Rhythm of the seasons
Mr Fynne got me hooked. He was class teacher for the B stream of our final year at primary school, and since God had chosen to put me in the A stream I didn't know much about him. But one day our teacher was off, Mr Fynne had a free period, and we got him as baby-sitter.
He threw open the classroom door, crying: "In Xanadu did Khubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree. . ." and went on to tell us - in wonderfully ringing tones - about caverns measureless to man, someone with flashing eyes and floating hair, and the delights of feeding on honeydew, and drinking the milk of Paradise. Like many of my classmates, I experienced severe buckling of the knees, inordinate swelling of the heart. . . and I've been reading poetry ever since.
As a teacher myself, I only once summoned up courage to try and replicate Mr Fynne's dramatic entry to a classroom - using Walter de la Mare's "Song of a Mad Prince". I was rewarded with a mesmerised class, and one child who burst into tears with emotion. Poetry seems to speak to children. Given the chance, they can appreciate even the most difficult poems - including the national curriculum's "classic poetry" of which so many people disapprove. The rhythms and resonances of a good poem speak directly to them across years, cultures and continents, without the need for complete understanding of the words themselves.
At the end of last year my husband - headteacher of a country primary school in one of the mistiest, most Cornish parts of Cornwall - decided to make 1996 "The Year of the Poem". He planned to read one poem every day to his class of Year 5 and 6 children, and I was drafted to choose the poems. The whole exercise has turned out - from everybody's point of view - to be a delight: I get to spend an hour or so a week flicking through poetry books making the selection; Peter (not hitherto poetically inclined) has discovered the joys of declaiming; the children have relished the poems - apparently enjoying even the trickiest selections - and if Pete hasn't done the day's poem by lunchtime they're queuing up to ask him why.
The type of poems vary from week to week. Sometimes they focus on a topic the children are studying - rivers, or green plants, or the Tudors (we did five famous speeches from Shakespeare for that, and the children acted them out). Sometimes they're about the weather or season - there was one day when it snowed unexpectedly (it hardly ever snows in Cornwall) and I made a last-minute substitution by dictating May Swenson's wonderful snow poem "Some for Everyone" over the telephone. A few times we've tackled a long narrative poem in five edited chunks - Pete was brilliant as the Ancient Mariner, holding up his skinny hand and letting his eyes glitter.
Obedient to the national curriculum, we've ensured poems from a range of cultures, and found Caribbean poets particularly popular with Cornish children: John Agard's Poetry Jump-Up is their number one favourite, and they love performing it themselves. Some of the poems are appropriate for using in assembly with the whole school (we started the year with Tennyson's Ring Out Wild Bells and sent them off at the end of the school year with an edited version of Forty Years On) while others, such as Kit Wright's Budgie's New Year's Message are enjoyable classroom throwaways. Sometimes they spend time talking about the poem, sometimes it's just a quick read and on to the maths lesson. Children are encouraged to learn any poems they particularly enjoy - or at least bits of them, to keep for savouring when in need of mental solace.
We believe the key to their enjoyment has been that the poems are read aloud, as poetry is intended to be. It stands to reason that rhyme and rhythm work best when heard first - it makes subsequent reading easier and more pleasurable. I therefore think it's sad that poetry appears under Reading in the English national curriculum, as struggling through a previously unheard poem can be very off-putting. We make a typed copy of each poem (I trust this means no copyright infringement - it's a single copy for personal use) and when Pete has read it, children volunteer to embellish it with illustrations or fancy border and stick it on the Poetry Wall. But reading is not the main point: the poem's the thing.
Half the class went off to secondary school at the end of last term, so a new group of children will be sharing our poems till Christmas.
I'm looking forward to choosing the five Christmas poems that will round off the year. But I suspect the "Year of the Poem" will not end with 1996 - I recently found a brilliant poem by Susan Coolidge (of What Katy Did fame) that would be perfect for starting 1997. And anyway, once you've started feeding children with honeydew, and offering them the milk of Paradise, it seems a bit cruel to stop.
National Poetry Day is on Thursday.