Inspired by Thomas Hardy – Students’ Poetry Workshops
In November 2018, The Thomas Hardy Society decided to spread an appreciation of Thomas Hardy’s works amongst young readers.
Faysal Mikdadi, the newly appointed Academic Director, was asked to run school-based Thomas Hardy Poetry Workshops.
Nine schools agreed to take part in the project. Four of the schools were in Dorset: Bryanston, Dorchester Middle School, St Osmund’s Church of England Middle School and Thomas Hardye School. The other five schools were made up of three in Cornwall, one in Taunton and one in Birmingham.
A total of just over one hundred students aged between 10 and 18 took part in the Workshops which resulted in the publication of 134 students’ poems.
At the same time, the National Trust put on its first Thomas Hardy Poetry Competition for students aged between 13 and 19 who lived or attended schools in Dorset.
The Anthology of the students’ poems, Inspired by Thomas Hardy, included the six finalists of the National Trust Thomas Hardy Poetry Competition 2019 and one poem by a six year old poet who submitted her poem at The Thomas Hardy Victorian Fair of Sunday 2 June 2019.
A typical poetry workshop session would start with engaging the students in a general discussion on reading and writing poetry.
The following were agreed with students as the main aims of each session:
√ Engaging students within a relaxed and friendly ambience.
√ Eliciting from students an acknowledgement of having read and written poems.
√ Getting students to talk about favourite poems read.
√ Encouraging students to discuss their own writing (of verse or prose).
√ Getting students to talk about what inspires them to write.
√ Getting students to talk about a favourite poem.
√ Imbuing students with a sense of worth through their views of poetry and of writing in general being sought, appreciated and respected.
√ Engaging reluctant students.
√ Discussing how poems are composed.
√ Showing that writing poetry is both an art form as well as a formulaic process that could be engaged with through inspiration and without.
√ Sharing a few Thomas Hardy poems as exemplars worthy of emulation.
Each student was given a little booklet put together by The Thomas Hardy Society which included the following ten Thomas Hardy poems:
◊ An August Midnight
◊ The Self-Unseeing
◊ The Orphaned Old Maid
◊ The Fiddler
◊ A Church Romance
◊ When I Set out for Lyonesse
◊ Beeny Cliff
◊ A Poet
◊ At the Railway Station, Upway
◊ On a Discovered Curl of Hair
Students started off by having a general conversation about poetry. The idea was to try to find each students’ ‘inner spark of divine fire’ to share and celebrate in order to hear and validate the individual student’s voice.
Amongst the principles agreed with each Poetry Workshop group were the following two: (1) There is no good poetry or bad poetry: there is only self-expression within a free and mutually supportive group. (2) Composing a poem can be quite artificial, e.g. occasional poetry on ‘demand’. As an example, the group would share Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The Wound in Time’ on the occasion of the Armistice Day Centenary.
Students read some or all of the poems listed. Reading the poems aloud was a way of giving students confidence in public performances. Whenever a poem was read, the listeners were asked to evaluate first the reading and then the poem itself. They were constantly urged to give reasons for everything that they said rather than simply give out judgements.
The most popular poem amongst the young poets was Hardy’s ‘An August Midnight’. The following is a replica of what the students had in their booklet:
An August Midnight
A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter - winged, horned, and spined -
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore; dumbeldore: bumblebee
While ‘mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands...
Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
- My guests besmear my new-penned line, besmear: smear over / stain
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine. supine: lazily inactive / listless
‘God’s humblest, they!’ I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.
Max Gate, 1899
Notes (based on The Poetry of Thomas Hardy – A Handbook and Commentary by J. O. Bailey, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, USA, 1970.)
‘Hardy’s reverence for all life had some basis in his reading in science, in evolutionary theory, all living things are akin…’ Hardy once remarked ‘“I often wonder how much animals know – about things – things of which we are ‘ignorant’”. The “Earth secrets” that he supposed the insects might know are not earth’s meanings. They do not know more than the poet does, but each perceives something the other does not.’
After reading the poem several times, a series of questions were asked under two headings: (1) Facts / Surface Meanings: (a) Where is the poet in this narrative? (In his study.) (b) What is he doing? (Writing.) (c) Who or what comes in? (Four creatures/insects.) (d) What is the fly doing? (Rubbing its hands.) (d) What happens to the poet’s page of writing? (The ink is smudged.) These questions were relatively easy to go through and the students were invariably praised for understanding the ‘events’ of the poem. (2) Deeper Meanings: (a) What do you think the poet is trying to tell us? (A little observation or vignette of something that happened late at night in his study.) (b) Can you support your response with a quotation from the poem? (He describes the light and sounds in the room and then tells us ‘On this scene enter…’ (c) What does the poet think that these four creatures are to start with? (‘God’s humblest, they!’) (d) When he changes his mind, what does he think about these creatures? (‘They know Earth-secrets that know not I.’)
