Sue Hardy Dawson: Why Poetry Matters

Why Poetry Matters

I was born into a house full of poetry. Nightly my father lulled me to sleep with the many poems he knew by heart. On long journeys or stuck in traffic-jams we played rhyming games or changed the lyrics to songs and nursery rhymes. Mum too wrote funny verses for family birthday cards. So from an early age I experienced everything from AA Milne to WH Auden. I grew to love each softly spoken syllable; the portent in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the drumming beat of The Charge of the Light Brigade, the gentle rhythms of Night Mail and wistful repetition in Hiawatha. Each night, anew, I marvelled at Tygers and green eyed yellow idols, lamented on Bessy the landlord’s daughter awaiting her highwayman or lost myself in exotic cargoes of stately Spanish galleons. I took them for my own begging for my favourites. Naturally enough, whilst young, I didn’t fully understand them. Nevertheless, I learned to love lyrical words to love their musicality and my father was a very enthusiastic performer.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, I began to write myself. Like most beginners, I made mistakes, using words that were archaic or didn’t quite fit. However, the more poets I read the more I got a sense of what worked and didn’t. I fell in love with Hughes at secondary school. I went on to read any and every poet I could lay my hands on, I still do. Then I liked poems for many reasons, they weren’t hard to read because they were usually smaller with more white space, yet there was often a lot to understand. Despite my dyslexia I could learn them well enough to risk reading them out. Writing poems too required less stamina and even if I had to rewrite them many times, they were only short and I could keep them inside my head and work on them. Poetry gave me something I could succeed at.

Whilst I’m not suggesting everyone who enjoys poetry will or should become a poet I believe I was very privileged to experienced poetry as few do in an unpressurised joyful way. I remain convinced that even in this multimedia world or in a busy school with all the demands of curriculum, making time for purely enjoying poetry really matters. Well any poet would I suppose. However, apart from being great fun, something that should never be underestimated as a learning tool, there are many positive effects from poetry for all children.

Like music poetry is multisensory, research suggests it lights up our brains in a similar way, triggering emotions, developing brain cells and improving memory. Historically our ancestors exploited this quality to record stories as ballads handing them down for generations long before the general populace could read or write.

Equally this memorizing characteristic helps children to learn new words in context whilst rhythm and rhyme help with pronunciation and stresses.

Similarly, rhyming, assonance and alliteration promote literacy, building phonic awareness and grouping phonic patterns.

Learning and acting out poetry also develops physical and verbal coordination laying the ground for all manner of public speaking or performance skills.

Perhaps, equally important though, I feel, an early pleasure in poetry for its own sake is more likely to lead to a lifelong love. For even those who claim to dislike it often turn to it in times of need; to express and explore otherwise inexpressible emotions. Finally though poetry is not alone in allowing us to walk in another’s shoes it is more open in making spaces for our own experiences and uniqueness in each footprint.

Sue Hardy-Dawson (Sue’s new collection, If I were Other than Myself, Troika Books is out soon.)

Sue Hardy-Dawson 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.

Roger Stevens: The Poetry Zone

The Poetry Zone – 21 years of children’s poems

When I began going into schools as a visiting author, I would sometimes run workshops that culminated in the production of a printed collection of the work produced by the pupils. This book was often the highlight of the afternoon for the children. Seeing their poems in print seemed to validate the work for them and gave them something tangible to take away and to share with their family and friends. This – and a desire to give young writers a wider audience – was why I launched the Poetry Zone 21 years ago.

Young poets produce wonderful work. By launching the Poetry Zone I created somewhere for children and teenagers to send their poems and, importantly, see them published; a website where they could share their poetry and where it would be taken seriously. I found it very exciting. I knew it would be hard work – the project was me and me alone, every poem had to be read, vetted and the format tidied up for publication – but I thought it would be worth it. And it has been.

We started slowly, but within just a couple of years thousands of children were sending in poems and I was being contacted by grateful teachers and parents. Sometimes I would receive poems from every member of a class – the Poetry Zone had become a useful schools resource. Sometimes poems would come from individuals who were writing at home. They came from all over the English-speaking world – the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and from India, Japan and other parts of Asia.

I added interviews with children’s poets to the website; and information and advice for teachers. With some tips and a few lesson plans, those wary of teaching poetry have found out how rewarding it can be and how writing a poem can unlock the talent of even the most recalcitrant of pupils. The Poetry Zone has featured reviews of new poetry books and run more than 1,000 competitions – with publishers kindly donating prizes.

