I teach English in an inner-city Manchester school. It’s been a tough week. Monday night’s terrorist attack created a backdrop of sirens, questions and uncertainty. Our school is as diverse as the wider city, we have a palette of pupils from all corners of the globe, from the far-East, from Asia, from the Middle East, from Europe. All united in Manchester. As one of my Year 7 pupils said in a lesson this week ‘We are all different raindrops from the same cloud.’ Apt. ‘Some are born here, some drawn here, but they all call it home,’ as Tony Walsh read, in his now widely-shared poem from the vigil on the steps of Manchester town hall. But despite the uncertainty, the anxiety, the tension, our kids have been remarkably unfazed. As the police helicopters circled above and the news came streaming in of arrests and controlled-explosions in their neighbourhoods, they shrugged it off, steeled against it. There was sorrow for the victims, and concern for the future, but a complete unwillingness to be divided. And one of the things that has played an important part in this resolve and resilience, is poetry.
Poetry helps us to understand complex emotions, events and circumstances. As Manchester poet Lemn Sissay explained in a BBC interview in 2015:
“Poetry can serve a person just by being written and read out at a funeral or a wedding or at the birth of a child. […] Poetry has a bridge between the spiritual and the physical. That’s why it’s in the Bible, that’s why it’s in the Qur’an, that’s why the Buddhist faith uses it […] when you feel a desperate need for that bridge […] It’s because poetry is the bridge between now and then, the past and the future, it’s an incredibly powerful thing and it is around us all the time.”
It certainly helped me on the morning after the attack, when I was trying to make sense of what had happened, trying to find hope. Like many I suppose, one of the first places I looked to as the terrible news reeled in was Twitter. It was alive with alerts, news, opinion, a dizzying whir. And then I found this, from Manchester poet Mike Garry, and it was like stepping into a quiet room from the manic street, a chapel:
A simple haiku that says so much. And the form, the restrained syllables, both concentrates the image and yet calms, gives space. It’s a deep breath. And not a syllable is wasted, the power in the word ‘solid’, the tragedy in the word ‘beauty’. I felt a surge within, civic pride and the realisation of the power that words can have in the most difficult of times. I decided that would be the first thing my pupils would see when they came in to my classroom that day, Mike’s haiku on the board. My first class was Year 8.
I might have gone a bit overboard. Having the poem on the board was one thing, blasting out Joy Divisions ‘Atmosphere’ as the kids came in was another. But Curtis’s lyrics carried a new resonance. ‘Don’t walk away, don’t turn away in silence. See the danger, always danger, endless talking, life rebuilding, don’t walk away.’
‘Sir, can we listen to Ariana Grande instead?’
But it was the poem that opened the conversation, that broke the ice. They were interested in the image of the arms wide open. We talked about Manchester’s history, of immigration, of multiculturalism. They picked up on how that will not be shaken by the acts of the terrorist, how we can’t let it. They loved the idea of ‘beauty amongst ugliness’, and gave their opinions on what the ugliness could be. Is it the act of terror, specifically? Is it the mindset of the people responsible? One kid even suggested it could be modern life, global conflicts, poverty. The conversation flowed, triggered by poetry.
I played them the video of Mike’s poem ‘The Threads That Weave’. Commissioned by MUFC in 2012, it now holds new resonance, an uplifting hymn for the city.
They listened in silence and there was a spontaneous round of applause at the end. It’s a powerful piece of work and accessible and going through it helped unlock further discussion and understanding. The metaphors in the poem made it easier to comprehend ideas about the city. ‘We are the sign of the cross,’ Mike reads, ‘temples, synagogues and mosques.’ We picked apart the imagery. ‘We are the warp and weft.’ I showed them images of how warp and weft works in textiles, they instantly understood the point Mike makes. ‘It’s like we’re different but all part of the same thing, isn’t it? And stronger together, like threads in a material.’ I played the poem every lesson that day and each class brought new interpretations, new understanding. My Year 9 group talked about the line ‘We are cotton sewn through history,’ and we were discussing how the Mancunian spirit prevails, runs through each generation. ‘Unbreakable,’ a boy said. I asked him to explain. He told the class how the thread is strong and even stronger when it sewn through fabric, stitching together different pieces, like different communities, stronger together. Perceptive stuff, and again it was the poetry that unlocked it.
By the end of the first lesson that day, my Year 8 pupils had constructed their own poem, using Mike Garry’s approach. They each wrote a metaphor that expressed their feelings about the city. We wrote them on strips of coloured paper and collated them. When we read it out, each pupil reading their own line, it was an emotional experience. There were a few giggles and a bit of awkwardness at first, but a couple of lines in and there was a confidence in the room, a charged atmosphere. We finished it and again there was applause, a relief. We had created something out of the confusion and tension of the morning, untangled the thoughts and brought something positive to light. And again it was poetry that enabled it, as the sirens flared again outside.
Extracts from their collective poem, ‘This Is Manchester’:
The next day we continued, picking apart the poetry, using it as a starting point. The horror of what happened was starting to sink in, some pupils wanted to talk about it, others didn’t. Poetry offered a proxy, a way of starting to discuss and process further what had happened without the heavy or uncomfortable challenge of talking directly about it, unless they wanted to. Fears of division in the community were set aside by watching footage from the vigil, the inspiring show of solidarity of the Manchester community, with thousands gathered in the sunlight, showing the world that the city would not be plunged into division. And again, poetry gave voice to it the most powerfully, with Tony Walsh’s poem summing up the grit, the determination, the character of the city.
Again the kids listened and again they burst into applause, the poem and the performance putting into words the resolve we all so desperately need. Some pupils recognised Tony, we invited him into school a couple of years ago to help a group of pupils write poetry about the city. It was hugely successful and the pupils wrote some fantastic poems with him, some of which can be found here.
I’m not sure what will happen in the weeks to come, as the net draws in on the terrorist network and the community is put under even more pressure but I do know that as teachers we need to be ready to talk about it. Poetry isn’t everything, obviously. There is a lot of work to be done in schools and in the community to reassure, to unite, to prevent division and promote cohesion, but it starts with dialogue and understanding and poetry is a good starting place.