Debbie Pullinger: A Poem in the Head

A Poem in the Head

Lockdown has been an unlooked-for boost for poetry. Under pressure, creative juices have leaked out and poems have sprouted in every spare bit of ground. At the same time, appetites have grown, and some – like my friend who’s learning a load of Larkin – have even turned to memorising.

If lockdown poems have poured out of you, then you’ve something to show for it all. But what if you have simply coaxed them off the page and into your head? What’s to show for that? And why not simply enjoy reading them, rather than going to the bother of learning?

These were precisely the kinds of questions with which we began our Poetry and Memory project at the University of Cambridge. We were interested in the value of the memorised poem, and how knowing poems by heart affects appreciation and understanding. Our findings point to a constellation of potential benefits – for anyone, at any age. You can read more about the project here. But to highlight just three, a poem in the heart …

  • becomes a valuable emotional resource, often growing and changing with us.
  • creates a sense of ownership – and for children, that can provide a vital sense of mastery as well as being a staging post to other poems.
  • open us to possibility – like Becky Fisher’s mum, you never know where, or who, it might lead to…

Lines in the head also help with the lines that come out. We know that for so many of our great poets, a store of memorised poetry was instrumental in their achievement – what Seamus Heaney called “bedding the ear with a kind of linguistic hardcore”. When poetry learning was reinstated on the primary curriculum in 2012, it was not universally welcomed. Even so, it does build an instinctual awareness of how poetic language works. It’s great to hear on this blog about the inspiring work poets are doing in schools – and to read some of the poems which come out of that. And as these young writers begin to find their voice, they will be tuning into those tracks of language laid down in the brain.

Ok, but surely children shouldn’t be required to learn or recite? An interesting question I’m often asked.

In our research, we asked about when, how and why poems were learned. Some people reported dreadful experiences of enforced learning that put them off for life. And yet… others made to learn and recite under duress were really glad they did and now love their poem. Countless others, though, said they learned their poem ‘accidentally’, just through hearing it again and again.

And that’s the thing – children really don’t need forcing. As any parent whose child joins in with a Julia Donaldson book knows, they do it as naturally as they learn language. And as many a teacher knows, there are lots of ways to make learning enjoyable. For a few ideas, my Poetry Archive Teaching Resource draws on findings from the project.

Once learned, poems can be explored through performance. The act of sharing a poem in this way seems to bring the relationship between sounds and sense into sharper focus, while new shades of meaning can be opened up in the moment. Again, ideas for performance are here.

But what if, like me, you’re of the generation who never learned poetry in school? Well, some of my most fascinating interviews were with people who told me about starting to learn poems later in life – as an absorbing hobby, as a bulwark against dementia or, perhaps – most significantly for these times – as therapy for depression or solace for dark days. It’s never too early, never too late.

Debbie Pullinger

Debbie Pullinger is a writer and researcher based at the University of Cambridge. Having published a volume on children’s poetry – From Tongue to Text (Bloomsbury, 2017) – she is currently working on a book about the memorised poem. www.debbiepullinger.com  @debpullinger

Cheryl Moskowitz: In Their Words

In their words

Here we are in January, the first month of the year, and only a week or so into a new decade. It is an opportunity to reflect on time and change and redefine priorities.

January takes its name from Janus, meaning ‘archway’. Janus was the Roman god of gates and doorways, who presided over difficult transitions, the beginning and the ending of conflicts, and was one who could look backwards as well as forward.

Last year, through worldwide school strike action, young people rose to the surface, inspiring a global movement to fight climate change. Less than a month ago on December 11, 2019, 16 year old Greta Thunberg was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Speaking at a UN climate change summit in Madrid before the announcement, she urged world leaders to face up to the crisis we are in and take immediate action. The next decade, she said, would define the planet’s future.

The two faces of Janus represent the middle ground between the old and the new, between youth and adulthood.  This dual gaze reminds us we must look to our young as much as to our elders for wisdom and understanding. Now, more than ever, we need to listen to our young people, join forces to find a common language and work creatively with them towards a safe and productive future.

In this second week of January 2020, we are one month on from a general election that children, by virtue of their age, are given no voice in. We enter this new decade still negotiating conflict and in a process of transition, surfacing from an intense period of time where rhetoric and vitriol became the dominant modes of expression. It is vital now that we communicate differently, learn to express ourselves with more clarity, more beauty, more hopefulness, more kindness and more truth. Children and poetry have a big part to play in making that happen.

The Children’s Poetry Summit is made up of adults who believe passionately in the value of poetry and the importance of making it available to children. So, in the spirit of Janus and giving children a voice, I thought I would begin this new decade by looking back at work done during my poetry residency at Highfield Primary School in North London from 2014-18 and publishing a list, a manifesto if you like, written by the children there about why they think poetry is necessary.

As teachers, creative educators and poets writing for children it is always good to remind ourselves, from the child’s perspective, what a child thinks a poem is, what a child knows that a poem can do and why a child believes that the presence of poets and poetry in their schools could play a key part of defining their world’s future.

Here’s what members of the Highfield school council from years 3, 4, 5 & 6, had to say on poetry, in their words.

 

What is a Poem?

A poem is a lie that tells the truth

a poem is a sword, sharp and sly

a poem is a light in the darkness, a single star in the night sky

a poem removes the blindfold so that we can see the world more clearly

a poem is a rainbow leading to treasure, a lost treasure drowned in tears

a poem is a memory, a poem is remembering, a poem is being remembered

and never forgotten

 

What can a poem do?

A poem can blow you away

a poem can be an embrace

a poem can change people’s minds

a poem uses rules, lets you make your own rules, makes you the ruler

a poem can be a doorway to history and new understanding

a poem helps us know the world and our place in it

a poem tells others who we are, what we know, what we want and what we believe…

a poem can change your life!!!

 

Since having a poet in our school…

we are thinking creatively about what we want for the future

we are learning about ourselves and other people

we are sharing memories, spreading messages

we are changing people’s minds about children

we are raising standards, gaining confidence

we are imagining new possibilities

we are feeling inspired

we are making the headlines

 

Cheryl Moskowitz

Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. She serves on the Creative Council for Create Arts and is working with Pop Up on a three-year project to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent. Cheryl’s website.