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Calling Andrew Motion

Poetry and children’s literacy

Sir John Betjeman statue at St. Pancras

I’m plucking up the courage to call Andrew Motion. The former Poet Laureate once turned up at the same poetry event as me, but I was too frightened to talk to him. He was tall, and he was the Poet Laureate. My grandfather was Poet Laureate too, but that doesn’t make you impervious to debilitating feelings of awe. John Betjeman was more of a teddy bear, as we know, and in private was much the same as he was on television: charming, always laughing and so disheveled he looked as if he might fall out of his pockets. His hands were softer than any I have touched, and he used to give me a pound note every time I recited a poem of his by heart.

‘Hunter Trials’ was my favourite then, because I was being brought up as that kind of pony club ‘gel’. He died when I was 15, and now my favourite has changed. ‘In a Bath Teashop’ moves me every time, with its ‘ordinary little woman’ and ‘thumping crook’ who are ‘little lower than the angels’. But the poem of his which means most to me is ‘Trebetherick’. Trebetherick is a village in North Cornwall, which leads down a steep hill to the wide sands of Daymer Bay on the Camel Estuary. I love that place because he loved it. He took my mother there every summer and then my mother took me.

I now go to Trebetherick with my children. My mother was searching for this kind of continuity when she raised funds from Shell – Betjeman had written topographical guides for the oil company – on her father’s centenary in 2006 and, with Andrew Motion, set up the Betjeman Poetry Prize, for children aged 10–13. As fellow laureates Betjeman and Hughes had been before him, Motion was a driving force for poetry in this country, particularly in schools. He believed the age group 10–13 covered the transition from primary to secondary and caught children at an age before they developed self-consciousness. It also caught them before their public exams. Some of the Betjeman finalists have gone on to win the Foyle Young Poets and the reputation of the prize is staked on the integrity and creativity of these burgeoning poets. Thousands enter every year, either dragged to the desk by their teacher, or drawn to the desk by their own desire. In this, our tenth anniversary year, I want to ask the prize’s co-founder to hand out the certificates.

Last year, on National Poetry Day, when the Forward Arts Foundation and its partners encourages the whole nation to read, write and listen to poems, Today on Radio 4 opened with John Humphries introducing a BBC archive recording of Betjeman talking to a class of students in the 1960s about his first job as a schoolteacher. ‘Did you encourage the young children to write poetry? Did you?’ a teenage girl asked Betjeman in clipped, Celia Johnson tones. ‘Why of course,’ he chuckled. ‘Being young is awful. One is always in love with the wrong person. The only thing to do is write about it!’

Or that’s roughly how I remember the exchange. Betjeman’s autobiographical poem, ‘Summoned by Bells’, written in blank verse, describes the moment when, aged 10, he realized he wanted to be a writer:

I knew as soon as I could read and write
That I must be a poet…
My urge was to encase in rhythm and rhyme
The things I saw and felt (I could not think).

Ted Hughes also thought the only thing to do was write about it. Not everyone likes writing, however. Using Keats or Milton to teach children about poetry would fail, said Hughes in an article on the subject of young poets, written around the same time as Betjeman’s BBC interview. As Hughes pointed out: ‘all falsities in writing – and the consequent dry-rot that spreads into the whole fabric – come from the notion that there is a stylistic ideal which exists in the abstract, like a special language, to which all men might attain.’

In a series of talks written for the BBC in the 1960s, Hughes spoke to 10–14 year olds, encouraging ‘the kind of writing children can do without becoming false to themselves.’ He compared a poem to an animal, ‘an assembly of living parts moved by a single spirit’, and went on to explain how ‘the living parts are the words, the images, the rhythms. The spirit is the life which inhabits them when they all work together.’ He described ‘living’ words as those which we hear, like ‘click’ or ‘chuckle’, or see, like ‘freckled’ or ‘veined’ and words which we taste, like ‘vinegar’, or words which act and use their muscle, like ‘balance’ or ‘flick’. He used his poem ‘The Thought-Fox’ to explain how he ‘captured’ an animal. Poetry, he explained, is about feeling. Hughes talked about using words as tools to ‘say what you really mean’.

‘Poets deal in writing about feelings and trying to find the language and images for intense feelings,’ agrees Carol Ann Duffy, the current Poet Laureate. It took a while for me to press ‘send’ on an email to the revered Carol Ann, asking her to judge the 10th anniversary 2016 Betjeman Poetry Prize — since my mother died in 2014, I have been running the competition. She said yes straight away and it was only afterwards, when I was reading up on her, that I discovered in a Telegraph interview that, when she was a child, she had been highly commended in a poetry competition judged by Betjeman.

It is amazing, when you ask around, how many grown-up writers won poetry prizes in school. The recognition can be a turning point. ‘I’ve got this certificate somewhere with his signature on it — or rather I used to. Unfortunately I’ve lost it. I’d love to have it now,’ said Duffy. Her interviewer was surprised that the Poet Laureate would endorse such an accessible poet as Betjeman, but Carol Ann replied: ‘Probably the poetry I find most interesting is difficult. But I also think there’s a place for accessibility. It’s a broad church, isn’t it? I mean, Ted Hughes was very accessible. Betjeman, too, of course.’

Hughes was commissioned by the BBC in a bid to improve literacy. The literacy figures are still worrying: one in five children in England cannot read to the expected level by the time they leave primary school. Reading is crucial. Every writer knows that to write well you need to read a lot. Betjeman, Hughes, Motion and now Duffy are hugely supportive of reading and creative writing initiatives. Many reading and writing charities have emerged over the last ten years in response to the crises in both literacy and wellbeing.

First Story sends professional writers to run writing clubs at schools in areas of deprivation. The charity’s co-founder, author William Fiennes, believes in the power of writing to change lives. Another initiative with impact is Grimm & Co, a new children’s writing project in Rotherham. Echoing First Story, their strapline is, ‘Changing lives one story at a time’. Anxiety and depression are rife amongst teens and pre-teens. If 850,000 children in the British Isles are recorded as having mental health problems, as an authoritative 2004 survey found, that is about three children in every classroom. Sometimes a child or young person just needs to be heard.

It would be wrong to claim that poetry can affect every teen or pre-teen spirit, but the creative writing projects and competitions proliferating today do provide a platform for expression at the same time as celebrating excellence. In poetry Betjeman found a salve for his insecurity and shame, after all. The only child of self-made immigrant industrialists, Betjeman ached to belong to old money.

Shame is relative, of course. And personal. Somebody (another writer, of course) said to me at a party the other day, as I was explaining how I wasn’t writing much as I was mostly fundraising and managing a prize for young people, ‘Well, it’s not as if you’re a poet, anyway, are you?’ Bang, straight to the heart. I spluttered a feeble, ‘No, you’re right.’ Perhaps I should best express my feelings of failure in verse.

Imogen Lycett Green writes for The Oldie, Daily Mail and Vogue. She is co-founder of the narrative medicine programme at the Brighton Health & Wellbeing Centre and curator of the Betjeman Poetry Prize.

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