Take a proverb (a popular expression) and innovate.
‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’
‘A camel in the park is worth six in the theatre aisle’.
In Cornwall, they have an interesting idiom that is worth discussing, ‘the tongue-less man gets his land took’. I innovated on that expression:
In Cornwall they say,
The tongue-less man gets his tongue took.
In Argyllshire they say,
The thoughtless camel gets its hump stolen.
In Gloucestershire they say,
The worthless crown gets its thorns trimmed.
In Yorkshire they say,
The hopeless hero gets his bravery burned.
In Liverpool they say,
The harmless rumour gets its beard singed
In Galway Bay they say,
The timeless clock gets its hands cuffed.
Try playing the game where expressions are taken literally, e.g.
The detectives said
the books had been cooked.
(They tasted good).
My teacher said we could
have a free hand.
(I added it to my collection).
Some people bottle up
(I keep mine in a jar).
My Mother said,
“Hold your tongue!”
(It was too slippery).
In the school races,
I licked everyone in the class.
(It made my tongue sore).
Here is a bank of possible idioms to play with:
How to Invent new proverbs.
First, take an even number of proverbs.
Next, cut them in half.
Still waters / run deep.
Too many cooks / spoil the broth.
Finally, stick them together in the wrong order:
Still waters spoil the broth.
Too many cooks run deep.
Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is Pie Corbett is a teacher-poet – his collection ‘Evidence of `Dragons’ is used in many classrooms. He has published and edited over 250 books, runs ‘Talk for Writing’ and was made an honorary Doctor of Letters for services to creativity, poetry and social justice by the Open University. He runs online training for teachers and every Monday works with about 6,000 children on @TeachingLive, running writing sessions of poetry, creative nonfiction and story.
There was a time when poetry was put on a pedestal and regarded as either ‘special’ and ‘magical’ or somewhat elite and effete. It’s two sides of the same cliché of course and it’s an attitude that still lingers somewhat – despite poetry slams, raps and the tendency of Building Societies and Insurance Companies to use a TV version of poetry to boost their sales impact.
But poetry has always seemed normal and essential to me. It’s in my blood stream.
I come from a very un-booky childhood home – a household without books, with never a bedtime story for me. Yet I grew up immersed in words and the music of words. Educated in an era when religion involved chanting in Latin, one of my early intros to poetry was listening and joining in with the Call and Response of the catechism. Then listening or joining in with chants and incantations –in mystical Latin. There were also oral stories, tongue twisters, songs and jokes – word play.
I loved words. At primary school and later at convent school I went under the radar, doing things just the way I wanted to but never being suspected of being a rebel because I was just so very small and quiet. Like a Very Bad Mouse. So if a lesson was boring (and they so frequently were) I read a book secretly. I know nothing of primary school maths because I spent my time with the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Jabberwock with eyes of flame.
I got through secondary school without playing any of their team games. I spent those sessions hiding behind heaps of other people’s clothes keeping company with Charles Causley and Mr Shakespeare and his sonnets. I never did learn to throw a ball but I loved to juggle words.
My credo is that everybody loves poetry – they just don’t always know it. There were a few raised eyebrows when I turned up at prison gates… to bring poetry to prisoners. But, with the judicious addition of chocolate hob nobs, my poetry sessions were always hugely popular.
At the same time as I was working in prisons, I was also making author visits to schools – sometimes running the same or similar poetry workshops with sticky infants and tattooed felons. Re-working Nursery Rhymes produced:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
He fell off and cracked up after all.
All the psychiatrists, psychologists too
Sectioned him off under the Mental Health Act (subsection 2)
In both settings I celebrated National Poetry Day by using Poem a Day collections and distributing poems by birthdates or special days. This provoked much reading aloud, discussion, display, sharing and some illicit trading.
In schools I work to promote reading, performing, creating, illustrating, discussing – and learning about the magic and power of language. I urge schools to read a poem a day for delight – and also to provide models and springboards to enable children to take steps to writing their own poems. In my poetry workshop manuals I provide poems as models so children (and their teachers) share a wide range of poetry and are provided with encouragement and starting points to write their own.
