The Poetry Archive in the Classroom: Poets' Workshops for Teachers, and a Poetry Reading Showcased How the Poetry Archive Can Support the Teaching of Poetry in the Classroom

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' slurch, sloop, squelch sloooo-uuuu-rrrr-ch-ch'

This is one teacher's imaginings of the sounds a slug might make, and was the final section of a poem she wrote in a workshop looking at 'Bats' Ultrasound' by Les Murray. She laughed as she said this had been the most challenging exercise she'd been asked to do in the workshop run by poet Daljit Nagra, but also the most fun. Other teachers had enjoyed working out how to express the sounds a horse might make, or an anteater, or a hippopotamus. Clearly, the point of the exercise was to focus on the sound of a language, to move away from a reliance on facts and things which very obviously make sense, but to reach at something very meaningful as a result. The teacher who wrote the slug poem commented that she could see this working well with pupils 'to play with sounds, without being tied to sense and words.' This links very well to a quotation from T.S. Eliot on the opening banner of the Poetry Archive website (poetryarchive. org), 'Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood'. It is fitting then, that the slug poem exercise came as part of an event focusing on the work of the Poetry Archive, the superb online resource centred on an ever-expanding collection of recordings of poets reading their own work (and soon to include classic poems read by contemporary poets).


Many teachers may well be aware of these highly valuable resources, but this recent free event showcased some ideas to raise awareness of further potential uses of the Archive in the classroom. The event was funded by Lancaster University and Paul Farley, Professor of Poetry, brought together fellow poets Jean Sprackland and Daljit Nagra to run workshops for practising teachers, and undergraduate and postgraduate students interested in the teaching of poetry. The workshops were followed by a reading and Q&A session, also involving Sir Andrew Motion, who set up the Poetry Archive along with the record producer Richard Carrington.

Although many of the participants were already aware of the Archive and in some cases had 'dipped into it' previously, they welcomed the opportunity to explore it further. The Archive is immensely useful in allowing pupils to hear poems read by the poets themselves, and some participants had used it in this way. Also, however, there is potential to extend pupils' involvement beyond a relatively passive listening role. As many departments seek to extend the range of poems they cover in line with changing GCSE specifications, and in particular the teaching of unseen poetry, the Archive provides a rich selection of suitable poems for the classroom (there is also a teachers' section which includes lesson plans linked to individual poems).

Teachers involved in the event enjoyed the opportunity to write themselves, experiencing activities which they could then take to their own classrooms. Daljit Nagra had deliberately asked teachers to write their own poem before listening to Murray's poem via the Archive. After thinking of their own creature, the task was to write an initial stanza describing the creature, its environment or its movements.

The slug poem began,

'Moist muscle, with a calling card of slick slime, total flesh. Under leaves, rocks; loving the wet.'

The second stanza invited descriptions of expectations of the creature, its reputation, its habits. After the writing, Murray's poem, 'Bats' Ultrasound', was shared and discussed. It begins:

'Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing with fleas, in rock-cleft or building radar bats are darkness in miniature.'

Participants were able to consider the power of Murray's description alongside their own, appreciating the ways in which a poet might use imagery, for example, to communicate with a reader. …


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