The Uncertainty of the Poet by Wendy Cope

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Wendy Cope

This poem is a great example of wordplay. It encourages children to experiment with language and the results can be very funny. It is said that the poem is based on the painting, Uncertainty of the Poet by Giorgio de Chirico (see below).

Wendy Cope (born 1945) begins with a simple verse:

I am a poet.
I am very fond of bananas.

She then uses the same ten words in all the following verses – but changes the order and the sense, and throws in the odd extra bit of punctuation. For instance, her second verse is:

I am bananas.
I am very fond of a poet.

Pretty clever, yes? As the verses develop, they become increasingly bizarre until the final verse reads:

I am of very fond bananas.
Am I a poet?

Suggested activities

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Uncertainty of the Poet by Giorgio de Chirico

First, have fun with reading and performing the poem. Can the children get what is going on? If there were a rule for this poem, what would it be? There are eight verses, so split the class into eight groups and get them to memorise and perform their two lines. Try it in different orders, different voices, different volumes. Put the emphasis on different words.

Then try getting the children to write their own verse. We need two statements and they can only use ten words. For instance…

I am a swimmer.
I like to pat my dog.

Then ask them to write more verses using only those words. They are only allowed to change the punctuation. Who can write the most verses? On this occasion, some artwork could be created to accompany the finished versions (though poetry does NOT need to have decorated borders ordinarily).

The full text of the poem can be found here.

41sAbATNtDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This poem appears in this excellent collection, Best Poems on the Underground.

 

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A poem is a city by Charles Bukowski

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Charles Bukowski

One of my favourite poets is Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994).

For anyone who hasn’t read either his poetry or his novels, Bukowski could possibly be described as Tom Waits without the music.

You are probably wondering what he is doing on a website which recommends poetry for Key Stage 1, 2 or 3 children. Well, I think something can be done with some of his wonderful poems – providing they are carefully selected. One example as: A poem is a city.

This is a great opportunity for young people to be as creative as they like, by thinking: What is a poem? What can it be?

The answer is: anything – and that description of anything by children could be very exciting. Take the opening of Bukowski’s poem:

a poem is a city filled with streets and sewers
filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen,
filled with banality and booze,
filled with rain and thunder and periods of
drought, a poem is a city at war,
a poem is a city asking a clock why,
a poem is a city burning,
a poem is a city under guns
its barbershops filled with cynical drunks,
a poem is a city where God rides naked
through the streets like Lady Godiva,
where dogs bark at night, and chase away
the flag; a poem is a city of poets,
most of them quite similar
and envious and bitter …
a poem is this city now,

The full text of the poem is here (but remember to edit some lines out – sorry, Charles)

Suggested activities

You could try giving each of these images to a child and asking them to draw one (you could live without God riding naked, perhaps!) Imagine, though, the dogs barking a night, the city burning, a city filled with rain and thunder. Imagine putting all these pictures together on a wall and creating a landscape for this poem. The teacher could point to the picture and encourage the class to remember the phrase that inspired it.

Obviously, you have to be selective about some of Bukowski’s images but you could go with at least three-quarters of them. Think about “small music from broken windows” and “small men rant at things”. Brilliant images.

From your collage, ask the children to dream up a few images each about what a poem could be. It is SO EASY for them to write this poem. Then, put them into groups and run the images together in order. Once they’re happy with it, get the groups to perform the poem.

What a great lesson!

 

 

 

The Garden by Franta Bass

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Franta Bass

Franta Bass was a Jewish boy born in Czechoslovakia in 1930. When he was 11 years old, his family was deported by the Nazis to Terezin Ghetto/Camp, just north of Prague (also known as Theresienstadt). He stayed there, living under terrible conditions, for three years. On October 28th, 1944, he was murdered in Auschwitz, a Nazi-controlled concentration camp in Poland. He was 14 years old.

Of the vast majority of Czech Jews who were taken to Terezin (or Theresienstadt), 97,297 died among whom were 15,000 children. Only 132 of those children were known to have survived. (Source: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org)

This is a poem written by Franta, The Garden:

The Garden

A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses,
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more. 

 

Possible activities using The Garden:

Give children the first four lines of the poem, but with no background about the poet or the context. Just tell them it is written by a child, about their age.

A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses,
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.

Who might the poet be? Where is he? How is he feeling about his surroundings? Why is the path described as ‘narrow’? Is the boy in the garden now – or is he remembering a time when he was in the garden?

Then move on to the second verse:

A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more. 

How has the mood of the poem changed? Why is he compared with blossom? Why will the little boy “be no more”?

Then introduce the children to Franta Bass and tell them about when and where he lived. Talk about his death at the age of 14. Lead the children to a discussion of memory – why are we talking about this poem now? Why is it important to remember the Holocaust? Are the children today who are facing terror and hardship?

Useful resources

Butterfly-cover-large.jpg (216×333)This book features children’s drawings and poems from the Terezin Ghetto/Camp.

Read about the background of the Terezin Ghetto/ Concentration Camp.

