Using poetry – some principles, ideas and approaches

Written by: Gareth Ellis | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Using poetry to explore how young people feel about world events is a powerful and increasingly popular approach, says Gareth Ellis

“Poetry makes nothing happen.”

People mention this oft-quoted line from WH Auden’s elegy on Yeats to reference poetry’s uselessness and ineffectuality. However, this dispiriting statement stands in stark opposition to two other assertions of the power of poetry.

Shelley, in The Defence of Poetry in 1821, famously stated that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, and William Hazlitt saw that the poet ought to “speak truth to power”.

Perhaps we shouldn’t take Auden literally, or certainly not out of context, but his words at least give us a means by which we might consider the impact of poetry on the world.

I am one of The Poetry Society’s teacher trailblazers and during the pandemic we have noted a significant interest in reading and writing poetry, as if the form gave us a means of exploring our physical and emotional isolation, as well as the myriad emotions that blew in on the Covid gales and gusts.

The Poetry Society found, also, that more young people were turning to writing too, and this is a phenomenon that seems to have maintained itself, as the world moves from one global concern to another.

Whether it is the war in Ukraine, climate change, or the inequalities of gender or race, poetry has provided a means by which young minds can address their position within the global circumstance, of how they can make sense of the world – or at least articulate their confusion about it – through the nuanced, exploratory, undefined forms that poetry can offer. Poetry bridges the gap between the external event and the internal response.

As educators then, we may find ourselves in discussions with young people who are engaged in this process, just as we may find educational benefit in harnessing the interest of the form.

Many schools teach the poetry of power and conflict, or they explore the social issues bound into texts such as An Inspector Calls. Others might be delivering extra-curricular creative writing opportunities or might wish to incorporate a strain of creativity to their teaching of citizenship.

Therefore, it is worth spending time thinking about how these opportunities are managed and maximised, and how we can assist students to make a satisfying creative response to what might be an otherwise unanswerable question.

At Whitley Bay High School, we have for many years run a popular and well-attended creative writing group that meets once a week to engage in a range of engaging writing activities. In recent weeks we have given over our sessions to discussing these issues; of how we might best approach writing about external events and make that process both valuable and powerful.

Together we have come up with a range of principles and approaches that we hope could be adopted and adapted by others wanting to use writing to such ends. Far from being a definitive set of rules, these suggestions are, we hope, a means of opening a discussion so that any writing about external events can be as successful as possible.

Our principles

  • Express our own thoughts honestly, with the best language we can: Understand that we must be true to our own feelings and seek to make that as clear as we can. The Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan recently said that “no one had the right to complicate poetry”.
  • Strive for language that is accurate and effective, avoiding lazy clichés: Know that the words we use are important, that they require consideration, and that the first word we choose may not be the last.
  • Listen to others’ experiences: Make sure we respect the views of others when expressing our own. When talking about a situation that we are not directly involved in, make sure we have listened to the testimonies of others and carried out our research.
  • Permission to be heard vs the right to choose not to: We may speak or share our poem if we choose to. We may choose not to.

Our approaches

  • Speak first, write next: What do I want to talk about? How do I feel about it? Why am I inspired to write about it? Answer these questions in pairs. Maybe the person listening can jot down some of the things that the speaker says, to be used as starting points for writing.
  • Open the word: Think of a word that relates to or explains your topic of interest. What does the word contain that you can use to help explore your feelings about it? Take climate as an example. What does it contain? It contains the words “I” and “mate” and the sound “climb”. Can these help us to find a way in? What sort of a word is it? It’s a trochee and an abstract noun. How can its etymology and origins help us?
  • I – you – me – us: Explore your position in this issue. Where are you in this story? Does it affect you directly? Are you weak or empowered? Are you a witness? Are you an active agent or an ally? Are you watching from afar or are you close to the event? How do we respect the stories of others while understanding that we are permitted a poetic response to anything that affects us emotionally?

The view of the students

Our discussions on this issue ranged far and wide, so I would like to share some of the ideas that our students came up with.

  • “Focus on the emotion (such as ‘disempowerment’ or ‘alienation’) rather than a real-world example. If you anchor yourself too much to an issue that you haven’t experienced, then the poem is reduced. Come from a place of commonality. Avoid using the anger you feel as the primary emotion – anger can be useful but perhaps shouldn’t be the sole focus of the poem.”
  • “Think of an issue or line, focusing on your initial message (first line) and your enduring message (last line). Think of the poem as having a structure such as Point–Poem–Point.”
  • “Think about scale. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by the huge events. Write about the small human moment. For example, if you are writing about war, rather than trying to describe the bombs and what that feels like, think about the toy the fleeing child leaves behind.”
  • “Think about the tension between planning and not planning. How can you approach this? Do you need to plan first, or can you launch straight in? Is your planning physical (mind-map) or does it involve thinking and quiet contemplation? Do you draft something first to find out how you feel, then write the poem properly afterwards?”

Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award

Foyle Young Poets of the Year is a great place to explore young people’s writing today, and to see how young poets are responding to the wide range of issues they face. In last year’s remarkable anthology, We Speak in Constellations, the young poets addressed issues of race, identity, and gender politics, as well as social issues, multiculturalism, and, of course, love.

Their words wove into a tapestry of our times, sharing thoughtful and nuanced responses to the world’s problems and in so doing, they reminded us of the optimism we might find in the process of writing and thinking about that world, and that we might stumble, perhaps, towards something that approaches a solution.

Maybe your young writers will find their work in the next Foyle Young Poets of the Year Anthology.

And as for Auden, perhaps poetry can make something happen. Perhaps, in the hands of our young writers, and to quote another line from In Memory of WB Yeats, poetry “survives, A way of happening, a mouth”.

  • Gareth Ellis is director of whole-school literacy at Whitley Bay High School in North Tyneside and a teacher trailblazer for The Poetry Society.

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