Go roving with your favourite poems

skimble the railway cat, ts eliotEveryone my age seems to have a favourite poem they remember from their schooldays. In my case it was Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat by T. S Eliot. For some reason whenever I’m late for a train the lines spring into my mind… “There’s a whisper down the line, at eleven forty-nine… when the might mail is ready to depart. Saying Skimble, where is Skimble, for it’s time to hunt the thimble. And the night mail is ready to depart.”
Please forgive punctuation etc. The lines are off the top of my head, the way the verse springs into my mind. It always takes me back to my classroom in junior school, where I can picture my lovely moustachioed head teacher reading aloud to us.
So I was delighted at the news that the government is to  again reintroduce reciting and learning poetry by heart in primary schools. The proposal was contained in a “back to basics” review of the curriculum, announced by ministers early last week.
 Last week I talked to Allie Esiri, the joint creator of the first poetry app aimed at children.  Since its launch in November last year, iF Poems, which features 270 poems read by the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy and Harry Enfield, has been a bestseller. It even beat Angry Birds in the app charts on its opening weekend.
Esiri, a friend of Samantha Cameron, the prime minister’s wife, was driven by a desire to restore poetry to children’s lives. “As a child I was not a big reader,” she explains, “though I got the bug later and ended up reading modern languages at Cambridge; but I read and re-read my one hardback poetry anthology called A Golden Treasury. Even though I didn’t think I was a madly morose child, what I loved most were poems about death. Anything by Christina Rossetti, especially Remember, Ferry Me Across the Water, and Uphill.
“At school we had a wonderful teacher, Miss Luck, who had us learning poems and reciting them in the classroom, for exams and competitions.”
Not surprisingly Esiri was “thrilled” at last week’s news that reciting poems learnt by heart is to be introduced as part of the curriculum in primary schools. For too long, she argues, poetry has “just appeared [in schools] in a comprehension exercise or some other turgid school task”.
Her own children like “funny poems”, she reveals. On train journeys she offers them rewards for learning a poem by heart. “Their first choice was a limerick, five lines only. Then a rather sweet poem by AE Housman called Amelia Mixed the Mustard — eight lines.”
Now Esiri outlines the poems she thinks children would love to learn at school. For seven-year-olds she suggests Maggie and Milly and Molly and May by EE Cummings, and The Owl and the Pussy-cat by Edward Lear. Eleven-year-olds could try Poetry Jump-Up by John Agard, who was born in Guyana and lives in Britain, or the war poem Does It Matter? by Siegfried Sassoon (see below).
Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith and We’ll Go No More A-Roving by Lord Byron are among Esiri’s top choices for 16-year-olds.
If you would like to influence the government’s choice of poetry to be learned aloud and recited in primary schools please email your suggestions to favouritepoems@sunday-times.co.uk. The full list of your suggestions will be published next week at thesundaytimes.co.uk/education

Does It Matter?  by Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967)

Does it matter? — losing your legs?…
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter? — losing your sight?…
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter — those dreams from the pit?…
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.
Copyright Siegfried Sassoon by kind permission of the estate of George Sassoon
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One Response to Go roving with your favourite poems

  1. “Moustachioed” is a poem in its own right. And not often used, which is a shame.

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