Howard Sergeant considers poetry for the classroom.
Although in this article I shall be concerned with the kind of poems which have most appeal to modern school-children, I would like to make it clear from the start that it is not my intention to dogmatize about the use of poetry in the classroom, and certainly not to attempt to instruct teachers how best to encourage a love of poetry in the children for whom they find themselves responsible. I am only too well aware that each classroom situation is different, and that there are many dedicated teachers who have spent years, sometimes in the most difficult circumstances, trying to communicate their own feeling for poetry. During the last 20 years or so the climate for poetry has changed in such a dramatic way that one might almost say that a revolution has quietly been taking place. More poetry is being read (and written) by old and young alike; more poetry is being made available to the public: more people are attending poetry readings throughout the country; more awards are being made for poetry and more poetry festivals are being held than ever before. It would seem that poetry is in a far more flourishing state than at any other time in this century. I happen to believe that, by developing new ways and means of encouraging creative expression and appreciation and by providing an atmosphere in which real learning can take place, teachers have played a very important part in bringing about such a change in public response to poetry.
Nor is it very meaningful to compile lists of attractive poems considered to be appropriate for children of different age groups, though some poems – Eliot’s Macavity, for instance – seem to be popular with most children for different reasons. Children are individuals and just as adults have varying likes and dislikes, so have children, and it is often enlightening to find out what thought and behaviour patterns lie behind their attitudes (this may have little to do with ‘literary criticism’ or ‘assessment of value’ in the adult sense of these terms). It may be true that highly sophisticated poems are unsuitable for younger children, but some of these poems communicate at more than one level, and I have at times been surprised by the capacity for understanding by children of 8 to 10. On the other hand, few authorities would seriously recommend nursery rhymes for older children; yet I have had some fascinating sessions with 14-year-olds exploring the hidden meanings and camouflaged satire of such rhymes as Little Jack Horner, Sing a Song of Sixpence, Mary Mary, There Was an old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, and Ring a Ring a Roses, and relating the themes to history in a practical manner. The guiding principle seems to be that one should not cling too fiercely to preconceived notions about what will or will not appeal to children of particular ages.
I shall, therefore, concentrate on what I have learned from my own experience of working with children and I shall not attempt to lay down any hard and fast rules about it, leaving it to the discretion of readers to take what they may find helpful. In the first place I try to avoid giving the impression that I am involved in anything so portentous as a ‘poetry lesson’ or ‘poetry reading’, with all they may imply, though I may well have been given a build-up before I arrive at the school. My initial task. then, is to set up some kind of valid relationship with the children, and since I am seldom at any school for more than a day, I have to work very quickly and may sometimes adopt unconventional methods of establishing the kind of relationship needed. Here, regular teachers have a tremendous advantage over me; on the other hand, I am not troubled by any problems of maintaining discipline or thinking about continuity. Obviously, I know from previous experience that some poems are more successful than others with different age groups generally, but whilst keeping this at the back of my mind, I try to let my choice of poems for each separate occasion be decided by the discussion which follows, making the utmost use of the special interests of the children in question. If one is fortunate there may even have been some public event, some extraordinary change in the weather, some item of local news, or there may be some incident in the classroom which may provide the lead and give one something on which to build. In other words, instead of going systematically through a pre-selected group of poems, I endeavour to let the poems fit naturally into each learning situation as it develops. More often than not I find that this is a matter of maintaining a proper balance.
In deciding what poems to read, I do not think that one should be unduly concerned with the reputation of the poets or with the ‘great’ poems of the past- children will gradually make their own judgements without being told what to think, though one may point out some of the factors to be taken into consideration. The important thing is that the poems chosen should have some relevance to the present age and to the environment of the children. ‘Poetry is human experience come to life,’ wrote Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish poet. One of the dangers in using old anthologies, or even some of the traditionally accepted poems for children, is that the experience described is so remote as to have little meaning for the child of today. Indeed, even some contemporary poets, when writing specifically for children, tend to look back to their own childhood or that of their parents, rather than forward to the modern child’s environment.
When I was compiling my anthology of poems ‘for the youngest’, Happy Landings, I found scores of poems about going to bed by candlelight or encounters with nannies, etc. but hardly any about, say, space travel, so I sat down and wrote the following poem:
blasting off the ground
with a wake of flame behind you,
swifter than passing sound.
shooting through the air,
twice around the moon and back
simply because it’s there.
cruising through the skies
to plant your flags on landscapes
unknown to human eyes.
Space-man – race, man,
scorching back to earth –
to home and friends and everything
that gives your mission worth.
I have no illusions about the quality of this poem, and I would hardly place it amongst the best I have written, yet it has proved to be my most popular poem and has been anthologised over and over again for children, largely because it seems to meet a need. It will be observed that I have adopted a rhyming pattern for the poem. Although there is a tendency amongst contemporary poets to discard rhyme, it is my experience that younger children at least enjoy a definite rhythm and feel more at home with some kind of rhyme (this is not to suggest that they should be taught to write in this way only).
I feel very strongly that we have to avoid giving our children the impression that poetry has little bearing upon life as we know it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The best poets are always deeply concerned with human experience in all its astonishing variety. That is, with everything that affects our lives, the little things which take up so much of our attention every day, as well as the big issues which force themselves upon us sooner or later; the moments of lightheartedness and fun as well as the times of emotional stress. In fact, they write poems about everything which arouses their interest, from spiders to space-ships, from cats to catastrophes.
