Lines of vision

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Alison Combes of the Poetry Society looks forward to National Poetry Day next week. Next Thursday, teachers all over the British Isles will dress themselves in green, tie ribbons and messages to trees, take to the streets and mount raids on neighbouring schools, using pupils as mini commandos.

Why? What phenomenon could provoke teachers - normally among the sanest of people - to act as if they had joined the territorial army?

The answer is National Poetry Day. For October 10 will be the third annual Poetry Day when these activities will take place. This year's celebrations are the most ambitious yet. Not only will BBC TV run a poll to find the nation's favourite post-war poem but plans are afoot to delight armchair sleuths: Rhymewatch UK. Meanwhile, BBC Children's TV has already launched its Blue Peter competition, which is being held in conjunction with the "Our World Ourselves" schools' promotion, administered by the Poetry Society on behalf of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

The blue booklets and pink posters which launched this year's celebrations in July are now familiar sights in classrooms, and news about the pack has spread so far that the Poetry Society reports requests for materials from schools in Holland and Germany. To date, the celebrations remain - more or less - national and wholly European, but with the increasing importance of the Internet it is possible that news of events on other continents will emerge.

However, before we all get carried away on a wave of enthusiasm, it is perhaps worth asking what precisely National Poetry Day is: where did this festival suddenly spring from and who runs it anyway?

National Poetry Day could be seen as evidence of zeitgeist in operation. In 1994, the idea for a celebration seemed to occur to a number of people at once. William Sieghart, director of the Forward Poetry Trust and founder of the Forward Poetry prize, could most probably claim the day as his brainchild, but there were several midwives and godparents on hand.

Chris Meade, the then-new director of the Poetry Society, was busy trying to discover the health of poetry and the Arts Council of England was busy trying to reinvigorate it. What better way of celebrating than a day to unite all those that practise or enjoy it?

The success of National Poetry Day 1994 was phenomenal and unforeseen. City businessmen wrote limericks, supermarkets printed poems on plastic bags, and poets pretended to be juke boxes. On Waterloo station they put poems up on the indicator boards to entertain commuters on their way home.

Having experienced such success, how could anyone resist the temptation to do it all again? Besides, by this time the BBC was interested, and so in 1995, BBC Education launched its search for the nation's favourite poem. In the three years since its conception, National Poetry Day has continued to develop and change to accommodate new partners, and this year the World Wide Fund for Nature has joined the team of organisers.

Poetry, as the Poetry Society, puts it, is always "Our World, Our Selves" and National Poetry Day strives to celebrate that fact, which is all very well, but what relevance does it hold for schools and why should poetry be marked by a special day in the middle of Children's Book Week?

One of the simplest reasons relates to the rehabilitation of poetry for language teaching in the national curriculum. As Anne Barnes, chairman of the National Association for Teachers of English pointed out in the TES last July, the situation has undoubtedly improved since the King-man Report was published in 1988.

However, it still seems that, in the secondary sector at least, teachers prefer to craft schemes of work around novels rather than plays or poems. Perhaps it's a question of confidence. We all have difficulty remembering the entire range of poetic terms. Perhaps it's a question of teaching materials too - although institutions such as the Poetry Society and NATE are attempting to fill gaps. Yet many teachers question why they should change their practice when children are more familiar with fiction and - according to popular wisdom - probably more comfortable with it. After all, bedtime stories have always tended to be just that.

However, some would say that our experience of poetry predates our experience of fiction and - according to Julia Kristeva (in Revolution in Poetic Language, Columbia University Press) - may even date back to our time in the womb. Yet even putting Kristeva aside, it still sounds suspect until one realises that most of the information about the importance of nursery rhymes in reading acquisition comes from the Oxford University Press, whose Rhyme and Analogy scheme became an additional branch of their Reading Tree this spring.

Based on their research at Oxford Brookes University, OUP has designed a new variation on the phonics theme: a system which looks at the importance of identifying common phonetic features such as word "onset" and "rime" when first learning to read. It seems that for young children, poetry may be of prime importance. After all, we sing nursery rhymes in early childhood even if we listen to stories too.