Various photographs taken at the Terezin Camp today (suitable for young audience, discretion advised)

Here is another poem written by Franta Bass:

I am a Jew

I am a Jew and will be a Jew forever. 
Even if I should die from hunger, 
never will I submit.
I will always fight for my people, 
on my honor. 
I will never be ashamed of them, 
I give my word.
I am proud of my people, 
how dignified they are. 
Even though I am suppressed, 
I will always come back to life. 

 

 

 

 

The Rainforest by Judith Wright

4746f12a5f3073d69c9bb83481aed20a.jpeg (443×267)The Rainforest is a three-verse poem by Australian poem Judith Wright. It is ideal for use in rainforest projects and of particular relevance to years five, six and beyond. It can be used as a stimulus for art or for discussion in a PSHE-context of conservation and the threat to our planet.

Whilst, on the surface, there are descriptions of life in the rainforest, there is plenty of implied meaning beneath and enough ambiguous phrases to get young people talking. It is also an excellent example of the concise use of language; just how much can be said in so few words.

This is how the poem begins:

Rainforest

The forest drips and glows with green.
The tree-frog croaks his far-off song.
His voice is stillness, moss and rain
drunk from the forest ages long.

Read the whole poem here.

Wright.jpg (391×316)According to Poem Hunter website, Judith Wright was a prolific Australian poet, critic, and short-story writer, who published more than 50 books. She was an uncompromising environmentalist and social activist campaigning for Aboriginal land rights. She believed that the poet should be concerned with national and social problems. Even at the age of 85, just before her death, she attended in Canberra at a march for reconciliation with Aboriginal people.

Here is a link to Judith Wright’s poems on Poem Hunter.

Here is an unusual video treatment of the poem using synthesised music:

Possible activities using this poem

Use the poem as a stimulus for artwork. Create the environment which Judith Wright is so passionate about.

Discuss the future of the rainforest. Which animals live there? Why is it under threat? How do we rely on the rainforest? Write letters to powerful people expressing your concern for the rainforest.

Tease out the meaning of key words and phrases from the poem:

“unless we move into his dream”. What is his dream? How can we move into it?

“where all is one and one is all”. What does this mean in a global sense? How would we think about the world if we adopted this approach?

“our quick dividing eyes”. What does this mean? Why are we quick? What do we divide?

“the forest burns”. Investigate why this is happening. What is Judith Wright saying about the rainforest here?

41sAbATNtDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This poem appears in the excellent collection, Best Poems on the Underground. You may have seen it on your travels around London.

My ten favourite poems

cropped-books.jpgIn no particular order, here are my current top ten favourite poems. The list changes all the time. I have tried to include only one from each poet, but Robert Hayden’s two in the list are just so wonderful they both have to be included. I have gone for contrasting themes so that they match our every-changing moods.

  1. Those winter Sundays by Robert Hayden
  2. The Voice by Thomas Hardy
  3. Frederick Douglass by Robert Hayden
  4. Walking Away by Cecil Day Lewis
  5. Preludes by T.S.Eliot
  6. A poem is a city by Charles Bukowski
  7. Poetry Jump-Up by John Agard
  8. Shema by Primo Levi
  9. April Rain Song by Langston Hughes
  10. Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

And a few more…

Joy at the sound by Roger McGough
There will come soft rains by Sara Teasdale
In Time of Breaking of Nations by Thomas Hardy
So you want to be a writer by Charles Bukowski
Everyone Sang by Siegfried Sassoon
About his person by Simon Armitage
I wish I were by Rabindrath Tagore

Please let me know your favourite poems.

 

Are you looking for quotes about poetry?

What better way to inspire young people about poetry than to provide them with an inspirational quote to begin a lesson, or to get them thinking? Here are a few which I have collected. Your contributions would be most welcome.

A poem is a city filled with streets and sewers/ filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen. (Charles Bukowski, a poem is a city)

All poetry is magic. It is a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarism. (Charles Causley, 1990)

Poetry is not the new rock’n’roll, it was the first rock’n’roll. (A Wilson, The Poetry Book for Primary Schools)

A poem is like a shot of espresso – the fastest way to get a hit of mental and spiritual energy. (Jeanette Winterson)

Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. (William Hazlitt)

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words. (Edgar Allan Poe)

Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment. (Carl Sandburg)

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. (Percy Bysshe Shelley).

Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. (Thomas Gray)

Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance. (Carl Sandburg)

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing. (W S Merwin)

Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that. (Mary Oliver)

Poems on the underground

Poem on the Underground
One of the poems which have been featured on London Underground.

What a great idea to display Poems on the Underground. The scheme was launched in 1986 to “make journeys more stimulating and inspiring”. Most recently, the poems have been featured inside tube trains, though I recall seeing them, billposter-sized, taking the place of advertisements behind the tracks themselves.

Organisers argue that the idea is to move away from poems being elitist and obscure. One can hardly argue with that – especially when more than 50 other cities, from New York to Shanghai – have followed the idea and displayed poetry on their public transport. (Why not every town though? Why not on trains through the United Kingdom? Why not on buses that run in provincial towns and villages?)

41sAbATNtDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Recently, I was given a copy of Best Poems on the Underground, a selection of more than 300 of the poems chosen for public display, edited by Gerard Benson, Judith Charnaik and Cicely Herbert. It is a marvellous and varied collection, arranged alphabetically by poet. Some of the poems are familiar but many are new to me – which is a great delight.

Here’s an example. Fleur Adcock (b1934) came to England from New Zealand and encountered difficulties being understood. She reflects on this in Immigrant, writing:

I clench cold fists in my Marks and Spencer’s jacket
And secretly  test my accent once again:
St James’s Park; St James’s Park; St James’s Park.”

I had not heard of Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) before. Her series of poems, Requiem, depict the suffering of the Russian people under Stalin, between 1935 and 1940. Her husband and son were both arrested. In a translation by Richard McKane, we hear:

I would like to name them all but they took away
the list and there’s no way of finding them.”

Imagine reading this on your morning commuter: it kind of puts things into perspective. Is it really necessary to rush to get there a couple of minutes earlier?

There is John Betjeman (1906-1984) writing about the boom of the great bell, heard whilst sitting in St Botolph Bishopsgate Churchyard; Connie Bensley (b1929) spending her way out of the recession in Shopper and, gloriously, Sebastian Barker (b1945) finding the inspiration of nature In the Heart of Hackney:

In the hear of Hackney, five miles from Kentish Town,
By Lammas Lands the reed beds are glowing rich and brown.”

I have only read the first 30 or so poems but I know there are further great riches in store.

Young people and their parents

Maybe young people, particularly teenagers, can grow up with a sense of being put-upon by their parents; too many restrictions, too much pressure. This sense of injustice can manifest itself in anger, alienation or simply a lack of communication.

Sometimes it is hard to appreciate what parents do for their children – however ungrateful those offspring might be. So this poem, a classic by the American poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980), could prompt a really interesting discussion.

The writer reflects on a minor happening. It’s a cold, wintry, Sunday morning. The father, having worked all week, still gets up early to make a fire. He does it without thanks and the child responds with ill-chosen harsh words, speaking “indifferently”. The father also polishes the shoes for the child (maybe a teenager, maybe even older?). Here is an extract:

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden.

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
The final two lines are my favourite. Somehow the repetition is heart-breaking:
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Read the full poem here. Read about the life of Robert Hayden here.
This is a performance, one of many, of this poem:

Lesson ideas
1. You could begin with a picture of a father building a fire in the kitchen. It could be contemporary or from a different era. What is this man doing? Where is the rest of the family? Why is he doing this? Why doesn’t anyone else help?

2. Introduce the idea of his children being upstairs, but having woken. How are they feeling? Who is showing love here – the children towards their father, or the father towards his children?

3. How many things do our parents do for us which we don’t appreciate? Should we be expected to thank them, or is this part of their role as parents?

4. Could we change by saying thank-you sometimes for what our parents or elders do for us?

There are some excellent discussion questions here.

Robin Williams and poetry

Who could resist poetry after watching Dead Poet’s Society? This wonderful, moving film shows what happens when a group of students find themselves inspired by their English teacher, played by Robin Williams.

He urges them to cast off an analytical approach to poetry, which attempts to measure the effectiveness of a poem using a graph, and think about the beauty of the words; how they make you feel.

If you haven’t seen the film, watch this memorable clip.

In this scene, he inspires a reluctant student to think creatively and find the poetic voice within him.

If you are teaching at secondary level, what better way to encourage students – especially boys – to consider poetry in a positive light?

And what can one say about Robin Williams? A truly great actor.

Can you think of any other movies which would encourage students to write, read or perform poetry? I’d be interested to hear from you.

 

I Am by John Clare

John Clare lived from 1793 to 1864. He was the son of a farmer and came to be known as the “peasant poet”. Most of his work is not particularly accessible to young people, but the following poem could provoke an interesting discussion with able Year 5 or 6 students, and certainly for Key Stage Three students.

Clare suffered from mental health problems for much of his life and this poem, I Am, was written in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. There is some background about the poem here. It deals with a sense of alienation and ends with a longing for a better place, perhaps in another life. This is how it begins:
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes

And yet I am, and live

You can read the full text of the poem here.

There is a brilliant performance of the poem here:
Possible activities
– Present the whole poem to groups of three. Ask them questions such as:
1. When was this written?
2. Is it written by a man or a woman?
3. How are they feeling and how do you know? (do not accept basic words such as happy or sad)
4. Can you guess where this poem was written?
5. Are they ultimately optimistic or pessimistic? (or similar vocabulary)
– Then reveal the background of the poem.
– Dish out phrases from the poem such as “the self- consumer of my woes”. Ask pairs to look up all the difficult words and come up with alternative phrases. Put these together in a class soliloquy. Compare this modern version with the original.
– Challenge groups to perform the original poem. Watch various video performances and assess them, compared with the class versions.
– Research the story of John Clare, his love of nature, his mental health problems, and look at other poems he has written.