Joy in their craft

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Heather Neill reports on the 2005 Foyle Young Poets of the Year award and talks to some of the winners

Can poetry be "cool"? The poet George Szirtes quotes a retired English teacher of his acquaintance: "Poetry should not be taught, but should be a secret and subversive pleasure." Szirtes, a judge of this year's Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, whose winners were announced yesterday on National Poetry Day, thinks there is some truth in the second half of this statement. He isn't advocating dropping poetry from the syllabus (and, in fact, sees the influence of school anthologies on the work of promising young poets) but is aware that, after a period of discovery in childhood, in adolescence poetry can become "not a joy but a task".

A continuing pleasure comes across, says Szirtes, in the best work submitted for the competition, run annually by the Poetry Society. He and Colette Bryce, his fellow judge, have been impressed by the level of work submitted by more than 5,000 competitors aged 11 to 17. From these, 15 overall winners, from all over the UK and as far afield as the US, Singapore and New Zealand, have been invited to take part in a week-long Arvon Foundation course, tutored by the two judges.

The 15 poems will be published in a winners' anthology, together with the names of all 100 winners. George Szirtes says that the judges' intention was to find not merely the best poems, but particularly promising young poets.

As well as the influence of the curriculum, he acknowledges the importance of encounters with poets, through their work or through school workshops led by poets. "The best poems are not simply shadows of the work of an admired writer, but take off from there, as the young poets develop their own ideas."

Winning qualities include: an awareness of phrasing and imagery; experimenting with metre and rhyme ("It takes a special skill to pull it off, so that people are not bullied by a particular rhyme"); and, within the free verse form generally chosen, "a precision of language, a sense of cadence, narrative development and the ability to pick up on a perception and piece it out with rhythm, accurately".

And inspiration can come from other cultural interests. A poet needs a sensitive ear, and young poets, says Szirtes, respond to the rhythms of popular music, including rap: "They know what makes a good sound and how it relates to meaning."

Among this year's winners is Alice Malin, aged 16 and doing A-levels at Shrewsbury College. Her poem, "Travel-Map, Summer 1938", is thoughtful, allusive and full of images, but it was not her only submission: she also translated a poem by Baudelaire, a favourite writer of hers, along with Seamus Heaney, Hopkins and Donne.

She was a runner-up last year and now has a particular interest in writing poetry about science.

Another of the 15 on her way to the Hurst (the Arvon Foundation Centre in Shropshire) is Jay Bernard. At 17, she is already a seasoned performer, used to reading her work (including her complex winning poem, "Kid Moth", originally inspired by thoughts of feral children and homelessness) at public events. She has published in Poetry London and has won another Poetry Society event, the Respect Slam. Now, between preparing for A-levels at City and Islington College, she is writing a novel as well.

Martha Sprackland, also 17, is among the winners for the second time. In 1999, when only 11 (she was one of the youngest winners ever), she spent a week at the Foundation's centre in Lumb Bank, Yorkshire. For one exercise, tutors Peter and Ann Sansom told the students to find a door and write about it, which she says was great because there were so many "secret" doors, or ones "going nowhere". Her winning poem, "Beach", is poignant and atmospheric, about an inter-generational relationship.

But what of students who have not yet caught the poetry bug? Among the Foyle winners this year is a Rochdale comprehensive school, Oulder Hill.

Mathew Lynch, the school's acting faculty head of English, is passionate about poetry. His enthusiasm led to more than 100 students voluntarily entering the competition. They had the opportunity, if they wished, to submit their work without fanfare to the librarian. Some, even so, wished to remain anonymous.

For Mathew Lynch, poetry is simply part of the landscape. At key stage 3, surprising work emerged during a unit on dragons; with older students, he has found that a narrative framework can release poetic experimentation.

The particular example he gives comes from Great Expectations. After reading about Pip's encounter with Miss Havisham, students were asked to write a poetic monologue from Pip's point of view and this led them to a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, one of the poems in their GCSE anthology.

Oulder Hill has been awarded the Faber Prize, a set of Poets on Poets published by Faber, in recognition of their large number of entries. And perhaps next year an Oulder Hill student will be looking forward to a week at an Arvon centre.

* George Szirtes, winner of the TS Eliot Prize, who has published for children as well as adults, will deliver the TS Eliot Memorial Lecture at the Purcell Room, London, on November 22.

www.southbankcentre.org.uk

* The Poetry Society website has teaching materials and information about events.

www.poetrysociety.org.uk

* The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is run by the Poetry Society and sponsored by the Foyle Foundation, and supported by The TES. Full details of the award can be found at www.poetrysociety.org.ukfoyle

* All 100 winners receive book prizes and one year's free Youth Membership of the Poetry Society. The 15 overall winners, who will attend a week-long residential course at the Hurst Arvon Centre in Shropshire, and whose poems will be published in a special anthology, are: Adam Beaudoin, US; Jeneece Bernard, London; Amanda Chong, Singapore; Charlotte Geater, Suffolk; Philip Knox, N Ireland; Emma Lawrence, Northampton; Alice Malin, Shropshire ; Laura Marsh, Bedfordshire; Emily Middleton, Derbyshire; Richard Osmond, Hertfordshire; Julia Rampen, Edinburgh; Dora Sharpe-Davison, New Zealand; Martha Sprackland, Merseyside; Ella Thompson, Brighton; Sharon Wang, US.

Beach

My fingertips gathered the rain

Held in milky measures

the sad reluctant drops more

anaemic than sea water

for her. Awkwardly she twisted her

tiny hands around my palms

scavenged the liquid from

my skin which clutched her to my clothes to dry.

Sand clung to hair

ground crunchily in our teeth

salt and sharp cracked my lips like peeling paint but

The discomfort of our boots waterlogged and wrinkled pale was nothing

She filled my pockets with shells.

Martha Sprackland

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