Poetry Power

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.

Happy Poems (C) Bookwagon

Roger McGough’s Happy Poems

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.

Announcement poetry (C) Bookwagon

 A poetry recital

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.’

Listen

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.

Bookwagon Joseph Coelho (C)

 Joseph Coelho

 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

Abby and Kovac

 ER 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.

Axel Scheffler Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes (C) Bookwagon

Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes

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.

Bookwagon Joe Biden DNC 2020

Joe Biden, Democratic Presidential nominee 2020

Newly published poet, Mandy Coe, offers considerations of new places and the isolation of lockdown in her superb Belonging Street

Belonging Street (C) Bookwagon

Belonging Street by Mandy Coe

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!

What you see and how you feel

What you see and how you feel

Yet

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?

Homemade jam

Crab-apple jelly

Therefore

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?

Bookwagon Tomorrow Most Likely

Tomorrow Most Likely

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.

Finally

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.

Kate Clanchy's England: Poems from a School (C) Bookwagon

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:-

Moon

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

Lesha (15)

Some Kids and What They Taught Me (C) Bookwagon

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

Furthermore

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.

The Girl Who Became a Tree

The Girl Who Became a Tree

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!