A tour of the Archive with Helen Gray

Helen Gray, teacher


As a secondary schoolteacher in London for the past thirty years, it has been my privilege to have had a job which at its core, involves getting teenagers to fall in love with poetry. I have made my selection for this tour from my working perspective. As a consequence one frustration of writing the guide is not being able to call up the voices of earlier poets. I want us to stop and listen to the inspired love in Keats' voice as he reads Bright Star and then to move on to hear Shakespeare's tone as he warns us in Sonnet 129 of the perils of lust. A profound consolation that the existence of this site offers me is that no such limit will be placed upon access to poets' voices in the future.



Timothy Winters

Charles Causley

This poem has an almost magical effect in the classroom as it never fails in reproducing the very experience that it describes. Students unfailingly extend human sympathy and understanding towards Timothy. In a beautiful echo of Timothy's own loud 'amen' it is always those students with the most troubled lives themselves who are swiftest to comprehend Timothy's plight and the irony implicit his innocent prayer. Classroom responses to this poem also illustrate the wonderful power of poetic language to illuminate even when first literal meanings have become inaccessible. I have heard several wonderful interpretations of 'with eyes as wide as a football pool' still strangely in keeping with the original poem but connecting now with aspirations to the lives of highly paid footballers, their mansions and their pools.

Brendon Gallacher

Jackie Kay

The significance and the power of hearing accent is, of course, an important aspect of the Archive. From Charles Causley's compassionate Cornish burr we move to Jackie Kay's musical Scottish tones. Her unique energy and engagement are captured and reflected in the fabric of the sounds she makes. This poem centres on two ideas that always engage students: love, and slightly more surprisingly, imaginary friends. The poem rings so true, that a classroom can become flooded with students freed from self-consciousness and wishing to share details of their own imaginary companions. The poem becomes a gift from the point of view of encouraging creative writing and getting students to select significant details from their own lives which will then resonate beyond their initial meaning when crafted in to poetry.

April Rise

Laurie Lee

This poem is a stunningly beautiful swirl of sounds and images. Lee's voice conjures the almost holy, watery beauty of a rural early morning but his commentary invites us to consider the bleakness of our own London environment. The poem can be used to encourage students to listen with their hearts rather than their intellects and to appreciate the sheer beauty of sounds and phrases before subjecting work to any intellectual analysis. I ask them to listen to the recording two or three times and stress that understanding is not important at this stage. Instead I ask that they simply pick out a phrase that they found particularly beautiful and we cover the board with these words in playful way. Then we begin to find connections between these seemingly random selections, and slowly they move from just being arrested by the beauty of the sounds and images towards an analysis of the fabric of the poem itself.

Granny Is

Valerie Bloom

I love the diversity of Valerie Bloom's work and the extraordinary talent that she has for eliciting creative writing from children. Valerie has visited my school several times and once was our poet in residence for a period of six weeks. She savours every word and gets teenagers to do so too. Her work reminds me of Blake in that it has a beguiling simplicity which overlies a complexity of ideas and structure. I use 'Two Seasons' to build a comparative study with Keats' 'Ode to Autum' but for sheer joy and exquisite perception of both the grandmother and the child's perception of her I have chosen 'Granny is'. Like many poems it is essentially a list and this encourages students to create their own Granny lists but as they look closely they learn about structure and about careful detailed observation.

Anyone lived in a pretty how town

E. E. Cummings

This poem reminds me of my own English teacher Jo Kelly. She encouraged us to relish complexity and as a class we would unpuzzle the poems and then unpuzzle the universe. I can still smell the anthology that we had and see this poem on its printed page. There is both a rebellion and a submission in cummings' work, both comedy and tragedy, and for this reason students still love him and his mysteries today. He's also great for engendering discussions about grammar, spelling and creativity.

Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits

Elizabeth Jennings

My last choice is just about me, not the classroom. I love the 'humility at one with craft' which Jennings identifies in Rembrandt's work but which also is so evident in her own, honest and true, choice of language and subject. The connecting land between different art forms is always an interesting place but the landscape between painting and poetry has a special pull for me. I enjoy the restraint in her voice as she reads and the rigour which governs her writing. Her work always has an intense, spiritual resonance for me.


Helen Gray, teacher

Helen Gray has worked teaching English in Graveney School, a successful inner city comprehensive school for thirty years. Her pupils range in age from 11 to 18 and come from widely diverse backgrounds. Helen is also involved in teacher training and has taken an active role numerous literature projects and initiatives in London. She was a trustee of the Poetry Society from 2006-2009.

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