The Power of Poetry

Poetry and Music have been documented as being helpful for elderly people, including those living with dementia, the after effects of a stroke, and even physical disability. Often it is the familiar poems learned by heart at school that has the most noticeable effect. I have read several times for Northwich Stroke Club, and seen these effects for myself: memories suddenly become vivid, audience reciting as I read, smiles and animation, or the closing of eyes and relaxation from lulling words.

This world poetry day (21 March), I was invited to read at a private care home, where the residents have a poetry club to share favourite poems. In a two hour slot (with a tea break in the middle), I read them some of my favourite poems, and they contributed a few of theirs. Only two people were brave enough to read, but both read beautifully. In the second half, I read them a few of my own poems, choosing ones that I felt might resonate with them but avoiding anything too sad. Not everyone stayed till the end, which was fine. It was a relaxed and chatty session, and we all sat round in a circle together, so it was very friendly.

I thought readers of my blog might be interested in which poems I chose to include, many of which I learned by heart as a child or more recently.

Robert Frost: Tree at my Window; Nothing Gold Can Stay, Stopping by Woods

Edward Thomas: Adlestrop; Words

Keats: To Autumn  

Clare: I love the fitful gust that shakes; My Early Home 

Thomas Hood: I remember, I remember

Milton: On His Blindness  

Robert Browning: Oh to be in England 

Yeats: When you are Old and Grey/ The lake Isle of Innisfree

Burns: My Heart’s in The Highlands

Robert Louis Stevenson: I will make you brooches

AE Housman: Loveliest of Trees /Into My Heart an Air that Kills

Thomas Hardy: The Self-Unseeing 

These poems are all ones which are important to me, and I thought they might recognise. The ones that got the most recognition were Stopping by Woods, To Autumn, I Remember, I Remember, Oh To Be in England, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and My Heart’s in the Highlands, though they really ‘got’ The Self-Unseeing, and my poem which echoes it ‘Hooam’ from Hearth. One of the poems shared by participants was Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’, which I thought highly appropriate.

I worry for today’s generation of school students, and the generation before them, that they will have no loved poems to take forward into their old age. The way poetry is taught in some schools these days, and secondary schools are the most guilty, takes the pleasure out of the poem. Schoolchildren are told that they can’t understand poetry, without the teacher ‘translating’ for them; that poetry is hard and full of secret meanings that need to be decoded. This is a dishonest and wrong approach. Rather than forcing pupils to make heavy dictated annotations, they should be encouraged to ‘feel’ the poem first, not simply label the parts as if it were an engine or a dissected animal. Colleagues were always amazed that my classes got such great results ‘despite’ my allowing them to interpret the poem for themselves, using the skill set I had given them. Poems belong to the reader, and don’t need mediation. Allowing the pupils to ‘own’ the poem helps them understand on a deeper level what that poem is doing and how it is doing it. This is how I taught poetry myself in my 16 years in secondary school, and stint in FE prior to that.

I will be sharing some of my teaching ideas on this blog, to enable teachers to break out of their teaching prisons with poetry. I don’t blame them, they are part of a cycle that has been going on for a long time, and they in their turn were badly taught. Many are afraid of poetry, and pass this fear on to their pupils. The people I was reading to yesterday have no such fear. They remember the pleasure these poems gave them and continue to give them, and seek out poems to share with their friends, because sharing poems is a good thing to do. It keeps their brains ticking and gives them something to talk about and relate to.



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25 responses to “The Power of Poetry

  1. Hi Angela

    Just so you know, I was delightfully reading this – and about to share it with my elderly mother who wrote all the initial poetry for the Sheffield Tree campaign – as a working class woman who has now been airbrushed out. However, as I got to the part about teachers – I’m a former English teacher, I found it so offensive, I have changed my mind. Perhaps instead of joining society, with blinked prejudices, you might take the path less travelled by…

    Yours sincerely

    Louise Wilcockson


    • I was an English teacher myself! Please read the whole post. Teaching poetry has been marred by the anxiety about getting results. I state I do NOT blame teachers, they are only doing what they have had done to them. There are better ways and I want to help.