In 21 years, the Poetry Zone has received more than a million visitors and I’ve read and published around 30,000 poems by children and teenagers. Last year Troika published The Poetry Zone book featuring some of these poems.

Many children have grown up with the Poetry Zone, regularly sending me poems over the years. I have always provided feedback when wanted and mentored quite a few contributors. One of my regulars, American Claudia Taylor, was Commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year – I was very proud that she acknowledged my help when she received the award.

Harshita Das began contributing to the Poetry Zone from her home in India when she was around six years old. Her work always stood out. I encouraged her to practice, which she did. She is still young, but already an accomplished poet:

 Perfect

There is darkness
In each one of us
A tendency to kill
A desire for pain
A hunger for suffering
A greed for more
A blindness to honesty
A thirst to choose wrongly
Nobody is flawless
But to shroud that darkness
With light
Is what makes a person
Perfect

Harshita Das (aged 12)

Violet and Celina Macdonald also began sending poems to the Poetry Zone when they were young children and carried on well into their teens. They lived in Tasmania then. Now they live in the UK. Violet has just won the Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award for ‘The Wolf’ in the 2019 Emmy World Television Festival.

So, yes, running the website has been worth it! I have never allowed advertising on the site. The Poetry Zone has never made any money. It has always been a labour of love. It’s still a solo project. My reward has been seeing children enjoy everything that poetry has to offer – whether they are writing it or reading poems written by others and commenting on them.

One thing has stood out over the years: Poems by children can be every bit as good as poems written by grown-ups. We have a wealth of talented young writers all over the world – a cause for optimism and hope for the future of poetry.

Roger Stevens

Roger Stevens has been writing and editing poetry collections for children for 25 years. Roger’s books include Apes to Zebras, an A-Z of Shape Poems, Bloomsbury, I Am a Jigsaw; Puzzling Poems to Baffle your Brain (Bloomsbury 2019), Moonstruck; an Anthology of Moon Poems (Otter-Barry) and Be the Change, Poems to Help you Save the World, Macmillan. When not writing, he visits schools, libraries and festivals performing his work and running workshops for young people and teachers. He is a regular contributor to educational journals and conferences, a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation, and a founding member of the Able Writers scheme with Brian Moses. PoetryZone.

Dawn Finch: Poetry for Children – a School Librarian’s Perspective.

Poetry for Children – a school librarian’s perspective.

I have worked with primary school age children for a very long time. I ran a primary school library for over a decade, and all in all have worked with books for primary age children for over thirty years. I am often asked what books I feel are most popular with children of that age, and the answer came from the shelf in my library that was always the messiest. The shelf that was most heavily used (and gave me the most tidying up duties) was the poetry shelf. I had to move the poetry section closer to my desk because it was so busy I decided it was easier to help children if they were right at my desk. In every primary school I’ve worked the situation was the same – kids love poetry. Small children have not yet learned to feel awkward or embarrassed about their love of it, and so they embrace poetry. They read it, write it, share it and love it.

If that’s the case, why can’t we see it on the shelves of more bookshops?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that. All of my experience tells me that children love poetry and yet buying it is still so hard. We have some superb poets for children in the UK and every day I see details of new and exciting poetry books. This blog is a collective of the most amazing writers, and yet I know that when I walk into a bookshop I’m going to struggle to find most of their books.

If we think the situation is bad for poetry for children, watch that thin line grow ever thinner and vanish as we look at poetry for adults. This is hardly surprising – if you deny a child access to something it’s no wonder that they don’t seek it out as an adult.

Poetry often feels like it isn’t for everyone. I grew up a working class kid in a pretty rough school and past primary age we didn’t really “do” poetry. That was for the posh kids, not for us grubby little estate oiks. Those of us who liked poetry knew it was sensible to keep that to ourselves. This is still how some kids are growing up. Children and young people are still feeling that poetry is not for them and the lack of it on the shelves of bookshops perpetuates that myth.

To experience the wider benefits of reading for pleasure, it has to be just that – a pleasure. If libraries and bookshops fail to stock poetry then that limited choice means that children will never know if it is for them, and that means they will grow up to become adults who feel the same. They will grow to feel that poetry is only for the educated elite and not for us regular folk.

