19th January 2015
Deputy Headteacher Chris Hildrew reflects on the importance of poetry in his personal and professional life and his commitment to his ‘Poetry Promise’.
This year, I have made a Poetry Promise. My promise is to mark each month of the year with a favourite poem, shared online, with an explanation of why that particular poem is so special to me. The aim of the Poetry Promise is to raise the profile of Poetry by Heart and, by extension, share the love of poetry itself. How could I say no? I was knee deep in favourite poems on New Year’s Eve, trying to find that one I wanted for August!
Reflecting on my choices, I took stock of my relationship with poetry. Poetry has always moved me, really ever since I can remember. But it was at secondary school that it took hold of me, truly possessed me. I wrote tortured teenage verse in my diary, tried in vain to write a sestina that worked, and sat back in awe as my A-level Literature course took me on a tour through time from Chaucer to Heaney. It was the work of Sylvia Plath that was, and remains, my all-time favourite. Reading her work left me feeling like the hanging man in her poem of that name: “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.” I sizzled in the electricity of her verse.
As a teacher, I’ve always looked forward to teaching poetry. There’s something magical about unlocking it, about seeing it click into place in a student’s mind. Poetry never fails to provide those lightbulb moments. But what is it about poetry that makes it so distinct?
One of my favourite lessons that I planned as an NQT, and still use today, is an introductory lesson for A Level literature. In it, I present a series of texts: some prose, some poetry. Some of them are presented as written, others disguised: poems laid out like prose, prose laid out like poetry. I challenge the students to see through the disguises, with the aim of answering the question: what makes a poem a poem? The answers don’t really matter; the discussion is always mind-bending.
From years of teaching that lesson, I think I feel comfortable with the answer “a poem is a poem if we say it’s a poem.” Because the act of saying “this is a poem” lifts the language “above a common bound”, and gives it muscle. Words in poems have extra heft, like they’re loaded with lead shot; but they are nimble, their associations skipping across the page like spiders on a web.
When the occasion demands it, only a poem will do. Wedding, funerals, falling in love, the pain of goodbye…at these moments, dribbling prose won’t cut it. Only the poem can do the emotional heavy lifting required by these landmark events. That’s why the poet laureate is still such a key role, as Carol Ann Duffy has been admirably proving since 2009, in capturing landmarks in our national life. I still think “Translating the British” did a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of London 2012.
As a teacher in a school it’s my job and my pleasure to open up the spinning world of poetry for young people, not so they can pass exams and memorise the difference between a trochaic and an iambic rhythm, but so they can sit back with their eyes shut as they try to touch the edges of the emotions they have just experienced in the words of another. When I saw our students in our Poetry by Heart final this year, I almost forgot to breathe as they animated, inhabited, lived their recitations. The head judge was moved to tears. I will never forget it.
That is why poetry.