    • I will further reply that I am a poet myself, and I think that gave me a huge advantage when it came to teaching poetry, despite being told at my first school that I was doing it all wrong, that my lower set classes could never understand the ‘A level’ poets I was allowing them to read. Perhaps you’d hear me out rather than jump down my throat. I’ve ALWAYS been on the path less travelled by! Don’t you want the next generation to love poetry as we do? I’m sorry your mum was airbrushed out. I would love to include a post about her and her work, so we can showcase her part in it. I do say in the piece that I was a teacher myself – so maybe you didn’t bother to read the whole thing before jumping in on the attack. It was a very hurtful comment, actually.

    • I have had the misfortune to have my work “set” for AS-level and regularly get baffled students asking me to “explain” poems to them (I should mention that my poems are pretty accessible by most standards). I have trouble convincing them that my aim was to entertain, not write some cryptic puzzle that needed decoding, and that what they see is pretty much what they get.

      • Thanks Sheenagh. I’ve also had work set for A level, and for students to think I wrote it because I am vegetarian (I’m not) or that they thought I was traumatised by visiting a butcher’s shop as a child. The irony in my poem was completely missed.

    • Joan Johnston

      Ms Wilcockson – I must assume from your comment that you, as a former English teacher, did not do any close or careful reading of text. (What a shame for your pupils!) Your remarks are completely at odds with what Angela has actually written regarding some teachers who teach poetry. Please re read her piece – you may feel less offended as a result.

  2. tmmkitana

    Thanks to Mrs Topping’s teaching I read so much Poetry and understood it. I also wrote it when in school. You really should read all the post and I say the same the teachings that are done now have no creativity in it. I will always remember moving tables so we can move about while reading the poetry out loud which helped me so so much. Also being able to translate them how I saw them and listening to others and hearing how they see or hear it differently was amazing. I so hope you do share your experience & stories to help others Angela. I can never thank you enough 💖

  3. CEaglesome

    Angela (forever just Mrs Topping to me), you are one of a kind. Your unique way of teaching was an absolute breath of fresh air to us students. You allowed for people to learn in their own way and encouraged individuality. You gave students the ability to learn without restriction and actually enjoy poetry. Never change. Your passion shone through and clearly still does. That’s why your students did so well….all down to you.
    (From a former Upton Hall girl)

    • what a truly lovely comment. Upton was where my teaching style was encouraged, both by the headteacher and many fabulous colleagues. It was where I blossomed.

  4. My fondest memories of Upton were studying poetry with Mrs Topping. Although I eventually became a maths teacher I still love poetry and get excited to share this with my form group every Thursday. Thank you Mrs Topping!

  5. Neil

    The easy way of teaching poetry is for the teacher to explain it. The students write down the teacher’s opinions and repeat them when asked. The down side of this is that they stop thinking about the words used, the rhythm, the images, they just say what the teacher told them.
    If you teach them what to look for, they engage with the work. their ideas are their own, not the teacher’s. If you let them explore it themselves, they might come up with something the teacher never saw. If they miss something important (like the rhythm of horses running in The Charge of the Light Brigade, or the sounds of swords being drawn) then the teacher can tell them once they have exhausted their own wits.

    • That’s just it! Over explaining it robbing the student. And as a former examiner. I know examiner’s don’t want the teacher’s ‘answers’ but the students’ own ideas.

  6. Kathy Bennett

    I have a few poems that are very dear to me. However, they weren’t the ones I was expected to learn in my English classes and dissect to death. Rather, they were always the ones further along in the book or ones from Palgrave’s (a gift from a poetry loving uncle).
    By dissecting poems to find explanations, I was immediately put off a poem, as it wasn’t what I read in the poem for myself.
    We bring our own experiences to the reading of poetry and there are subtle nuances conveyed to each individual in the words, because of their unique experiences.

