! The image of Turkish Delight is perfectly chosen, reminding us of the fact that the moon’s surface is dusty enough for us to leave boot prints in it if we could walk around on it.

John Clare’s poem ‘The Ants’ starts with a human-sized perspective. We see the ants’ procession from our usual lofty height. But with the suggestion of a whispered language among the workers, suddenly the reader is urged to swoop down to eavesdrop, and to imagine the customs and commands that govern the intricately-ordered community.

What wonder strikes the curious, while he views

The black ant’s city, by a rotten tree,

Or woodland bank! In ignorance we muse:

Pausing, annoy’d, – we know not what we see,

Such government and thought there seem to be;

Some looking on, and urging some to toil,

Dragging their loads of bent-stalks slavishly:

And what’s more wonderful, when big loads foil

One ant or two to carry, quickly then

A swarm flock round to help their fellow-men.

Surely they speak a language whisperingly,

Too fine for us to hear; and sure their ways

Prove they have kings and laws, and that they be

Deformed remnants of the Fairy-days.

Some of the poems explicitly ask the reader to think themselves into the mind of a seal, or a tree, or a lizard. It’s a wonderful way to ignite children’s imaginations: who hasn’t wondered where the cat goes at night, or what an elephant might dream about? Geoffrey Dearmer’s poem ‘Whale’ – with its lovely lulling ‘rise and sink and rise and sink’ putting the reader right there in the waves – is a great example.

Wouldn’t you like to be a whale

And sail serenely by—

An eighty-foot whale from your tip to your tail

And a tiny, briny eye?

Wouldn’t you like to wallow

Where nobody says ‘Come out!’?

Wouldn’t you love to swallow

And blow all the brine about?

Wouldn’t you like to be always clean

But never have to wash, I mean,

And wouldn’t you love to spout—

O yes, just think—

A feather of spray as you sail away,

And rise and sink and rise and sink,

And blow all the brine about?

Asking children to fire up their imaginations by reading – and writing – their way into fresh ways of seeing the natural world can foster a connection with the wonders of our planet. Hopefully, it will also inspire the next generation develop a lifelong interest in protecting it.

Ana Sampson

Ana Sampson has edited eleven poetry anthologies including Wonder: The Natural History Museum Poetry Book and She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women. She knows much less about dinosaurs than her children.

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.