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What's The Point Of Poetry: World Poetry Day Special

20/03/19

“What’s the point of poetry?” said the starling to the bat.” - Michael Palin

That line is taken from a poem from the very first poetry book I bought as an eleven-year-old. Admittedly, my main reason for buying it at the time was that Tom Baker, former Doctor Who and my idol, was on the front cover, but I fell in love with that book. Up until that time I was a reluctant reader and my reading diet had largely consisted of cereal packets and borrowed Doctor Who novelisations, yet these books, and my beloved poetry book (which I still have, battered and torn thirty odd years later) started my passion for the English language and literature. Unlike many of the other books I had come across until then, this was something appealing, fun and funny, exciting and accessible. I learnt the poems by heart (and can remember them now), and that feeling of being a success had a profound effect upon me. The poems gave me, an imaginative and bouncy girl, something to play with in my mind; pictures in my head danced with rhymes and rhythms.

Stanza I
Half a page, half a page,
Half a page, more class!
The poets of Class Four
Read lines by the score.
“Forward you lovely lot,
Come on, my poets!” she said.
The poets of Class Four
Read lines by the score.

A few years ago, I gave a child a poetry book as their book to take home for the evening. His mother wasn’t impressed. “Mummy said this isn’t a proper book and poetry isn’t reading,” the little boy informed me. This took me back a bit. I have many reasons for loving poetry, probably the very ones that the mother objected to so much. Poetry gives us an opportunity to explore and experiment with language, to play and be silly, to be serious and to be reflective, to use rhythm and rhyme to tell stories, to have moments of joy and pain, to experience emotions, not to purely focus on the building blocks of reading or writing a plain text; the putting together of sounds into words, and words into sentences. It requires you to breathe a text in and spend time with it, and clap along, march with it, beat it out, or snuggle up and think about it until you’ve absorbed every sound and syllable, every thought. Poetry is not “a race to the finish” text.

Stanza II
“Forward, you lovely lot!”
Was their teacher dismayed?
Not that a child there knew.
Someone had blundered.
Theirs was to do the rhyme,
Theirs was to make rhythm or die,
Theirs was to reason why,
The poets of Class Four,
Wrote lines by the score.

Writing poetry is not always easy and teaching how to write poetry can be one of the most difficult things teachers ever do. Let’s admit it, we often get so caught up in what we ‘should be doing’ – whether that is the latest fashion in teaching or prime directive from our overlords – that we lose sight of what we feel is right. My approach is to immerse children in poetry right from the start, from short rhymes (such as I Eat Peas with Honey) to longer, story poems (like Chocolate Cake by Michael Rosen). The silly, little poems that can apply to every day situations, like I Eat Peas with Honey or When I was Young I Picked My Nose, are great, because they capture children’s interest, make them laugh (never a bad thing) and get them used to playing with sound, rhythm and rhyme. Pick some similar poems (not your nose) and encourage the children to substitute words and build up from there. Eventually, use more complex texts (The Owl and The Pussy Cat, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, endless examples…) and you’re away.

Stanza III
Targets to the right of them,
Assessments to the left of them,
Working Walls in front of them
Marked and assessed;
Stormed at by everyone.
Boldly they rhymed and well,
Despite this being “almost like fun”,
And hoping no-one will tell,
They wrote lines by the score.

Stanza IV
As a pen licence makes a happy soul,
Or having new pencils to roll,
And sharpening them with no self-control
Until the day is almost done,
And all the pencils are now half gone,
There is the evil, pungent cloakroom air,
Which can turn man or beast unto despair,
There is another evil barking,
A greater evil known as marking.
“I don’t know what I did this for!
“They wrote lines by the score!”

There’s always a downside. Marking and assessment can be a nightmare. I always find this heartache. How do we assess art? It is hard to be objective about something creative. We should encourage children to use stylistic devices and to play with language. This could be the place where they find their love of words.

Stanza V
Targets to the right of them,
Assessments to the left of them,
Working Walls in front of them
Marked and assessed;
Stormed at by Oftsted, HTs and everyone,
Boldly they rhymed and well,
Though nearly all of them fell,
They had fought and had fun,
And three cheers, Hooray! Had won!
Hooray for the poets of Class Four!
Writing lines by the score!

As a teacher, I have had the joy of reading poems written by talented children that have also found that divine moment of freedom when the wind has caught their wings and carried them up. We’ve shared spur of the moment rhymes about lost socks and chicken pox, apple pips and black ships, frights in the night, big baboons on the moon eating cheese with a spoon, which have taken us from thinking “rhymes is boring” [sic] to “this is way fun, Miss.” Many teachers are encouraged to get ambitious with poetry, but I tend to think that there’s nothing wrong with the nursery rhyme and word play. The journey into poetry doesn’t need to start with Tennyson, it can start small. The road to romantic poetry wasn’t built in a day, but hey, what a ride along the way.

Stanza VI
When will their glory fade?
O the wild writing they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the stand they made!
Honour the kids of Class Four,
Noble poets all!

N.B. My humble apologies go to Alfred, Lord Tennyson for my theft of his poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. It was for a noble cause.

Recommended Poetry books:

The Works, Pie Corbett – available in editions suitable for Key Stages 1 and 2
A First Poetry Book – Pie Corbett and Gaby Morgan
What is Poetry? – Michael Rosen
Michael Rosen’s A-Z: The Best Children’s Poetry
The Lost Words – Robert Macfarlane

A good collection of children’s poems is a must, but I can’t really recommend one as this is largely down to personal taste. There are loads out on the market and they’re all much the same. It’s really down to you as to which you prefer and how much you are prepared to pay. I have a battered copy of I Like This Poem by Kaye Webb which is out of date and out of print, which I use as well as my Tom Baker book. They will always be with me as some poems are true classics.

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