Free The Thinkers: Derby’s youth poets stir

In the first of our new monthly column reporting back from the classroom on young people’s experience and exploration of poetry Derby teacher Steven Oakes sets the scene for the subject and provides some context to why poetry should not be an elitist literary form but a vital creative outlet, and why he is stirring up Derby’s youth poets. 

W Somerset Maugham describes poetry as the ‘crown of literature’ which, whilst accurate in its description of the genre as something respected and vaunted, elevates poetry to a place of unnecessary extravagance and indulgence; a gilded and archaic form of writing exclusively for the haves to indulge in and the have nots to admire from a distance. To consider this a description of poetry for the future generations of writers is to welcome a death knell for the relevance of poetry itself.

As a teacher of English in a secondary school with a mixed cohort of economic backgrounds and cultures, I found myself considering the impact of poetry on a young person who feels detached from the world around them. Politics invade every area of society today, and the message is often one of darkness for the younger generations. Words cloud around them and tell them of bleak post-Brexit futures, rises in nationalism and hate fuelled attacks, lack of job prospects post-education and the tendency for any dissent to be labelled as a ‘snowflake’ mentality. How do we engage our youth into society when the voices of the politicians on the television speak to them in cut glass Etonian accents and detail the ‘necessary’ cutbacks to their educational experience whilst outside million pound homes? How do we get our youth to see the necessity in social engagement when their lives will be compared to the rebellion of running through wheat fields? I believe that poetry, in its purest form, is the answer.

Poetry can be summed up by any one of the quotes from the people who established their legacy through this spectrum of writing, but I prefer the words of Jean Cocteau when he said that a ‘poet is a liar who speaks the truth’. Writers such as Kate Tempest embody this quote. They speak of the current world these children and young adults live within. They see the reality of their technological and social media infused existence. There is a certain newness and revolutionary quality to the idea of existing simultaneously in the real world and the virtual one to those of us old enough to remember growing up without this online universe, but the idea of merging with it since the developmental stages of youth and having a true dual identity is something we cannot share. That is why we must give voice to newer generations of writers from varied backgrounds and present poetry as the same necessary and emotionally connected form of media as music.

I aim to regularly provide my students with the opportunity to write and explore various subjects and types of poetry with the intent of having their work published here. They will be free to choose topics and focus areas, use linguistic features and styles in the way they see fit and express themselves in any way they desire. My students experience poetry in all of its punk-natured and anarchic glory, and will write about the things important to them. I can’t guarantee that you will like it reader, but I can guarantee that it will be real.

As school is not quite yet in session, I leave you with the reality of being in school in this age, but lacking the academic prowess which empowers the able and disempowers those voices who just need a different way to communicate. Schools can use a cookie cutter mentality to children, as if each and every unique individual can make equal progress in the same areas as each other. Poetry can be the great social breaker if we allow it to be, and can highlight the inequalities in our society from the viewpoint of perhaps the most unequal.

Streemin by Roger McGough

Im in the bottom streme
which meens Im not brigth
Don’t like reedin
Cant hardly ryt

but all these divishns
arnt reely fair
look at the cemetery
no streemin there

Free The Thinkers will return in October to share what Derby’s youth poets have been exploring and share some of their work.

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