Poetry By Heart Blog

Something to set down. The Journey of the Magi

24th January 2016

Adoration of the Magi. Detail from casket made in Limoges currently housed in the Museum of Scotland. Photo courtesy of Lawrence OP Creative Commons

As many of us recently took down Christmas decorations and cards (the PBH team keeps coming across stray bits of tinsel amongst the office files) we may have noticed how often we saw images of the three wise men. In this guest blog Jorj Kowszun takes a closer look at the legend of these mysterious men through a consideration of one of our anthology poems.

 

The three wise men – the Magi, or often the three kings – are an iconic image of Christmas. They are a very common Christmas card theme and often used in Christmas advertising to alert us to the season: usually they are riding camels, often very stylised, occasionally setting gifts down before the baby Jesus.

All there is about these characters is a short passage in Matthew’s gospel Chapter 2: 1-12 that tells us very little – not even how many of them there were. Yet a whole mythology has built up around them. This includes names, ethnicities and countries of origin. If you visit Cologne Cathedral you will even be shown a golden reliquary that is supposed to contain their bones!

The building of the mythology around the Magi is an expression of a natural desire to give flesh to these enigmatic characters. T.S. Eliot approached their story in his poem “The Journey of the Magi” by exploring that journey from the “inside”. You can hear Eliot reading his poem here on the Poetry Archive website: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi

It is a grittier focus on the hardship of the journey. The uncertainty about their purpose in making the journey. The disturbing effect it had on them and on their lives afterwards – leaving them feeling dissatisfied, out of place, longing for something else.  Maybe even wishing they hadn’t done it.

My wife and I are Strictly Come Dancing fans and the pundits on the show talk regularly about the “Strictly journey” which is a very good description. People join the show and some of them stay only a short time and their journey ends abruptly in disappointment. Others find hidden depths of talent in themselves and stay to the very end. Others still find themselves taken out of the journey earlier than is fair because of the fickleness of the voting public and others stay far too long for similar reasons.

It is for all of them an extraordinary journey, taking them outside their normal pattern of life and inviting them to develop new skills, to manage new relationships, to do something totally different.

The Magi – whoever they were – chose to go on this journey. Their friends and family probably thought they were mad, or at least taking part in a wild goose-chase. But they were following a star – this expression has come in to our language now to mean following a dream or an ambition. They believed the journey was worthwhile and would bring them nearer to something special in this world.

Eliot’s poem gives us a reality check. A stern corrective that says it’s not all running about and having fun. Times will be hard. Often you will question the value of your journey and at the end you will have become a different person and will no longer fit comfortably into your original familiar box.

That’s something to set down perhaps.

JorjAbout the AuthorJorj Kowszun is currently in charge of Mathematics at the University of Brighton. He entered the academic world only a few years ago at a relatively late stage in his life. Before that he ran a successful consultancy business for many years, mostly helping managers in education with improving their strategy and finances. He started his business when he was made redundant from the job of deputy principal following a merger of colleges – while dispiriting at the time, it opened up a whole new range of opportunities! Much of Jorj’s working life has involved the education of 16-19-year-olds.

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The Patterns of Poetry

4th January 2016

Pencil Pattern: John Bugg Photography Creative Commons

Pencil Pattern: John Bugg Photography Creative Commons

There is a pleasure in poetic pains / Which only poets know.

– William Cowper

Mr Cowper got it right. Poetry does appear to involve a lot of pain: for evidence, teachers only have to listen to the collective cry of agony issuing from their classes whenever “poetry” is revealed as the subject for the day. And then, there’s the pain that inspires a lot of it, the pain it often expresses, and last but not least, the pain of having to memorise it. Ouch!

So, what if we wanted to share the pleasure that “only poets know”? One way to help children enjoy that unique tingle is to show them how they can turn the secret keys of the poem, and see how it works. With this knowledge, they need never feel bamboozled by a bard again. Instead, they will feel emboldened and empowered whenever they encounter “some words in a group where the lines don’t reach the other side of the paper”. This, by the way, is my favourite definition of poetry, provided by a Year 7 pupil in my first year of teaching many years ago.

