A report on a poetry lesson
delivered as part of the Writers in School Scheme
I enter the classroom armed with my rainstick; today we are hunting for words.
The walls are covered with trophies from earlier forays, and although they are there to offer encouragement I’m aware how these previous prizes might inhibit current creativity, dazzle us with their brilliance. So let us not look. We close our eyes and listen instead, treading softly in the darkness…
The air fills with sounds: the clock ticking, chairs squeaking… a car goes by – how tuned in are we? Was it a truck or a Ferrari? I ask the children to imagine being truly blind, where hearing is a matter of life and death. Is the vehicle moving towards or away from us?
We navigate the room with our ears then use touch to confirm. I tell them how the Inuit of the Arctic use the seasonal smell of flowers to guide themselves through the fog. This is a new and wondrous place to be, engaging all the senses – a change from our usual way of seeing. It offers too an alternative to our worldly preoccupation with image and surface impression. And we already have the beginning of a group sound poem: ‘Breathing, the clock ticks – chairs squeak, hum from the computer, heating system drums, a voice down the corridor… breathing, heartbeat…’
Now we gather around the rainstick, listen to its watery-music of rice or stones falling through an interior xylophone of thorns or nails driven into a hollowed cactus stalk. Then, putting the stick aside, we become ourselves a rainforest through percussion sounds: the finger-click of drip-drops from leaves, a pitter-pat downpour on knees, then foot-stomping thunder and hailstones. We feel the primal urge towards speech and move from hands and feet to mouth sounds: clicking tongues, whispering wind, cheek-slapping rain. We yodel ice the size of golf balls!
Now we are a choir. But there is still a way to go before we can mouth words. We try to re-trace the long journey, imagining ourselves back as pre-Stone Age people before the shaping of formal language, experimenting with simple sounds and gestures. Starting with one utterance, ‘Ug’, we experience how pointing to the clock, window, computer or each other in varied tones of surprise, awe, command, and questioning reveals how much tone and texture of voice can impart meaning.
And now some drama as a visitor arrives with an urgent message. There is waving of arms, strange hooting sounds… We make our guesses, play prehistoric charades. Yes, a mammoth is coming! Something to eat! But we must first get spears, then we must skin and cook it… Too slow to understand, and our meal is gone.
Now another excited visitor, this time from a tribe who do not even share our ‘Ug’. More waving of arms – we think perhaps another mammoth, grab our spears, prepare to light our fires. Fatal mistake. A forest blaze rages towards our camp – we mistook fire for mammoth, mixed up flight with fight.
We become aware too that a charade every time a mammoth arrives is too elaborate, too slow. We need to quicken time, to get to the point. Perhaps a sign in the dirt made with a stick? This one means mammoth, and here are deer, bear, wolf… And yes, this one is fire.
And somewhere along the line we develop the specificity of words. Then when we travel, we appreciate too how ‘mammoth’ is of local making – elsewhere they will name it differently, although surely there was an original universal proto-word sounding like a primal ‘raspberry’.
The mammoth charade we keep, its immediate use transformed into theatre as we early humans realise our capacity for ritual, and in the retelling of great mammoth and fire stories we acquire tradition, reflection, critical distance, history, tragedy, comedy, satire, irony. We wonder too how long before that trunk sound is rediscovered in a bamboo horn and we have music.
I glance at the classroom clock – half the allotted session to go, but we have prepared ourselves well for the final stage of our journey: the creative placing of these magical words onto a blank page. Most importantly, we have arrived here together, as a community, safe in sound.
We discuss onomatopoeia then listen to the rainstick again, this time trying out ‘wet’ words spoken as a chorus: wash, splash, plip-plop, trickle. Finally, we commit ourselves to paper, making up individual poems in response to the rainstick.
I enter the classroom armed with my rainstick –
this is ‘creative writing’ and we are here to hunt
for words. The walls are already hung with trophies
from earlier forays – some in Irish, English, others
more recent and exotic, and though they are there
to offer encouragement, I’m conscious how even
this modest treasure-trove might loom over apprentice
shoulders at the blank page; inhibit, dazzle.
Let us not look. Instead we will see with our ears
as the clock ticks, a chair squeaks,
voices resound along the corridor; cars go by,
the wind rattles a loose window
and a low hum of the heating system
echoes a communal heartbeat.
As bellies rumble, we have laughter.
We gather around the rainstick, become
ourselves a rain-forest: rubbed fingertips
suggest rustle of wind in leaves…finger snap
pitter-pat, hands slap knees into torrid downpour,
kicking up a storm as feet pound the floor
into hailstones and thunder.
Next step: percussion to mouth sounds –
whispering wind, tongue clicks of drip-drop;
lip-smacking hard rain as bullfrogs
leap from lily pads – we yodel sleet and hail
with ice the size of golf balls!
Now we are a choir. We are almost there –
safe in sound, as the naming of these sounds
begins – the words rolling from aching tonsils to the tips
of our tongues.
The words rolling from the tonsils of the children include wonderful lyrics about rain of course, but also ones about snakes hissing, rashers frying in pans… We share them all within the class, and I ask what is inside the rainstick aside from beads or stones. One child says ‘music’, another suggests ‘tears’, another offers ‘hope’. We place these new treasures on the cave walls. Finally, for a treat, we listen to ‘The Rain Stick’ by Seamus Heaney, and witness that same primal music in words like ‘sluice’, ‘rush’, ‘glitter’, and ‘drizzle’. We recognise the kinship of gutter and guttural in his world, amazed at how our Nobel Laureate is a humble caveman like ourselves.
‘Making Rain’ comprises a modified version of an article of the same name first published in Poetry Ireland News (May/ June 2012) and the poem Making Rain from Pete Mullineaux’s collection Session (Salmon, 2011).
Critical Acclaim for Session
‘[T]his collection of rare beauty and understanding takes us from the universal presence of sound in nature and everyday life, to its manifestation in traditional music. Here Mullineaux has captured the rituals and subtleties of the form… giving the reader an illuminating insight into the music and the place it inhabits, particularly the west of Ireland.’ (Sean Crosson: author of ‘The Given Note: Traditional Music and Modern Irish Poetry’)
‘Session captures the wit, inventiveness, grace and connection of player to player, of musician to the natural landscape, of seasonal rituals to the deepest desires of the heart.’ (Irish American Music & Dance Association, Minnesota, USA)
‘With requisite craft [Mullineaux] takes you into a world of observed moments, of habits and rituals, leaving you with a more enriched feeling of the occasion at hand… a beautifully written work.’ (Trad Connect, Ireland)
‘Session is a beautiful magical book, soaked in waves of musical imagery and sound… written with impeccable craftsmanship, a delight on the ear and begs to be read out loud.’ (The Ranting Beast, Ireland)
‘These reflections and resonances are evocative and insightful. Mullineaux crafts genuine and perceptive surprises. More please.’ (Orbis Magazine, UK)
Also by Pete Mulineaux in The Font, ‘Feeling our way in Friesland’ on the 2018 Vol. 1 poetry page On Language, Place and Culture.
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