Resources on poetry by the poets themselves

Observation and the senses

Using the five senses - what we can see, hear, taste, touch and smell - is absolutely vital in the language of poetry and a wonderfully simple way of getting young children to write; or, when reading, to think about the world they live in and their impressions of it.

Here is a poem taken from The Oldest Girl In the World by Carol Ann Duffy (Faber, 2000, ISBN 0-571-20576-3).

THE OLDEST GIRL IN THE WORLD

Children, I remember how I could hear
with my soft young ears
the tiny sounds of the air-
tinkles and chimes
like miniscule bells
ringing continually there;
clinks and chinks
like glasses of sparky gooseberry wine,
jolly and glinting and raised in the air.
Yes, I could hear like a bat! And how!
Can’t hear a sniff of it now.

Truly, believe me, I could all the time see
every insect that crawled in a bush,
every bird that hid in a tree,
individually.
If I wanted to catch a caterpillar
to keep as a pet in a box
I had only to watch a cabbage
and there it would be,
crawling bendy and green towards me.
Yes, I could see with the eys of a cat. Miaow!
Can’t see a sniff of it now.

And my sense of taste was second to none.
By God, the amount I knew with my tongue!
The shrewd taste of a walnut’s brain.
The taste of a train from a bridge.
Of a kiss. Of air chewy with midge.
Of fudge from a factory two miles away
from the house where I lived.
I’d stick out my tongue
to savour the sky in a droplet of rain.
Yes, I could taste like the fang of a snake. Wow!
Can’t taste a sniff of it now.

On the scent, what couldn’t I smell
with my delicate nose, my nostrils of pearl?
I could smell the world!
Snow. Soot. Soil.
Satsumas snug in their Christmas sock.
The ink of a pen.
The stink of an elephant’s skin.
The blue broth of a swimming-pool. Dive in!
The showbizzy gasp of the wind.
Yes, I could smell like a copper’s dog. Bow-wow!
Can’t smell a sniff of it now.

As for my sense of touch
it was too much!
The cold of a snowball
felt through the vanishing heat of a mitt.
A peach like an apple wearing a vest.
The raffia dish of a bird’s nest.
A hot chestnut
branding the palm at the heart of the fist.
The stab of the thorn on the rose. Long grass, its itch.
Yes, I could feel with the sensitive hand of a ghost.
Whooo!
Can’t feel a sniff of it now.

Can’t see a
Can’t hear a
Can’t taste a
Can’t smell a
Can’t feel a bit of it whiff of it niff of it
Can’t get a sniff of it now.

Carol Ann Duffy

PRESENTATION

Give the class copies of the poem and read it aloud to them more than once. Split the poem into the 5 different senses and the class into 5 different groups. Ask each group to read “their” sense. Make sure they are helped with difficult or unfamiliar words. For example. see who knows what “a copper’s dog” is! If no-one knows then tell them.

ACTIVITY

Ask each pupil to make a list of all the things they can hear with their ears. Look at all the senses and make a list for each one- what they can see, taste, smell, touch.
Use the content of the lists to make poems. Give the pupils a clear, simple structure for their poems. For example:

I went out with my ears and I could hear...

I went out with my eyes and I could see...

I went out with my nose and I could smell...

I went out with my tongue and I could taste...

I went out with my hands and I could touch...

Here are some other poems which deal with observation and the senses:

I SAW

I saw a peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet drop down hail
I saw a cloud with ivy circled round
I saw a sturdy oak creep on the ground
I saw an ant swallow up a whale
I saw a raging sea brim full of ale
I saw a Venice glass sixteen foot deep
I saw a well full of men’s tears that weep
I saw their eyes all in a flame of fire
I saw a house as big as the moon and higher
I saw the sun even in the midst of night
I saw the man that saw this wondrous sight.

ANON

ESCAPE AT BEDTIME

The lights from the parlour and kitchen shone out
Through the blinds and the windows and bars;
And high overhead and all moving about,
There were thousands of millions of stars.
There ne’er were such thousands of leaves on a tree,
Nor of people in church or the Park,
As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me,
And that glittered and winked in the dark.