The secret keys of the poem are its patterns. Reading a poem for patterns is only one way to read it, and yes, there will be finer nuances that may not come to light with this reading technique. But, the benefits are great. Patterns are clues to meaning and intention. Patterns highlight the important bits. Patterns give us a way to talk about poetry. And patterns help us learn it too.

Let me give an example. Here are the first two stanzas of a poem I often use with children around 9 – 11. It’s by Charles Causley:

Timothy Winters comes to school

With eyes as wide as a football-pool,

Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

 

His belly is white, his neck is dark,

And his hair is an exclamation-mark.

His clothes are enough to scare a crow

And through his britches the blue winds blow.

The choice of poem is not coincidental. The child in “Timothy Winters” appears to be around the same age as them. Many children of that age are exploring the world wars and evacuation. They might be reading Michelle Magorian’s classic “Goodnight Mister Tom” or even John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”. They may know or be a child suffering neglect. They have a context for the poem and its subject.

Whatever poem is chosen, it must be displayed so that everyone can see it, and so that annotations can be added “live” during what follows. An A3 version centred on a flip-chart page or a copy of the text on an interactive whiteboard is ideal. I only ever reveal this part of the poem (there are another six stanzas) at first, because focus is important to reading for patterns. Modelling is the next step. To model reading takes confidence. You have to articulate and make explicit a usually subconscious and invisible process. But it’s worth it, to show learners what it looks and sounds like when a reader is making meaning from a text. Lots of children don’t know that this is a process, or something that can be learned.

My modelling begins something like this:

“I’m going to read this poem out loud, in a particular way, looking for ANYTHING that might be a pattern. I’ll have to keep going back and re-reading because I won’t spot every pattern at first. Timothy Winters comes to school. No, nothing striking me as a pattern yet. Back to the start. Timothy Winters comes to school / With eyes as wide as a football-pool… hmm, I think I noticed several ‘s’ sounds there. Let me highlight those. Oh, and there’s that ‘oo’ in pool, school and foot. That might be a significant pattern so let me underline all those. Let’s keep going. With eyes as wide as a football-pool / Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters. Well, here’s a pattern of body parts now – I’ll circle eyes, ears and teeth. I’m thinking that can’t be a coincidence. Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters / A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters. Wow, here’s a group of words that all make me think of war or violence – bombs, splinters and blitz…

And so on. In a couple of minutes, the stanzas will be scrawled all over with arrows, notes and highlights. The children will be beginning to put up their hands to say “you’ve missed ‘as’ in the second line – there are two of them” or “there’s a pattern of colours, too”. All potential patterns will be identified, including that wonderful alliteration on the letter ‘b’ in the final line of the second stanza. Later in the lesson, we’ll all pronounce that line with emphasis on the plosive sounds and realise that it makes our lips do a “blowy out” movement, a bit like the cold winds in the poem.

Quickly, I give out copies of the whole poem, and ask the children to carry on with the pattern-spotting technique. Of course, they will usually notice a lot more connections than most adult first-time readers. And then begins the discussion of why these patterns might be important. We’ll be asking questions like “Why might the poet want to use a whole group of words that make us think about war?” or “Is it important that the poem rhymes like this?” They are great questions, and they begin the next stages of the reading process – speculation, inference, analysis and interpretation.

Some poets might take umbrage at their art being pawed over like this, but I have never found a better way to show children how poetry works. And the great thing is, that while they are reading and annotating, they are learning the poem. For a start, they are re-reading and, as any teacher knows, it is almost impossible to get children to re-read anything with purpose, so that is a huge bonus! They are drawing their own attention to its special bits. They are working out how different parts link together. They are finding joy in the repetition and the sounds. They are, without realising it, committing large parts of it to memory, and they are definitely “taking pleasure in poetic pains”.

 

Jane BransonAbout the Author: Jane Branson is an independent learning consultant in East Sussex. She worked for fourteen years in English departments in schools, before spending nine years as a member of the county council’s standards and learning team. She’s been a classroom teacher, an Advanced Skills Teacher, a head of department and a teacher-training tutor. A qualified Philosophy for Children trainer, Jane also writes regularly for Oxford University Press. She’s currently taking a creative writing class, has been the Chair of Governors at a local school for 6 years, and became a parish councillor earlier this year. You can visit her website at http://jbl.strikingly.com/ .

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