Both socio and psycho linguistics teach us about the joy children find in learning to speak, the pleasure of being able to articulate a response to all those speech acts taking place around them. The reading and singing of nursery rhymes enable children to practise their new found skills and to make meanings with or for somebody else. And this enables children to enter a world inhabited by those they perceive to be powerful. More than that, if children are able to initiate joint activities, then they are able to influence older people and discover the pleasure of changing their environment. Poetry, then might be seen as a management activity! It certainly offers a succinct way of presenting information.

In the last analysis though, and putting even the neatest of theories aside, many of us have experienced the practical value of poetry writing and reading in the classroom, particularly when working with special needs pupils or with boys. Anecdotal evidence abounds. The most powerful poem I ever received was written by a dyslexic pupil whose mother refused to believe her daughter had written it until confirmation was sent home in her homework book. Tales about the use of football poetry with reluctant male readers are legion and formal studies are now being made of these phenomena. Barrie Wade at Birmingham University has written about poetry and special educational needs pupils and the National Literacy Trust has written about boys and their poetry reading habits.

So it's not a question of familiarity with poetry. But why should any hard pressed teacher spend a whole day getting children to write and perform it? The answer is that poetry requires precision, concision and vision. A poem might need to be redrafted several times before its writer is completely happy with it. Precision, concision, vision and redrafting are all concepts which are referred to repeatedly in the national curriculum.

However, at its best as Trevor McDonald said regarding the launch of the Better English Campaign's writers' programme: "Reading poetry can encourage a love of language for its own sake and those who learn to love language will undoubtedly be better equipped to use it effectively and to appreciate [its] power ... in equipping [all our] young people to succeed in attaining a good quality of life."

This is a sentiment with which Nick Coombes of the WWF would undoubtedly agree. Poetry is for him something which "sharpens and deepens our perceptions of the environment. National Poetry Day is an excellent way to encourage people to think how they feel about environmental issues."

Finally, for those of us at the Poetry Society, National Poetry Day will be about all of these things. The reading and writing of poetry is about the joy of language, developing skills and articulating our feelings about the world but it is about more than this. It is about everything that each participant in National Poetry Day is trying to say. It is also about having fun.

So, whatever you do to further the festivities next Thursday and however you use poetry to teach on that day, we trust that you will have a great day doing it. We know that we shall.

Alison Combes is education development officer of the Poetry Society The year of the poem, page 12.

Ten Tips for celebrating national poetry day

Book a poet to do a creative writing workshop with your class. Lists of poets in your area are available from your local Arts Board or, if you send a stamped addressed envelope to the Poetry Society, 22 Betterton Street, London, WC2H 9BU.

Before the day, get each member of your class to write a poem for the Blue Peter Poetry Competition. Details from Blue Peter.

Tel: 0181 576 4534 Contact your WWF UK Area Representative and arrange a joint environmental poetry activity. Details from WWF-UK. Tel: 01483 426444.

Make a poet-tree in your school grounds. Tie poems about particular environmental issues to the branches, along with facts about greenhouse gases, the Earth Summit in Rio, or any other facts your science specialist can provide.

Make a class book of National Poetry Day, including poems, photos, diaries, newspaper cuttings and facts about pollution.

Get hold of WWF-UK's Lifelines Magazine from your school representative and think about using one of their environmental poems in your class. If there is no representative in school, contact WWF-UK and volunteer.

Get the class to write a letter to your MP enclosing a set of new poems and asking how they work to preserve and or improve your environment.

Invite a representative from Friends of The Earth, Greenpeace, The Ramblers' Association or a similar body to school as guest of honour at your poetry performance.

Invite your headteacher, a parent, governor or local celebrity to school to choose their eight desert island poems.

Pick a poem, photocopy and distribute it in your community. Your local supermarket, library or coffee shop might all be prepared to help.

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