Yesterday, was an all-day poetry workshop with secondary teachers at the English and Media Centre
a fantastic centre for teacher-based practice and research that has produced booklets, courses, films, magazines, lectures since the 1970s.
In the workshop we looked at ways of reading and writing poetry.
Beginning with 'Overheard on a Saltmarsh' by Harold Monro, we used the strategies of asking questions that don't have right and wrong answers:
Is there anything about the poem that reminds you of anything that has happened to you in your life, or you know of happening in anyone else's life? Why? How?
Is there anything about the poem that reminds you of anything that you've ever read, or see on TV, in a film, at a theatre, in a painting or with any other art form. Why? How?
Are there any questions you'd like to ask of anyone or anything in the poem? Or the poet?
Can you answer those questions?
If there are some questions we can't answer, are there ways of finding answers to them? Or do they sit where they are as 'puzzles'? Why?
Poetry is a special way of stringing words and sounds together ('cohesion'). The strings are invisible. If we pretend to be 'poetry detectives' what strings can we find? Can we draw those on the poem itself?
They can be based on anything but might pan out to be based on eg sound (rhythm, repetition etc) or theme (eg through image) or 'meaning'.
'Strings' can be about items that are the same, similar or perhaps opposite in a binary way as opposites reflect each other.
All this was carried in the room in open discussion in pairs and in the group as a whole. There was no issue of anyone being right or wrong and we moved to and fro from personal experience to the poem and back again, approaching it from different angles simultaneously. No one's views were discounted. By the end, every word of the poem was examined.
Then we wrote poems based on the idea of writing from the point of view of someone or something in the poem. We could do this without waiting for any cues from me, or in the way of cues we could take a set of questions, the answers of which could serve as poem 'notes' to be turned into a poem
The questions were directed to the person or thing in the poem:
what can you see?
what can you see going on?
what can you hear?
what are you thinking?
what are you dreaming about?
what are you imagining?
what is it like being you?
what is it like being where you are?
You could perhaps add things like:
what do you hope for?
what do you fear?
what do you most want?
The answers to these questions can be played with:
Add more answers
Cut answers, cut parts of the answers if they have come out as too much like prose sentences.
Repeat elements in order to get rhythms and effects:
echo, framing (beginning and ending the poem), creating a refrain or chorus and so on.
After we had written poems we did a performance of 'Overheard on a Saltmarsh' and we chose when in the poem, we could read out, the new poems. So it became a montage of the original poem with all these new poems slotted in.
This proved to be another way of getting inside the original poem, exploring in particular point of view.
We then did a piece of quick associative writing (writing without the questions - first things that come into your head - based on either how the poem is written or what's in the poem. The poem I brought was a surrealist poem by Benjamin Péret 'Nevermore shall...'
This produced a set of poems that were very free, contemplative, mixing nonsense, absurdity with reflection.
Later we discussed:
what is poetry?
what's it for?
what does it do?
how does it do it?
Thanks to all the teachers who came and were so committed and professional. Thanks to the English and Media Centre for holding the workshop and continuing its fantastic work. If you teach in a secondary school, Sixth Form or upper primary, please, please use this Centre.