Teachers need to be captivated by poetry too. They may be intimidated by it or think it’s irrelevant – doesn’t fit their targets. Or it can become reduced to something to fit in at the end of term or on National Poetry Day.
We need MORE poetry in schools, in bookshops, on TV, on posters – everywhere.
At times of anxiety, celebration or grief- at each important stage of our life – we reach for a poem. It is essential. Why?
Because poetry packs a punch and poetry leaves an echo.
Michaela writes poetry, picture books, fiction and non-fiction. Her poetry is widely anthologised and she is responsible as writer, editor or co-contributor for:
Words to Whisper Words to Shout (shortlisted for BBC Blue Peter Award),
Wonderland: Alice in Poetry (shortlisted for CLPE’s CLiPPA Award)
Reaching the Stars – Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls (winner of the North Somerset Teachers’ Award) with Jan Dean and Liz Brownlee
For teaching, she has also written the popular Poetry Writing Workshops (ages 5 to 9 and 8 to 13) published by David Fulton Books/Routledge and recently reissued in a revised and extended third edition.
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 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.
Falling in love with poetry: The Caterpillar Poetry Prize 2021
I fell in love with poetry when my aunt and uncle gave me a gift of Enid Blyton’s Treasury of Verse for my seventh birthday. At the age of eight, I started to write. Though the inspiration ebbs and flows, it has been a constant in my life. But only on a couple of occasions have I attempted to write for children. I am amply qualified, you’d think, as a parent and a published poet and an editor of a literature magazine for children – but it was so much more difficult than I could have imagined.
This has given me a real appreciation for the ones who get it right. They make it look so easy, that’s the thing. But you have to have all the right attributes – a gift for music, a riotous imagination and an ability to connect with children, not speak down to them. A sense of humour doesn’t hurt either. But nor is it any harm to go to places that are less than comfortable, to write of loneliness or anxiety. The rest of course is just hard graft. And that’s where I see a lot of poets fall down. They just haven’t put the work in. It seems so obvious, but a poem for a child should be just as good as one written for adults. It should require drafting and redrafting. Relying solely on a bouncy rhyme to carry your reader along isn’t going to cut the mustard. We shouldn’t underestimate the child as reader. They are much harsher critics than adults. They know what they like, and they can see through a fake. The really good poets know that.
Ultimately, my attempts to write for children failed – the tone wasn’t right, I couldn’t make the lines sing – but I’m happy I tried. Perhaps I was too conscious of the fact that I was writing for children, wasn’t able to put that aside, or put my adult self aside. It does seem that some people have an ability to keep one foot in childhood, and they can tap into that part of themselves when they write. My husband Will certainly has it. He can make up truly captivating stories for our children at the drop of a hat, and has done so nightly for many years. None of them have been set down on paper or recorded, but they live in our children.
It makes me so happy as an editor when I come across a poem that is like a beacon in the night – like Louise Greig’s Caterpillar prizewinning poem ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’. ‘He thought of the sea. / And the sea is a big thought. / It took up a great deal of room in his head. / But he learned a lot. / He learned that the octopus / has a memory, and that whales / feel emotions, but when / he put this to his mother / she bent her head. / Don’t think of an elephant, she said.
Or a poem like Sarah Ziman’s ‘Faux pas’, which wittily portrays the mortification a child feels when she accidentally calls her teacher ‘Mum’, or the boundless humour in a poem by Julia Anna Douglas or Laura Mucha, or the philosophical ponderings of Robert Schechter.
The winner of this year’s Caterpillar Poetry Prize, by Christine McBeth – ‘a powerful piece of writing, a poem that everyone should read,’ according to the judge Michael Morpurgo – is a poem about the fate of our marine environment.
The drunkenness of things being various, that’s the thing. What you can write about for children is boundless. It’s not just monsters under the bed and worm sandwiches.
