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Uplifted by the power of poetry

Dennis Carter on how Welsh pupils, inspired by the Clwyd Poetry Project, produced an oratorio through resurrecting Celtic mythology.

Beneath the heat of theatre lights a 10-year-old holds a large audience in her web of words. Every twitch of her lips, even gestures of her shoulder, are significant. She shows them an age of magic happenings and strange transformations: landscapes of Celtic mythology. She suspends them there as her classmates present the characters and their dilemmas. The characters' songs produce moments of high emotion. Some songs are arias, some duets; some tell of love and some of war: allare composed by the children, from story to lyric to tune and accompaniment. Often the storyteller is accompanied by music, composed by the children, to heighten the significance of her narrative. The audience watches as one of the stories unfolds, the story of Math, son of Mathonwy from the great Welsh myth, the Mabinogi.

This was the culmination of weeks of endeavour in four Clwyd primary schools, one of the pilots of Clwyd Poetry Project, established in 1992 to research and develop poetry in the primary school. It was our response to the belief that poetry had been hidden in a corner of the English national curriculum without a rationale.

Clwyd Poetry Project surveyed the poetry scene in schools and sent questionnaires to poets working in them, education authorities and all primary schools in Wales. We examined eight ways of encountering poetry: listening, speaking, reading, memorising, discussing, engaging through other arts, composing and performing. The greatest progress was made in the relationship between poetry and the other arts.

A closer look at the Mabinogion pilot will illustrate one of our approaches. Rose Flint, a poet from Bath, was working with a group of children on the story of Pwyll, prince of Dyfed. In this story the hero exchanges identity with the lord of the underworld, Arawn, and sleeps with his wife, without touching her, for a year and a day. A nine-year-old girl thought of Arawn's wife and how, perhaps, she thought that, because of this, something must have been wrong with her. She wrote: "I wondered if my hair had lost its shine."

She showed the line to Rose, who affirmed its quality but suggested that it could be the first of many lines on the same theme. The child went away to complete the lyric in a wonderful burst of creativity: I wondered if my hair had lost its shine.

I wondered if I'd got all crinkly lines.

I wondered if I'd lost my sense of touch.

I wondered if my voice was shrill and rough.

I wondered if my eyes had lost their glow.

I wondered if my body was too slow.

I wondered if Arawn no longer loved me.

I wondered, could he see the real me.

Later she presented it to Alison Wright, a local musician who had been teaching the children basic principles of musical composition. Alison was impressed and suggested that the rhythm of the piece could be clapped, then transferred to various combinations of notes on the glockenspiel in a sort of musical doodling. Thereby a simple tune was worked out and later sung.

The evolution of this song is typical of the 20 performed in the four oratorios that night. Once lyric and tune were created, accompaniments were added, in this case on violin and recorder. This was a real opportunity not only for composition but also for apprentice violinists and recorder-players to perform: two requirements of national curriculum music achieved in the real context of creating an oratorio. By serving the aims of another subject this way, poetry was widening its influence in the curriculum. It was demonstrating what might happen in Sir Ron Dearing's 20 per cent of free time. More significantly, the children were hearing and feeling the poetry in the words and in the music.

Other projects have shown what poetry can do for dance, and have explored its relationship with visual art and drama. In this particular one, narrative poetry from various cultures was enlarged and given life through role play, improvisation and visual theatre techniques. One class resurrected the world of ancient China as found in a poem by Li Po, another the life in a mining community in Wales just after the war, from a poem by Vernon Watkins.

In a more recent project, poetry in the Welsh language enriched children's exploration of their town, Conwy, North Wales, and in the latest one, in Cheshire, called "Miniatures", poetry is providing a focus for looking at the natural world. Nature poems have led to dances, choral speech and musical presentations; the foyer, corridor and school hall are alive with a celebration of paintings and of poems, such as this by a five-year-old: White Wind White wind makes a whistling sound And spreads everywhere And spreads seeds And snows And rains.

The seeds move around to every place And flowers grow.

The project has involved 800 children, 40 teachers and many artists. Much evidence is gathered. It will prove that poetry weaves a magic throughout the whole life of a school. Children love it and are intellectually challenged by it in a vital, life-affirming way.

* Dr Dennis Carter is director of Arts Education Services and of the Clwyd Poetry Project. The project is sponsored by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Foundation for Sport and the Arts, Wales Arts Council andNorth West Arts Board.

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