Finding a voice through poetry: a blog for National Poetry Day
The challenge is incredibly important to us here at CLPE. Through our long history of promoting poetry in primary schools, we have seen how powerful poetry is as a medium for giving children choice and voice in writing and allowing them to express themselves openly. With the theme of this year’s National Poetry Day being Truth, we saw this as a perfect opportunity to encourage schools to involve their children in expressing their own truths through poetry.
Immersing children in the pleasures of poetry through listening to, reading, responding to and performing a wide range of poetry supports children to explore what the genre can offer to them as writers of poetry and in turn the devices, forms and themes they may choose to write about for themselves. Poetry is the ultimate form of creative expression; children can have complete control of what they want to write about and how they choose to best express their ideas. They can also explore their sense of self as they choose what they will write about and how. As Fred Sedgwick (1997, p.8) explains, ‘Power over language, which the writing of poetry, above all things, gives us, also gives us power over our environment, human and physical, and thereby helps our relationships with it.’
In order to write poetry, children need to experience different kinds of poems so that they can see how different forms work: sing-song rhythms of chants, rhymes and refrains, the joy of humorous and nonsense verse and poems that explore different forms, such as rhyme, free verse, haiku and sonnets. Children then have a context to discover the rich history of poetry, exploring where these forms came from and how they work as well as showing them what they can do in their own writing. Giving children personal writing journals that they have control over sharing allows them to collect and try out personal ideas before sharing with a wider audience. Some forms may have ‘rules’ but poetry allows you to break rules, with layout, with punctuation, with style.
In our work with schools and children, we have seen many examples of children gaining a sense of voice and choice in their writing through writing poetry of their own. Through writing poetry children are encouraged to reflect on their experience, to recreate it, shape it, and make sense of it. Everyday occurrences can inspire children to capture a moment in a poem, such as in this example by 9 year old Justin:
I lost my voice
Have you seen it?
I had no choice
I just lost it.
If you see it
Can you tell it I
Can’t live without it
Come back to me.
In a poem it is possible to give form and significance to a particular event or feeling and to communicate this to the reader or to the listener. This poignant and emotional poem by a Year 5 pupil captures the truth around one of the most pivotal events of his young life: the death of a grandparent:
I wake up
I’m up and out of my bed.
I tuck into my egg
Then a flash
The news came
My grandad was dead.
The world froze
Everything started to buzz
I couldn’t hold it.
Poems studied can evoke feelings in children that inspire them to write poems of their own. We chose Joseph Coelho’s 'Gingerbread Man' as the poem for our resource on the National Poetry Day website as it depicts a moment where a shameful truth is admitted in a poem full of emotional resonance. It can be used as an example for others to know that poetry writing can be a cathartic experience.
Billy chased me round the playground
with hands full of fists
Billy yelled at me across the football pitch
with a mouth full of stings.
Billy spat, jibed and cawed
as I ran away singing…
“You can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread man.”
Billy had red hair.
I was cruel and called him names.
- from Werewolf Club Rules by Joseph Coelho (Frances Lincoln 2014)
In the example below, Mahir, a 10-year old boy from London, wrote a unique response after hearing this poem. The original poem by Coelho talks shares the sense of guilt and shame experienced by the ‘I’ in the poem; Mahir’s poem in response echoes the original theme of bullying and switches in mood from the anger expressed in the first verse to the shame the writer is left with at the end of the poem, but he has made the poem his own, not just substituted words. He wrote after responding to the poem as it was these themes and emotions that spoke to him directly and resonated with experiences of his own, and he felt inspired to write in his own voice to make sense of these experiences. In his response to his poem, Mahir commented:
“I wrote this poem because I was experiencing people calling me black and a terrorist so I wrote this poem for other people who is getting threatened or who is getting called terrorist, so I wrote this poem to the bully.”
Racism by Mahir
They called me black
but I said don’t
We have the same blood.
They called me a terrorist
but I worship Allah and I will prove you wrong.
I was full of red
And I hit them
I was angry
And I left a mark.
I was ashamed.
When children are exposed to a range of poets and poetry, when they understand what poetry is for and can do and they can begin to find their own voices through writing poetry such as this, we discover as teachers the true power of poetry. Find this yourself by encouraging your children to write their own poems for the #MyNPDPoem writing challenge and continue to support them throughout the year to find their own unique voice in poetry.
Interested in developing poetry in your school or classroom? See how CLPE can support you:
The CLiPPA is CLPE's annual poetry award celebrating UK Children's poetry. Every year, we run a Shadowing Scheme which encourages schools to follow a unit of work inspired by our shortlisted collections, and to submit their poetry performances for the chance to perform on stage. Find out more.