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Development and Discussion 2020: There are many paths to poetry, choose the one you enjoy

13 November 2020 Share

Gareth Ellis is Library Manager at Whitley Bay High School, North Tyneside. Gareth has been selected by The Poetry Society as a Teacher Trailblazer after being nominated by his students for helping to inspire writing, reading and performing poetry across the school.

Poetry is woven into the DNA of Whitley Bay High School Library. It is a constant pulse in the blood system, an echo that stays. We’ve harnessed its power to inspire, to enthuse and to bring people together for many years. 

Young people approach poetry in different ways and for different reasons so we’ve always tried to appeal to as many ways of experiencing poetry as we can. Poetry readership is as varied as poetry itself and there is not one kind of reader or writer that it appeals to.

For the budding poet we have our weekly creative writing group, a chance to get together with others (virtually at the moment) and respond to a given challenge or task. We offer support and encouragement, exposing students to poets they may not meet through the school curriculum and providing constructive criticism to help writers develop. We have used this space to allow students to get involved in various competitions, including The Poetry Society's Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, which offers young writers the chance to submit to a free global competition and to experience and explore the remarkable work of young poets from across the nation who have taken part in the past. One of our ex-students, Megan Pattie, was a winning Foyle poet in 2008 and she has gone on to be a published and prolific poet. ‘Being named a Foyle Young Poet of the Year, and attending the Arvon course that was part of the prize, showed me that my writing was something that was worthy of development, and that I could even pursue professionally,’ says Megan. ‘My life would be very different had I not entered!’ Engaging with competitions is a valuable pursuit irrespective of the outcome. Preparing work to be read by ‘real poets’ often helps our students to really polish their work, to see it through the eyes of a reader.

For the performer we’ve been honoured to have been involved for many years with the fantastic Poetry by Heart competition (poetrybyheart.org). We work closely with students who take part, developing a sense of support and camaraderie amongst the competitors where they support and coach each other through the process. Memorising poetry is an act of love and an act of ownership. The memorised poem matures in the mind, revealing its shades over time, and our students take those words with them wherever they go for the rest of their lives. We also run an annual National Poetry Day celebration (standing room only in the library!), a poetry slam as part of our yearly Literature Festival, and have used visiting poets to inspire our aspiring writers, often providing them with the opportunity to perform their own work to the visitors. 

It is also in these environments that you will discover the poetry listener, the student who comes along to events and quietly listens, soaking up the rhythms and the imagery, finding moments of silent insight in the mists of language, leaving fortified and empowered. The importance of the quiet and attentive listener can never be underestimated in the success of a well-performed poem. Indeed, reading aloud is something we’re always trying to encourage not just in the library, but across the whole school. Our Christmas readings (live ‘anthologies’ of themed poetry) and the reading tutorials we plan for tutors to deliver at the start of the day, all harness the power of the heard word, the magic of listening that evokes the almost primeval absorption of the oral tradition. Poetry nestles neatly in this space, a scoop of words to start the day, a pause before the day pounces. 

And finally, where would we be without the poetry reader? Our aims as librarians and English teachers is to encourage all students to become confident and insightful readers of poetry, embracing the uncertainty they can sometimes bring and nurturing the ‘negative capability’ that sometimes comes with that first meeting with a new poem. To this end we work closely, as always, with our teaching colleagues, and have recently produced and delivered library lessons that explore the very nature of what a poem is, challenging stereotypes and exploring the work of the underrepresented and unheard voices in British poetry. We’ve used the excellent ‘Out of Bounds’ resources from the University of Newcastle to help us with this and have already reached 370 year 9 students, encouraging them to see poetry in a new light, to read poetry in its and their own right, and to appreciate that, essentially, poetry belongs to them.