Famous first words: Why we mustn’t overlook juvenile jottings

Many poets start young, and the winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year award are no exception. So why, asks Judith Palmer, is 'juvenilia' a dirty word? Plus, Brian Patten's confessions of a teen poet
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John Keats was something of a late starter. His star didn't begin to shine until he was an age-weary 20, with his first published sonnet "To Solitude". Rimbaud was all but written out by that age. Dylan Thomas, Marina Tsvetaeva, Sylvia Plath and Alexander Pope are just a few of poetry's greats who first wowed the public in their teens.

But rejecting one's early work is also a traditional rite of passage. Robert Browning destroyed his childhood collection Incondita, lest it damage his mature reputation. Leigh Hunt blamed his meteoric boyhood success for a mediocre adult showing.

It's as if the word "juvenilia" was invented to act as some kind of decontaminating quarantine chamber. But is teenage poetry really so worthless? "We do not neatly pass through a discrete period of juvenilia before entering adulthood," suggests the former Oxford poetry professor James Fenton. "Nor are poets cheeses. You cannot prod us and say: yes, this one is now mature; this one needs another six weeks. When we write of people passing from a phase of immaturity to maturity, we are often guilty of tidying up reality, of simplifying experience."

The latest young poetic talents will dash from the starting gates on 7 October, with the announcement of the winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Now in its 13th year, the prestigious competition for poets aged 11-17 has a strong track record of identifying and encouraging some of the most exciting new voices who are currently reshaping the landscape of contemporary ' poetry. These include the previous winners Caroline Bird, who had her first collection published aged just 15 and is now on volume number three; Helen Mort, the new writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust and a regular crowd-gatherer at festivals such as Latitude and the Big Chill; and Jay Bernard, who has been chosen to read with two of poetry's biggest names, Jackie Kay and Jo Shapcott, at the re-opening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in December. A host of other former winners will take to the stage with Simon Armitage at London's Southbank Centre on 7 October, National Poetry Day.

This year's Foyle judges, Luke Kennard and Jane Draycott, had to consider nearly 21,000 poems to select the cohort of young writers the award will nurture through the years to come. "The best poems show a directness that adult writers would envy," says Draycott. "Teenagers are not afraid of over-reaching yet, whereas 19- to 22-year-olds are so afraid of being pretentious that they start falling back on clichés," Kennard suggests.

Traditionally, young writers have developed by imitating their immediate predecessors. The young Browning copied Byron, Auden mimicked Hardy, while Larkin harked back to Auden. Reading today's teens, Kennard was struck by the lack of obvious hero imitation: "There was plenty of evidence of wide reading and technical accomplishment, yet these teenagers have the confidence to write in their own voices. That was unexpected – and at that age is astounding."

"The Foyle winners still have faith in the imagination," says Draycott. "Their poems are exploratory, showing intellectual curiosity and a surreal element. Teenage poetry can be wildly adventurous. That's what any good poem needs – the ability to surprise".

For more information: foyleyoungpoets.org

Brian Patten recalls his artistic awakening in this portrait of the poet as a young man

Thirteen years old, spotty and a lost cause, I was sitting in the back row of the "C" stream when Mr Wooley, the headmaster, burst into the classroom waving a piece of paper and shouting, "Where's Patten?" I thought it must be a letter of complaint he was waving and that I was in trouble again. I'd already been up before him for smoking and fighting. But it wasn't trouble. Mr Wooley was bringing good news for once. He'd just read an essay I'd written about the summer holidays and declared it the most poetic he'd read for years. "You're moving up to the top stream immediately," he said. Everyone was amazed, especially myself. I was happy enough where I was.

That was probably the first time I'd been praised for anything. I'd already been written off. I was useless at lessons. I'd failed my 11-plus, and halfway through the 13-plus exam I'd given up even trying. I remember staring at the questions, not really comprehending what it was that was expected of me. I left most of them unanswered. I wasn't thick or being wilful, but like many other kids in the Liverpool secondary modern I attended, my way of thinking was not the same as that of the people who set the exams. We were wired differently.

