Encounters with Poetry should be pleasurable, so that each child will want to repeat the experience, will want to extend it into further discovery and exploration of the many, varied insights and outlets, forms and styles that are contained within the broad title of Poetry.
Through the Windows
Poetry is for everybody. It can be found everywhere. Whatever a child experiences can be expressed in Poetry. It was this philosophy that inspired the group of poets who formed the Windows Project in Liverpool in the summer of 1976. Working in areas of the inner-city where literature and writing is largely ignored, they had to contrive experiences to introduce the traditionally thoughtful and delicate art of Poetry into the boisterous atmosphere of summer holiday play schemes in youth and community centres. The first problem clearly was how to get the children to come to the sessions at all. Well, they were playing games, so why not extend the fun into the Poetry Workshops? It seemed to make sense, and it worked. That embryonic idea developed into the Amazing Push Poem Machine (details below) and was to prove the catalyst for seven successful years of Windows Workshops, with games providing the introduction to many of the themes. Whether it is guessing what’s in a black bag, batting a balloon through a hoop, or launching paper aeroplanes, it can be used to get the session off the ground. The games serve a dual purpose. They are fun, and they provide the participant with a picture, a letter, a sound, a taste, a stimulus to start building ideas towards the `production’ of a poem. Motivated by Merseyside poets, Dave Calder and Dave Ward, there are always available poets, writers, playwrights, guitarists, whoever might be needed to lend the young poets further stimulation or assistance in the completion of their work.
Windows held a Poetry Workshop for children at the Poetry Society in London this June, a fitting accolade in a year which has seen them hold over a hundred workshops with groups through the range of school children, teenagers and adults. Their venues have included schools, community centres, playschemes, carnivals, shopping precincts and cafes, but I would hazard an opinion that none have left a workshop disappointed or feeling that Poetry is too exclusive for them. Whatever one’s skills or deficiencies with written words, Windows has a medium for self expression to offer. The finished poems are `published’ in many different forms, on banners, on balloons, as sound tapes or in sculpture. More power to their efforts! Dave Ward and his group will travel to give workshops. (Details below.)
Words in Space
Another imaginative initiative in bringing Poetry within the sphere of pleasurable experience of children is the `Words in Space’ Poetry Festival, which recently celebrated its second year in the Tameside area. A week-long packed programme of events included intensive school workshop sessions by three established poets (Kit Wright, Vernon Scannell and Leo Aylen); poetry surgeries to give the young writers a unique experience of a one-to-one discussion of their work with a `famous’ poet; creating poster poems with the ‘concrete’ poet Stanley Cook; public readings by the poets; and an Exhibition of children’s poetry at the Teacher’s Centre throughout the Festival. The event concluded with a `celebration’ at which the children who had been working on their poems in the workshops, read out their writing before a packed audience. A remarkable concentration of events, a tribute to the efforts of the Tameside Libraries Department who staged the Festival. Chris Kloet (address below) will be glad to supply some hints if you are keen to organise your own Festival on whatever scale.
One in particular of the activities at Tameside illustrates my theme that Poetry is for all. The work combining words and visual imagery led by Stanley Cook, was done in a special school for those with learning difficulties. Not that all Poetry experiences need to be through such ambitious projects. A particularly rewarding experience for schools wishing to enter the water gently is to take advantage of one of the many Poets in Schools schemes in operation.
A Poet in School
The Poetry Society runs such a scheme (details below) which aims to stimulate children to write their own poetry through direct contact with poets. A poet will visit the school three times during the term. The first visit will be a half-day introductory workshop, usually held during an afternoon. This is followed by a second visit, a full day workshop in which ideas initiated during the initial visit are developed and worked upon. After this second visit, the poet chooses the best poems which the children have written and these are presented in a small, printed anthology (the funds for the production of which are provided by W H Smith – to a limit of £40 per school) which is utilised at the final evening event. This last visit is usually an evening’s celebration of the children’s poems. At this event the children present the poetry they have written during workshops to parents, visitors and other members of the school. This event is made as much of as each particular school wishes; some decide to include other internal groups in the fun, for example, music and drama groups. The Poetry Society scheme is in great demand and there is usually a waiting list, but it is such a beneficial experience for the children and the school as a unit, that it is worth writing to be put on the waiting list.
Many local Arts Associations organise slightly more modest, but none the less rewarding schemes of their own. A poet will make a visit to give readings or possibly hold a creative workshop or even discuss and read the work of other poets with the youngsters. Details of these localised schemes are generally available at your local Education Office, Teachers Centre, or Library. I have personal experience of the scheme run by the Merseyside Arts Association, through a very enjoyable and stimulating reading, discussion and writing session held by Kit Wright, for a mixed group of tens to twelves at my Social Priority Middle School on the Ford Estate, Birkenhead. Arrangements for fees for these sessions normally vary with each Arts Association, so if you would like a visit from a poet to your school or centre, contact your local Arts Association for details.
Catch the Light
Extending the concept of the poet meeting and working with his young audience, Oxford University Press have pioneered a novel venture with the Poetry Society. To launch their `Three Poets’ series of new poetry books for children, an afternoon of readings and group writing workshops was held at the Poetry Society. Vernon Scannell, Adrian Rumble and Gerda Mayer, who are all represented in the books, presented the afternoon’s readings, and subsequently worked with children from London schools in workshop sessions. The event was titled `Catch the Light’, the name of the first volume in the three book series. Possibly other publishers will take up the idea of launching new publications in this way. But, fingers crossed, without always feeling the need for the sessions to take place in London, to the exclusion of provincial centres.
