How grandparents and grandchildren can stay connected by writing poetry
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Award-winning Norfolk-based poet George Szirtes shares some of the virtual poetry creative exercises he has been doing with his grandchildren during lockdown and encourages you to have some fun and try them for yourself with your own little people.
We have two grandchildren, Marlie, who has just turned 10, and Lukas, aged eight. Lukas was scared of writing poems. Our daughter asked if I could help. I said I’d try. We could do it by Skype.
I wanted to start with the idea of poetry as something not frighteningly ‘deep’ but as fun with language: tongue twisters, repeated sounds, soothing sounds, explosive sounds and sounds that sound like other things, such as aeroplanes or leaves swishing. Thinking of these things would lead us to rhythms we all knew, such as heartbeat, skipping and dancing. There was also the strange way one word can sound like another to consider: in other words, rhyme. All these are fun to play with. Say things aloud. Try things for rhythm.
We started a game about the word ‘buttercup’ by substituting other words for the ‘butter’ part. We got: fluttercup, shuttercup, muttercup and so on. I could ask them for more. Think of the beat of the word. Could we think of other things that have the same beat? And what would a fluttercup look like? Maybe the children could draw them too.
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Rhythm is important but so is structure. Having written one line of a poem we have to write the next, then the next. That’s an adventure. For children simple structures are best.
So let’s make a poem, starting with an animal’s name. In the next line we should compare the animal to something else before going on to ask other questions such as what it looks like, what it sounds like, and so on.
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For Marlie, a cat was like a furry ball, it sounded like a squeaky wheel and it pounced on its prey, and so on to other questions about the cat (whose name turned out to be Mr Puffy). Once we had answered enough questions, it was time to hear and listen. I asked her to read the whole poem aloud. Could she make that rhythm better? Yes, she could.
Next time we found an old nonsense poem that mentioned certain families, including the Joblillies and the Garyulies. The children wrote short poems about them, answering questions such as where the families live and what they look like. The poems didn’t have to make sense. Once again we checked the rhythm by speaking the poem aloud. These are Marlie’s ‘Garyulies’:
The Garyulies live in Garyduff
The Garyulies look like gherkins glazed in gammon sauce
The Garyulies are green as a broccoli burned by a grapefruit
The Garyulies are found riding greedy gazelles.
Nonsense is useful. Encourage oddity.
With that idea in mind I gave Lukas the starting line: Three small dogs on a bus. The structure was to name them, to say what each was like, where they were going, what they each saw on the way, what they were thinking, what they said, what they did when they got there and once they got home. At the end, to finish it off, because choruses always help, we repeated the first line.
Of course we did these things together. My role was to ask and prompt, then ask again. I could make a suggestion or two at the start to get the ball rolling but then I had to stick to asking and, ever less, to prompting. Prompting was for possibilities: the decisions had to be his own. Here is his:
Three small dogs on a bus
called Bob, Jeff and Fred
Bob is very barky
Jeff is very jolly
Fred is very friendly
They are all going to Norwich
Bob sees another bus
Jeff sees a book called Jaws
Fred sees a fox
Bob is thinking about bacon
Jeff is thinking about jellybeans
Fred is thinking about french fries
Bob is barking: How do you do?
Jeff is saying: I need the loo
Fred is saying: How far to the zoo?
When they got there they each paid 1p
And when they go home they all had some tea.
Three small dogs on a bus.
Typing that up and setting it out as a poem helps. I did that part.
Marlie was given three unlikely things to start with: a piece of glass, a feather, the sound of thunder. I wanted four lines about each (how did it get there, what it was like, what happened next). The last verse combined the three different things in one line and played with that. Here’s how it ended:
I was woken by the thunder
It sounded just like growling
Perhaps it was a bear
So I looked out of the window
It gave me quite a scare.
Feather, thunder and glass
Feather, glass and thunder,
Feather, thunder and glass
I hope the thunder will pass.
For children a poem can simply be a fun line that goes on an adventure and finds a shape. We are still going.
George Szirtes is a TS Eliot Prize-winning poet. Originally from Hungary he has lived in the UK for most of his life coming to the country as a refugee at the age of eight. He currently lives in Wymondham and is one of the patrons of the Norwich-based National Centre for Writing.