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  • Writer's pictureMandy Whyman

The joy of words

I was a teacher for many years and now I tutor - both English Language and Literature. I can honestly say, that, aside from Shakespeare, the literature element that most students struggle with is poetry. Why? Well, because when you move towards definitive examinations, the focus moves away from the joy of playing with words to identifying a `meaning', which is a complete mystery to many teenagers. They become so focussed on trying to find the definitive `meaning' that they forget to see the emotion of the writing - and poetry is lost to them.

It's sad. Poetry is one of our most raw expressions of feeling. Its right up there with songs (in fact, in many ways, poetry is music). In my own teaching, I have found that looking for the emotion in poetry helps to unlock meaning for students. It is therefore both sad and irritating to see poetry so often made rarefied, elitist and joyless. Poetry is at its heart, about the joy of words.

Even tricky teenagers know this. Many of my students attend an annual poetry event to support their studies. Some big named poets attend and read their work. I went to several of these events while teaching and so know them first hand as well as through student reviews. Everybody's favourite? John Agard. Hands down. Every child I speak to remembers his name. Every child I speak to regards him as the highlight. Why? Because he talks about the joy of words. Of feeling the emotion. His love of words shines through and makes his poetry come alive.

And if you're not sure who he is, check this out: John Agard - Guyana - YouTube

He's a proper poet, John Agard. He hasn't forgotten why he writes. To make a point - yes! To explore a situation - yes! To play with language - YES!

At the heart of poetry is the joy of words. This doesn't always have to be happy - imagery can be negative as well as positive. But its the fit and the fly of the words that makes them come alive:

My all time favourite wordsmith, Gerard Manly Hopkins in The Windhover:

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-

dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

John Gillespie Magee Jnr.'s High Flight:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

And many, many modern poets too (who cannot be reproduced due to copyright etc...) Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Don Mattera ... the list goes on and on.

Poetry isn't elitist. Poetry isn't about deep dark pondering (although I quite enjoy that too). Poetry is about joy (even when it breaks your heart).

Here's one of mine, from Fieldsong

Dog in the Wind

The freezing gale

Buoys him on,

Makes him bounce

As his back legs scatter:

Skittering hare-like haunches

Racing white away

With the wind grasped in his jaws,


Twitching expectant ears ricochet,

Recall, sniff the prospect

Of the ball

And the wind flattens fur

As he bounds back –

All life-

All moving, shifting,

Barking, berserking, boisterous

Dog in the wind.

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