Poetry is Power: A poet’s insight into bringing poetry to life in schools
I have seen, time and time again, how a single sentence shared aloud can create, not only an image, but a physical sensation for the listener, with whole classes visibly wincing or grimacing in response to the poetry of a peer.
You turn the tap on in the bathroom. But instead of water, a slick red snake slithers out into the sink.
Like this image, there are scenes or moments from books I read as a child which now exist in my memory, as strongly as any time or place I have been physically present. As a poet, one of the greatest pleasures I receive is of visiting schools and witnessing the simple but powerful moment when a child shares out loud a funny or beautiful image they have written, and their classmates laugh or smile as an image is recalibrated in their own mind’s eye. I have seen, time and time again, how a single sentence shared aloud can create, not only an image, but a physical sensation for the listener, with whole classes visibly wincing or grimacing in response to the poetry of a peer. Words truly are magic.
When this is applied to whole poems, as opposed to single images, the effect is of course multiplied. I will never forget the squirming mix of guilt and delight I felt as a child when reading and re-reading Michael Rosen’s famous poem, Chocolate Cake.
I was affected on a similar scale more recently when I heard Rachel Rooney read her poem Liar at a poetry gig. Rachel describes a lie as something that “fed in the dark, grew fat on my shame / as I carried it with me”. At once, the imagery took me back to an unsettling memory of calling a friend to apologise for something I had said as a teenager. This was mixed with a sensation of bloating or fatigue, and paired with a still image of my primary school playground.
Rooney holds onto a visceral poetic description of the lie as a living thing right up until the moment it ‘shrivelled and die[s]’, and because of this I believe there is a ‘felt’ meaning which will resonate far more deeply than an adult explaining ‘once you admit it’s a lie the power is gone’. Of course the connections and sparks this image produces will be different for everyone, and the poems that trigger responses in readers will vary too. An adult reading ‘Liar’ is likely to register a clear and literal conceptual message, but imagine hearing or reading that poem as a child who has recently told a lie...
Poems affect people hugely, and both parts of this exchange – the writing and the reading of them - are equally important. Then there is another leap so exciting to witness among young people exploring poetry: the performance of it. If words can be used to captivate audiences in this way in the classroom, at home or at poetry gigs, imagine how poetry or poetic language can be used to communicate to broader audiences across the rest of the world.
The recent surge of young people becoming activists around climate change is a great example of the power of poetic language. When 16 year old Greta Thunberg told economists and world leaders at Davos: ‘Our house is on fire’ she used the very same magic I witness in the classroom: striking a message into the hearts of her listeners as well as their minds.
Of course, not all school children aim to become climate change activists or professional poets, but if reading and writing poetry is central to literacy in primary schools, it will naturally become part of how children use language as they grow up in the world. I believe this approach can fundamentally shape who we are as people, equipping us to become more emotionally literate, empathetic, and more capable of creativity and collaboration when solving any problem or challenge we, or wider communities and societies, face.
For more resources and tools:
And if you have 10 minutes to spare, why not have a go at writing a poem yourself? Try out one of Simon’s interactive poetry tutorial videos
Simon Mole writes poems about ninja skeletons, raps about pug dogs playing football, stories about boys who meet Pacman, and girls who can’t stop drumming. He was the first Poet Laureate for the London borough of Brent, and is a member of the acclaimed poetry collective Chill Pill. Since becoming a father Simon has written increasingly for young people; his first play for children and families was commissioned by the V&A and toured the UK extensively. His second is an interactive rap musical created in collaboration with singer songwriter Gecko, it is touring spring 2019. Dates here: http://www.simonmole.com/projects/mole-gecko-the-show/
Simon’s first book for children is a collaboration with illustrator Oamul Lu, and will be published by Quarto/Frances Lincoln August 2019.