After Mr Wooley, I came into the orbit of Mr Sutcliffe, a teacher I still remember with affection. He knew none of us would be going on to further education and so tried to inspire us with his own enthusiasms. When he told us the story of the Flying Dutchman, about how the captain of a ship conjures up the Devil in a storm and is doomed to sail the seas forever, the class was mesmerised. It was his telling of such stories that fired our otherwise undernourished imaginations. He encouraged me to write more by setting me the most bloodthirsty exercises he could think of. I sought his approval and received it. After constantly being told how useless I was, his approval was rain on parched land. With it, I blossomed. From being a no-hoper whose attention span was minimal, I became, under his influence, an avid scribbler of badly spelt and ink-stained poems.

The imagination needs to be crank-started one way or another, and Mr Sutcliffe certainly did that, but I might have continued writing the same one-dimensional stuff full of thees and thous had not a particular radio programme caught my attention. One evening, I turned on the radio and heard a deep voice, a bit like the one that read the weather forecast, reciting:

"A sudden blow: the great
wings beating still
Above the staggering
girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her
nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless
breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified
vague fingers push
The feathered glory from
her loosening thighs?"

I didn't hear any more of that WB Yates poem. Gran came into the room and sneered, "Turn that bloody rubbish off." As far as she was concerned, the radio had been invented to broadcast horse races and football results.

The Yates poem had sounded wonderful. At 14, phrases such as "helpless breast" and "loosening thighs" helped. But it was more than that. The strangeness of the words created a spell that unshackled me from any preconceptions I might have had about poetry. What I felt shifted focus. The writing became internal, and through it I tried to articulate the growing isolation I felt from my schoolmates. I haunted the local library and discovered Walt Whitman, DH Lawrence and Dylan Thomas.

My luck held. When I left school at 15, I stumbled across a club called Streats. It was in the basement of a run-down tenement on the edge of Liverpool's city centre and was full of poets and the usual misfits. It was here I met other poets, including Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Pete Brown, who went on to write "I Feel Free" and other songs for Cream. I began taking part in local poetry readings, reciting badly and perhaps tolerated because of my youth. By the time I was 16, I was editing a magazine called Underdog, and by 17 I'd given up the day job and was living in an attic room in Toxteth, my head on fire with poems. A few years later my first book was published. I was lucky. None of it would have happened without that early encouragement.

Young talent needs encouragement not criticism. For many creative young people, it provides the fuel needed for them to continue. Youth is impatient to express itself and, being short, poems are the perfect vehicles for those in a hurry. Not all young poets carry on writing poetry. Some burn out and others change course. I suspect most of our famous novelists and playwrights have early poems stuffed away on their bottom shelves. In one way or another, all of them will have been nourished by the encouragement of others.

So let's hear it for the Foyle Foundation and its young poets award; and not just for the winners, but for all young poets.

Gilded youth: Two poems by Brian Patten's younger self

'Combing out your yellow hair with broken glass'

I wandered through
some empty religions
my mind and body were singing
and hour upon hour
I sat speaking to the scarecrows
watching them weep tears of straw
as the wind rippled through
their ribs muttering fantasies
I drained the accidental
blood from your lips
& watched your mocking lovers
carry you beyond my
outstretched hands
The snow boiled dry
in the crimson earth
and I was a child trapped
between a million private suicides
my heart was yellow
with fears and murder
You were dead and could not speak
So I gave you a mouth of wax and wept
when it melted in the sunlight
I hid you from the daylight
under the sand dunes
And at night I dug you up
Combing out your yellow
hair with broken glass

Written at 15, previously unpublished

'Sleep Now'

In memory of Wilfred Owen

Sleep now,
Your blood moving in the quiet wind;
No longer afraid of the rabbits
Hurrying through the tall grass
Or the faces laughing from
The beach and among cold trees.

Sleep now,
Alone in the sleeves of grief,
Listening to clothes falling
And to your flesh touching God;
To the chatter band backslapping
Of Christ meeting heroes of war.

Sleep now,
Your words have passed
The lights shining from the East
And the sound of flack
Raping graves and emptying seasons.

You do not hear the dry wind pray
Or the children play a game
called soldiers
In the street.

Written at 16, published in 'The Mersey Sound' (Penguin Modern Classics)