Last year my young daughter took a poetry book into school, so she could share her favourite rhymes with the teacher.
When I collected her in the afternoon, she was sitting on a bench surrounded by other students, all of them chanting the refrain to a playful poem called ‘Zim Zam Zoom’ by James Carter.
It was beautiful to witness, but also sad, because I knew this was a moment in time rarely to be repeated. My poem-loving child would not be doing this in a few years; something happens with the passage of time: the magic and celebration associated with poetry vanishes.
I write in verse and my first novel for adults, Here Is The Beehive, publishes this month. The question from friends has been this: how will you convince people to read poems? And they do have a point. Poetry is rarely the big seller in a bookshop.
I regularly speak in secondary schools, and am careful never to admit off the bat that I will be talking about the transformative power of poetry. I know the drill: when this topic is announced, teenagers roll their eyes and in some cases appear as though they would very much like to hurt me. Teachers look equally horrified and pull out a stack of books to mark.
But why, quite universally and regardless of socio-economic background, this reaction? Why are eight-year olds receptive but fourteen-year olds and adults afraid, angry even? And why does this shift in attitude over time not occur with any other art form?
Everyone continues to enjoy visual arts, film, music, dance. Is it the poetry that changes? Does it become less life-affirming the older the intended audience? Of course not. Instead what happens is that poetry shifts from being art experienced with the heart to a form constrained to an intellectual pursuit. And this scares us.
But who is at fault? Come closer. I will say this very quietly, in a nervous whisper: those teaching poetry are to blame. Mostly. Really the teachers who taught the teachers are to blame… ad infinitum.
I know I have pointed a very stiff finger, but I am fully prepared to count myself as an offender. I was a secondary-school English teacher for ten years before becoming a novelist and was guilty of not quite knowing how to teach poetry.
I mean, of course I wanted the teenagers in my care to love poems, but they also had exams to pass so it seemed more important that they understood the material, could dissect it and spit back evaluations to an impatient examiner rather than having fun with words.
Children transition quickly from feeling they own poetry, to feeling they are not entitled to enjoy poems or have a response to them, unless they first understand the text entirely. I have seen poetry lessons in which children were asked to begin their reading by first underlining all the words they didn’t understand. And poetry, which is intended to be spoken aloud, is also often taught without any performative element, young adults sitting behind desks whilst a teacher monotonously expounds the poet’s purpose.
Poetry should be heard, the audience tasting the melody in their mouths and also experiencing the silences within the text. In the white spaces of a poem are moments of rest, breath, where a reader can discover herself. As a verse novelist writing in free verse which mimics speech, nothing I write is beyond the reader’s interpretation. In fact, I rely on the reader, writing only half of my novels and expecting the reader to interpret the rest.
In May 2018 I was lucky enough to be named Ireland’s fifth Laureate na nÓg, Ireland’s Children’s Literature Laureate. It was the first time a poet was appointed to this position and as I accepted my medal from President Michael D Higgins, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my term.
The two-year-long project was entitled We Are The Poets and along with Children’s Books Ireland, The Arts Council of Ireland and Poetry Ireland, I worked with young people from across the country, rural and urban, north and south, Irish-born and immigrant, and particularly teenagers, to help them reclaim their love of poetry.
The message was simple. Poetry belongs to everyone: don’t let the academics scare you away; don’t give up poetry without a fight. Often all it takes is one person; a teacher, a relative, a visiting writer, to ignite the spark.
And we did ignite many sparks. Over the two years we found talented young poets and changed the minds of countless others through talks, workshops, and silly activities. This is what the project planned for. What we hadn’t anticipated was the response from adults – teachers, parents, facilitators.
Some adults proudly announced they had read a verse novel, and read it quickly, engaging with poems for the first time since school.
And so now I am focusing my energies on changing the minds of adults, primarily those responsible for children – unpicking the trauma associated with poetry and reshaping their beliefs about verse and their own engagement with it.
Teenagers enjoy risk and tend to trust me when I invite them in, adults take more time. But it’s the adults who are the gatekeepers and will inform the next generation. It’s the adult I need on board.
And it isn’t to be taken too seriously. I hope adults come away from my talks and novels grinning a little. Because that’s the point. Zim Zam Zoom. Joy.