When I think back to primary school, there’s one memory that really stands out. I’m sitting on the mat in Mrs Pickett’s standard three classroom at St Mary’s School in Gisborne and she’s holding an illustrated copy of The Highwayman. She opens the book and begins:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
The class was completely silent, something that was pretty odd for us. As Mrs Pickett read we shuffled closer and closer, straining to get a better look at Charles Keeping’s illustrations. Mrs Pickett’s dramatic reading took us by surprise. This was something new; we hadn’t heard language like this at school.
We asked Mrs Pickett to display the poem and she created a frieze which spanned the entire classroom. We painted moody pictures that reflected the tone of each stanza; our classroom looked amazing.
Mrs Pickett offered us new poems, all set within equally adventurous lessons, encouraging us to view writing in a different light. It was no longer about the endless handwriting practise and the militant enforcement of spelling and grammar rules.
Poetry became the target of our acclaimed rowdiness and enthusiasm.
As a teacher, I often think back to Mrs Pickett’s lessons. I’ve read The Highwayman and many other great poems to my classes and I have been moved by their responses. It appears that children cannot get enough of good poetry, as long as it ticks a few boxes. My own class put poetry to the test. This is their story.
It’s reading time in Room Nineteen. Enthusiastic collections of seven and eight year olds sift through two boxes in the cushion strewn reading corner. Books in hand, they dash off to claim prime reading ground. The library area, now littered with discarded books, contains two boxes; one green and one blue. The green box is full of books. The blue box is almost empty.
The previous week a colleague of mine, who I shared a class with, emerged from our school’s abundant resource room carrying a green box of poetry. The box featured a selection of light and humorous verse targeted towards our class’ reading ages and interests. She asked if I could recommend anything from my personal stash of poems. Upon leaving work I grabbed an empty blue box, pondering the possibilities as I drove home. Later, as I rifled through my bookcase, I became more and more excited as I rediscovered personal favourites. After rereading Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ I decided that my blue box, like Steven’s blue guitar, would serve as a symbol of the imagination:
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’
The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’
Like Stevens, and his fellow Modernists, I wanted things to be ‘made new’ by poetry. I wanted to show the class that the poetic imagination has the ability to transform reality with astonishing and exquisite precision.
As I flicked through my books, certain children sprung to mind and the blue box was soon overflowing. I wound up with a jumbled collection that I hoped would appeal to our quirky and creative class. The blue box poems were not levelled according to the children’s reading ability and the majority were not even written with children in mind. Very few works rhymed but instead they were packed with great poetic devices and innovative use of language. I included several copies of ‘Budapest’, ‘Introduction to Poetry’ and ‘Invention’ by Billy Collins. There was a truncated version of ‘The Storm’ by Theodore Roethke and a shortened version of T.S Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. There were a few haiku by Frank O’Hara, a couple of short poems by Charles Bukowski, selections of works by Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound and a large range of Imagist poetry by William Carlos Williams and Amy Lowell. In the end my blue box only held a very small amount of ‘children’s’ poetry. It contained ‘The Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll and a smattering of limericks by Edward Lear. Mostly, the box was packed full of poetry written for adults.
It occurred to me that I was taking a bit of a risk. Would these poems prove too hard for the average seven year old? Maybe, but I think that poetry, like any creative art, is a potentially risky business. Thinking of Mrs Pickett, I wanted to give the class quality poetry and so I decided to trial my “risky” collection.
I thought Room Nineteen would be up for the challenge. The children had already encountered similar works a few times in our Friday poetry lessons. During these lessons, a group of children became intrigued by Imagism, most notably an anxious and shy little boy with dyslexia. Reading and writing was a constant, unhappy and overwhelming struggle for him. However, Imagist poetry provided him with a ‘way in’ to language. I was absolutely thrilled each time I saw him rummaging through the blue box.
After noting his, and his classmates’, interest in the blue box, I held up the two containers and asked Room Nineteen, ‘Which box of poetry do you prefer?’
The entire class pointed to the blue box. I was secretly glad; they were my favourites too.
‘What do you like about the blue box poetry?’ I asked them.
Zoe raised her hand, ‘Well the stuff in the green box is cool. It is kinda like a catchy song. Sometimes I like catchy songs but the other stuff (she pointed to the blue box) is waaay more creative.’
Matthew S offered his opinion on the blue poems, ‘Those poems are really interesting. They make you think about things in different ways. They are really creative.’
I thought of Stevens’ lines, ‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.’ Creativity was clearly something that Stevens, the class and I valued.
‘But there are some really hard words in some of these poems,’ I said, pointing to the blue box. ‘Does that matter to you?’
Natalie’s hand shot up, ‘No ‘cos you can usually still understand the poem especially if you picture what’s happening using “Ben’s technique”.’
Ben, the lover of Imagist poetry mentioned above, looked pretty pleased with himself. His experiences with dyslexia, and his talent for visual thinking, led him to create a visual method to help his peers understand poetry.
I asked the class, ‘Which poems are easier to picture?’ Again the class pointed to the blue box. ‘Why is that?’ I queried.
Charli replied, ‘The metaphors and similes make me see interesting things in my head.’
I pointed to the green box, ‘What about these poems? Is it easy to picture what is happening in these too?’
Matthew W replied, ‘Nope, that poetry just sounds nice but it can get pretty boring after a while.’
Ultimately, the green box poetry, whilst covering subjects familiar to the class such as bullying and homework, was thought of as ‘fun’ but lacking in substance. With titles like Don’t Do That, it was packed with morals and messages but offered little else for the imagination. The children lost interest after a few readings:
don’t catch me!
Catch that boy
behind that tree.
He stole apples,
I stole none:
Put him in the jailhouse,
just for fun.
At first glance it appeared that the children and I valued creativity over didacticism. However, there are a great many children’s texts which are both imaginative and didactic. Charlotte Smith, for example, wrote some wonderful imaginative and didactic poetry. Furthermore, an imaginative subject may be rendered boring by an uninspired execution. The problem with the green box was that the poetry was ultimately boring. My experiment would have made it easy to view the poetry with a dualistic mindset. Indeed there has been a long history of viewing children’s literature in this light.
The two boxes of poetry in Room Nineteen represent two approaches to children’s literature which are often pitted against each other. The green box embodies the ‘Didactic’ approach and the blue box characterises the ‘Imaginative’ style. Both of these approaches have long histories which stem from evolving, converging, and at times conflicting concepts of childhood.
Regardless, it was clear that the class, Mrs Pickett, and I did not want to be force fed the boring green stuff because it was ‘good for us’. Instead we wanted an adventure. We wanted to learn something new and we wanted to see a world with new eyes. We wanted to:
Take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide
or press an ear against its hive…
drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
walk around the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch…
waterski across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
 Alfred Noyes, ‘The Highwayman’, Collected Poems (Fairbanks: Project Gutenberg, 2009), p. 192, Project Gutenberg ebook, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30501/30501-h/30501-h.htm> [accessed 21 May 2014].
Wallace Stevens, ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 165.
Anon, ‘Policeman, Policeman’, Don’t Do That, ed. by Morag Styles and Helen Cook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 16.
Billy Collins, ‘Introduction to Poetry’, The Apple that Astonished Paris (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988), p. 58.