Francesca Bonafede: Poetry Changes Lives

I remember vividly all the poems I have written, including my very first, at the age of six. It was about a seagull I once watched struggling to fly on a blustery day. In that scene, I somehow recognised my own condition. The very composition of that poem is burned into my mind. I remember the smell of the wooden table in the school library and the ticking noise of a white wall clock. The act of writing felt radical and empowering. Since writing ‘La Gabbianella’, poetry became for me a way to cope, a way to speak the unspeakable and share what often remains unshared. I always wrote in my free time, often in the evenings just before bed.  As a teenager, I hated poetry at school. I was often in detention because I argued with the standard interpretations we were given. I wanted to hear and discuss poetry. Circling words in silence and writing notes in the margins felt like a real waste.

During my time with the National Literacy Trust, I witnessed the radical moment of empowerment I experienced with the composition of ‘La Gabbianella’ in many children and young people on the Young Poets programme. It manifests as a spark of excitement and pride in the eyes of the young poets at the realisation of infinite possibilities: ‘this sounds great, I meant it and I wrote it’. More often than not this happens in children and young people who believed poetry was ‘not for them’.

This year, we partnered with the West Yorkshire Local Authority to design and deliver a very ambitious programme aiming to inspire all children in West Yorkshire to write for enjoyment and see poetry as a way to amplify their voices and build their confidence. We will also be appointing West Yorkshire’s first-ever Young Poets Laureate (one in year 4 and one in year 9)!

I have the honour and privilege of working on this with Bradford poet Sharena Lee Satti. Sharena and I share the unshakeable belief in the power that poetry has to truly change the lives of children and young people. She generously shares her amazing but challenging story with all the children and young people she works with and often begins by saying: ‘It was poetry, and writing poetry that saved my life in many ways.’ Sharena left school at the age of 12 to become a carer. Hers was a deeply personal practice that allowed her, she said, to access ‘the magic within herself’. She too engaged with poetry away from school life.

Every year since 2005, the National Literacy Trust has found that children on free school meals are more likely to engage with poetry in their free time than their better-off peers. The consistency of these findings is even more meaningful in such a challenging socio-economic landscape. Poetry has the potential to play an important role in the lives of children and young people and become a tool to support mental wellbeing, process struggles and make sense of the world.

At the National Literacy Trust, we will continue to support children and young people to develop poetry writing for enjoyment practices with the radical view that every young person is a poet.

Francesca Bonafede

Francesca leads the development and delivery of the Young Writers programme at the National Literacy Trust. Young Writers inspires children and young people to write for enjoyment and improve the quality of their writing. Francesca holds a PhD in the phenomenology of literary language and is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She has visiting teaching duties in Higher Education and is the editor of a peer-reviewed literary theory journal.

National Literacy Trust