Voices out of the air
Despite the options outlined above, many children’s experience of direct poetry reading remains limited to that provided within the classroom environment by the teacher. Therefore the diet of Poetry broadcasts on BBC Schools’ Radio through the age range is a complement which should be welcomed and utilised by teachers – the programmes range from Poetry Corner for the very young, through Pictures in Your Mind and Stories & Rhymes for first and middle Juniors, to the consistent Living Language for upper Juniors. Listening, Speaking, Writing offers a range of resource units for the early secondary years. Thames TV’s excellent `Middle English‘ for the same age group usually contains at least one well presented poetry unit per term.
Getting into print
Other ways in to Poetry not to be ignored or undervalued are the outlets provided by the, usually financially struggling but somehow surviving, magazines devoted to publishing children’s verse – in the north we have several including the excellently produced ‘Northern Line‘ and ‘Westwind‘ magazines. An appearance in any of these adds greatly to any child’s motivation to write, and I am sure that there are similar publications offering such an opportunity all round the country.
Also, much maligned in some quarters, but valuable at least as a useful stimulus to the otherwise reluctant writer, the number of Poetry Competitions at local and national level for children’s verse.
The best known is undoubtedly the W H Smith sponsored annual ‘Children as Writers’ competition, with its accompanying published anthology of the prizewinners’ efforts. The Poetry Society’s annual `Children’s Poetry Competition’ also evokes a huge response. Its absence this year, due to financial pressure, will be a disappointment to many, but a return is promised for next year – the 75th anniversary of the Poetry Society. This year there is also a Poetry category in the ‘Cadbury’s Art Competition’ to add to the occasional competitions run by a variety of national magazines and newspapers. If competitions don’t appeal you can always publish your own anthology in school.
Voices on the page
If you can’t get a ‘live’ poet into the classroom, the next best thing is to have ‘lively’ poetry books available for the children. Books whose content and approach relate to the experiences and environments of the youngsters, and illustrate the possibilities of imagination extending these experiences into their own writing. The range of those available seems to be extending, and the quality and thought revealed in these recent publications augurs well for children’s initial exposure to poetry experiences.
Oxford have added ‘A Fourth Poetry Book‘ to their Junior series, which contains a wealth of read-aloud material to enliven any lesson – this Fourth Book is noticeable for the amount of new material of particular relevance to children from Roy Fuller, Wes Magee, Gareth Owen and Stanley Cook. All four books are recommended as essential to any classroom or school library. ‘Catch the Light‘, ‘Upright Downfall‘ and ‘The Candy Floss Tree‘ are the three titles in Oxford’s Three Poets series, and they feature the established names of Vernon Scannell, Norman Nicholson and Roy Fuller, alongside lesser known poets such as Gregory Harrison, Gerda Mayer and Adrian Rumble. Again many new poems are included, a sign that publishers are becoming aware of the increasing importance of this section of the educational market, and the refusal of teachers to buy re-vamped collections of ‘old chestnuts’.
‘Hard Lines‘ from Faber is even more of a breath of fresh air, a gale-force one almost; all the poems are by young ‘unknown’ poets, the themes are today, and the experiences are so relevant to secondary school children everywhere. Again for secondary years, Thom Gunn’s ‘The Passages of Joy‘ demands to be read and thought about, even if youngsters were only exposed to a reading of ‘Expression’ the book would have proved a worthwhile buy.
Brian Patten’s collection of story poems. ‘Gangsters, Ghosts and Dragonflies‘ provides a mine of new, fresh and inventive material for junior age reading, either aloud or alone. Certainly no stale poems or sour verse here – everything is alive and captures the young listener’s imagination. Finally, Collins are publishing in September a new series ‘What’s in a Poem?’ Book 1 for the lower Junior range, Book 2 Upper Junior/Lower Secondary years. The series is unusual in that it takes vital and powerful material from children of educationally and socially deprived backgrounds and publishes it alongside the work of established poets. Each anthology contains between seventy and a hundred poems arranged thematically, the themes relating closely to children’s own experiences and environment. As an added bonus the first poem in each section has a commentary, which examines the poem itself and suggests follow-up activities for writing and discussion.
The Windows Project 22 Roseheath Drive, Halewood, Liverpool L26 9UH (051 486 0828)
Publications available from WINDOWS: The WINDOWS Workshop pack – contains the Amazing Push Poem Machine game, City of Poems handbook, Phantastic Phonetic Phactory poster and cassette, Workshop sheets, etc…. £3.95 (from above address).
‘City of Poems’ – a report on children’s workshops, games, poetry and photos. 11.00 (from above).
Tameside Libraries & Arts: Contact Chris Kloet, Young People’s Librarian, Council Offices, Wellington Road, Ashton under Lyne (061 330 8355 ext. 3442) – details of Poetry Festival and copy of `Words in Space’ anthology.
Poets in Schools: Contact The Education Officer, The Poetry Society, 21 Earls Court Square, London SW5.
Writers in Schools Scheme: Contact your Regional Arts Association.
‘Catch the Light’ Workshop details: Contact Janice Mughan, Children’s Books, Oxford University Press, Walton Street, Oxford OX2 6DP.
BBC Schools Radio Poetry: Contact Janet Whittaker or Diane Reed, at the BBC (01 580 4468 ext. 3316).
Middle English: Contact Peter Tabern, Thames Television, Television House, 306 Euston Road, London NW I 3 BB.
A Fourth Poetry Book Oxford, 0 19 918151 9, £2.25 (paperback)
Hard Lines Faber & Faber, 0 571 13073 9, £1.95 (paperback)
The Passages of Joy Thom Gunn, Faber & Faber, 0 571 11867 4, £3.00 (paper)
Gangsters, Ghosts and Dragonflies Brian Patten, Piccolo, 0 330 26955 0, £1.50
What’s in a Poem? Collins, Book 1 00 314830 0, £1.95, Book 2 00 314831 9, £2.25, (available in September).