Huw Thomas on how to get the best out of poetry
Poetry is on the up and up. It is performed by star poets on lucrative contracts, displayed on buses and tube trains, and recited in films like Four Weddings and a Funeral. However, in primary schools the reading of poetry is still patchy. In some it takes a high profile. In others it doesn't get a look in. Worse, some children encounter it in school as a sort of vaccination - a small enough dose to immunise them to it thereafter.
This is partly due to the fact that many teachers struggle for things to do with a poem. Once you have read it, what can you do next? By this I don't mean the sorts of teaching ideas that suggest children read the poem then write a similar one or paint a picture based on it. What I am referring to is that moment after reading the poem when the teacher wants to discuss it. What sort of questions can we use to prompt discussion? I would recommend four questions that can be applied to any number of poems. They open up some of the literary complexities of poetry. At first they may seem odd questions to ask, but as children get used to using them as a means of discussing poetry, they become part and parcel of the process of critically appreciating it.
THE FOUR QUESTIONS ARE:
1 What about the shape of the lines? In drawing children's attention to the shape of a poem, we are doing more than just looking at the form the lines take on the page. When asking what a poem looks like we can draw children's attention to the length of lines and the way in which their shape affects our reading. A good example of this is Afua Cooper's 'Kensington Market', in which the shape of the lines will influence the way we read them:
colours of food
colours of people
Kensington Market on a Saturday
The way the lines are arranged, building up the image of the market from the one word opening lines, can give children an insight into how they can use form and line shape in their own poetry.
2 How are the words working?
Through effects such as rhyme and repetition, poems present the reader with alternative ways of using words. In WH Auden's classic poem 'Night Mail' the rhythm of the words ties in with the image of the night train rattling along the tracks: This is the night mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door
Encounters with creative word play are an essential part of the pleasure of reading poetry. When Michael Rosen's babysitting older brother sets up a chant to bore Michael into going to bed, there is creative word play on the page:
He starts up a chant:
"Gotobed gotobed gotobed gotobed..."
Through alternative uses of language, poetry attracts the readers' attention to a new way of communicating the subject matter. The more children encounter such conscious word play, the more they may try it in their own writing.
3 Can we find any images?
Poets use language to conjure up particular images. A poem like Roger McGough's 'The Writer of this Poem' throws out one simile after another: The writer of this poem
Is taller than a tree
As keen as the North Wind
As handsome as can be
Or there is the use of metaphor, when an image is extended, applying the language of something to a new subject. 'Poetry Jump-Up', John Agard's poem about poetry, is a poem in the language of a street carnival: Words dancin
till dey sweat
words like fishes
jumpin out a net
Children can acquire this ability to home in on images and entertain the imaginative pictures they prompt in the reader's mind. Here, again, the seeds are laid for their own imaginings in their own poetry.
4 What is it about?
Odd maybe that this question is left until last. However, the more I read and discuss poetry with children the more I believe this question can only be answered once children have made their way through some of these earlier questions about language and imagery. The way the shape can express the feel of a poem, the playfulness in the language and the use of imagery - all these provide a way into the subject matter of a poem. There will be as many answers to this question as there are poems but the key thing here is to ask the question more than once.
Guenter Grass's four-line poem 'Happiness' is ostensibly about a bus driver:
An empty bus
hurtles through the starry night.
Perhaps the driver is singing
and happy because he sings.
As children read the poem and re-read it they look at the title, they look at the possibility that the driver is singing, the fact that the bus is empty so no passenger can discourage him. The question "What is it about?" is one to ask more than once. Whatever the first answer may be, a poem is often about so much more.
The key to using these questions is consistency. They can be used on poem after poem producing new results every time.
But it mustn't stop there. Through looking at poems in this way children develop an understanding that can support their writing of poetry. In this case the same questions can be used in reverse order, so children think through the subject of their poem, select words and devise the images that become a new dance with words.
Huw Thomas is a primary teacher in Sheffield. His book, Reading and Responding to Fiction: Classroom Strategies for Developing Literacy is published by Scholastic
'Kensington Market' by Afua Cooper in Can I buy a slice of sky? (Hodder and Stoughton pound;3.99) 'Night Mail' by WH Auden in The Kingfisher Book of Children's Poetry (Kingfisher pound;5.99) 'Babysitter' in The Hypnotiser by Michael Rosen (Scholastic pound;4.99).
'The Writer of This Poem' in Sky in the Pie by Roger McGough (Puffin pound;3.99) 'Poetry Jump-Up' by John Agard in Poetry Jump-Up: A Collection of Black Poetry (Puffin pound;4.99) 'Happiness' by Guenter Grass in A Spider Bought a Bicycle and other poems (Kingfisher pound;4.99)