Poetry isn't dead. Far from it. With oral sex and the Paddington rail crash feeding the imagery, six poets give unflinching live performances in front of hundreds of GCSE pupils. Wendy Wallace reports
Who said poetry was dead? "Long live poetry" was the message from thousands of London teenagers this month.
Daisy Goodwin, a poetry pundit and television presenter, has complained that poetry is on the way to extinction, with book sales down and few people able to name today's top 10 poets. "It will be like Morris dancing: really interesting to people who do it, and incomprehensible and slightly annoying to people who don't," she has said.
Well, it doesn't feel like that in the cavernous space of the Shaftesbury Theatre on a Friday just before half-term, where 1,250 Year 11 students are gathered to hear not one poet but six as part of the GCSEPoetry Live! national tour. Under the rococo splendour of the Shaftesbury's gilded mouldings, a hum of excitement rises from teenagers from 22 schools. As presenter Tony Childs, chief examiner of the AQA exam board, introduces poet Gillian Clarke's "beautiful body of work", two boys behind me are discussing another kind of beautiful body. But the auditorium falls silent to hear Gillian Clarke talk about her poem "Catrin".
"This poem is dead on the page until it has a reader," she tells them.
"Every single word has a public meaning that can be looked up in the dictionary. But every one of us has a thousand different experiences of our own to bring to each word. You don't need a teacher or a poet to tell you all that there is in a poem. You must have your own courage."
Gillian Clarke reads poems about a daughter growing away ("the tight, red rope of love which we both fought over"), about Bosnia ("the air stammering with gunfire") and the Paddington rail crash ("Darling, I'm on the train") to a storm of enthusiasm. Asked, "Why do you like poetry?", she says that "a poet will have said something about all human feeling. Somewhere, there is a poem that will meet your mood."
Carmen Bronfield, 15, from Hampstead school in north London is impressed.
"She kept it really simple and short and it was easier to understand," she says.
As well as Gillian Clarke, the day's programme includes Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Imtiaz Dharker, the young Kurdish poet Choman Hardi and John Agard, five of whom are featured in AQA's GCSE anthology.
On stage, the poets are performers as well as readers of their own work.
Carol Ann Duffy is unfazed when asked, "What is the imagery behind 'diving for pearls'?" in her love poem "Anne Hathaway". "It's an image of oral sex between lovers." The hall is suitably thrilled. The previous week, she had amazed another teen audience when, on being asked if she hated all men, she walked over and kissed Tony Childs. Accused by one pupil of "reading in an expressionless way", she folds her arms and, after a poet's pause, asks, "Am I bothered?"
Simon Armitage, at pains to indicate to the youngsters that it isn't long since he was one of them, goes down brilliantly and prompts a slew of questions from boys. "He tried to talk to the kids more," says 16-year-old Fati Zeiour of Hampstead school. "He made more jokes." Fati likes poems that rhyme, and only those that rhyme.
Simon Armitage's popularity is confirmed by Janet Saloman, head of English at Warwick boys' school in Waltham Forest. "Our boys were saying afterwards that 'Simon Armitage is our favourite poet now'." Does she feel that poetry risks becoming extinct in national culture? "I think it's nonsense. I teach in north-east London in a boys' comprehensive and they love their poetry.
You have to approach it in the right way, but it's tied in with the music they like - the rhythm of poetry is just inside them." With a high proportion of needy pupils, Janet Saloman appreciates getting grants to cover the Pounds 12.50 ticket costs from gifted and talented funds and the Aim Higher scheme to encourage those who would not normally consider university.
Simon Armitage has been involved in Poetry Live! for seven years. "As a writer, what you want is an audience," he says. At school at a comprehensive in West Yorkshire he studied "dead poets", but then heard Ted Hughes reading his work at a cinema in Hebden Bridge. "I still remember how that made things alive and memorable," he says. He shrugs off the notion that poetry is dead. "It's a dissenting art form. It'll always be somewhere in the margins."
A few miles away, in Westminster Hall, 2,300 more teenagers are seeing the same poets; the poets shuttle between the two venues. "Poetry is not dead,"
says Poetry Live organiser Simon Powell. "Kids concentrate brilliantly and ask such interesting questions - which get better and better - about the process of writing poetry."
John McIntyre, head of English at the Sylvia Young theatre school, has been bringing students to the events for five years. "There is a wonderful rapport between the poets and the students," he says. "Students can see the poets' tone of voice, rhythm, body language, eye contact. It's just a pity not every student can have the opportunity."
See Talkback, page 20. Further information and bookings: www.poetrylive.net; tel 01745 814214