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!





Television by Roald Dahl

Television. Good or bad? Well, this poem by Roald Dahl will be familiar to many primary school pupils. It appears in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a song by the Oompa-Loompas. The poem tells of the dangers of children watching too much television (or any television at all) – how it dulls the senses and kills the imagination. The only antedote is reading. Who could disagree?

Well, Dahl grew up without television and this certainly didn’t seem to do him any harm. But the medium of television has helped Dahl to become the favourite author of so many children – with television and film adaptations taking his stories to so many more children, beyond the reach of the written format. This article, on the official Roald Dahl website, discusses whether Dahl was ever really anti-television or whether he was being deliberatley provocative in this controversial poem. Whatever his thoughts, this is a great talking point for children!

Here is an extract from the opening of the poem:

The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set —
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.

You can read the full text of the poem here. Watch a lovely version of the poem here:

Suggested activities
1. This is a long poem. Break it up. Cut it up into pieces and give pairs rhyming couplets to perform. Number them. Conduct the performance. Keep doing this until the performance is perfect. Encourage the pairs to learn their two lines and then discuss which words to emphasise, whether a silly voice is needed, and how to best bring out the comedy. Video the performance and put it on your school website.
2. Open up a discussion about television by taking phrases from the poem. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Try all that shocking ghastly junk or
How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?
3. Stage a debate in the class. Half must argue for television being the best thing, and half for books being the best thing. Ensure everyone has their say.
4. Lead into writing a persuasive argument or a discussion. Ensure you use three strong arguments to support your case – with evidence from the poem. Make sure you include a summary of the opposite argument. Rehearse persuasive language.

Five simple rules for writing a poem

These are five simple rules for writing a poem. You could give these to children before they put pen to paper. I am indebted to Dunn, Styles and Warburton (1987, p.32) for these ideas.

1. It doesn’t have to rhyme

2. Start a new line when you pause

3. Say something fresh

4. Ordinary things make good poetry

5. Every word must count.


I might add the following:

Tell the children that their poem must NOT rhyme today! Tell them to ignore every rule they have been taught about writing prose (forget punctuation, capital letters, the need for full sentences). Write from the heart. Write about what matters to you. Be angry or funny or mysterious. Make up words if you wish to!

As a teacher you could then follow this pattern:

The first draft is then discussed in pairs.

Some poems are read out.

The teacher gives spoken feedback to each child.

The class talks about how to improve their poems.

Pupils have a chance to write a second draft.

Reference: Dunn, J., Styles, M., Warburton, N., (1987) In tune with yourself: children writing poetry – a handbook for teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Question cards for poetry lessons

What could the title of this poem be?Why do you think that? Is there anything about this poem that reminds you of anything that has happened to you or anyone you know? Why? 
Is there anything about this poem that reminds you of anything you’ve ever read before or seen on tv or in a film? How? Why?  Are there any questions you would like to ask about this poem? What?
What if you could ask the writer of the poem some questions? What would they be?  What if you could ask anyone or anything in the poem some questions – what would they be?
If you were making a film of this poem, describe how the film would begin.  Which is your favourite line in this poem? Be ready to explain why.
Make a quick sketch of this poem. Draw in the characters and the setting. Be ready to explain your reasons.  Why did the poet bother to write this poem? What has he or she achieved?

Poetry in the new National Curriculum

As far as I can tell, these are the references to poetry in the new National Curriculum. Probably some analysis is needed on how this has changed, and may be you have some comments you could send me to start a discussion.

Year 2 – Reading

Pupils should be taught to:

  • develop pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding by:
  • listening to, discussing and expressing views about a wide range of contemporary and classic poetry, stories and non-fiction at a level beyond that at which they can read independently
  • recognising simple recurring literary language in stories and poetry
  • continuing to build up a repertoire of poems learnt by heart, appreciating these and reciting some, with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear
  • participate in discussion about books, poems and other works that are read to them and those that they can read for themselves, taking turns and listening to what others say
  • explain and discuss their understanding of books, poems and other material, both those that they listen to and those that they read for themselves.

Year 2 – Writing

Pupils should be taught to:

  • develop positive attitudes towards and stamina for writing by:
  • writing poetry
  • consider what they are going to write before beginning by
  • planning or saying out loud what they are going to write about
  • writing down ideas and/or key words, including new vocabulary
  • encapsulating what they want to say, sentence by sentence
  • make simple additions, revisions and corrections to their own writing by:
  • evaluating their writing with the teacher and other pupils
  • re-reading to check that their writing makes sense and that verbs to indicate time are used correctly and consistently, including verbs in the continuous form
  • proof-reading to check for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation [for example, ends of sentences punctuated correctly]
  • read aloud what they have written with appropriate intonation to make the meaning clear.