Rebecca lives in rural Ireland, where she edits and designs The Moth and The Caterpillar magazines and runs several literary prizes, including The Caterpillar Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection We’ll Sing Blackbird was shortlisted for the Irish Times Shine Strong Award and she is the recipient of a Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. Her poetry has been published in the Guardian, Poetry Review, The Spectator and elsewhere and was recently shortlisted for the Montreal Poetry Prize. Her debut novel, He Is Mine and I Have No Other (‘Eerie, tender and wonderful,’ according to Sophie Mackintosh), was published by Canongate in 2018.
Brains are fascinating organs and of all brains, perhaps ours are the most creative. We can’t be certain, of course, animals don’t have a culture of art, stories and poems hidden from human perceptions but therein lies a whole different story. Still as poets we often ask the question: ‘What if?…’ giving both animate and inanimate things words and human emotions.
What if?, in itself, opens up a world of possibilities and juxtapositions of realities. On such I’ve long contemplated and dreamt.
So much so I’m never quite wherever I am, I’m sure it’s something we all do to an extent, but invariably whilst walking along a perfectly ordinary street or sitting on a bus my head is usually elsewhere. This can of course be both wonderfully liberating and mildly problematic, dangerous even. I’ve ruined meals, bumped into stationery objects and twice almost walked into moving traffic. So not always desirable but I mention it because it demonstrates how mesmerising ideas can be and how intensely creative thoughts block out everything else.
Nevertheless I’m a dreamer and it’s become my job to dream. There’s nothing more enticing than the teasing glimpse of an idea. Inspiration won’t wait or come when asked. Words haunt my sleep if I can’t quite grab them. Having sensed them and having started to consider what shape and form they will take, line by line they will pull themselves from the ether, whether I choose to catch them or not.
Many’s the time I’ve tried to focus on some other task only to end up scribbling on the nearest piece of card or paper, because as soon as I tried to do anything else words would appear, insistent and full. And what most poets and writers will tell you is that you ignore those ideas at your peril. You can never remember them later no matter what you might think. You may have a vague notion of it as a whole but those exact words in that exact order will be lost forever.
In inappropriate circumstances or in the absence of time and means I will settle for the first line. I’ve found the first line is the most crucial. If I can at least type it into my phone often it will take me back to where I was in my head.
That’s the thing with poems, they are sensory time machines. I can look back at anything I wrote and tell you where I was when I wrote it. Exactly what went through my mind, how warm or cold it was, what scents were in the air. Everything. Maybe if you’ve got a good memory you think that little. But I haven’t. I’ve often visited places and can’t remember going there. If it’s not attached to me I lose it and I still joke that when my children were young if they hadn’t the ability to follow me I’d have lost them.
Nevertheless, to be at all creative you must first be a dreamer. Yet dreaming, especially in children, is often undervalued. It might be perceived as not concentrating, not paying attention.
But without it who will our future dreamers be? The dreamers who bend rules and reinvent them? Dreaming can’t be measured and it’s difficult to teach. Even so everyone, especially children, need some regular opportunities to dream, to let their imaginations run wild and unfettered, to create without objectives or an agenda. Dreaming is what makes us human. Why? Because without dreamers there’d be no fiction or poetry, no music, sculpture or drama, and I suspect no electricity, no theory of relativity, not even perhaps an axe or wheel.
Sue Hardy-Dawson’s a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter-Barry Books, was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’, Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the NSTB Awards. Sue loves visiting schools, has worked with the Prince of Wales Foundation, ‘Children and the Arts. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’, Troika Books, is out now.
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 –
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!
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
While we have needed to stay safe at home, I have been reminiscing about places I have visited over the past few years. In 2019, I went on holiday to Wales with my family. My father is from Swansea and my childhood summers were spent on the beach at Langland, Caswell, Oxwich and Three Cliffs Bay, and it was during those holidays that my grandma recited poems that she had learnt by heart and have stayed with me to this day. I remember ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in particular and ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, which she loved because my grandpa had sent it to her when they were courting. During our trip we went on a tour of all the places they had lived in Mumbles, West Cross, Sketty and in the Uplands where they lived just round the corner from Cwmdonkin Park. On a slate-grey Welsh summer day we crossed the park and ended up at Dylan Thomas’ house at number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive and that was the start of a year of accidental Dylan Thomas pilgrimage
from ‘Fern Hill’
‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.’
