As a teacher I have sometimes encountered a fear of poetry in children who have previously been put off the beauty that it can portray. This fear disperses, however, when children are given the confidence to interpret and engage with poetry on their own terms.
Yesterday evening our oldest children put on an outdoor performance of poetry. Whilst the autumn chill had begun to descend upon an expectant audience, the event had a tremendous sense of emotion and atmosphere. To watch poetry being performed in the natural environment, with the birds chirping in praise of the pieces, was a very special opportunity. The children performed with maturity and enthusiasm, and I cannot wait to see their next performance on stage. It will surely be a wonderful show.
Culturally, poetry is used in a variety of ways. Haikus, for example, juxtapose images of the everyday, while lyric poetry expresses the personal and emotional. Poetry is as relevant now as ever, whether you are a regular reader of it or not. Chances are, at some point in your life, you will reach out to poetry. People look to poems most often at times of change. These can be happy or sad times, such as birthdays, funerals, or weddings. Poetry can provide clear expression of emotion at moments that are overwhelming and burdensome.
Poetry is also used to mark periods of change which are often celebrated through public events. In these instances, the reading and writing of poetry can be transformative. At Remembrance Sunday, for example, verse is used to reflect upon and process the harsh realities of loss, as well as commemorate the military service of those who have passed. In a moving tribute to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, the children’s author Sir Michael Morpurgo describes through poetry how, “She did not reign over us, she reigned for us.” The film of the poem, prepared for ITV News, is available here.
Growing up, my father regularly quoted verses of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling. The speaker in the poem champions a morality built on moderation. They advise their son to move through life with composure, and to always exercise self-control, integrity, and humility. This means never letting "triumph" nor "disaster"—events either good or bad—go to one’s head. No matter what happens, the speaker believes, it is important that people keep their cool. The son is advised to “keep [his] head” about him even when everyone around him is losing their composure—not to respond with vitriol just because other people might “hate” him, for example. Similarly, the speaker says that the son should calmly devote himself to rebuilding his life if it ever goes to shambles, encouraging him to remain reasonable and diligent even when times are tough.
The poem opens with:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
The words have stuck with me throughout my life, a testament to my father’s guidance, and I am certain that consciously or otherwise, they continue to guide me.
Two of my favourite poems on Thursday evening were “Put Your Shoes On” and “The Car Trip”, both by Michael Rosen. They remind me of early parenthood. In the former, the parent is giving the child fifteen seconds to put their shoes on to leave the house. Today the poem brings a smile to my face but at the time there was always an element of frustration!
In “The Car Trip” the parent tries to distract the children in the back of the car by pointing out lamp posts and trees on a very long car journey. Towards the end, after a period of moaning and disruption from the children, the parent says, “Now, If you don’t stop it I’m gonna put you out the car and leave you by the side of the road.” Sometimes poetry can capture the emotions of a moment so clearly!
Today, poetry has never been more immediately accessible. With websites like The Poetry Archive and The Poetry Foundation we can summon a poem in the palm of our hand. Whether you are a regular reader of poetry or a person who encounters it only at moments of change, there is no denying the ongoing relevance and power of it.
“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” (Robert Frost)