 Years 3 and 4 – Reading

Pupils should be taught to:

  • develop positive attitudes to reading and understanding of what they read by:
  • listening to and discussing a wide range of fiction, poetry, plays, non-fiction and reference books or textbooks
  • prepare poems and play scripts to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action
  • discussing words and phrases that capture the reader’s interest and imagination
  • recognising some different forms of poetry [for example, free verse, narrative poetry]

Pupils should be encouraged to use drama approaches to understand how to perform plays and poems to support their understanding of the meaning. These activities also provide them with an incentive to find out what expression is required, so feeding into comprehension.

 Years 3 and 4 – Writing

Children should plan their writing by:

  • discussing writing similar to that which they are planning to write in order to understand and learn from its structure, vocabulary and grammar
  • discussing and recording ideas
  • draft and write by:
  • composing and rehearsing sentences orally (including dialogue), progressively building a varied and rich vocabulary and an increasing range of sentence structures (English Appendix 2)
  • organising paragraphs around a theme
  • in narratives, creating settings, characters and plot
  • in non-narrative material, using simple organisational devices [for example, headings and sub-headings]
  • evaluate and edit by:
  • assessing the effectiveness of their own and others’ writing and suggesting improvements
  • proposing changes to grammar and vocabulary to improve consistency, including the accurate use of pronouns in sentences

 Years 5 and 6

By the beginning of year 5, pupils should be able to read aloud a wider range of poetry.

During years 5 and 6, teachers should continue to emphasise pupils’ enjoyment and understanding of language, especially vocabulary, to support their reading and writing. Pupils’ knowledge of language, gained from stories, plays, poetry, non-fiction and textbooks, will support their increasing fluency as readers, their facility as writers, and their comprehension.

In years 5 and 6, pupils’ confidence, enjoyment and mastery of language should be extended through public speaking, performance and debate.

Years 5 and 6 – Reading

Pupils should be taught to:

  • maintain positive attitudes to reading and understanding of what they read by:
  • continuing to read and discuss an increasingly wide range of fiction, poetry, plays, non-fiction and reference books or textbooks

learning a wider range of poetry by heart

  • preparing poems and plays to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone and volume so that the meaning is clear to an audience
  • discuss and evaluate how authors use language, including figurative language, considering the impact on the reader

Pupils should be taught the technical and other terms needed for discussing what they hear and read, such as metaphor, simile, analogy, imagery, style and effect.

 Year 6 – Writing

Pupils should be taught to:

  • plan their writing by:
  • identifying the audience for and purpose of the writing, selecting the appropriate form and using other similar writing as models for their own
  • perform their own compositions, using appropriate intonation, volume, and movement so that meaning is clear.




Questions you can ask about a poem

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The brilliant poet Michael Rosen, an inspiration to so many schoolchildren, has suggested the following questions which could be asked about any poem presented to a class. Why not give different groups one of these questions, printed on a card, to discuss with the poem:

1. Is there anything about this poem that reminds you of anything that has ever happened to you or anyone you know? How does it remind you? Why?

2. Is there anything about this poem that reminds you of anything you’ve ever read before or seen on TV or in a film? How? Why?

3. Are there any questions you would like to ask about this poem? What?

4. What if you could ask the writer of the poem some questions? What would they be?

5. What if you could ask anyone or anything in the poem some questions what would they be?


Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

 This poem intrigued my primary school class. We studied it just before Christmas and the ‘harness bells’ prompted quite a discussion about whether this might refer to Father Christmas! The mysterious nature of the visitor adds to the strangeness of the poem and could provide an interesting stimulus for further writing or even drama.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost 1922 (Frost lived from 1874 to 1963. He was an American poet and his life had many personal tragedies. His work also includes The Road Not Taken. Read his biography here.)

Questions for discussion:

What time of year is it? How do you know?

What do we know about this stranger?

What promises does he have to keep?

Where is he heading? Why?

What happens next in the story?

Other activities:

Try drawing the scene.

Show children a winter’s picture with a strange figure on a horse. Brainstorm vocabulary first. Get them to tell the story to each other. Only then read the poem to them at the end of that activity.

Ask the children to perform the poem in groups. Each group could be given one verse to learn and dramatise. You will end up with a complete class performance.

Notes from my own teaching diary

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. I printed the poem out and cut it up, giving one line to each child (some were in pairs). Each child had to learn the line, put the paper behind their backs then go round the room and recite the poem to another child. Could they find someone who has a linked idea? I asked the children to stand in groups of four – and then arrange themselves into some kind of order. Then I asked them to recite their lines in order and see if it is anything like the real poem. This was a good opportunity for children to learn a brief line and recite it. They enjoyed finding partners and eventually noticed there were rhyming patterns which could help them arrange the poem into verses. We followed this with a discussion about the meaning of the poem, and whether it could refer to Father Christmas.