But poetry is for us, and it can be for all of us. I used to think that poetry wasn’t for me, right up to the moment I won first prize in the Brian Nisbet Poetry Award in 2019. Until that moment I was writing poetry in secret because of the feeling that poetry was not for me. Feelings that had stuck with me right from secondary school over forty years ago.

Poetry brings a moment, an experience, an emotion, a place in time all condensed into a delicious capsule. For a small child a great poem can be an epiphany and a gem-like moment of pure understanding. It can be a rolling laugh tangled up in a few short lines, or it can be a sweeping escape in an epic form.

All children deserve that. In fact, so do all grown-ups!

Dawn Finch

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and librarian. She is a Trustee of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and has recently become the Chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group committee (CWIG). Her website is here. Twitter: @dawnafinch

Teresa Cremin: Poetry, Pleasure and Play

Poetry, Pleasure and Play

As the sun comes out and the pressure in school lessens, let’s take the time to play with words and develop approaches that connect to children’s early oral experiences of poetry when they engaged physically, socially and emotionally with language. If we build on the sounds and savours found in nursery rhythms and playground rhymes and popular songs, it is affectively engaging – a place to play.

Why not invite young people to brainstorm such rhymes and then take skipping ropes, hoops and balls onto the playground or to the park? As the ropes hit the tarmac and two balls bounce against the wall, their bodily memories of poems, songs, chants and dance routines will return.

Taking time to revisit these might include identifying patterns and features of such word play, perhaps classifying them into collections of two ball poems, skipping games, counting rhymes, nonsense verse and so forth? This will expand children’s repertoires and foster experimentation and playful performance. Older classes might offer ‘teach-ins’ to younger ones with staff and parents sharing their favourite playground games and songs too.

Using active approaches to poetry in the classroom also nurtures young people’s affinity with rhythm, rhyme and beat and capitalises upon their pleasurable engagement with language. It is not enough that teachers read poetry to children, (although this is of course crucial), it is also important that poetry is voiced by the learners themselves; they need to bring it to life by tasting the word textures, feeling the rhythms and discerning the colour, movement and drama in the text.

Opportunities need to be made available for the young to release the words from the page, and read, chant, move and sing verses into existence. The marriage of poetry and music is centuries old, so percussion and song and even something as simple as a repeating ostináto of a line can help demarcate the rhythm and point up the meaning. Copies of poems also need to be in their hands, preferably in book form so they can explore the rest of the anthology later.

The physical embodiment of verse is also important and can trigger alternative ways of responding to poetry. Children’s performance readings and explorations may include dance and drama, mime and movement which energise their engagement and provoke multiple interpretations of the sense, taste and texture of the words. In choosing their own poems to perform, small groups can select one which has resonance for them and may want to use multiple media as well as their bodies to help them re-present it.

We know from the recent National Literacy Trust survey that almost half the children and young people from the 27 schools involved, engage with poetry in their free time: they read, listened to or watched poetry performances on-line (47%). This is good news. But far fewer, just 10% create it (write or perform it) or do both. Most of those who engaged in poetry said their teachers, parents and carers had encouraged them. Again, more good news. But poetry is felt in the blood and along the bones (as Margaret Meek seminally taught us), so I would argue we should pay more attention in school to children’s physical engagement in poetry, their visceral embodied response.

Collaborating with others to bring the black print on the page to life is a powerful form of responding. children will be playing with language, interpretation and meaning, and supported by their teacher’s creative engagement, new insights about a poem’s meaning, rhythm and structure will emerge.

Let’s make time to play with poetry!

Teresa Cremin

 

Teresa is Professor of Education (Literacy) at the Open University. An advocate of developing teachers’ creative artistry, Teresa researches teachers’ and children’s literate identities and practices. HeR recent books include Writer Identity and the Teaching and Learning of Writing; Storytelling in Early Childhood: Enriching Language, Literacy and Culture, (Routledge, 2017, edited collections); Teaching English Creatively (2015); Researching Literacy Lives (2015); and Building Communities of Engaged Readers (2014). Teresa is passionate about developing readers for life and leads a professional user-community website: Research Rich Pedagogies based on her research into volitional reading. The site supports over 80 OU/UKLA Teachers’ Reading Groups and 24 HEI partnerships across the country in order to enable the development of children’s (and teachers’) reading for pleasure.

Teresa Cremins OU Webpage.