Through discussions and further questioning, students were given opportunities to expand on their understanding of the poem in any way that they wished on condition that whatever they said was supported from the text in front of them.
Working alone or in pairs, the students replaced the first six lines of the poem with their own observation of anything that came to their mind. They could, if they wished, use Hardy’s language if they needed to, e.g. they could write, ‘An old desk lamp and a dusty blind, / And the sound of mum’s TV the other side of my wall: / On this scene enter – fluttering, mewing, and growling / My horrible brother, with his I-Phone and grumpy mood…’ The lines did not need to rhyme.
This process was repeated with other poems. As each poem is read, discussed, analysed and ‘re-written’, students were encouraged to take risks and ‘improve’ on Hardy using their own poetic genius.
Here are a few examples of what the students wrote.
After ‘An August Midnight’
Serena Forwood (Bryanston School)
A ray of sun and the mutter of leaves
The mark of a minute, faster than it seems
On this scene enter – nerves, anticipation and dread –
Children, pupils, peers; all longing for bed.
Row upon row, behind and beside
Away from sun, trapped inside…
‘An August Midnight’
Collaborative Work by St Ives Students
A dirty lamp and tattered blind,
A broken chime from a distant ground,
Patterned, spiked, winged – entered the scene
A bumblebee, a caterpillar and a ladybird.
While within my dark works they shine innocent,
Insignificant, slumped there without sense,
As time slows, I sit in the company of my neighbours,
During the span, as I forget my labours,
One line broken, one sound misheard
Or shelter under the lamp, ambivalent yet assertive
‘Lucky are they, in their oblivion’ and yet
Our ignorance seems to be set.
The Night of the Insects
Harry Dyer (Trewirgie Junior School)
A bright phone and a blinding light,
With a moth a fly and a longlegs on this Tuesday night,
The humble moth repeatedly ramming in to the lamp,
The fly is crawling on the old Gramp,
The longlegs is just being big,
Whilst the fly is hiding under a wig,
How they’re still awake at this late hour,
Is a thing called insect power!!!
These are only a few examples of how students were inspired by Thomas Hardy’s ‘An August Midnight’.
Another very popular Thomas Hardy poem was ‘The Self-Unseeing’ which appeared in the Students’ Booklet as follows:
Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day; emblazoned: displayed brightly
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
This poem ‘presents Hardy’s nostalgic meditation during a visit to his boyhood home at Higher Bockhampton… The characters are himself, his father, and his mother.’ Hardy as a child was no more than four years old dancing to his father’s playing of the violin.
This poem evoked many memories of recent childhood which students wished to share through their poems. However, the poem also inspired some young poets to write on a different subject whilst emulating Thomas Hardy’s style, structure and form rather than purely using his meaning. Here are a few examples of what some composed:
Some students from St Osmund’s also based their poems on ‘The Self-Unseeing’: Hedley Richardson, Sophia Thorpe and Freddie Warburton.
When You Said Your Last Goodbye
A singing bird, a waving tree,
A happy time, just you and me.
A howling wind, a crashing sea,
By your side, wherever you may be.
You woke up with a tear drop in your eye,
I woke up next to you wondering why?
I am very worried, rather annoyed,
You stop speaking and start to avoid.
Something is wrong, not quite right,
You move away, we start to fight.
Which path do I follow? I am lost.
I cry an ocean and miss you lots.
When you whispered your last goodbye,
You left and you made me cry.
Being with you is the most treasured time,
I thought that you would always be mine.
There Is Not Much That I Can Do
By Sophia Thorpe
There is not much that I can do
With my ideas, so few
In a world where I am insignificant
All I seem to do is rant.
But still, is there hope?
Or am I just on a downward slope?
Could a person change their fate?
Or is it just too late?
I will make a change,
My words will not derange,
I can make a difference,
I will make the world see sense.
I Know That You Mean Well
I know that you mean well,
Coming up to me with the hounds of hell,
The road to hell has good intentions to sell,
And when it sells it will ring its bells.
Another one is falling now,
When you see the devil you bow,
Then you will be thrown into a lava pit,
Your own inner demons come with a whip.
It’s just you hurting yourself,
You staring back at you in the depths of hell,
Your mind creating a way to repent,
Going through this eternal torment.
You knew what you did was wrong,
It might not have taken too long,
You lived with it for the rest of your life,
And now you suffer eternal strife.
