Here at Amazing! Magazine we are huge advocates of getting primary school children interested in reading and writing poetry. In every issue of Amazing!, we include an original poem written by our very own wonderful wordsmith, Julie Douglas. Whether we’re being transported down to the depths of the ocean floor with a rhyme about a magical sea king or getting inspired with a verse about weird and wacky inventions, Julie’s poems are fun and engaging and guarantee lots of giggles from whoever reads them. But aside from being great fun, why is it so important to explore poetry with primary school boys and girls.
Reluctant readers often find it easier to engage with poetry books, rather than novels. As Julie says ‘Poetry collections can be dipped into. They don't need to be read in a particular order and a favourite can be revisited again and again. It doesn't take long to read a poem and yet what a sense of achievement and completion for a young reader who struggles to read half a chapter.’
Poetry writing has it’s own set of rules away from story writing, but the great thing about them is that they can all be broken. This anarchic approach is great for readers who struggle with English comprehension as it gives them the confidence to explore and play with language on their terms and gives them the confidence to create their own unique voice. Those students who struggle to write longer stories, can also get excited about telling an amazing adventure in one or two verses instead of a one or two pages.
Studying poetry at primary school also allows children to learn about how words sound and gets them to think about how poetry can be performed. This performance element of poetry is great for bringing a classroom alive with activity and for getting children out of their seats and working together. It allows them to explore how words sound and how sentences are constructed. It’s also a great way to encourage young readers to think about what the poet might be trying to convey to its audience.
The wonderful CLPE (Centre of Literacy in Primary Education) does a fantastic job in making poetry more accessible to primary school children up and down the country. They have a specialised area on their website called Poetryline, which includes a wealth of poems, classroom resources and some fantastic interviews and performances from some of the most esteemed children’s poets in the UK today. It’s also a fantastic place for teachers and home-school educators to get inspiration for lessons and tips on how best to approach exploring poetry in the classroom.
Alongside this fantastic website, the CLPE also hold the prestigious CLiPPA poetry awards each year. This esteemed award is the only one in the UK that recognises published poetry for children and is presented annually for a book of poetry that has been released that year.
On 15th July 2017, the award ceremony, which was held at the Olivier, National Theatre in London, saw Kate Wakeling and her wonderful and wacky collection of poems called Moon Juice take home the coveted prize. Amazing! Magazine was lucky enough to chat to this worthy winner about about her inspiration for Moon Juice, why she loves writing for children and why poetry is so important in primary schools.
When did you first discover a love for writing poetry?
It was relatively recently. I’ve been writing poetry for adults for the last seven years or so, but only started writing for children a couple of years ago. I have written lots of other things for ages though, including sticking to a relentless diary-writing regime for some 17 years. I suspect the diary keeping was helpful training, in that it sharpened up my observation of the world and insisted that I reflect carefully on things each day. It’s interesting that only when I stopped writing the diary did I then (eventually) start writing poetry more seriously.
Where did the ideas for the poems in Moon Juice come from and do you have a favourite poem in the book?
The ideas for the poems came from all sorts of places - some poems had brewed in me for a long time, like ‘Jungle Cat’, which was based on an experience when I lived in Indonesia - while others popped out quickly in response to something I saw or felt and suddenly wanted to write about - this was the case for ‘New Moon’ (spotting a sliver of moon while walking down the road) and ‘Night Journey’ (being driven home very late one night along the motorway). My favourite poem in the book is ‘The Demon Mouth’, but I’m not sure where it came from. The title just sprung into my mind one day! I like that the poem explores serious things - the idea of compulsion and the importance of tenderness - but it does so by way of some rascally wordplay and (with any luck) a rollicking story.
You studied music at University, do you find this has helped you when writing poetry?
I think so! Music is so central to poetry - for me, it is one of the main things that distinguishes poetry from prose and with any luck my music studies have helped tune my ear to the musical potential of language. I love rolling the sounds of words round my mouth when I’m writing, and I particularly enjoy exploring how rows of vowel sounds in adjacent words might chime one after the other. I am pretty obsessed about the rhythm of text too, be it when writing neat couplets or completely free verse - rhythm is central to absolutely every kind of poem. I’m also struck more and more by how the white space on the page in a poem (or lack thereof) creates a sense of rhythm and I’ve enjoyed experimenting with this.
What poets and authors inspired you when you were growing up?
I was an avid reader as a child but didn’t take in all that much poetry, funnily enough, bar lots of Dr Seuss. I was an enormous fan of Roald Dahl and was also quite fixated on reading (and re-reading over and over again) some lovely but perhaps rather old-fashioned books like L.M. Montgomery’s ‘Anne of Green Gables’ books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books and everything by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I suppose the characters in these books tend to be adventurous, upstanding and adept with words: three things I definitely aspired to be (then and now). I’m also interested to note now that my reading focused mostly on female authors…
Why do you think it is so important for children to learn to read and write poetry at primary school?
To my mind, poetry is the complete package. It takes us to other worlds. It lets us into other minds. It fuels the imagination and invites us to play. It asks us to celebrate language for its beauty and strangeness. Its helps us express ourselves. And perhaps most importantly, poetry calls on us to value the space between the black and the white of things: poems tend to whisper not shout, and a good poem offers some space for the reader to find their own meaning. All of these things feel to me like crucial elements in learning and living.
Do you have any top tips for getting reluctant readers to engage with poetry more?
It feels very obvious but I guess the key is to match the reader with the right material for that individual, be it responding to an appetite for the funny and mischievous, or for something with more serious narrative drive. Novels by Sarah Crossan and Kwame Alexander are outstanding books driven by exciting, emotive storylines, while also festooning the reader with wonderful poetry along the way. Finding good performances of poems online can also be a great way to enliven young people’s experience of poetry: CLPE’s poetryline is a wonderful resource full of poets performing their poems and talking about their work in lively, accessible ways.
Every time you read one of your poems out loud, you give a performance. How important is performance poetry when teaching poetry to children?
I think performance is a brilliant way of engaging children in the beauty, drama and mischief of poetry. Crucially, performance allows all the nuance and craft of poetic language to sound and so to be received by children in an enjoyably effortless way - we can enjoy the deep pleasure of a half-rhyme or a tight rhythm without the effort of engaging with the written word which can sometimes be a challenge for children. That said, for me, one of the crucial things about poetry is the gentle, private space that poems provide, where we can quietly explore our own feelings and ideas. I’m a huge advocate of poetry in performance but I would never want to lose this magical, top-secret contract between writer and reader that the privacy of the page allows.
The way you perform the poem Comet is amazing, did you know it was going to sound like that while you were writing it, or did you think about the way it would be performed afterwards?
Thanks so much! I absolutely love performing ‘Comet’ and am so glad I put the time into learning it by heart. I wanted to conjure something of the pace and thrill of a comet through the poem’s form, so I enjoyed getting the rhythm as tight as could be and filling each line with tongue-twisting detail so that when read at pace it would sound like a fierce burst of energy. And I did indeed think about this poem in performance while writing it - but not necessarily only its performance by me! The poem comes with an instruction to the reader that it should be read as quickly as possible and in as few breaths as can be managed, with the aim that readers would be enticed into performing it aloud too. I loved adding something of a physical game into a poem’s set-up on the page - and have been amazed at how much fun it seems to have generated for readers so am definitely going to keep exploring this sort of idea!
For more of Kate’s poems and to watch a video of her performing Comet visit: