Perhaps you’re already a fan of poetry? As you’re reading a poetry blog, it’s a fair assumption. However, undeniably, it remains the marmite of literature. Why? I suspect part of the problem is that unlike other models for writing it’s hard to define exactly what a poem is.
It’s true there are many different forms and styles of poetry, as many as poets past and present have and continue to think up. In fact, poetry by its very nature welcomes experimentation and innovation. BUT, whilst it’s a wonderful open field to play for poets, it can feel a bit daunting to those, as yet unconvinced, endeavouring to teach it.
Like all else it requires first and foremost a degree of immersion. Even if you have read and yes reread at least some if not a lot of poems by different poets contemporary and historical, a satisfying definition that fits all models, much less how to write poetry, remains elusive. Add to this an educational zeitgeist of deconstruction and poetry risks becoming a fearfully complex thing. Right?
No, it doesn’t need to be. Naturally, as a poet, I know a fair amount about poetry. Yet, like every child everywhere, almost all I know I learnt a long time after I began writing it. My first poems were largely mimicking poetry I’d enjoyed. I’m grateful my youthful attention wasn’t required to identify similes, metaphors or alliteration. Not, at least, until secondary school and university.
So here’s the thing, poetry needn’t be scary, you can know very little about its constructs and still embark on a joint voyage of enjoying poetry with children. The single most important teaching tool you can bring to the party is a genuine passion. Better still you can experiment and invent your own rules. There are no poetry police or they would have carted me away at birth. So poetry provides endless opportunities for wild creativity. You can arrange it solely by syllable counts, write it rhymed or unrhymed, play with and have lots of punctuation, or none at all. You can mimic other forms of writing. There’s very little a poem cannot be from an epic to a single word.
‘Ah’ you say, (well probably not you, but many teachers and parents I’ve come across) ‘but I don’t like poetry.’ And who can blame you? We’ve all felt dislike for something. The book we dread at bedtime, the irritating song you find yourself tragically humming on the bus. For me it’s competitive sports and computer games. I understand. So, if you aren’t already, can I ever make a poetry fan of you? Well, I believe it’s possible. Familiarity is key and it doesn’t even lead to contempt.
Consider opera, music’s marmite, yet after the world cup who hasn’t found themselves humming Nessun Dorma? If not launching into full-blown song in the bathroom and scaring the neighbours? Just me then? Nevertheless, it proves we can all learn to love new things and, if we don’t have to be experts in Italian or opera to feel opera’s joy, why not poetry?
So if you don’t like or are even fearful of teaching poetry, children’s poetry is a good place to start. It’s accessible and often fun. Don’t let poetry become just an exercise in studying language, though, let contextual osmosis work its magic, learn poems as you would a song. Watch videos of poets performing or go and see one live. Why? Because enthusiasm is addictive and children have inbuilt primeval, adult-engagement sensors. Open their hearts and love – and even understanding – will grow on its own.
Sue Hardy Dawson is a poet & illustrator. Her debut collection, ‘Where Zebras Go’, Otter Barry Books, was shortlisted for the 2018 CLiPPA prize. Sue’s poems and teaching resources can be found on the CLPE website. Her second, ‘Apes to Zebras’ Bloomsbury, co-written with poetry ambassadors, Roger Stevens and Liz Brownlee, won the North Somerset Teachers Book Awards. As a dyslexic poet, she loves encouraging reluctant readers and writers. Her second solo collection ‘If I were Other than Myself’ is out now with Troika Books.