We must always keep a place in our programmes for humour, light verse, mildly satirical verse, and even nonsense poems. Life, at any age, can be such a serious and often frustrating business, that we need humour as a sort of safety-valve to help us keep a sense of proportion. If we can see the funny side of a situation when things go wrong, we can retain our balance and, in really desperate situations, our courage: and since humour is best when shared, it helps us to communicate with other people. The satirical verse of Thomas Hood (such as ‘Mary’s Ghost’. with its new relevance for an age of transplants), James Reeves’s Prefabulous Animiles, Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, ‘I Had a Hoppopotamus’ by Patrick Barrington, ‘The Dinosaur’ by Bert Leston Taylor, Rabbiting On by Kit Wright, and verse by Ogden Nash, Spike Milligan and Roger McGough, all provide excellent material as a starting point.
Since many children have pets, a useful theme for discussion which involves poetry eminently suitable for younger children is that of animals, and here there is plenty of choice for most anthologies for children include some poems about animals, from Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘Cats Sleep Anywhere’, Geoffrey Dearmer’s ‘The Giraffe’, to Charles Causley’s ‘I Saw a Jolly Hunter’ (a special favourite). For the middle school and older children the animal poems of D.H. Lawrence (such as ‘Snake’, ‘Kangaroo’, and ‘Mountain Lion’) have great appeal. Nor should attention be confined to the more superficial aspects of caring for animals – we may well find ourselves with animals in zoos and circuses, the hunting of animals and the killing of seals.
Other subject areas are those of ‘our relations’, ‘people’, ‘town and country’ and ‘the supernatural’.
It will be seen that my own methods will often include a thematic treatment of poetry, though not inevitably so, but it does help children to see all round a given subject and widen their own perspectives. It may also lead to projects of one kind or another making use of a whole range of poems selected by children themselves. Coming back to the matter of differing age groups, I have always grouped the poems in my anthologies into broad subject areas, but within the separate sections I have attempted to arrange the poems roughly in a graded presentation to cater for differing capacities of children, whilst providing range and variety as well as contrasting approaches to the subjects.•
MEET HOWARD SERGEANT
Now freelancing after many years as a full-time teacher, Howard Sergeant is the founding editor of Outposts poetry magazine which, founded in 1944, is the longest-living independent poetry magazine in the UK, and perhaps in the world. Born in Yorkshire, he seems to have spent most of his time outside teaching in giving readings or running poetry workshops in schools, colleges and universities throughout the country, and in the words of the critic A. Alvarez has ‘probably done more consistently to encourage poetry than any other editor in the country.’ He has edited many collections of poetry for children of different age groups, the last being For Today and Tomorrow (Evans), and his anthology How Strong the Roots: Poems of Exile will be published in June. His own Selected Poems (Fuller D’Arch Smith) appeared earlier this year. His publications include three volumes of poetry, three volumes of criticism, and he has edited or co-edited over 50 anthologies of poetry for various publishers. He is a judge for the Gregory Awards, and in 1981 will be adjudicating poetry at the Cheltenham, Stroud, and Hastings Festivals.
He was awarded the MBE for services to literature in 1978, won the Henry Shore Award for poetry in 1979, and the Dorothy Tutin Award for services to poetry in 1980.
Anthologies edited by Howard Sergeant
Happy Landings (poems for the youngest)
Evans, 0 237 35190 0, 70p (pb)
The Swinging Rainbow (poems for the young)
Evans, 0 237 44961 7, £2.50 (hb), 0 237 44962 5, 85p (pb)
Evans Book of Children’s Verse (9-13 years)
Evans. 0 237 44524 7 (hb) – out of print but try libraries
For Today and Tomorrow (13-15 years)
Evans, 0 237 44788 6 (hb) – also out of print
How Strong the Roots: Poems of Exile (13-15 years)
Evans, 0 237 45559 5, £3.95 (hb) – due in June 1981
Other Anthologies to be recommended
The Children’s Book of Comic Verse
Chosen by Christopher Logue, Batsford, 0 7134 1528 2, £5.95
Thrills and Spills, poems of courage and skulduggery,
Collected by Zenka and Ian Woodward, Evans, 0 237 44990 0, £4.95 (hb)
Invitation to English, Book 2 (primary and middle schools)
Edited by Mike Woolman and Ham Andrews, E.J. Arnold, 0 560 04107 1. £1.45 non-net
Knock at the Door
Edited by Jan Betts, Ward Lock, 0 7062 4029 4, £5.95 Accompanying cassette tape. 0 7062 4047 2. £3.65
Teacher’s Book 1: Water, Machines, Toys (topic anthology)
Edited by Jean Gilbert. OUP. 0 19 321280 3. £3.50
HOW TO FIND OUT ABOUT POETRY
The Poetry Society – organises many activities for children including the Annual Children’s Poetry Competition, and the Poets in Schools scheme, sponsored by W.H. Smith. It’s also a good source of information. Write to: The Education Officer, The Poetry Society, 21 Earls Court Square, London SW5 9BY. Telephone: 01-373 2551 or 01-373 7861.
The Resource Centre at Edge Hill College, Ormskirk, offers a poetry retrieval service. Contact Mrs Eason (Telephone: Ormskirk 75171).
The National Book League’s reference collection includes all poetry books published in the last two years. You will also find the Signal Collection of Poetry at the NBL for reference. Book House, 45 East Hill, Wandsworth, London SW18 2QZ (Telephone: 01-870 9055 ).
A useful book is Where’s That Poem?, compiled by Helen Morris, Blackwell (revised and enlarged edition 1974), 0 631 11791 1. £4.25.