Welcome to the poetry machine

30th September 2005 at 01:00
The writing is on the wall. Or, at least, it's on the pebbles, and shooting from the branches of a tree on the Isle of Wight. Heather Neill looks forward to next week's big day

Every year, as the conker season gets under way, strange chatterings, whisperings and rumblings may be heard in classrooms, libraries and arts centres all over the country. The build-up to National Poetry Day has begun. Everywhere poetry enthusiasts young and old are preparing to share metaphors, to brush up their similes, try out rhymes and make patterns with words in readiness for October 6.

This year the theme is both liberating and challenging: the future. The Poetry Society is already running a poll to choose a poem to be launched into space, while regional "poetry laboratories" are discovering clever ways of mixing science with poetry, or using poetry to make links within a community and so change its future. On the Isle of Wight the plan is to "design, build and operate" a poetry machine, and the poet inspiring it is Keith Bennett.

On September 14, Mr Bennett arrives at Swanmore middle school in Ryde ready for a day of invention. He certainly looks the part: hyper-energetic and sporting a dazzling shirt decorated with multicoloured repeats of Warhol's portrait of Che Guevara, he is proof that poets do not necessarily sit in solitude silently chewing pencils and waiting for the muse to strike.

Keith Bennett's own poem, "The Clockwork Poetry Machine", is hovering somewhere in the atmosphere above class 5D, eight years old and in their second week at Swanmore, as he lays out his props: a basket containing hundreds of pebbles, words snipped from magazines, and a hairdryer. The pebbles are beautiful - smooth and rounded, all colours from slate to sand, chalk to granite-grey - and each is inscribed, in silver or gold, with a word. The words are random - elephant, festival, wonder, hear, smoking, Monday, ripe, bite - and they are enough to begin a poem.

Enthusiasm, excitement and a sense that anything is possible, anything might happen, are key in this method. These pupils have already had a session talking about words, now they are arranging them. They come in heavy stone handfuls and in feather-light paper strips, which may tumble in a wordfall or be blown about by the hairdryer. Soon lines begin to take shape: "Monday washing footprints through wishing water Summer ripe like bread"; "I was a useful vexed fast flower"; "Waterproof cap and shoes didn't step from my home". Mr Bennett has only two rules: "The first rule is that there are no rules" (English teacher and literacy co-ordinator Mandy Wheeler looks a little rueful; she's been working on punctuation) and "It's not poetry if you don't learn something new". In both 5D and later in 5P, a busy young poetry inventor shows me a stone and asks for a definition of the word it bears: "Ytene". So I learn something too: this is an old name for the New Forest, Mr Bennett informs us.

With the Year 6 English top set, Mr Bennett gets the students talking about rhyme. "Which colours cannot be rhymed?" Soon the children come up with purple and are invited to invent rhymes, but they must define the new nonsense word. So, now we know: "shurple" is the noise made at the bottom of a drink sucked through a straw, while "furple" is a cat with no whiskers or (more mysteriously) a pig in pyjamas. At the end of the afternoon, 5P come up with some startling rhymes for orange: "sorange" is a fruit syringe (what else?), while "chorange" is an economical version of a chocolate orange.

But where has the poetry machine idea gone to? In fact, Mandy Wheeler and her colleagues had already decided on an organic "machine", a poetry tree.

Since Keith Bennett's visit, this has taken shape, with leaves bearing vocabulary, "connecters" on the branches and "openers" on the trunk, ready to be plucked off to make sentences and lines of poetry. Punctuation is not forgotten: creatures such as caterpillars and snails are being made in technology classes to carry all the necessary marks. Mandy Wheeler hopes that the tree, nearly 10ft tall and focusing on autumnal words, will be included in a Poetry Day display at the Quay Arts Centre in Newport before it becomes a teaching resource.

Meanwhile, an inter-house poetry machine competition is in progress at Swanmore. Key stage 2 classes have been challenged to design and, if possible, make a machine. So far, what Mandy Wheeler describes as "boxes with things shooting out of them" are favourite, but the deadline has not yet been reached.

As I leave to make the journey back to the mainland, I discover a small stone in my bag. It is dark grey and reads "walk". On its own it looks like a command. The stone goes back into Keith Bennett's basket and the pupils of Swanmore continue their journey, positively running into poetry.

Other projects, such as young offenders linking with a school to write poems about the future (in the North-west) or scientists coming together with poets to express principles in a new way (Newcastle), poetry in translation (Tower Hamlets) or a celebration of spoken word poetry (Birmingham) are described on the Poetry Society's website www.poetrysociety.org.uk. Information: npd@poetrysociety.org.uk. The week also sees the launch of the Children's Poetry Bookshelf book club (www.childrenspoetrybookshelf.co.uk) on October 9, with poets Valerie Bloom, Wes Magee and Andrew Motion. For tickets for the event (3pm in London EC1) tel 020 7638 8891 or see www.barbican.org.uk. For CPB details tel 070 7833 9247 or email info@poetrybooks.co.ukThe Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, presented on National Poetry Day, will be featured in TES Teacher next week

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