'The Avenue of Dreams'
During the Workshops there were occasions when interludes were needed, the process of reading and emulating Hardy’s poems was replaced with one of the following two light hearted verse ‘games’: (1) Exquisite Corpses: A student would write a first line of a poem. The paper was passed on to a student who wrote a second line. Before s/he passed the paper on to the next student, s/he bent the paper so that the first line could not be seen and the next writer saw only the previous line just written. The third writer wrote a line continuing the second line and bent the paper so that his/her line was the only that could be seen by the fourth writer…etc… At the end of the process the paper returned to the one who had written the first line. S/he read the finished poem out. A discussion on whether the poem made sense, was cohesive…etc… As a group, the poem might be edited to ‘improve’ it. (2) Collaborative Genius: A first line was written and the paper was passed on without hiding any previous writing. As the paper went around the room, each student added one line…etc… The paper came back to the first writer who then read it out. A discussion similar to that for (1) above took place.
The following questions were asked before moving on to the next Thomas Hardy poem: (1) Do poems have to make sense? (2) Do poems have to rhyme? (3) What matters more; the meaning or the sound? (4) How long or short should a poem be? (5) What possible poetic devices can the students think of – with examples where possible?
The students were given between thirty minutes and one hour to compose their own individual poems. On some rare occasions, two close friends could collaborate on writing a single poem. Students could produce whatever they wished. If they needed a framework or writing scaffold, they might use any Thomas Hardy poem from the little booklet, emulate it or, if they felt the need, borrow from it. Students were asked to ensure that what they borrowed was clearly placed within inverted commas to acknowledge that the words were not theirs.
Once the writing session was over, each student was encouraged to read his/her work to the others. After each reading, students were asked to give only positive comments to start with. Whatever comment they made, they had to offer evidence from the text. After all the positive comments are made, students were asked to be critical friends and to suggest what could be done better (always with clear reference to the text being critically appreciated).
Students’ word processed their poems on the day of the Workshop. The poems were included in the Anthology Inspired by Thomas Hardy exactly as they were submitted. Where there appeared to be any apparent errors or omissions, the poet is asked if this were intentional (poetic licence) or if they wished the error or omission rectified.
Where possible and weather permitting students were accompanied out for a walk in search of inspiration. At the Dorchester Middle School, students went out on to the school field. One student explained how she was tasked to count the number of grass blades around the field. She and her friends solved the problem by measuring a very small and manageable area of the field, counting the blades in it, obtaining the overall area of the field from various plans and using the available information to calculate the number of grass blades by carrying out the necessary mathematical operation based on the number of grass blades in the small area multiplied by the overall area…etc… In turn, this discussion led to a group poem:
Blades of Grass
Dorchester Middle Students
When it’s cut.
Bugs crawling around.
Flowers blooming across the field.
Waving in the breeze.
Dig your hand into the grass.
You forget the number you’re on.
Students at the Thomas Hardye School went for a walk trying to work out what inspiration actually was. The walk was led by a student who took everyone towards a green landscape with a few trees. When asked what inspired them about the area, students pointed out two trees standing apart, a clump of trees to the left, a rigidly straight line of young trees to the side, an undulating landscape, the ‘fake’ exterior of Poundbury houses looking, in the students’ words, ‘like a clumsy theatre set with their unconvincing classical columns’, a group of daffodils standing in rigid formation, the blue sky and wonderful sunshine. A student gave an impromptu recitation of a favourite poem of his ‘A Poison Tree’ by Blake.
Students invariably evaluated the Thomas Hardy Poetry Workshops in positive terms. The following are a few of the participants’ evaluations: ‘the teacher is funny’, ‘enjoyable’, ‘free to express myself’, ‘analysis of the poems gave me ideas’, ‘loved the ‘no wrong answers’ idea’, ‘the group poem was fun’, ‘I really enjoyed changing Hardy’s old poem’, ‘my favourite was rewriting the Lyonnesse poem’, ‘great discussions’, ‘I enjoyed the critical friend bit’, ‘Thomas Hardy is a really good poet’, ‘I like expressing my thoughts’, ‘the teacher is really enthusiastic’, ‘pleasant to listen to each other’, ‘‘The Self-Unseeing’ made me want to be a child again but this time I am looking’, ‘‘The Self-Unseeing’ shows that anything can happen in a child’s world’, ‘the teacher’s passion for poetry is infectious’, ‘can we have more lessons like this next year?’, ‘It is fantastic to be able to re-write the Greats…’, ‘this was real fun’, ‘the teacher was a bit crazy whenever he read our poems – really cool’, ‘I really enjoyed expressing myself’…
As the Anthology Inspired by Thomas Hardy was being compiled and prepared for publication by September 2019, an e-mail was received from a Sixth Former who wrote: ‘I just want to take this opportunity to thank you for doing this Workshop. This is the first poetry I have ever written and not only have I enjoyed the process but I feel real accomplishment as a writer. I hope you continue the sessions so others can enjoy the experience too.’
These students are the poets of tomorrow. Their writings will be the inspiration to the next generation of Thomas Hardy Poetry Workshops in decades to come.