Poetry and dum-dum bullets

Earlier this week, I had an unexpected email from a girl I taught in a London grammar school, way back in the sixties. She’d had an email message suggesting that she thank a teacher and she was thanking me. I asked her if I could use part of her letter in this blog and she said of course, so here it is:

“I remember you getting us to move all the desks in the classroom, so we could act out the required Shakespeare texts and setting up a poetry club, encouraging us to write our own verses. I vividly remember, and can recite to this day the verse ‘your baby as gorn darn the plug ‘ole’ Perhaps not a good example of fine literature, but an example of the fun that we had in your class. So thank you for instilling a love of literature and language in me which has been a life long gift.”

I felt like cheering. No tell the truth, I actually did cheer because she’d given words to what I always believed was the most important thing about being a teacher, that learning should be fun. The ‘Plug ‘ole’ poem was a deliberate part of it. I used it every time I had a class who’d had “good” poetry pushed down their throats until they were fed up to the back teeth with it. I used to tell my polite but disgruntled pupils that we were going to have a poetry wallow. Their homework was to bring any poem or verse that they’d found fun and enjoyed, nursery rhymes, rude rhymes – they loved rude poems – and I recited the ‘Plug ‘ole’ to them as an example of what I meant. It always worked like a charm. So here it is in full:

Dahn The Plug-‘ole

A muvver was barfin’ ‘er biby one night,

The youngest of ten a tiny young mite,

The muvver was pore and the biby was thin,

Only a skelington covered in skin;

The muvver turned rahnd for the soap orf the rack,

She was but a moment, but when she turned back,

The biby was gorn; and in anguish she cried,

‘Oh, where is my biby?’ – the Angels replied:

‘Your biby ‘as fell dahn the plug-‘ole,

Your biby ‘as gorn dahn the plug;

The poor little thing was so skinny and thin

‘E oughter been barfed in a jug;

Your biby is perfectly ‘appy,

‘E won’t need a barf any more,

Your biby ‘as fell dahn the plug-‘ole,

Not lorst, but gorn before!’

So what about those dum-dum bullets?  When they got older and were beginning to develop their own tastes in poetry and often to write verses of their own, I told my classes that poetry was like a dum-dum bullet which surprised them, because in the reality of the first world war, they were hideous weapons. They entered the body and then expanded, doing appalling damage. But a powerful poem does much the same thing, only in an entirely positive and joyous way. It enters your mind, sings through your senses and expands endlessly. If it’s a really good one you never lose the joy and understanding you get from it.

As my lovely ex-pupil said “a love of literature and language which has been a life long gift.”






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