TES Young Poet of the Week

5th September 1997 at 01:00
This term's guest poet is Kate Clanchy, teacher and winner of many awards this year, including the Forward Prize for best first collection. Here she outlines the qualities she looks for in a poem.

When I start off poetry workshops, whether with children or adults, I always play the same game. I ask everyone to write down an abstract noun - education, or bor edom, perhaps - at the top of their paper. Then I ask them to note down, in succession, what that quality smells like for them, what it tastes like, feels like, sounds like and looks like. People are usually puzzled at first, then, once they are sure that their own ideas really are acceptable, they start enjoying themselves. "Boredom," they declare, "tastes like a popsicle when the colour is all sucked out"; "education sounds like the humming of lights in the exam hall, the shifting of feet." Everyone ends up with a poem - which, for me, is a thought that is combined with the senses and with personal associations, so it conveys not just an idea, but a feeling and a voice.

While I am The TES guest poet I hope I shall read hundreds of such poems from primary school children. One of the wonders of teaching children of that age is that they seem to experience the world viscerally, and their writing reflects that. As I am only able to choose one poet each week, though, I shall be looking for writers who can develop their ideas a little, and who can use poetic sound in some way. By this I don't mean rhyming couplets - it is too easy for the rhymes to start governing the sense - I mean sound that echoes sense. One 10-year-old poet I met, for example, described the descent of a bird of prey as "a soft violence of feathers".

I hope I'll receive lots of poems by teenagers too. Adolescents are often distanced from and embarrassed by the sensual, eccentric world of childhood, and also feel the need to write about grand, important and gloomy things. I am not averse to big themes, but I do hope that they will come with images I can see, everyday words, and a voice that I can hear. As I always say at the end of workshops, "Don't tell me, show me", and "Only use words you can taste and smell".

In the coming term I hope to feature more teenagers as Young Poet of the Week. The problem with many teenage poems I receive, though, is that they are too abstract and grand, both in their language and subject matter, and that they therefore become vague and uninteresting. Anna's poem is about a big subject - deception - but she has chosen a concrete metaphor, the snowball, to make it real and immediate. The poem is funny as well as frightening, full of crisp, well-observed details, and has a form appropriate to its content. Best of all, it uses simple language. I love the number of ambiguities in "pushing me to push it", for example.

Kate Clanchy

Pushing It

My lie was shaped

like the tiny snowballs

nasty little boys

might throw at each other.

It was small

and compact

and held a stone

in the middle.

And I rolled it over

crisp white snow

making it bigger

until it was out of my control.

And it started rolling away

of its own accord

down valleys of snow

squashing figures of angels

some poor child had

spent hours sculpting.

And the faster I chased it

the faster it rolled

the heavier it got

picking up layers of snow

revealing muddy grass

and dirt underneath

staining itself brown and green.

And I know it's not my fault

they kept pushing me to push it

and now it's rolling too fast

towards them

towards me.


Anna Munro, aged 17, receives Kate Clanchy's Slattern (Chatto and Windus). Submitted by Nikki Beamish of Havering Sixth Form College, Hornchurch, who receives a set of Poetry Society posters with teachers' notes. For Poetry Society events, ring 0171 240 2133

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