Report: Reflections of a poet in school by Dai George

Poets don’t always make the best teachers. By nature we’re prone to introspection, cussedness, strange flights of fancy, none of which are promising attributes to admit to in the highly pressured team environment of the modern school. We’re bad at behaviour management and we’re not really sure of the long-term economic benefits of what we do. The problem is that the poet in school will often second-guess themselves, being doomed to straddle the dividing line between cool, interloping older sibling and qualified figure of authority. I’m not sure I’ve ever really learned to walk that line since I started working this beat, about five years ago – not with confidence. I value the job, value the mission, and hope I’ve learned to be quite good at it, but the impostor syndrome never really goes away. These are strange, fragile liaisons, infinitely hopeful though all too brief, and the fragility can feel most pronounced just at the point when the hope feels warranted: when you’re on the brink of capturing that spark of creativity and self-assertion that you promised in your educational philosophy. A student shyly turns in a poem, with barely ten minutes left of the workshop. As you read it, that poem delights, surprises and moves you, rather more profoundly than you’d bargained for, yet before you can bottle this bolt of lightning the bell goes and the rest of the class are packing up, scrunching up these precious, potentially life-changing artefacts in the bottom of their bags. So you return the poem with a smile, a nod, and a platitude about how you hope they’ll keep it up, knowing full well that in this very moment a sacred trust has been broached and, almost simultaneously, neglected.

Kate Clanchy is a builder, and keeper, of trust. Her new anthology, England: Poems from a School, presents a terrific, poignant record of the trust she has inspired in dozens of students at Oxford Spires Academy during her eight years working there as writer in residence. Those students, and the work they’ve created, are the product of the “magical”, diverse demography of the academy, which Clanchy describes as “the chosen school of Oxford’s many migrants”. One takes Clanchy’s point that the students’ poetry is “too fresh, too moving and too compelling” for any reader – or critic – to dwell on the anthology’s back story, but it would be equally irresponsible to ignore the crucial circumstances that have enabled this special flowering of talent. Supported by the educational charity First Story, Clanchy has been granted the time and latitude to establish a culture of poetic excellence at Oxford Spires, among students who countless others would write off as too quiet, too withdrawn, too disruptive, or too traumatised (many of her students come from countries wracked by war) to achieve anything more than proficiency in their adoptive language. In carrying through such a project, Clanchy has neutralised all the frenetic uncertainties that so often attend the role of the poet in school. Everywhere in this anthology – in her generous introduction and the funny, granular contributor biographies; in the evidence of her praxis we glean from the poems themselves – she upholds the values of listening, space and slow, careful attention. This book throws down a gauntlet to all educators and policy-makers who believe in the educational mission of poetry. It provides living proof that the outcomes we routinely trumpet will only be truly achieved if children are given the chance to invest in poetry seriously and consistently, over the long term.

The poems themselves – already, in many cases, stars on social media – have so far been praised in terms that risk skirting over the reality of their achievement. Philip Pullman’s blurb pronouncement that they are “great by any standard” is true but somehow imprecise. Great they may be, but very often they succeed by a particular, as opposed to a generic or universal, standard. Quite simply, these poems are less inhibited, less anxious about sentiment and influence, than the average postmodern lyric. That sounds like a statement of the obvious – these are children, after all – but it can get lost in the (understandable) rush to praise these poems and welcome them into a broader community of practice. Ismail Akthar’s ‘I Don’t Remember’ proceeds by accumulating painstaking, concrete detail, organised around the paradox of what we might call the via negativa of exile, wherein acute memories of the homeland are asserted ironically, by means of deflection or refusal:

I don’t remember the place
where the only colour I saw was green.

I have forgotten the taste
of the just ripe mangoes
which I would climb the trees to pick,
and of fresh fish too big to fit
in the kitchen; and of the chickens
slaughtered in front of me, and
of the birds, sling-shotted from the sky

I know from experience how difficult it is to get a twelve-year-old child to write with such unwavering fidelity to concrete imagery. One assumes that the poem must have been achieved using an exercise that expressly forbade abstractions, and it would certainly be none the worse for that being so. But how, then, should we explain the effect of the poem’s final stanza, where all of that held and trembling discipline collapses in on itself, as the speaker submits to the familiar tell-don’t-show instincts which, up until that point, the form has held at bay?

No, I don’t remember the day my life
was taken away.
I don’t remember the fearless boy I used to be.
I don’t remember my country …

The ellipsis followed by the reveal is a favourite technique of young writers, and it is used here with all of its usual, childlike aplomb (and bathos). We don’t want to denigrate this work by enjoying it as an endearing, risk-free category of outsider art, though to avoid such a response, I think we have to stay alive to the very difference in this writing, and thereby to the question of how it can teach us things about the common, adult practice of contemporary poetry. How might our own work have grown attenuated and diffident, too wary of the necessary emotive gesture? How can these strictures be negotiated by the simple act of publishing and honouring work that evades them?

Sometimes the poems alternate between moments of unruly, potentially gauche candour and consummate technique. Witness two couplets from ‘A Glass of Tea’ by Shukria Rezaei (18):

Last year, I watched the dazzling sun dance gracefully. This year,
the faint sun moves futurelessly.

Migration drove me down this bumpy road,
where I fell and smelt the soil, where I arose and sensed the cloud.

