Books and poetry

Rhyme and reason

on 21 December 2009. Posted in Books and Poetry

Kevin McCann on the benefits – for writer and students – of taking poetry into schools

It all started more or less by chance. I’d been teaching English for seven years and had just had my first pamphlet of poems published. I was booked to do a reading, which was funded by the Poetry Society, and was sent a questionnaire. In the ‘Further comments’ section I said that I’d be interested in joining the Poets in Schools scheme. This was funded by WH Smith and a school got two poets for two days for free.

A year went by, then one day I got a call asking me if I’d like to work with the poet Pete Morgan in a school in Cumbria. I already knew Pete – no worries about getting on with my co-worker – so it was just a matter of getting time off school to go. No problem there either. THAT woman had been Prime Minister for only three years, unions were still a force to be reckoned with and the only people who ‘delivered’ were the Post Office and the local dairy. I agreed to give up my next 16 free periods and run the bookstall at the Christmas Fair and, in return, the time off was granted.

I learned a lot. Pete was a joy to work with. The children were primed and the teachers all knew poetry mattered. Nobody used the word ‘text’. The only disappointment, apparently, was me. The children didn’t think I looked like a poet. It was my first booking so I’d actually had a haircut and was wearing my best jacket and a collar and tie. I didn’t make that mistake again.

I carried on with the Poets in School scheme until it was finally wound up. I can’t remember the official reason WH Smith gave, but I suspected that some accountant thought it wasn’t profitable and was therefore worthless. I was sorry to see it end, but it had helped me in a number of ways. I was now getting enough work from schools to be able to change from full-time to part-time teaching and I’d started writing for children myself. Usborne Books had asked the Poetry Society for a list of poets who might want to contribute to a new anthology of poems for children. And it wanted new poems, not reprints of work by people who’ve been dead long enough it isn’t necessary to pay anyone to reproduce their work.

‘Writing poems for kids,’ I thought. ‘Easy.’ I rattled off half a dozen verses and tried them out on some eight-year-olds. It was a sobering, painful experience. They told me my poems were ‘boring’. They were right. They were preachy and had no emotional impact. I’d settled for the ‘It’s worthy...that’ll do’ school of writing.

I phoned the poet Matt Simpson and we talked for a good hour or more. He reminded me that all really good poems ‘should recreate an emotion or an experience for the reader’ He suggested I forget trying to write for children and just write what came to me instead. ‘And avoid contemporary references,’ he said. ‘They date your work.’ Sound advice. I was back in school the following day and while on break duty had to separate two 14-year-olds who were half-killing each other behind the bike sheds. One kept saying: 'I didn’t mean to hit him Sir, I was just messing.'

'I was just...' That phrase stayed in my head and when I got home, I sat down and wrote:

I was just
Teaching our cat to swim
And suddenly
The bathroom was flooded

Four more verses wrote themselves. It was about as far away from a worthy poem as you could get and, to my amazement, was accepted. Teachers have since told me that its very grimness has given them starting points for discussions on cruelty and how it often grows out of ignorance and emotional carelessness rather than an intrinsically evil nature.

‘Avoid contemporary references...’ With that advice in mind, I stopped talking at children and began talking to them. I discovered that the trappings of our respective childhoods were different – when I was a kid TV was black and white, computers existed only in sci-fi films etc – but there were constants. We’d all been worried about the fluff monster that lurked under the bed. The death of a family pet was devastating. Being the new kid was no fun at all. We didn’t like bullies.

My poems began to change. I wrote about ghosts, a pet dog that ‘bites the heads off rats’ but at night pillows your head and guards you ‘from the Gloom’. I wrote about how lousy it felt to be bullied because you were overweight and how you were overweight because you were bullied. It was liberating to find that I could write poems for children that I could be proud of as poems.

And like Fin Kennedy (UK Writer, Autumn 2009) I discovered that my schools work became ‘a kind sort of informal research’. All power to you Fin !

I found that writing poetry isn’t just fun; it can be so much more than that. Over and over I’ve seen under-achievers begin to shine as they discover that problems with spelling etc are no bar to the imagination. In fact, I’d go further. The notion that there’s no wrong answer in poetry had a real and positive impact on children who usually gave up before they’d even started because they were convinced that they were bound to fail and, therefore, there was no point in even trying.

In one school where I worked for three consecutive terms running an after-school poetry club, a boy with learning difficulties improved his reading age by four years in two terms. And that wasn’t down to me. I was merely a vehicle. It was the profound effect of poetry itself.

Given a writing exercise, an adult will often ask, ‘What’s the point of this exercise?’ Children will write for the best reason there is: the joy of it. Adults want their work to ‘say something’. Children will just write. If their piece has an implied subtext, all the better, but they rarely set out to make a point. They just write what comes.

I remember one girl writing a poem about Mars. She described the surface as looking like ‘a crumpled duvet.’ Her last two lines read :

On Mars everything’s red.
Even the silence.

I’d sell my soul for an image like that!

When I asked her how she’d thought of it, she adopted a long-suffering air – she was eight – and said: “I didn’t think of it. It just came to me.” Then she paused and added: “It was inspiration.”

In 1991, I finally left teaching altogether to write full time. I thought I’d continue with schools for a few more years at most. I imagined that it would only be matter of time before I was headlining literary festivals and appearing on telly. The airs and graces we give ourselves ! Eighteen years on, I still visit schools and still love it.

I’ve had some bad experiences, but they’ve always been with ‘project facilitators’ who’ve seen schools work as either a nice little earner or a springboard into some publicly-funded sinecure. I’ve met a few – a very few – bad teachers. The majority have been hard-working, dedicated men and women doing an excellent job despite outside interference.

I’ve worked for a whole host of agencies. I adopted the simple rule of shopping around until I found one that suited. These days I’m with Top of the Tree and it suits me very well indeed.

If you read the article by Philippa Johnston, the director of literaturetraining (UK Writer, Autumn 2009), and want to try schools work for yourself, I have a few extra pieces of advice:

Schools pay for your services – give them their money’s worth

Don’t expect respect – earn it

Have a look at Ted Hughes’s excellent Poetry In The Making

Don’t undersell yourself in your flyer but don’t exaggerate either. You’re not an estate agent!

Shop around – these days few agencies expect you to be under exclusive contract

Ditto your Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check - see if there’s a Play Action Council in your area. Merseyside’s did mine and it was considerably cheaper than everywhere else I’d approached

Ditto public liabilty insurance. I phoned the Arts Council and recommended Blake Insurance Services ( – £84 for a jargon-free Creative Arts Policy.

And what about my own writing? I still write and publish poems, both for adults and children. One feeds the other. I’ve started storytelling (long saga – some other time), just finished my first novel and have several schools visits lined up – to prepare I’ll be reading pirate stories, Welsh folktales and researching ecology. Of course, I could have stayed in teaching, been financially secure and now be looking forward to retiring. But I’m a poet which means, like Oisin in the Irish legend, I have no sense at all.

Photo: Kevin McCann, by Andy Ford