'Listen before the world is gone'

The plight of children in Afghanistan prompted Pippa Haywood to compile a poetry anthology to raise money for aid. Harvey McGavin reports on the campaign while, below, Cliff Yates offers ideas on using the poems in class

I like the sheer variety in Poems for Refugees - the boldness of including work by Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan alongside poems by Shakespeare and Pablo Neruda.

I also like the inclusion of work by children, which demonstrates that poems by young people deserve to be taken seriously. (If you are in any doubt about this, ask the Poetry Society for a free copy of New Life: Poems by the Young Poets of the Year 2001). Seeing the work of their contemporaries side-by-side with established writers gives young readers confidence in their own writing and also an incentive to write their own poems.

"At War", by Kellie Griffith, Yacoub Didi, Joanne Daniels, Mark Russell and Daniel Lewis, all aged 10 from Sudbourne Primary School, Brixton, London, is a collage of different voices. "Old men argue while young men die" is a great line, whose sentiment reminds me of Siegfried Sassoon. It sounds both resigned and angry, and could be read as a newspaper headline for almost any war. "I am only a child I know that this is wrong" is a plaintive, personal voice, "I hear you cry ..." is strangely decontextualised, and "Listen Listen Listen" dramatically draws in the reader.

I would ask pupils to prepare a performance of this poem in groups. Ask them to divide up the lines, deciding how to speak them, giving some lines to individuals and reading others in unison. "Listen Listen Listen" could be spoken quietly by three different pupils in different parts of the room, for example.

Next, get pupils to devise and perform their own group poems. Give them a subject, such as The Flood. Encourage them to write fragments in different styles, not explaining context, but allowing the language to stand up for itself.

They could write a newspaper headline, the worried thoughts of someone watching the river rise, the voice of a television newsreader, shouts of warning, and so on. In preparing for the performance, pupils should share out the lines and practise reading them for maximum effect.

The poet Wendy Cope finishes her poem "Spared" with a line that she has adapted from Emily Dickinson. Pupils are always surprised when they come across this kind of thing and need to know that it's an established practice.

Shakespeare borrowed from various sources, as did T S Eliot, and Ted Berrigan used lines by Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery in The Sonnets. Borrowing from other writers can be a liberating source of ideas for pupils' own poems. It also encourages young people to see themselves as writers; it gives their work a different kind of status, placing it in the context of work by previous writers.

Get pupils to read through the anthology, looking for individual lines they like, and combine them to make new poems, adapting them freely and adding lines of their own. They can acknowledge their borrowed lines, as Wendy Cope does, at the beginning of their poems, or they can write notes accompanying the poem, as John Ash does in his collection The Branching Stairs.

Another approach is to give pupils the opening line of a poem they haven't read (such as Wendy Cope's "It wasn't you, it wasn't me") without explaining anything about the poem. Pupils should write down the line and then write freely for five or 10 minutes, continuing the poem in any way they want. The aim is not to predict the original poem, but to explore the possibilities of the line. Encourage pupils to read back what they have written, then read the original.

This is an excellent preparation for reading a poem; they will rarely listen more attentively. Because they have used the same line themselves, pupils will have thought about some of its possibilities. Reading poems for some pupils can be like translating something from a different language. Techniques such as this encourage pupils to read from the inside, to read as writers.

Cliff Yates is deputy head of Maharishi School, Lancashire. He is the author of "Jumpstart Poetry in the Secondary School" (Poetry Society) and "Henry's Clock" (Smith Doorstop), winner of the Aldeburgh Poetry PrizeEmail: cyates2468@aol.com

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