The first courts juvenile excess, in its alliterations and parallel adverbs (though what an adverb Rezaei has coined in “futurelessly”!); the second clinches a mature, synthesised, ambivalent emotion with a half rhyme that would make John Burnside proud. The key to properly appreciating this juxtaposition is, I think, to avoid the temptation of reading some sort of implied teleology between the first and second couplet (now she is writing like this, but soon she will be able to write like that). One should hold the two modes in complementary equilibrium, rehabilitating the double-adverb and placing it on an equal footing with the half rhyme. (And what’s so great and grown-up about a half rhyme, anyway?)

A similar, uncanny permeability between innocence and experience obtains in ‘Sorrow Poem’ by Azfa Awad (16), which contemplates various reasons for – and figures of – crying:

I’m cleaning up my brother’s sick:
yellow slime
with orange bits:
all over my flower-print
duvet cover.
Now my delicate brown
hand is gloved with yolk.

That could be a Crispin Best or Matthew Dickman poem (not that Awad stands or falls by that comparison – and nor, for that matter, do Best or Dickman). There’s a grisly, jingling assonance in the first three lines (“sick” and “bits”, drawn together by the decomposed ballad metre), and the metaphor of the speaker’s “delicate brown / hand […] gloved with yolk” is beautiful, disturbing, and thrillingly undecided between tenor and vehicle (what, or how literal, exactly, is this yolk?). The poem nevertheless advances to a conclusion where the physical act of crying is almost too literally conjoined with its abstract, symbolic resonance:

With stinging eyes,
I wipe the pains
from the ground,
rinse them into the past

Yet in the last two lines the speaker plucks the poem from the jaws of bombast, finding a fresh and wholly unexpected solution in the very imagery and logic of crying, as she prays that her eyes will “blink me / into a brighter future”. This turns into a common experience while reading England. The poems frequently draw impetus from cliché only to find a way of elevating or turning that cliché inside out in their apotheosis. In ‘Where Are My Unnumbered Days?’, Mohamed Assaf (12) ruminates on the familiar complaint of the oppressed that “I am just a number”. In the poem’s final stanza, however, he turns all those violated, difficult-to-imagine human numbers into a palpable, carefully handled presence:

Take me back to my country
and I can show you the numbers.
The numbers who suffer.
The quantities of beauty.
The fallen flowers.

As Clanchy suggests in her introduction, this willingness to stretch the idiomatic patterns of English might have something to do with the fact that “unlike adults, children can learn another language without an accent”. These poems demonstrate, time and again, how these young and intuitive speakers enrich the English language – but also, crucially, how their broader cultural experience can be turned to critique their parochial, largely monoglot new nation.

We should defer, finally, to one of England’s contributors, who has already formulated a version of these intersecting arguments – a more complex version, in that it draws upon all the powers of paradox and ambiguity that a poem holds to its advantage over the plain prose statement. ‘My Poem’ by Tarzina Khatun (16) mobilises a sequence of metaphors that allow the poem to stand for a shifting, potentially infinite array of objects lost through exile: the poem is variously “a plate of hot spicy dahl”, “the hot polluted air of the place I lived in” and a “sap that fabricates / a hard dull block of molasses”. It exits these beautiful, iterative figures with an abrupt turn that has the air of a ‘J’accuse’:

It [my poem] is the young farmers in a watery land
under the intense heat,
being wrapped in a cloak of frustration and hunger
and so

my poem is my country,
my home country.
And my country is poor.

These layers of claim and counter-claim are tremendously dense and interwoven. The final stanza starts with a non-metaphor that – in the manner of ‘I Don’t Remember’ by Ismail Akthar – explains the conceit that the poem’s imaginative game has hinged on: “my poem is my country”, declares the speaker, as if we weren’t aware by now. But this momentary over-share swiftly turns into a necessary stepping-stone, a premise leading to a far more complicated conclusion: “And my country is poor.” Poor primarily – or literally, at least – because it is economically exploited and underdeveloped, but the syllogistic rhythm of the last three lines usher us to a different, still more troubled reading: my poem is my country; my country is poor; therefore my poem is also poor, perhaps, now, in the transferable sense of ‘poor quality’. Any halfway sensitive reader will instantly want to dismiss this interpretation out of hand, though again I would argue that we have to listen for what the poet is really telling us. With Empsonian wit, Khatun asks us to attend to the interlinked meanings of poverty: the injustice of material poverty that so often determines one’s chances of being educated, becoming literate, and writing to a standard (good or ‘poor’) that is conditioned and privileged by material, cultural wealth. The sting of that final line comes from the realisation that a person who was supposed to be a victim of this situation has articulated, and exploded, it precisely. The reversal is recognisable from postcolonial theory – The Empire Writes Back – yet this brilliant, urgent anthology widens its scope to show how the dynamic can apply for young writers as well. In classrooms and beyond, adults so often dominate and instrumentalise children, patronising their achievements as good for what they are, or as spirited imitations of what adults can do. Reading England, it is chastening – but endlessly exciting – to see what happens when you listen to children closely, and centre them in the production of their art.

England: Poems from a School, ed. Kate Clanchy, Picador, £9.99, ISBN 9781509886609

The Poetry Review 1084 Winter 2018Dai George’s first collection was The Claims Office (Seren, 2013). He works as an editor at Poetry London and a visiting poet in schools. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 108:4, Winter 2018. © The Poetry Review and the author.