During lockdown I was invited to be a judge on the Word of Wandsworth (WoW) poetry competition panel. This initiative champions the power in poetry. There were four settings, including KS1, KS2, Haiflu and Adult. Happiness was the theme.
Usually this annual competition is a spoken word event. In fact eighteen months ago, I attended this event at Wandsworth Town Hall. I was awed and delighted by the wit and brilliance of the individual and group speakers; the day is a Bookwagon highlight.
However, this year, its organiser, Primary English Consultant, Ingrid Seifert, arranged an event to suit schools in their lockdown learning settings.
How it worked
Criteria included numbers of line and attention to theme. Judges were given a remit to consider the response to these, alongside listening to the poem and realising how each creation felt and sounded to us. Over days I pored through hundreds of poems, speaking them late into the night. It seemed as though I could see the pictures the words created alongside hearing the writer’s voice.
What is poetry
It made me think about the way that poetry continues to be considered a difficult literary form. Certainly, Mr Bookwagon is diffident when it comes to reading poetry books and finds the form threatening. He asks, ‘What is the difference between poetry and prose without full stops?’
I think that the definition is often the biggest obstacle. Let’s tackle it and recognise the power in poetry.
What poetry does
Poems make me feel and see and think. That’s what poets aim to do. Kate Tempest writes in ‘These Things I Know’:-
‘Language lives when you speak it. Let it be heard.
The worst thing that can happen to words is that they go unsaid.
Let them sing in your ears and dance in your mouth and ache in your
guts. Let them make everything tighten and shine.
Poetry trembles alone, only picked up to be taken apart.’
Joseph Coelho’s Poems Aloud, demonstrates how to say poetry and explains the way words we are saying are organised. Poetry is accessible, meaningful, relevant and powerful.
What poetry does again
Poetry is the purest form. It creates the laughter bubble when you share Chocolate Cake with Michael Rosen:- Michael Rosen performs Chocolate Cake. Then, it can break your heart when you watch E.R. during lockdown, and during season 14 Abby and Kovac marry :- Memorable TV wedding vows
It’s also the most direct. That’s why parents are urged to share rhymes and nursery rhymes- Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes- with babies and toddlers, so that they may hear the shape of the words, remember, recite and enjoy. Thereafter, it’s why we sing and feel part of a community wherever we might be as we sing Auld Lang Syne by Robbie Burns at the dawning of a new year.
What poetry offers
The power in poetry is not just in infancy but in our lives for at every moment it offers the opportunity to explain how we feel and what we see. Joe Biden, Democratic presidential nominee 2020, paraphrased poet Seamus Heaney in his acceptance speech, ‘This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme.’
Newly published poet, Mandy Coe, offers considerations of new places and the isolation of lockdown in her superb Belonging Street
When poetry is taught
As I read through the poems, from KS1 to adult, on occasion it seemed the words, the power in poetry, were lost in the need to employ a device. It felt as though concern about including the devices, concern about full stops and other punctuation, overwhelmed the voice. That’s not poetry. Furthermore, there seemed such a tonne weight of contrived images. Tell it as you know, as you feel- don’t include images about which you’ve neither knowledge nor interest!
When it’s there, when a writer remembers how he felt attending the fun fair in Slovakia where he puts on his ‘bow tie because it makes him feel smart’. Thereafter, he ‘eats fried cheese and his tummy is happy‘. We feel like we’re there and can see that happy boy. Or what about ‘breakfast is brilliant because it fills my tummy with jam’. Doesn’t jam spell happiness?
The power in poetry comes from reading, listening to and sharing poetry. It’s neither an obsolete nor obscure literary form. Neither is it ‘hard’. It’s the most accessible, in my opinion.
The words that Dave Eggers employs in the outstanding Tomorrow Most Likely read as poetry. For example:-
‘Tomorrow most likely/ you might write a song/ and sing it too loud.// There are mountains of time/ and oceans of faces,/ canyons of colour and skies full of places.‘
Doesn’t this make you feel inspired, hopeful, possible, happy?
Teacher and poet Kate Clanchy uses the framework of poems as an outline on which her young poets might form the poetry that explains their experiences and feelings.
Kate Clanchy won this year’s George Orwell Prize with her title Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She considers various places where she has taught in Britain alongside sharing the stories from a small group she created at the school where she currently teaches. That group of girls has been nurtured as a small poetry group in her large, underprivileged secondary comprehensive. They have won national attention, acclaim and publication:- England Poems from a School.
Through poetry this multicultural group of refugees and migrants have found their voice. Creative writing has enabled them to express their feelings and experiences. At the peak of the exams’ fiasco this year, Kate Clancy released this, from one of her students:-
I want to be the Moon
and not in Year 11. I want
to be admired for who I am
and not for the box you fit me in.
I want to be the moon so I can
fade away when you’re speaking.
I want to be endless and infinite.
Everywhere- not stationery for hours
on end. I would like to be invisible,
forgotten with the seasons.
You with your a squared plus
b squared equals c squared,
your aller, etre, your infinitives,
and ongoing dictatorships.
Don’t try to speak to me ,because
I’m slipping out of here.
Don’t gaze at me in awe
when you looked through me before.
I am going to be the moon,
and you won’t recognise me
This year, the government has announced its intention that poetry will be optional in its English GCSE curriculum. Like many, I am dismayed by this change. Poetry offers everyone a voice, even when do not know it. Furthermore, studying it, realising its foundation, framework and application is a power and opportunity.
As I read The Girl Who Became a Tree by Joseph Coelho, griefs, Daphne’s and mine, are felt and remembered. I recognise the devices this most gifted poet employs, the story that provides the framework of his story, and revel in his language and imagery.
Poetry is not difficult. From the moment we’re born until our ending, it gives us a human voice. Let’s realise, discover and employ that voice!
Happy (poetry) reading!