Beans means a poetry prize

5th May 2006 at 01:00
An 11-year-old's poem about the dinner queue has won a national award.

Heather Neill reports

Martha Sprackland was only 11 when she won a Foyle Young Poets Award for the first time. Her prize, a week's course at the Arvon Centre at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire, was a stimulating but a somewhat daunting experience, as the other winners were all at least 15 years old. In 2005, then aged 17, she won again and, in February, had a much more relaxed and enjoyable time with the other 14 overall winners at Arvon's Hurst centre, in Shropshire.

Martha, one of the youngest ever winners, is clearly exceptional - but even she needed to grow into a course better suited to teenagers.

The Poetry Society is now offering an alternative for the youngest winners and the 85 runners up: a day's workshop for their school. Last year, Haf Davies, a Year 7 pupil at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Plasmawr in Cardiff, wrote a poem which led to a school visit in the spring term from the Welsh poet Robert Minhinnick. At Plasmawr all lessons except English are taught in Welsh, Haf's first language. Her winning poem, ostensibly about school dinners, but really expressing the anxiety of a child about to leave her familiar primary school for the mysteries of a large comprehensive, has the memorable title, "Beans, Babes?" This would make an excellent example for pupils in Years 6 and 7, showing how a poet can achieve unity in a free form and subtly combine observation of real events with an emotional response to them.

Haf's class, quietly apprehensive to begin with, soon fizzed with excitement as they competed to guess riddles with Robert. His workshop was so successful in getting people thinking, writing and sharing that, after an hour, there were still boys and girls waving their arms for the chance to puzzle their classmates. Robert, an essayist as well as poet, began by assuring the group that he wanted them to have fun, and that they couldn't be "wrong" in this lesson. First, he removed preconceptions about what a poem can be by introducing the riddle as a form of poem and reading from The Alphabet to Zoo, which has a poem for every letter in the English alphabet. So, what poem about an animal might you find for "m"? Everything from monkey to meercat, mouse to millipede was suggested, but the answer is in the poem: "Might there be an animal that's always asking Why? That eats when it isn't hungry and passes contentment by It doesn't know what it wants but it will get it if it can There's only one like that, I hope: m must stand for Man."

After this, on to true riddles. The first one rhymes: "Through frost and snow and sunlight Through rain and night and day I go back to where I come from I pass all things yet stay." Someone suggests time. Others come up with turtle, snowman, penguin and wind. The answer is a road.

But a riddle can be very short: "I do not have a body yet I grow constantly." The answer: the past "The way to write a riddle", says Robert, "is to start with the answer, then work backwards to give people clues."

By now everyone wants to get the right answer and before long they are setting their own puzzles. Here is their cleverest: "I now travel through the air While people wonder what I am." Answer: a riddle.

Martha, meanwhile, says she had a productive week at the Hurst, concentrating on improving technique, especially cutting down on adjectives and going for simplicity. She particularly enjoyed an exercise in which the poet George Szirtes provided postcard pictures and asked students to write from the point of view of one of the objects or people in it. If a man is eating, the poem could be about his sensations or about those of the food or the table.

Stimulating ideas can work equally well for beginners. Rhodri Jones, head of English at Plasmawr, where poetry is already a priority, said he'd enjoyed Robert Minhinnick's lesson and will try the riddle idea with other classes - starting with the answers, of course.

* This year's Foyle Young Poets Award closes on July 31. Contact the Poetry Society, tel: 020 7420 9880 Robert Minhinnick is editor of Poetry Wales

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