Ahead of National Poetry Day, Ian McMillan remembers the teacher and lessons that inspired him to become a poet
I remember the best poetry lesson I ever had as though it was yesterday; it was at Low Valley Junior School in Darfield, near Barnsley, on a freezing cold morning in 1965. The date is significant because at that time Darfield was part of the legendary West Riding of Yorkshire Education Authority, which was run by the (in my humble opinion) godlike genius Sir Alec Clegg, whose simple creed was that all children are creative, we can all be writers and, wonderfully, we can all be poets.
So Mr Meakin took us out into the yard in our scarves and hats and our breath hung like steam. "How cold is it?" he asked, and somebody said "as cold as a fridge!" and we laughed and wrote it down. We walked into the field at the back of the Astoria Ballroom, and the grass poked through the recent snow. Mr Meakin launched into a riff about what poetry could be: "It doesn't have to rhyme, boys and girls, but it can if it wants to! Look at that grass coming through the snow…it looks like a bed of nails." A starling flew by towards Darfield Main Pit and Mr Meakin shouted "Whizzz! Like a helicopter with wings!" And we laughed again. And we wrote it down. Mr Meakin got us to stand in a circle and he read a poem to us: In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti, and we talked about the earth being "hard as iron" and the water being "like a stone" and we had a look round to see if it was. And it was. We saw that our efforts were part of a continuum, that all the poets who'd ever written were standing behind us as we wrote. And that didn't scare us: it inspired us.
Then we went back to the class and we all (including Mr Meakin, with his brow furrowed and his pencil in his mouth) wrote and rewrote and made books and collages and sculptures until it was time to go to Mrs Hudson for choir practice. And that morning the reader and writer of poems that I am today was born. I'll campaign for a plaque at the back of the Astoria Ballroom when I've got time.
The components for that perfect poetry lesson were simple but effective. To start with, there was a culture of artistic endeavour in the school, which was just a standard West Riding Primary in a pit village; poetry was encouraged but it was part of a whole, an attempt to, in Aladsair Gray's ringing phrase "draw all the rays of culture into one". String quartets visited termly and every now and then the West Riding Abstract Art Van would trundle into view with paintings for the walls. Low Valley was, like all schools should be, a little arts centre.
Then there was Mr Meakin's enthusiasm, which bulldozed us into the arms of the muse; when I work with young people, I'm more of an enthusiast-in-residence than a poet-in-residence because more than half the battle, I reckon, is getting people excited about poetry, about the possibility of seeing themselves as poets. We could have stayed in class that chilly morning or gone to the cloakroom to watch yet another NCB Recruiting Film but we didn't; we went into the world to react to it.
Then there were the moments of creation, of drafting and redrafting; Mr Meakin didn't tell us that writing a poem would be easy and he made the rewriting part of the writing. Then there was the fact that the pieces we created would have an audience: we weren't just writing as an exercise, to help us with our grammar or to make our handwriting neater. We made books and magazines about our morning in the snow; Mr Meakin cleared a space on the wall for our visual poems that would have made Kurt Schwitters proud and while we were singing with Mrs Hudson he came and asked, in a voice loud enough for us to hear, if we could read some of our poems during the carol concert for the parents. Mrs Hudson agreed and then suggested that somebody could play the piano as we read.
And finally, Mr Meakin wrote alongside us; he was trying to be a poet too. He shared his work with us, talked about the bits that worked, and the bits that didn't, and how he wished he'd written a particular line differently, with more clarity. "What's clarity?" he asked, and a forest of hands shot up.
It's simple, really. Enthusiasm. Writing for real audiences. Teachers as poets. Poetry as a major strand of the curriculum. Lots of paper. Off you go.
National Poetry Day is on Thursday 4 October. Click here for lots of ideas and lesson plans for the classroom for ages four to 16 years.
Ian McMillan is this year's National Poetry Day Spokespoet. He is also poet-in-residence for English National Opera, The Academy of Urbanism and Barnsley FC. He presents The Verb every week on BBC R3 and he's a regular on Coast, Pick of the Week, You & Yours, Last Word and The Arts Show. Ian's latest books are a new collection of poems, This Lake Used to be Frozen: Lamps (Smith/Doorstop Books) plus T'Olympics and 101 Uses For A Yorkshire Pudding (Dalesman) with cartoonist Tony Husband.