Dylan Thomas’ house is fascinating – it is the house where he was born, was his home for twenty-three years and was where he wrote two-thirds of his published work. Poems such as ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ were written when he was still a teenager. Here’s a photo of the outside and a picture of his bedroom as it would have been in 1934.
from A Child’s Christmas in Wales
‘It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.’
Later that week, a very rainy day led us to take cover in the Dylan Thomas Centre where we visited the ‘Love the Words’ exhibition, which included wonderful recordings of Thomas reading his poems including Prologue – here is an extract:
We had gone somewhere else entirely the day we ended up at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Laugharne where Thomas, his wife Caitlin and their three children lived from 1949 until his death. Laugharne is of course the real-life model for Milkwood. It is a lovely house set in a cliff overlooking the Taf estuary and just up the hill is his writing shed (photos of both below). We took a different route back to the car and found ourselves at the cemetery of St. Martin’s church where he is buried.
From ‘Poem on his birthday’
‘In the mustardseed sun, By full tilt river and switchback sea Where the cormorants scud, In his house on stilts high among beaks’
The final part of our accidental pilgrimage happened in November that year in New York where we had gone to Greenwich Village for a literary pub crawl to see where Jack Kerouac, Edna St Vincent Millay, Hart Crane and others lived and drank. The meeting place was The White Horse Tavern – reading our guide book while waiting for the rest of the tour party to assemble, we realised that it was exactly 66 years to the day since Dylan Thomas had died at St Vincent’s hospital just up the street. The White Horse was where he frequently drank in New York and where he had spent his last evening before being taken ill. He was 39 years old.
From ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’
‘Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
All these poems can be found in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The Centenary Edition published by Weinfeld & Nicolson and A Child’s Christmas in Wales published by Orion Children’s Books.
Gaby Morgan is an Editorial Director at Macmillan Children’s Books and proud curator of the Macmillan Children’s Poetry List. She has compiled many bestselling anthologies including Read Me and Laugh: A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year, Poems from the First World War, Poems for Love, Fairy Poems – which was short-listed for the CLPE Award – and A Year of Scottish Poems.
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.
A few years ago, after a talk about children and poetry, I was asked about the difference between adult poetry and kids’ poetry.
A Cheshire cat grin rolled over me. I didn’t have to think twice. ‘There really is none,’ I replied with a smile. ‘A good poem is a good poem is a good poem. Of course themes and language will be different. Age and emotional suitability may vary. But poetry for children is not – at its heart – different from other poetry.’
Let’s take a glimpse at the basics. Just a glimpse.
What is it we expect when we read a poem?
The first thing is simple. There is an invitation. Something in the title or opening line says, Come on in. I have an idea you’re going to like.
Sounds good. We decide not to close the book or turn the page. We read further. The poet is communicating a vision we intuitively like. He or she is talking to us the way a friend might.
From that first invitation a good poem offers, the child is often more than willing to suspend what they already think and allow themselves to be transported into another world. Indeed, kids are often more eager and open than adults to step inside and treat the poet as a new friend.
But the words themselves must also spark magic; the swing and sway of the rhythms, meter and sound need to be dynamic. And feel right. It is the poet’s craft with words which creates excitement and meaning for us. Because our brains buzz and light up when the exact right words both sound great and go together. Like they were meant to be.
As for sound musicality and language acquisition, these are the child’s very own domain; one filled with the joy of rhyme, the thrill of rhythm and the love of onomatopoeia to name a few.
And what is it the poet says to us? Is it clear and sunny enough that we can relate to it? Are the words bright enough in the lines we read for us to ‘get’ it.