The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all,
And the star of the sailor, and Mars,
These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall
Would be half full of water and stars.
They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries,
And they soon had me packed into bed;
But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,
And the stars going round in my head.

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

In my childhood trees were green
And there was plenty to be seen.
Come back early or never come.

My father made the walls resound,
He wore his collar the wrong way round.
Come back early or never come.

My mother wore a yellow dress,
Gently, gently, gentleness.
Come back early or never come.

When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after that was quite the same.
Come back early or never come.

The dark was talking to the dead.
The lamp was dark beside my bed.
Come back early or never come.

When I woke they did not care,
Nobody, nobody was there.
Come back early or never come.

When my silent terror cried
Nobody. nobody replied.
Come back early or never come.

I got up; the chilly sun
Saw me walk away alone.
Come back early or never come.

LOUIS MACNEICE

A BOY’S SONG

Where the pools are bright and deep,
Where the grey trout lies asleep,
Up the river and over the lea,
That’s the way for Billy and me.
Where the blackbird sings the latest,
Where the hawthorn blooms the sweetest,
Where the nestlings chirp and flee,
That’s the way for Billy and me.

Why the boys should drive away
Little sweet maidens from the play,
Or love to banter and fight so well,
That’s the thing I never could tell.

But this I know, I love to play
Through the meadow, among the hay;
Up the water and over the lea,
That’s the way for Billy and me.

JAMES HOGG

CHILDHOOD

I used to think that grown-up people chose
To have stiff backs and wrinkles round their nose,
And veins like small fat snakes on either hand,
On purpose to be grand.
‘Till through the banisters I watched one day
My great aunt Etty’s friend, who was going away,
And how her onyx beads had come unstrung.
I saw her grope to find them as they rolled;
And then I knew that she was helplessly old,
As I was helplessly young.

FRANCES CORNFORD

Here is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy about the sensation of riding a bicycle. In the poem, the child imagines that the bicycle is a galloping horse.

LIGHTNING STAR

I run at Lightning Star
and mount her back in one smooth jump;
then gallop her down Rising Brook,
wind in my face.
my pigtails thump.

My trusty steed.
I bend low to her ear
as trees rush by in camouflage.
We fly,
her coconut hooves racing with my heart
towards Moss Pit.

My piebald mount.
My equine brave.
My speed of light.
My warrior.
My Lightning Star.

It isn’t far
to where we live-
21 Poplar Way-
so I slow down
as we approach the giant trees
which guard our neat estate.
I’m saddle-sore.
I stand up in my stirrups.
Time for bed.
I feel my horse’s handlebars against my knees.
I hear my horse’s neighing in my head.

ACTIVITY

After you have read and tallked about the poem with the class, ask each pupil to choose a physical activity that they enjoy- cycling, swimming, trampolining, skipping etc- and talk them through a short piece of their own writing describing and imagining all the physical sensations of the activity.

Here is another poem by Carol Ann Duffy which describes a child’s sensations of being held by his grandfather and of playing football together on the grass.

SHARP FRECKLES

He picks me up, his big thumbs under my armpits tickle,
then puts me down. On his belt there is a shining silver buckle.
I hold his hand and see, close up, the dark hairs on his knuckles.

He sings to me. His voice is loud and funny and I giggle.
Now we will eat. I listen to my breakfast as it crackles.
He nods and smiles. His eyes are birds in little nests of wrinkles.

We kick a ball, red and white, between us. When he tackles
I’m on the ground, breathing a world of grass. It prickles.
He bends. He lifts me high above his head. Frightened, I wriggle.

Face to his face, I watch the sweat above each caterpillar-eyebrow trickle.
He rubs his nose on mine, once, twice, three times, and we both chuckle.
He hasn’t shaved today. He kisses me. He has sharp freckles.

DISCUSSION

Give the pupils a copy of the poem and read it aloud to them. Then read one verse at a time and ask the pupils to tell you all the physical sensations they can find in the poem.

As an extra activity, you could ask the pupils what they notice about the sound of the words at the end of each line. Do they rhyme, or half-rhyme or chime together?