The day poetry takes to the streets

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Brian Smith says his pupils can't get enough of the three Rs - rhyme, rant and rap.

There can be no doubt that since its inauguration eight years ago, National Poetry Day has done a lot to raise the profile of poetry and poets. By taking verse, rhyme, rant and rap to the streets and shopping centres it has, to some extent at least, made poetry more available and poets more accessible. On this annual spoken flag day you don't have to go looking; poetry comes out of arts centres, libraries and the upstairs rooms of pubs and cafes and ventures into public places.

I'm a teacher in a South Wales valley comprehensive and over the years our youngsters have taken poetry into the village streets, into primary schools, into shopping precincts and into the local supermarket. Last year, thanks to a looming Ofsted inspection and other pressures, our celebrations were more low key - no "poetry slam" between the three deputy heads - but still hugely enjoyable.

We have established a tradition and always make National Poetry Day different. So, last year, pupils were not surprised to find quotations from poems pinned up around the school in the week leading up to the big day. There were also posters announcing a competition to name as many poets as you could identify from the 10 poems displayed in English rooms and year group areas.

On the day, we had poems read over the school tannoy. Our age range is 11-16 so we began with Allan Ahlberg and ended the day with a poignant teen anthem by performance poet John Cooper Clarke. On the way, we took in Shakespeare, Blake and R S Thomas. Staff and pupils alike were enthusiastic. They always are. Poetry is fun, it breaks up the day and (pretentiousness alert) it seems to communicate with some deep inner longing for feeling and meaning expressed in the spoken word. Children whose attention span in formal lessons is often on a par with the proverbial goldfish will, on National Poetry Day, quote the first two or three lines of particular poems to me in the corridor or classroom, having heard it only once. Touchingly, they often add: "Good poem, Sir" or "I enjoyed that." How do we build on this sort of response?

In our school we attempt to promote poetry; to make it normal, accessible and fun. Yes, we run the risk of making what can be sublime, prosaic. But it's a risk worth taking. In the past three years we have hosted Mike Jenkins, Patrick Jones, Jean "Binta" Breeze and Michael Donaghy. Professor Wyn Thomas has visited to lecture to the upper school on the poetry of R S Thomas, and children have attended workshops and readings at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, and Pontardawe Arts Centre.

But so much more remains to be done. I'm convinced that children have a natural affinity for poetry, a love of rhyme, rhythm, nonsense and deep emotion that all too often lies dormant because we - adults - don't do enough to foster their innate interest.

In secondary schools we must teach in English, music lessons, drama and childcare lessons the importance of rhyme and rhythm for the growing child. Children of all ages must have the chance to listen to and learn folk songs, traditional ballads and decent hymns - ancient and modern. Otherwise, we run the risk of depriving a huge proportion of our young people of the delights of poetryI poetry listened to and poetry on the page.

Brian Smith teaches at Cwmtawe CHEC comprehensive, Swansea. This year's National Poetry Day, on October 4, has the theme of 'Journeys'. Schools should receive free Poetry Society primary and secondary packs early this term. Details on

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