Next we ask if this poem inspires us. Do we feel the poet’s unseen presence in his words? Does the poem burrow down to ignite those misty moon-lit thoughts we have but don’t know very well? The thoughts that are deeper and richer than our everyday words and ideas. The ones that allow us to imagine a new way of seeing things.
For imagination relies upon the senses; of what we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled and remembered. A good poem creates the words and sensations that call upon the reader’s personal memory store and then graciously offers up the possibility to re-imagine, re-pattern and re-position the reader’s own understandings.
Children grow in the ambiguity of light and dark. In the bright logic of facts and ideas about the world. But they also grow in the belief that there is something else. Something unknown, dark and uncontrollable. Being close to and accepting the mysterious plays an important role in a child’s development. A child is open to being moved by a poem.
And precisely because children play and because imagination is the currency for this play, a good poem can ignite a child’s mind. And as children are close to both their sensory understandings and memories, a good poem has the potential to fly them into a universe pulsing with possibility.
To finish my reply to the question, I think we all, at every age, respond to the same human impulses; the ones which lead us to better understand and illuminate the world we find ourselves in.
And that is why my Cheshire cat can’t help but smile.
Zaro Weil lives in southern France with her husband and Spot Guevara Hero Dog, alongside a host of birds, insects, badgers, wild boars, crickets, donkeys, goats, hares and loads more. She has been a lot of things; dancer, theatre director, actress, poet, playwright, educator, quilt collector, historian, author and publisher. Zaro’s two poetry collections, Firecrackers and Cherry Moon were widely praised; with Cherry Moon being awarded the CliPPA Poetry Award for 2020.
This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I visit schools. It is not an easy question to answer, and I am tempted to say that I simply ‘fell into’ it. But this is a cop out. My journey can best be adumbrated by my encounters with five poets.
Michael visited my primary school when I was around 8. I remember being captivated by his performance in assembly, where he acted out his poems and really brought them to life. I bought his book Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard, and we listened to its accompanying casette in the car every day on the way to school for about a year! I wasn’t necessarily inspired to write my own poetry at this stage, but the kernel of Michael’s visit obviously lodged in my mind. Later on, Michael taught on my MA at Goldsmiths, and was good enough to write an endorsement for the cover of my first book with Bloomsbury.
I didn’t really begin writing poetry until my late teens. I had studied Larkin for A Level and my initial efforts were an embarrassing attempt to ape him. During my first year at UCL I discovered the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, which has a weekly open mic night hosted by Niall O’Sullivan. For a couple of years I regularly stood up and read my poems there, and was furthermore exposed to a wide variety of performance and writing styles. Niall hosted the night with humour and panache, and it was by attending these evenings that I developed my chops as a performer and (I hope) a humorist.
Neal helped me turn a hobby into what is now a career. I first came across his name in the Evening Standard, where he spearheaded a literacy campaign in 2012. He was described as a ‘comic poet who works in schools’, and then it hit me: this could be a proper job! I emailed Neal for some advice, and he responded with such warmth and encouragement that I shall be forever grateful. Heck, we are good friends now, and I even invited the man to my wedding. We are also poetical collaborators, and have our second joint book out with Troika in 2021/2.
I took a humorous children’s poetry show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, where I met Brian. I foisted a copy of my first, self-published book into his hands, and asked whether he might help me find a proper publisher. I am extremely thankful for the advice he gave me. He said that my comic poetry was all well and good, but to concentrate on serious, emotional and heartfelt themes as well. I have since tried to synthesise a broad range of styles and feelings into my repertoire, and Brian’s advice has undoubtedly helped me grow as a writer.
Roger gave me my first publication in an anthology and invited me on the wonderful ‘poets’ retreat’ in 2014, where I met many other wonderful poets too numerous to mention. In his bounteous munificence, he also put my name forward to a bunch of editors he knew, which helped secure my first book deal with Bloomsbury in 2016. So now I was a poet writing and performing in a variety of styles, who both made a living working in schools and had a proper publishing deal to boot! I could not have made it this far without the aforementioned poets.
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.