Extracts from the essay, “Teach Like A Poet” commissioned for Jennifer Webb‘s book “Teach Like A Writer” published by John Catt, 2020.
Poetry for the People.
On walks to school and nursery, my sons remind me that poetry is found everywhere and anywhere. Skipping from one gas, water, and electric plate to another they point out the poetry of drains; the rhythm of footsteps; a cluster of ladybirds huddled on a wall. Nonsense noises, babble, silly songs. Things my cynical adult eyes and ears would not normally be attuned to on my daily rush.
Wordplay, rhythm, and rhyme is innate. We learn language through poetic method – repetition, nursery rhymes, counting, song, play. It is perhaps only when going through Primary to High School to Higher Education that we become divorced from this initial fluid elemental learning and the emphasis switches to the rigidity of grades, correct answers, curriculum, examinations.
Engagements facilitating poetry workshops with a mental health arts charity1 also taught how those who have been stripped of the ‘mind-forged manacles’ can naturally produce poetry closer to raw unfiltered human expression. Re-membering and re-kindling this love of language and wordplay is at the root of my facilitation work. Reminding that poetry is not to be feared, that it is accessible, something we are born with, and that we have a right to claim it, mould it, adapt it to our tongue.
In one memorable commission at a hostel for homeless youth, the anticipation of poetry-phobia resulted in the dreaded P-word being omitted from any description of the advertised sessions. Instead, I was asked to deliver “lyric writing” workshops. However, when able to engage the young people with their own understanding of lyrics, we were soon able to gain an appreciation that the best lyric writers – whether they call themselves so or not – are in fact poets. Poetry was re-introduced back into the room and we could confidently affirm the backronym ‘RAP = Rhythm And Poetry’; that poetry is not just about pretty flowers or that, if it is, it can be about dusty discarded dandelions or, in Tupac’s poetry/lyrics, about “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”.
Poetry is an art form of and for the masses. As Audre Lorde recognised2, “poetry has been the major voice of poor, working class, and [women of colour]”:
Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper…
Or indeed on the school bus, on the walk home, on your phone, tablet, Android/IOS notes app, dictaphone, voice notes… In contrasting the accessibility of poetry with prose, Lorde develops Virginia Woolf’s arguments for gender equality to also include class and racial privilege:
A room of one’s own may be a necessity for writing prose, but so are reams of paper, a typewriter, and plenty of time.
Poet Gloria E. Anzaldúa similarly implores:
Forget the room of one’s own – write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping and waking. I write while sitting on the john.3
Poetry then is effective both in terms of being a ubiquitous natural communicator but also in being an immediate accessible art form. We can all do this. It is not something we are supposed to simply revere, study, and admire from afar.
Poetry for Change.
Poets (the unacknowledged legislators of the world4) have always been at the forefront of positive social change. Periods of upheaval and struggle always produce resistance. And flowerings of art. From Ancient Egypt to Greece to China; across Islam, Judaism, Christianity; through revolts, rebellion and revolutions; via the Harlem Renaissance, the Beats, the Caribbean Artists Movement; to Ken Saro Wiwa to Nawal El Saadawi, to us, today.
As we near an apex in human history with the prospect of planetary destruction having never been closer (nuclear war, pandemics, and not least environmental devastation) there is a need for poetry. Continue reading