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Don't be afraid: poetry in the classroom.


English teachers can be rather afraid of poetry, particularly at the secondary level where exam specifications are involved. This is a great shame as they are equipped and placed to be one of its most natural champions and allies. At secondary level the enjoyment gets replaced with worry and uncertainty. The tension in the relationship, at the secondary level, is referenced in Carol Ann Duffy's poem 'Head of English' and Keith Chandler's acid reply 'Visiting Poet.'

The received wisdom runs something like this: poetry is a vital element of any English course, being language at its most dynamic and subtle but it is, by virtue of its unpredictability and serial subversions, difficult to teach. Governments and exam boards often appear not quite sure what to do with it. In spite of and perhaps because of the many worthy criteria descriptions, poetry can leave the teacher feeling alarmed, naked and inadequate. The 'meaning' of a poem may be elusive--or allusive--and this is scary when an exam class is in front of you demanding to know what it 'means' for the exam room.

My first tip is, go out and see a poet reading. And at the end, go up and say 'Thanks. That was fun. Can I have one of those books signed for the school library? Meanwhile, listen, I'm teaching that last poem to an exam class and I think it means this--then say what you think it means--is that right?' The chances are the poet will say 'Hey, I hadn't noticed that before--no, it's not what I intended but yes, you're right, it's there' (or words to that effect). As long as your students quote that kind of evidence, they'll do well.' And of course, your students should find their own meanings in the same way, as long as they identify their own textual (and contextual) evidence. Good poetry (like all good literature) will always change depending on the reader and most poets will be flattered by any creative response. Who says they know what they are saying in any fully conscious and complete way in any case?

Even the most sophisticated and complicated poetry is only, as T. S. Eliot the great cryptic modernist said, a grown up version of the playing with words that a child naturally enjoys. It is the means by which an adult--even a fearsomely clever one like T. S. Eliot--can still enjoy language like a child while combining this enjoyment with adult complexity. All the poems considered here retain a strong sense of the playfulness of poetry that children respond to so naturally at the primary level.

My second tip, closely related to enjoyment, is: read it aloud. Trevor Millum's 'The Song of the Homeworkers' (see page 64) is a case in point. The title tells us it's a 'song' and there is an instruction: 'To be read or chanted with increasing velocity.' So the sound (and music) of the words is a vital element of the poem and before you've got past the first or second line, the (eternal) childhood fun that goes with this is very clear.

Homework moanwork Cross it out and groanwork

Start by getting the whole class to chant it together, louder and louder. They will doubtless agree with the anti-homework sentiment for some reason. They will also admire the cleverness of getting so many meaningful points against homework rhyming together ('Do it on your ownwork' always pleased my classes, incorporating a hybrid word that nailed the point with a rhyme, yet also sounding like a nagging teacher's voice). As children, we like the joyousness of nonsense rhyming; here, the poet combines this innocent anarchy with another effect of rhyme: its 'clinching' effect. If any of Millum's rhymes had failed to be sharp and pertinent, his whole rhyme and rhythm scheme here would have exposed such weakness unmercifully. So this is a very skilful poem that appears artless and is anything but. 'Homework hatework/ Hand your book in latework' is a mini dissertation on the educational impact of homework --it may well be a necessary discipline but it is nevertheless a regime whose educational benefits had better be vast to deserve the amount of punishment incurred. (This poem would be an excellent stimulus for a class discussion.)


Final point, the rhythm is arranged in couplets where the first line is four syllables with two regular beats--two trochees (Tum-ti, Tum-ti, the reverse of the iamb). So the short lines are a good way of teaching the unusual and powerful trochaic foot and what it can do. Here it is emotive, thumping, strident--exactly what you want for a chorus that both rebels against being hammered into the ground by dreary tasks sent home and simultaneously drums out a protest. Again, it requires a particular skill which does not announce itself, being the opposite of the 'natural' iambic English rhythm.

I have said that poetry plays with language in a way that unites the child with the most sophisticated adult. Carol Ann Duffy's work is almost a case study of this kind of sophisticated play. 'Be Very Afraid' (see page 64) foregrounds a different playfulness, that of the visual image. Through a child's fearful imagination a sequence of metaphors are captured that are as fine and frenzied as Shakespeare's lunatic-lover-poet:

'the Spotted Pyjama Spider which disguises itself as a spot on the sleeve of your nightwear, waits till you fall asleep, then commences its ominous creep towards your face'

Now the shiver this brings is a different kind of pleasure from pretty pictures but it is a very real, spooky pleasure all the same and beautifully done. 'The Hanging Lightcord Snake which waits in the dark..' revisits me from a childhood when all the familiar and homely places could be transformed with a thought into a world of brilliantly imagined horrors. This would be an excellent place to start to consider imagery. Children will readily understand or remember how a 'spooked' mind can look at things from an angle that changes them completely and this is a way to introduce imagery they are unlikely to forget.

There is a cleanness and clarity about the way these childhood imaginings are sequenced and described here that draws attention to simplicity as a writing technique. The 'horrors' are at once so powerful and so homely--'the Toilet Roll Scorpion/ snug as a bug in its cardboard tube/ until someone disturbs it'--that there is no need to load them with surplus adjectives, or to qualify more richly. 'Snug as a bug' is a very plain simile but once you've got a scorpion in the toilet roll, you need nothing else. Finally, the way the verses are structured as a litany of childhood horrorvisions gives a pleasing sense of pattern recognition. This offers the security of knowing what's coming (ie. another brilliant fantasy) combined with the shiver of another scary unknown. There is also the clever defamiliarisation, the unexpectedly reviving and 'making strange,' of apparent cliches as in 'the sock wasp... the Bee in the Bonnet/posed as an amber jewel/in the hatpin on it.'


Jackie Kay's 'Sour Sixteen' (see page 65) moves us out of the 'primary' school and into those dreaded teenage years. By this stage children have often stopped enjoying poetry and started studying it formally instead. Yet,poetry can help us both 'enjoy and endure' as Larkin put it. This poem has the rare distinction of offering enjoyment, recognition and also rewarding close study. It is funny, honest, fractious: 'I banged on my bedroom door. I snarled at my mother. I loathed her.'

Well, we've all been there. The poem is a sustained refutation, a list of simple statements, the first eleven of them beginning with 'I', of the common wisdom that sixteen is 'sweet'. It's a great writing stimulus. You could give the class the chance to write their own Sour Sixteen, or the chance to refute other conventional wisdoms. I can imagine many of the teenage girls I've taught really going to town on refuting 'Sugar and Spice' for example, and 'Boys Don't Cry' would attract refutations from both girls and boys, though most boys still wouldn't be able to write 'Boys Do Cry' in public. Perhaps the saddest moment of this poem is where the mother asks, 'Where's my lovely daughter?' And she responds, 'Grown up. Where've you been?' It is an authentic monologue and dialogue and this is where the emotional punch of the poem comes from.

When you start to look closer, you find the poem is also carefully shaped throughout. 'Acid' is echoed by 'livid' at the end of the first verse; 'your hormones' is deliciously picked up by the assonance of 'You moron' and refers back to the alliteration with 'moaned'. The classic way of describing this is to say that the use of such rhyming/sound echoing features is to suggest a meaningful link between words which are not normally semantically connected. I think most of us can read the connection here between moans, hormones and 'you moron'. All very sad and emotionally ugly but beautifully captured. Then the other rhymes in the poem, deftly secreted in the compelling naturalism of the dialogue, start to become obvious. (acne/company; acerbic/frantic etc). The refrain which starts the poem and follows each stanza gives the final, full pattern to the poem and emphasises its refuting point.

As a writing exercise, it may be best to get students to start with a list of 'statements of powerful feeling'-like those of the first stanza--and then start to shape these into a pattern with rhymes, parallelisms and a refrain later. The feeling is the main point (here a harrowing angst underpinning the 'sweet and pretty' cliche) but the patterning is an important means of honing and driving home the feeing. To misquote Wilfred Owen, the poetry is in the angst-but the poetry includes the patterning too.

There are some good teaching ideas based on my own poem 'First year Drama' (see page 65) in Poetry Street 2 (Longman, ISBN 978 0582039254) and the booklet Drama (Folens, ISBN 978 1850082729). These are based (1) on the use of dialogue and (2) the 'drama'--both actual and emotional-which it recreates. Briefly, the dashes are to convey the breakneck speed of the dialogue but also the way that, like a serial parenthesis, the matter keeps getting away from the teacher in charge. Every speech and event is a further distraction from what he is trying to say/do. And the drama is to do with putting on a Year 7 performance for an audience--always a drama in itself. The 'drama' is also the moment in history represented, one where the Celts are being invaded and conquered by heathen Saxons. The names should suggest that this lesson is happening in Wales but the hysteria the teacher feels at losing control is also an allusion to the history concerned, the apocalyptic and catastrophic loss of a homeland. It was an audience favourite at the Fringe last summer because the teacher makes more noise trying to keep the kids quiet than the kids make themselves, and because of interchanges like 'I can't breathe Sir,' 'Shh. Never mind.'

I think it also conveys the poignancy of the average teacher's heroic and often doomed struggle against the odds.

Gareth Calway Poet, performer and English teacher
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Title Annotation:Primary and Secondary
Author:Calway, Gareth
Publication:NATE Classroom
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Previous Article:'Shakespeare Day' at the University of Leeds.
Next Article:The Song of the Homeworkers.

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