  7. Neil

    It’s valid to explain things that the students won’t know. So Alexander Pope is really copying Horace in English. Students are unlikely to know Horace so won’t make the connection. He also loved to show off his learning, so when he says “or renounce the Stagirite”* you’d have to know that Aristotle was from Stagiria.
    However, I believe Pope is hardly typical fare for students.
    I’ve listened to Ernest Arndt read aloud (Napoleonic period German poet). The words have a rhythm, even if you don’t understand all of them.
    *Essay on Criticism

    • Absolutely, that’s the teachers role NOT to get the pupils to learn their interpretation by rote and regurgitate it. My students loved knowing Shakespeare is making fun of a Petrarch sonnet in his ‘My Mistress Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun’. Teachers should facilitate learning, not teach parrot fashion.

  8. So much of the way English is taught now, right from primary school, takes away all of the creative sensibility and diminishes the pure joy of feeling words, whether reading or writing. It is not the fault of teachers, who do an amazing job under terrible pressure, but of the whole culture that has been built up around education.

    • Yes, the last thing I want is to blame teachers. It’s not their fault. It’s actually less work for them to allow the students to think for themselves, but they are scared to, and feel pressured to get results- though the way they do it is not what examiners want to see.

  9. Jayne F

    Thanks to Mrs Topping’s teaching I read so much Poetry and understood it. I also wrote it when in school. You really should read all the post and I say the same the teachings that are done now have no creativity in it. I will always remember moving tables so we can move about while reading the poetry out loud which helped me so so much. Also being able to translate them how I saw them and listening to others and hearing how they see or hear it differently was amazing. I so hope you do share your experience & stories to help others Angela. I can never thank you enough 💖

  10. Janet

    Well said, Angela. Don’t know why Ms Wilcockson took such umbrage – obviously you weren’t writing off all English teachers.

    Re the older generation having an easier relationship with poetry : do you know Gillian Clarke’s marvellous poem Miracle on St David’s Day? About reading poems in a mental hospital and one patient, who hadn’t spoken for years (elective mutism) came forward and recited Wordsworth’s The Daffodils , which he must have learned by rote at school. Deeply moving on how ‘through the years of dumbness he has remembered/ there was a music of speech and once he had something to say.”
    It is a shame when teachers won’t let poetry work its magic . Not but what the pressures of curriculum / league tables/ Ofsted/ the hydra headed monsters , make it increasingly difficult for them to do so.

  11. Nemma

    That comment regarding how poetry is taught in schools struck me. I agree. Speaking from a student’s perspective, I absolutely hated poetry by the time I finished high school (and I wasn’t fond of stories either). They were so overly dissected that they became too complicated and there were far too many to appreciate any properly. The English poetry portion of the exams was one of the most overwhelming parts. It made me very disenamoured and it took years to find any kind of love of them again. It was only through finding excerpts in novels and hearing some read out in writers groups that I started to pick them up again. Without the heavy stress of cramming in all those annotated details into my head, they became more enjoyable.

  12. My primary school encouraged us to make up our own nursery rhymes and then to write poems. Then I got to grammar school and the older teachers let us feel the poem we studied while the younger ones insisted on the ‘correct’ way to analyse poetry. This latter approach takes all the joy out.

    Although I love poetry , despite my best efforts, my sons left secondary school hating all poetry.

  13. Merryn Williams

    Dear Angela,

                            A splendid choice of poems. 'Lovelliest of  trees' is imprinted on my heart because I had to answer questions about  it for my eleven plus!              Write on,                                      Merryn
  14. NicolaD

    Mrs Topping was a phenomenal English teacher and nurtured in me an everlasting love affair with the written and spoken word. Poetry should not just be read, it should be heard and, more importantly, felt. My two sons (18 and 16) have absolutely hated studying poetry at secondary school despite both being voracious readers and having a wide range of literary tastes. I completely agree that the way poetry is taught currently does not encourage students to think for themselves and merely provides them with list of instructions about how to clinically dissect the author’s thoughts and motives. I was absolutely thrilled when my eldest son asked for a book of poetry at Christmas for no other reason than he thought he might enjoy it (he did.) It’s not the teachers’ fault that it is taught in this manner but I cannot see how it can possibly foster a love of poetry.