Death, love and limericks

29th September 2006 at 01:00
Suicide bombers, civil liberties and the pangs of love all preoccupied the winners of this year's Foyle Young Poets Award, finds Heather Neill

What makes a poet? Sixteen-year-old Emily Middleton recalls the exact moment two years earlier when she knew she wanted to experiment with poetic form. She says: "I was out shopping when I saw a woman tapping the toe of her shoe on the ground. For some reason I knew I wanted to write poems, went home and wrote 10 of the worst poems ever written."

Emily, a student at The King's school, Macclesfield, Cheshire, is probably being a trifle modest, because a few months later she was one of the 15 overall winners of the Foyle Young Poets Award. And she's done it again this year, no mean feat in an annual award run by the Poetry Society for 11 to 17-year-olds which attracted 10,000 entries this year.

The 15 winners, who will be lauded on National Poetry Day (October 5) at Shakespeare's Globe, London, will be invited to attend a week-long course at the Arvon Centre at Lumb Bank, Yorkshire, in February 2007, where this year's judges, the poets Kate Clanchy and Paul Farley, will run workshops.

Emily says last year's course led by George Szirtes and Colette Bryce was inspiring. Her 2006 winning poem, My Future, began as a workshop exercise.

It is written from the point of view of a suicide bomber setting off on a mission. One stanza begins: "I can tell you how I will be swaddled in wires like a new-born in a blanket; how plastic and metal will nestle in my flesh like vital organs." Emily says that she wondered "what it was like to know exactly when you are going to die".

Mr Farley, reader in poetry on the creative writing programme at Lancaster University, says: "It's a privilege to get an insight into what is preoccupying young people. Quite a few are anxious about politics and the environment, although lots of the poems are hormonal, too." He and Ms Clanchy were looking for "surprise, something that stops you in its tracks, but that the person has edited, constructed, so it has found its optimum shape".

He thinks that the youngest poets are still close to the rhyme and alliteration of nursery rhymes and playground chants and may be coming across "canonical" forms such as the sonnet and sestina for the first time.

Another winner, 14-year-old Adham Smart from Dartford grammar school, Kent, has cleverly combined a childish form, the limerick, with the adult subject of detention without trial in Banged Up. The result is an arresting ballad that begins: "There once was a man from Kashmir, Who was Muslim and lived over here".

Dylan Thomas fan Annie Katchinska, from Bromley, Kent, also tackles a serious subject - religious difference - in a more sophisticated form in her poem Street Sestina.

However, teenage angst and longing are represented too, as well as powerful evocations of memory and place. Sixteen-year-old Charlotte Geater's Radio Seventeen, which captures the painful humour in the awkwardness of a lovelorn schoolboy, will provide the title for the Foyle anthology to be distributed to libraries and schools nationwide. This will include the 15 UK winning entries, the names of the 85 runners-up and three international winners, from Sweden, Japan and the United States. Charlotte, another second-time winner, is a student at Northgate high school, Ipswich.

Among the 85 runners-up, four poets aged 11 to 14 have been chosen to work with a poet in their schools. One of these, Rebecca Senior, is a pupil at Todmorden high school, West Yorkshire, an 11-16 comprehensive. The school's head of English, Jill Parker, says that poetry is embedded in the school's approach to raising standards of literacy.

The winning poems of 2006 are astonishingly accomplished, revealing a depth of reading and imagination that impressed the judges. So, what can teachers do to encourage pupils in poetry? Ms Clanchy says if the 1,000 poems she and Mr Farley read are any guide, "lots of teachers are doing the right thing already. When they are committed, it's amazing what results they can achieve."

See www.nationalpoetryday.org for news, events and resources on this year's theme of identity. Children's Poetry Bookshelf is running a separate poetry competition for seven to 11-year-olds on this theme: closing date October 16. See www.childrenspoetrybookshelf.co.uk

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