Visions of a life in verse

27th June 1997 at 01:00
A Poet's Life. Two 30-minute videos. Edited by Michael Rosen. Paddington Arts with Team Video Productions Pounds 30.

This is an immensely practical resource with 40 photocopiable activity sheets linked to the video by an on-screen index for easy access and selective classroom planning.

Any poetry video has the problem of balance. As well as entertain and instruct, it must at least suggest space for reflection. Matthew Sweeney and Jackie Kay are performers. But they are also poets whose commitment to their craft challenges 11 to 13-year-old pupils to reflect and create.

The warm regional tones of Sweeney's "Donegal" and Kay's "Glasgow" are engaging and sed-uctive, their spontaneous responses to the necessarily predictable questionnaire sequence sometimes disturbing. Sweeney, for instance, read no contemporary poetry at school and was told: "Poetry is something one grows out of." Kay was simply frightened.

The poets are shown working in London schools. Sweeney's workshop on Kit Wright's "The Magic Box" and Kay's on Browning's dramatic monologue "Mr Sludge, the Medium" are fine examples of "interactive learning". The teacher is firmly at the centre of the classroom, the children absorbed and creative.

Focus is never compromised by the range of material. It is not so much that there is something for everyone, rather that horizons are broadened. Kay's "Teeth", the story of the arrest and death of illegal immigrant Joy Gardner, is, sadly, a story of our time. But then, so is Yeats's "The Song of Wandering Aengus". Both go beyond the locations of their genesis.

Throughout there is happy collusion between contemporary and traditional. On the one hand, Sweeney e-mails his poems to friends across the world, while, on the other, Kay has a kilted Highlander piping in the haggis to Burns's immortal words. St Patrick's night, however, is celebrated by Sweeney's "An End", a joyful and utterly Irish catalogue of requests for his own funeral.

The activity sheets lead children to explore issues and respond imaginatively. I have some reservation about the tick boxes, but even here pupils are moved on swiftly into the creative tension between tone and meaning, proof reading, and the use of literary terms.

Children who work with this video will not grow out of poetry; they will grow into a lifetime's appreciation, and, maybe, practice.

Jill Pirrie is language co-ordinator at Halesworth Middle School, Suffolk

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