Poetry Vandalism

Despite the promotion flung at initiatives such as World Poetry Day, poetry remains deeply uncool in the eyes of most school pupils.

This attitude is rooted in annual regurgitations of lessons on Wilfred Owen, Rudyard Kipling and, bigads, Shakespeare. Presumptions about archaic language and old-fashioned ideals are made before the verses have even been read, and teachers are left with an uphill battle.

These challenges relate, of course, to the reading and analysing of poetry. Far greater blinkers appear when a teacher is bold enough to ask the pupils to write the stuff for themselves.

The accepted wisdom amongst English teachers is that getting pupils to write poetry is not worth the hassle. The quality which they produce is forecast to be so poor that lessons spent in such a futile pursuit will essentially be time wasted. Forget writing poetry for an exam paper – the mad angry marker will have a field day with his giant red pen.

Pupils, for their part, can be equally wriggly at the thought of writing poetry (but would they be, had they been encouraged to do so throughout their schooling experience?). Poems are, after all, for losers. Nobody actually reads poetry for, like, fun. Poets are not celebrities; their world is not rock n' roll and premieres and red carpets. So why bother?

For the last four years December has, to some people, become International Put Your Poem In A Shop Month (or, IPYPIASM). The premise is simple: you write a poem about something in a shop. You then visit that shop and stash your poem, secretly, beside its subject matter. Take a photograph of it there, for posterity, then evaporate before the security guard catches up. Available online are pictures of poems about bread sitting in bakers' baskets, and verses about Lady Gaga tucked in beside CDs in a music shop.

There is something a little subversive about all of this. Taking a medium as strait-laced as poetry and turning it, essentially, into hooliganism generates adrenaline. I hear from regular IPYPIASMers that it is highly addictive. And what's more, this exhilaration translates into the classroom.

I attempted it myself recently. Having flogged the pupils through a series of lessons on a poem which relied heavily for its impact on personification, it seemed sensible to harness the knowledge they had acquired. The pupils were randomly allocated locations in and around the school grounds, as well as a number of local businesses. They were encouraged to consider how they might personify the subject of their poem, to give it personality.

Once the poems were written, the fun part began. Using a digital camera, the pupils surreptitiously planted their poems all over the school – one about maths in the maths corridor, one about the canteen in the canteen, one about the toilets in the toilets. The prospect that others would see their poetry in unexpected places, and that it might start a talking point, spurred the class on and provided them, however briefly, with real pleasure from writing poetry.

Some caveats: permission was sought from the headteacher before vandalising the schoolgrounds with scraps of paper. Consent was also acquired from local businesses before the pupils were allowed to plant their poetry in shops, bakers and fishmongers. In both instances authorisation was gladly given. And special attention needs to be given to the content of the poetry. The pupils' work needs to be individually vetted. Nothing derogatory should be allowed, nothing which could cause offence to dinner ladies or embarrassment to the local butcher. After all, the essence of poetry vandalism lies in the novelty, the quirkiness and the humour.

More examples of poetry vandalism can be found below:

The Road Less Travelled

Emerging writer



Alan Gillespie

Alan is an English teacher and short story writer. You can find more about him at alangillespie.wordpress.com.