Poetry is perfect for helping children to appreciate words and language

‘You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose’. So said the American politician Mario Cuomo. It is one of my favourite quotes — and not just about politics. Perhaps it is because I am someone who loves words and language (and politics) and yet has always found poetry a bit of a struggle. Cuomo’s observation reminds me of poetry’s power, magic and beauty. During the 2020 lockdown Gyles Brandreth, who gets several mentions in this blog, tweeted himself reading a poem every morning, most from memory. I didn’t hear them all, but each one I caught was a delight. Which brings us to the fact that today is National Poetry Day in the UK — the perfect day to make the case that every child deserves the chance to regularly hear and recite poetry, to learn about it and to have a go at writing it.

[National Poetry] Day starts conversations, it encourages love of language – and best of all, it’s open to absolutely everyone to join in, quietly or noisily in rewarding and enjoyable ways. As the artform’s most visible moment, it showcases the ways in which poetry adds value to society.

from the official National Poetry Day website

Here’s a great listen — a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Gyles explains the benefits of learning poetry by heart. In 2019 he published an anthology of memorable poems called Dancing by the Light of the Moon, the title a line from his favourite poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he learned by heart as a child. The book’s subtitle is ‘How poetry can transform your memory and change your life’. That’s quite the claim and one surely worth further investigation.

Most of us have probably tried to write a few lines of poetry. Like prayer it seems to be something that people turn to — is it too much to say ‘instinctively’? — when searching for a voice with which to express their innermost feelings. Think of the outpouring of verse that followed the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

I suspect that the entry point for many young people will be song lyrics. That’s how it was with me. My favourite lyricist is Neil Peart, the erudite drummer with the rock band Rush who tragically died of brain cancer in January 2020. His words were always crafted with style, wit and intelligence. This next bit is adapted from my Rush appreciation, which you can read here.

Take the song Closer to the Heart. What better commitment from loving adult to child than “You can be the captain / and I will draw the chart”? Or how about this, from the song Afterimage? What more fitting summation of the devastating impact of unexpected loss than “Suddenly you were gone / from all the lives you left your mark upon”?

My favourite is perhaps Losing It, Peart’s meditation on the effects of ageing on the creative process.

He offers us a dancer:

The dancer slows her frantic pace
In pain and desperation,
Her aching limbs and downcast face
Aglow with perspiration

And then a writer:

Thirty years ago, how the words would flow
With passion and precision,
But now his mind is dark and dulled
By sickness and indecision

Writing poetry is perhaps the most democratic of artforms. Anyone can write a few lines of verse. It can take seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks — however long is entirely up to you. You can write about whatever you like. All you need is a pen and a piece of paper. In fact, you don’t even need those, because poetry has an oral tradition dating back to ancient times. Epic poems like Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid were almost certainly written to be read aloud. And who nowadays hasn’t at some point or other made up a silly limerick on the spur of the moment?

A young student Shakespeare-to-be
Had verse writing down to a T
“I punt on the Cam
I love an iamb
And I like the occasional spondee”

As a wonderful vehicle for creativity and for learning to work with language, poetry is perfect for children — playing about with words and phrases, experimenting with rhymes, learning the basics of rhythm and metre. That’s why it is so important that children have regular opportunities to experience poetry.

Here’s one exciting way — and it is a way that helps children to learn about building relationships and about the importance of community as well as developing their communication skills and love of language. In addition to his many other talents Gyles Brandreth is the founder of Poetry Together, which he describes as his ‘passion project’. Poetry Together encourages schools to link with care homes so that young and old can learn and recite poems together. And it’s all completely free. The website is below.

National Poetry Day Website

Poetry Together Website

Rush: A Fan’s Appreciation

I blog regularly about education, particularly in relation to children aged 5 to 11, at this website about Life-Based Learning

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