Childhood is poetry

Childhood is poetry

Yesterday, our son Nadim had the poems he wrote when he was four published by Walker Books. His book, Take Off Your Brave, is vibrantly illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail and introduced by writer, poet, and teacher Kate Clanchy. It is Kate who we must thank for setting the book’s publication in motion: she first shared his poems on Twitter just over a year ago, and her warm and enthusiastic followers generously appreciated his work.

It’s been such an unexpected joy to discover poetry with and through Nadim. This all began when Nadim brought home a poetry writing handout from nursery in early 2020. That afternoon we sat down to talk about what a poem is. We discussed how poems sometimes rhyme, and sometimes don’t. This latter notion struck Nadim as exciting—what would a poem be without rhyme? Or as he put it, “is it like a kind of story?”. “It’s a kind of story of a feeling, or a moment” was the answer we gave, and away with it he went. We tried out one of Kate’s prompts—she’d generously supplied me with suggestions for my own work as a teacher of writing, and I specifically had what Kate calls “The Table” prompt in mind. I asked Nadim to think about the story of the moment of coming home. What do you take off and put on the table by the front door? “Let’s make a list,” I said, “and see where it goes.” When he got stuck having thought of all the physical things he removes when he comes home, I simply asked, “anything else?” and Nadim generously offered, “You take off your brave.”

It was in that moment that the poem felt like a powerful place for us to continue these kinds of conversations—for Nadim to share his experiences of the world as he knew it at the tender age of four, for us to have an aperture into that world, and to empower him with the notion that his words and thoughts were important—important enough to be written down on a piece a paper, read back to him, and be considered a poem. Indeed that latter notion is the reason we kept “playing with poetry” as Nadim called it; that he felt a meaningfulness assigned to his words as he saw them come onto the page (at the very moment in his own academic development when he was learning to write) was a kind of magic.

The magic of this book is that it offers bright-eyed, fresh renditions of children’s poetry to children, and hopefully encourages other children to give it a try. The collection includes poems from Nadim’s sister, and his nursery class. It is full of children and written for children. Nadim explains in his own words: “Anyone can write a poem if they just put on a paper what they think thoughtfully.” His explanation speaks to the sweetness of children’s formulations, which indeed lie in other children out there too.

I have taken Nadim’s notion of open poetry to his nursery class, and now his reception class. I lead writing workshops with primary school children, and often share some of Nadim’s poems as examples. Likewise, Nadim’s dad, Gavin, teaches literature to secondary school children. The most challenging thing we both find, in the teaching of literature, is overcoming the notion of tradition—that a poem should sound a certain way, that it should follow certain strictures. It can, and this can be its own kind of magic and beauty, but it doesn’t have to. Some of the most celebrated poetry of the past 200 years has been celebrated because it is considered organic, or free-flowing. So too is the child’s most natural verse.

When I share Nadim’s poems in creative writing groups that he’s in, he blushes with pride and shyness. But he has said that “it’s good if kids can think they can do it too.” Indeed the children benefit from hearing and knowing that those things that constitute a poem were written by someone like them. When sitting down with one child, or many children, there are many possibilities, chronicled by expert writers in the field, and the best encourage children to understand that a poem is what you want it to be—don’t worry about what you think a poem should be. “Should” gestures towards a voice from outside of you. “Want” comes from inside.  

When Nadim found out poems don’t have to rhyme, he felt liberated to try one on his own. After that initial prompt-led writing, he kept coming up with more, as that sense of permission and possibility multiplied with every affirmation of seeing his words on paper.

Though Nadim was learning to write at the time, I served as his dicatophone at the time, writing down his words for him, and in front of him, because he was at an age where he spoke faster than he wrote. He now reads and writes on his own, but still comes to me when he has an idea for a poem—the poem has become a way of talking for us, and I hope it always will be there in that facility. It could be for other parents and their children too. All you have to do is sit down, take out a piece of paper, a pen, and just listen. Childhood is poetry, and the child who has the attention of their parent, or carer, for a quiet moment will more often than not let the poem inside them out. 

Take Off Your Brave by Nadim, introduced by Kate Clanchy and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail, is out now (Walker Books, £12.99). Nadim’s mum is Yasmine Shamma, a lecturer in Literature at the University of Reading.