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“Powerful, performable and publishable” February 1, 2011

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in Independent Education, Magazines.
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Stephen Davies teaches English and other things at Kitebrook House. In this article from the recent spring 2011 issue of Prep School magazine he shares his passion for poetry and makes the case for living and breathing real poetry, not just analysing it in an exam!

As the organiser (but not the judge) of the annual satips poetry competition I get to sample more than 750 poems from children aged 7-13. It is rarely boring.

In 2010 our judge was Professor David Morley of Warwick University, who in his report was enthusiastic in his praise of the winning poems (“They are powerful, performable and publishable”) and he congratulated the outstanding teachers for enabling such writing to flourish. Here is one of the winning poems, which speaks for itself, I think:

Twilight White Owl
First Prize, Years 5 and 6 Category
James Coto, Lanesborough School

To see the twilight white owl wavering over the dew-mist
Startles my heart, a mouse in its house,
Remembering a dim past
When we were only the weight of shrews, maybe, and everything ate us
In a steaming, echoing jungle, of night-flying alligators
And the dawn-chorus shook the swamps, like a booming orchestra
Where Brontosaurs were merely the flutes and land-whales beat on the drum of the ear
It has all sunk into the fern-fringed forest pool of the owl’s eye,
But it reaches over the farm like a claw in the owl’s haunting cry.
The owl sways, weighing the silent world, his huge gaze dry and light
Flying with a sense of immortality and never coming down from the dew-mist sky.
“Hoot! Hoot”, dawn is approaching,
The twilight owl makes his way down to the ground into a fresh beech tree,
Spins his head round, checking his surroundings and going to sleep
Waiting for the next twilight to fall.

Wow! So, children are the most natural of poets: they have the ability to observe, to see things as if for the first time, to invent new language, to play with sounds and rhythms. (There are plenty of older poets who have had to re-teach themselves these skills.)

But it can also be argued (and perhaps this was truer in the past) that if we, as pressurised teachers preparing for such events as Common Entrance, are not careful , we will create children who only ever read poems in examinations. Poems written by strange beings called ‘poets’ become like algebra – a problem to be solved, a code you have to crack. The same children who write so freely can, by the time they get to senior school, say that they ‘don’t like poetry’.

This, of course, is very unfair. Imagine someone saying they didn’t like music – they just like different sorts. So poetry can suffer, and has suffered, from a bad press. Rather like the recent RSC appeal to teachers of Shakespeare (‘Do it on your feet’; ‘See it live’; ‘Start it earlier’) there’s a case for a review. I think getting your children reading poetry out loud (on their feet), meeting writers and poets (see it live) and doing it regularly and from an early age has immeasurable benefits – of course it does. But – and here’s where the satips poetry competition comes in – best of all is to get the children writing for themselves…

For more information on the satips poetry competition, visit the satips website or email sdavies@kitebrookhouse.com

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