Catch it by heart

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Pie Corbett has some memorable tips for Poetry Day

National Poetry Day, October 4

It would be nice if I could say that my love of poetry started when I was nine years old. I was in Miss Woolet's class and we learned poetry by heart, all the big guns - "Jabberwocky", "The Highwayman", "The Listeners". Unfortunately, I could never get past the first few lines. "Drake's Drum" defeated me and all that I can remember now is that "Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the nine gods he swore". What he swore I no longer recall. Miss Woolet gave up, got pregnant and left.

Playground rhymes

But what I did learn - and easily - was a vast store of playground rhymes, anarchic chants and charms. Of course, that wasn't work. It never struck me that these rhythms, surreal combinations, slapstick jokes or deep rituals would, in the end, inform my own writing.

Year upon year

Learning poetry can be a satisfying way to make language and experience memorable. Miss Woolet's error was to dish up lengthy poems cold and expect us to have learned them within a week. Learning and performing poetry is a skill that can be built up through a school, year upon year.

Picture books

Constant rereading of picture books that rhyme will soon have a class chanting along. Old favourites such as the Ahlbergs' Each Peach Pear Plum or Lynley Dodd's Hairy Maclary books have become classics that never fail to grab a class. Spoken rhymes can also be learned, in the same way that songs are taught - constant repetition, building up verse by verse.

Poem of the week

Provide Reception and Year 1 children with a home-made poetry book. Stick into a small exercise book short nursery, playground and action rhymes, such as "Incy Wincy Spider". Add a new rhyme each week for the children to take home. Add a brief note at the front of the book asking parents to read and chant the rhyme so that it becomes well known. A good source for "free" verse can be found in The Kingfisher Playtime Treasury, which contains playground rhymes for skipping, clapping, dipping, chanting and dancing.

Poetry cards

The beauty of the "poetry book" is that reading is repeated, giving an opportunity for consolidation and success. Years 2 and 3 can build on this by using poetry cards. I used to pull apart a suitable poetry anthology and put shorter poems on to laminated card. A different group each week selected a card to take home. After lunch on Fridays we would hold a poetry reading - some children read from the card, others used it as a prompt. Most had learned the poem, often performing in twos or threes.

Group performances

Years 3 to 6 can be put into groups to prepare a poetry performance. It is interesting if each group is given the same poem, as their readings will differ. Give the poem out "cold", without putting the stamp of your own interpretation on it by reading it aloud. Select poems that have some depth, such as Harold Monro's "Overheard on a Saltmarsh". Groups should think about: * Clarity: can the words be heard?

* Volume: was this varied for effect?

* Pace: did this vary appropriately?

* Pauses: were these used to add emphasis and drama?

* Expression: was this used to emphasise meaning?

* Voices: was an interesting pattern created by varying who speaks (all together, pairs, individuals, girlsboysI)?

* Other sounds: simple body percussion may enhance some poems (such as claps, stamps, finger clicks, shushes, hisses) or instruments provide background sounds, rhythm percussion or tunes.

* Movement: did this add to or detract from the poem?

Useful sources include Nick Toczek's Join in or else (Macmillan Children's Books) and Michael Morpurgo's new anthology Because a Fire Was in My Head: 101 poems to remember (Faber and Faber) providing a more classical selection, including such chestnuts as "The Charge of the Light Brigade".

Class performances

Once a term a school might devote a week to working towards class performances of poetry. A favourite memory, from when my job included carrying out Ofsted inspections, was being treated to a class giving a spirited version of Dahl's "Little Red Riding Hood". They belted out the line in which she "pulled a pistol from her knickers". All the teachers' eyes flickered in my direction (I lowered my eyes and jotted down "quality of diction very good").

Poetic repertoire

Learning poetry by heart provides a satisfying repertoire from our poetic culture - rather like carrying a mini poetry library in our minds. A few years ago I was talking about this to librarians in Gloucester. I remember the warm, communal feeling as I began to read, "Each peach pear plum, I spy Tom ThumbI" and everyone joined in, chanting away, all of us grinning with sheer pleasure in the words. On the way home, driving through darkness and rain, I switched on the radio. A stark news item reported that Janet Ahlberg had died. It seemed comforting that we had only an hour before been enjoying her pictures, and chanting Allan's rhymes. Let us hold on to our most communal and memorable form of language. It can bring light into the darkest nights.

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