Why primary pupils need to be taught Modernism

6th November 2015 at 00:00
The mischief and mayhem of this subversive movement is ideal for young minds

When primary school children see the picture of the writer of the first Dada Manifesto, Hugo Ball, standing at a music stand wrapped in tin sheeting, wearing a tin cape and a tall hat, they don’t quite know what to think. And then we show them the poem he read on the evening in 1916 when the photo was taken, at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. They gradually begin to see the mischief in the mayhem.

The poem, Karawane, looks like this:

Fifty-five minutes later, the children are standing in a line, waiting for their turn to perform what they’ve written during the course of the session. The first child tries not to laugh as he reads his Ball-inspired poem: a sonorous nonsensical patter of vowels and consonants. The rest of the children are laughing too...

Primary-aged children aren’t usually taught Modernist poetry. But there is a strong argument as to why they should be – particularly at this time of year, with Remembrance Day approaching.

War poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke are covered very well in study guides and other resources, but a children’s creative writing resource that comes from the Modernist angle – the Vorticists, Imagists, Dadaists and Surrealists – hadn’t been done. We set about making one with the same degree of mischief and enthusiasm as the artists who were inspiring us.

The period from 1913 to the late 1920s is full of these epiphanies-of-possibility that poets and artists have been drawing on ever since. We thought children would relate to the straightforward energy and simplicity of the concepts.

The idea has manifested in the production of a resource for schools, in partnership with the Henningham Family Press, that concentrates on war poetry. Letters Home presents content that the children might not have got to hear about until university – and that’s if they got lucky. We want to get young children exploring modern poetry in the classroom (see panel, right).


Why aren’t under-11s taught about these movements more often? Largely because of how the self-styled leaders of these Modernist movements presented themselves.

They saw what they were doing as an assault on the rigidity, falseness and old-fashioned style of the literature of the time. So as much as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire has become canonical and “surrealism” is now an everyday term, there is still a sense that the Modernists are outside the frame of the “real” literature of that era – the English war poets – and not to be taken seriously in the classroom.

As Ezra Pound, the inventor of Imagism, later wrote in Canto LXXXI: “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave.”

Some might say it’s hard enough teaching what iambic pentameter is, without then having to explain that many poets thought it was a technique worth breaking.

But it is exactly because the Modernist poets took a different approach that teaching this poetry to young children is so important. It offers a different view of the war.

It’s tempting to think of these artists as distant from Owen’s reality, but this isn’t true. Apollinaire, for example, fought on the front line and received a shrapnel wound to the head in 1916. The new techniques in poetry that he and Ball invented got as close to letting the reader know what it was like to be hit in the head by flying shrapnel as Owen’s approach.

By ignoring the Modernists we are denying students an important viewpoint of the Great War. These artists believed the war had hollowed language out; that the words that made men sign up could no longer be trusted. Language, in the hands of these improvisers, became a material, something that could be shaped, sculpted and reappropriated into new forms that stood up in their own right. What a liberating lesson for young children usually restricted by rules.

New ideas

These Modernists are also useful for introducing young readers to a whole range of techniques and ideas that they won’t have come across before. They are fun in their form, unusual and provide a new way of getting into poetry that for some children may be the key to engagement with both poetry and the reality of the Great War.

And the Modernists are a great starting point for creativity. Letters Home provides prompts for writing exercises, including the writing of visual, Imagist and sound poems, the creation of typefaces and collaborative writing through the forming of a sculptural poem.

Finally, Modernist poetry is not too difficult for young students. This notion is a red herring. We see that clearly on each visit when children as young as 6 instinctively take up the idea of inventing their own alphabet with the flourish and fervour of the Vorticists.

Chris McCabe is poetry librarian at the Poetry Library in London’s Southbank Centre. His latest collection of poetry is Speculatrix (published by Penned in the Margins). He is co-editor with Victoria Bean of The New Concrete: visual poetry in the 21st century (Hayward Publishing)

Time to rhyme

Inspired by the 2 billion letters and postcards sent during the First World War, Letters Home is a resource for teaching Modernist poetry in primary schools, write David and Ping Henningham.

We created the book for the Henningham Family Press in collaboration with librarians at London’s Southbank Centre. Together we chose the essential Modernist movements and used their work to create games based around letter-writing, distilling complex ideas without oversimplifying them. These games teach children how to understand Modernist poetry by writing it.

The message we hope to teach is that, with flexibility and collaboration, anyone can write good poetry.

Download the Letters Home resource at bit.ly/DiscoveringModernists

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