By Roger Stevens
Arabella Currie’s poem, My Hands, is about a pair of hands. But it’s more than that. It gives us an insight into the person whose hands are being described. It expresses her joy and love of cooking.
There is very little preparation needed for this workshop. It can be used for young juniors upwards. From Year 11 and above, you would, of course, be expecting a much richer level of imagery, vocabulary and simile than from, say, Year 7. With all ages, most importantly, you will be looking for the unexpected turn of phrase, exact simile or surprising rhyme.
Tell the class that they are going to write about a particular part of their body. (At some point in this discussion, depending on the maturity of your class and your relationship with the pupils, you may want to suggest that certain body parts may be unsuitable for this particular exercise!)
As an example begin with a foot. Write the word FOOT in the centre of a board or flip chart and brainstorm all the things a foot can do. Write these quickly around the word ‘foot’, mind-map style. Suggestions might include:
- kick a football
- balance on one leg
- stand on tip toe
- hold the door shut
- stop the door closing
- operate a brake
- wear a designer trainer… and so on
Encourage the class to be as imaginative, creative, crazy or surreal as they like:
- My foot takes giant hops across the moon
- With my webbed foot I can chase dolphins
Make a List
Now ask each pupil to take a body part and make their own list. It would be fine for less-able pupils to work in pairs, or for a teacher or assistant to help a pupil devise his or her list at this stage.
Read My Hands by Arabella Currie
Now read Arabella’s poem to the class. And read it twice. I usually do this because we rarely hear everything at first, so on second hearing the listener picks up information they missed during the first reading.
Ask the class what they think about the poem. Talk about its structure. It is written in free verse but nevertheless has a strong rhythm and lots of rhymes; get them to notice the alliteration, which adds to its exuberance. Ask the class if they like the poem. And perhaps remind them that it is okay not to like a poem.
Add to the List
Arabella’s poem feels very personal. Ask your class to add some personal details to their lists. For example, did Sam’s foot ever score a winning goal? How exactly did Billy break his arm? What was the most beautiful/upsetting/sad thing that Ella’s eye saw?
Ask for details rather than abstract descriptions, which tend to be meaningless. For example, encourage them to write, “My eyes saw a blazing orange sunrise” rather than, “My eyes saw a beautiful sunrise.”
Point out how Arabella doesn’t say, “The meals I’ve cooked contain vegetables and spices.” She actually lists the ingredients. In this way she makes great use of the sense, especially touch and smell – and smells can be particularly evocative. It’s easy to imagine the exciting scent of ginger mixed with onions, butter and cauliflower and this brings the poem to life.
Writing the First Draft – Choosing a Style
Very often the idea for a poem includes not just the subject and some of the words but these come into the poet’s imagination complete with the form or style that is right for the poem; I suspect this is what happened with Arabella’s Hands. But this doesn’t always happen and it is possible and interesting to choose a style to fit the content.
If Sam is writing a poem about his footballing foot then short, rhythmic lines that match the movement of the ball might be appropriate. A more cerebral poem about Jane’s head might suit a more measured approach – blank verse or even a sonnet. Tim’s eye might suit a series of haiku.
When choosing the lines to use in the first draft you might make these suggestions:
- You don’t have to use all your ideas, nor everything you’ve written down for the poem. Your poem can, in fact, be quite short.
- When reading through your first ideas, add any more ideas that might come to you. It’s never too late…
- Decide on the order of the lines.
- How will your poem begin? Arabella’s first line certainly demands attention – I exfoliate with sea salt – and draws the reader into the poem immediately. Ask your class what they think of the last lines.
Writing the poem
You might ask your class to use their notes and to write the poem in any style of their choosing. Alternatively, it is often interesting to start afresh, as it were – ask them to put their notes away and to write their poem from memory. This can produce excellent results, giving the poem both a simplicity and an immediacy.
I like to leave the first draft of a poem for a few days and come back to it. Then I try to figure out what the poem is really about. You can do this with your class. They may well discover there is more to their poems than they at first thought. Reading a first draft out loud is always very useful. Get your pupils to do this and encourage them to listen for the rhythm, to note any awkward rhythms and to identify the feel of the poem.
Arabella’s poem is actually about someone else’s hands, not her own. You might ask your class to try the exercise again, this time using someone else and a new viewpoint: William Shakespeare’s hands? Van Gogh’s eye? A pregnant woman’s baby bump? A ballerina’s toe? A rapper’s voice? It could be about someone famous or a more personal poem about someone in the family. When teaching writing of any sort, but particularly poetry, encourage your pupils to experiment and to have fun.
Arabella Currie – ‘My Hands’
Felicity Ann Alma – ‘Search for my Voice’
Tess Somervell – ‘My Fingernails’
Adrian Mitchell – ‘To Whom it May Concern (Tell me Lies about Vietnam)’
Denise Levertov – ‘Feet’ (long poem!)
R. S. Thomas – ‘Portraits’
Derek Mahon – ‘Matthew V, 29-30’