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Art for art’s sake?

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By Kevin McCann — Full-time Writer and Poet

Could writing poetry be the key to raising standards in schools? Kevin McCann investigates

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A few years ago, I was approached by an MSc student who wanted to investigate the nature and reality of poetic inspiration for her thesis. She interviewed me and five other poets and sent me a summary of her conclusions which included the following: ”...it is possible to conclude that each of the poets is in fact engaged in an active and ongoing quest for self-actualisation.”

In plain English: when writing, we come closest to fulfilling our true potential. We get in touch with our authentic self.

Raising self-esteem

Over many years of running writers’ groups in schools, I’ve noticed that children who write poetry regularly and who are encouraged to see that writing as an end in itself, often seem to grow in both self-esteem and achievement.

”...it is possible to conclude that each of the poets is in fact engaged in an active and ongoing quest for self-actualisation.”

Danielle McGregor, BSc (Hons), MSc.

One child (who was dyslexic), who I worked with as part of a 20-week after-school poetry club, improved his reading age by three years. Of course, I’d love to take credit for that but honesty forbids. I think there were two factors at work here. One was the obvious hard work of his teachers who gave him every help and encouragement; the other was the impossibility of failure. His poems were not marked/assessed/classified or seen as a way into other areas of the curriculum. He wasn’t told to include a simile in each verse, or anything like that. He was given frames and/or other stimuli and was told to write what came to him. When the objection “I can’t spell!” was raised it was countered with “Neither could Shakespeare!” When he said he thought he’d get it wrong, I told him it was impossible to be wrong in a poem. I pointed out that, if this was maths and I asked him what was 7×3, the answer would be 21. And it’s always 21. Any other answer is wrong. But if I ask him what a river dreams about, or where your voice goes when you lose it, then he will always be correct.

For a child used to the idea of hard work being followed by limited success, this was liberating. He even got to a point where he’d read out his work.

The final icing on the cake was the week when I gently reprimanded him for sneaking a look at a comic when he should have been listening to me. He’d stopped being ‘different’ and was now just one of the group. He seemed pleased.

Where to begin

When visiting a school, I often begin by showing the children one of my notebooks. A typical page is covered in almost illegible handwriting. There are spelling mistakes galore and little or no punctuation. Then I show a finished poem – spellings checked, punctuation inserted, etc – printed in an anthology. I explain that to get to the finished poem I start with a vague idea and then write down whatever comes. I don’t pause to consult the dictionary, check my punctuation or think up similes. I just write.

Once the first draft’s done, I begin to sort it out. I put in punctuation. I check spellings. I turn – where possible – similes into metaphors. I try to kill the myth that poets never have to redraft. I often quote the poet John Lyons who said:

“You’ll never write a good poem as long as you’re afraid of writing a bad one.”

After warming them up with a group poem – ie, I write down suggested lines and do some redrafting on the way – I follow through with asking the children to do some writing of their own. We almost always begin with fantasy. I encourage them to write down the first thing that comes into their heads – no matter how strange it might seem.

The results can be startling. One girl, writing about the planet Mars, described the surface as looking like ‘a crumpled duvet’ and went on to say:

On Mars everything is red.
Even the silence.

She was about nine and not officially gifted and talented. She stopped assuming she’d fail, had confidence in her own ideas and wrote down what she imagined. She showed her true face and, in the process, produced an image I’d have been proud of.

Rare moments

If that had been the only time I’d seen this happen, I’d have put it down to one of those rare moments when an unpromising child briefly shines. But it wasn’t. I’ve seen it over and over again. Which brings me back to Danielle’s thesis:

”...our true nature, without being limited by our constructed self-concept and the expectations of others…”

Children fail for a variety of reasons. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution BUT I do believe that the issues raised here could bear further investigation; if only because the implications are startling. So often, we tend to see poetry as a stepping stone into something else. We read poems to either deconstruct them or to be morally uplifted. We write poems as a way into other areas of the curriculum, or as a way of ‘practising our adjectives and similes’.

But what if writing poetry became an end in itself? What if the development of the imagination was seen as every bit as important as knowing what an adjective is?

“When you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Sherlock Holmes

All I’ve got is anecdotal evidence – which in itself proves nothing. However, I’d be glad to hear from teachers or writers in education who have thoughts and experiences of their own. If, as I suspect, it’s not just me, then there should be possibilities for further research. I may be proved wrong – but if I’m correct, writing poetry becomes an end in itself and standards get raised too! You can email your thoughts to littimefeedback@scholastic.co.uk or post them in the Literacy Time PLUS forum where I have started a discussion thread.

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