Teens turn to poetry in record numbers

More than 7,000 youngsters entered this year's Young Poets of the Year Award

Jonathan Owen
Sunday 30 September 2012 01:38 BST

A record number of 11- to 17-year-olds have entered this year's Young Poets of the Year Award. More than 7,000 young people have submitted works to this year's contest, amid a growing consensus that poetry is cool. From rap-style onslaughts in packed-out poetry "slams" to performance artists appearing at festivals such as Glastonbury, Latitude and the Big Chill, poetry is being brought into the mainstream as never before.

The internet has spawned blogs showcasing new work. Artists such as the Mercury-winning poet and rapper Speech Debelle, as well as spoken-word performers Disraeli and Kate Tempest, are inspiring young followers. More than 3,200 are involved in an online network for young poets run by the Poetry Society.

The annual SLAMbassadors online contest attracts hundreds of entries. And a documentary film, We Are Poets, following a group of teenage poets from Leeds at a slam contest in the US, was released this summer.

Judith Palmer, the chair of the Poetry Society, organisers of the annual competition which is sponsored by Foyles, said young poets share the ability to "confound all the usual stereotypes about teen introspection" and can "think their way imaginatively into other lives". Describing the poetry of the new generation as "grounded and humane", she added that many of the winning poems deal with bereavement and loss with a "striking maturity".

With 46 nationalities represented in this year's entries, it is one of the largest poetry competitions in the world. Helen Mort, a poet and one of the judges, said: "Many of this year's entries were eye-catching, but the winning poems were so vivid they played tricks with the light."

Older winners (15-17) will go on a week-long writing retreat at the Arvon Foundation, in Clun Valley, Shropshire, while younger winners will be given poet mentors.

"It is a joy to see young minds and spirits using poetry as a means of revelation, for their own benefit and for ours – addressing the world as their elders are no longer equipped to do," said the poet Christopher Reid, another judge.

Roger McGough, poet and presenter of BBC Radio 4's Poetry Please, commented: "There is a vibrancy out there, illustrated by the growing numbers of teenagers taking part in competitions."

The Independent on Sunday reveals the 15 winners of this year's competition ahead of the official ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Thursday, National Poetry Day. All have tried, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested, to put "the best words in the best order".

Abigail Setchfield, 17, Bedford

Has been writing for as long as she can remember, but is determinedly ignoring anything she wrote before the age of 10. Her poem is in remembrance of the victims of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau.


"… They come off the train as humans.

Bloodied, muddied, sweat and tear-caked humans.

I look at them, and think –

I have to kill them."

Phoebe Stuckes, 16, Minehead

Started writing poetry aged 12 after growing out of a phase of wanting to be another Tolkien. Her current favourite writers include Sylvia Plath, John Green, Luke Kennard and Jack Kerouac.


"… She lost the ring that I gave her; on ardent impulse I wanted to throw her a lifebelt.

A reminder that she and I are washed up on the same shore..."

Phoebe Boswall, 17, Staplehurst, Kent

"Poetry has inspired me in a number of ways. It has been a medium through which I find release from everyday stresses and challenges. Reading work of contemporary poets such as Catherine Smith, Carol Ann Duffy, Abegail Morley, James Fenton and Clare Best has significantly altered my perspective on life: the mundane is now exotic; unnoticed details are now fascinating."


"… You played with flavours,

made little blobs of buttery dough on the tray.

Your warm kitchen, my safe haven …"

Flora de Falbe, 16, London

"I've always loved books and have written practically as long as I can remember – structurally incontinent would-be fantasy novels, an embarrassingly angsty play, pieces for school magazines."

Five things about the lake

"1. The lake is no slave to fashion, but she is proud of her frothy skirt of trees. Her dark, svelte figure.

2. She doesn't want to talk. The air rushes over her, whistling how have you been? – and she responds with a glassy stare.

3. The lake raises an eyebrow when she is speckled with rain ..."

Naomi Hamilton, 16, Portadown, County Armagh

"I discovered poetry without knowing. Initially, I wrote pages of words without the awareness that what I penned could actually be classified as poetry, albeit overly sentimental poetry at the time. It all went up from there. Each poem I wrote became a journey of getting better as a young poet and reflecting a mirror image of both daily life and my own headspace."

The Wilderness

"On the verge of the lake, he stands alone

without speaking or moving,

his emaciated frame lost amid gorse bushes …"

Tallulah Hutson, 16, London

"The poem that I entered is based on some of my childhood memories before an accident a close relative of mine suffered, and is therefore a poem very close to my heart, and much a part of me."

The Accident

"… I remember staring at a ceiling

that wasn't my own.

… I remember creeping up the stairs to smell your

dressing gown, the smell of you.

… I remember that you can't light seven

candles in a hospital room."

Clare Carlile, 17, Sheffield

A lifelong lover of books, but started writing only a few years ago – inspired by the performance poetry of Kate Tempest and the short stories of David Leavitt. Plans to study English literature at university.

The Everyday Hymn

"… smaller still, the just audible shake

In a person's voice when a laugh

Is yearning to escape."

Sarah Fletcher, 17, London

Won the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize of 2012. She and 11 other poets were chosen to construct a poem about the Olympics that was displayed at the Olympic Park.


"… You breathe heavily, in and out, from night exhaustion and vodka zing.

You don't stumble. You don't dare. You fly: dancing into the obscurity of swaying street lamps."

Dillon Leet, London, 16

She started writing at seven and has already won several awards. A keen debater who wants to be a journalist and writer.

Birthday Present

"… She traces the face of a Ukrainian man,

pressed up against floral wallpaper by masked boys in khaki.

Dim light dissolves pages' edges until eyes drip onto cotton sheets, splattering shadows across her fingers.

Red veins scar streets by mud-brick sick houses

cracked glass reflecting pixelated screams in high-definition magazines

She turns the page …"

Emily Burns, 17, New York, US

Began writing poetry as a young girl, after her grandfather gave her a small magnetic poetry kit. Influences include Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and T S Eliot. The teenager, who wants to study English and history at university, enjoys reading, art galleries and painting.


"… you, sitting in your chair, cradling your Lapsang, bones quiet as dust, you who were once announced by fireworks on the day of your birth."

Jessica Kelham-Hohler, 17, London

"I only really discovered poetry at secondary school when we read poems from the First World War."


"The wheels got caught on the broken slabs of the drive, as they always did.

And the shed we told you to pull down still remained, broken and proud.

A dark place of mystery where, as toddlers, we often hid …"

Jesse Rodrigues, 13, Westbrooke, Maine, US

An avid reader, he claims his poem was written in just under eight minutes during a school detention.

Fire Knows

"… Last, but not least, fire knows how to die with a flourish. A flame, a spark, a winking coal then cold, hard, black, silence"

David Carey, 17, London

Wrote his first poem in an English class when he was seven, on the subject of animal rights. He has done readings in open mic slots.

The Apple Tree

"… I think I grew younger

as you spoke, worried that my youth might fall from me as I climbed back down to you; or that time would wrest it from my shoulders as I grew …"

Conor McKee, 17, Tonbridge

The sixth-form student hopes to study English literature at university. His favourite writers include William Langland, James Joyce, T S Eliot and Christopher Reid. He has won the Tom Staveley Poetry Prize and was highly commended in the T S Eliot Prize Shadowing Scheme competition.

Hemingway's Thirst

"… The black of its coat was oozing now like pitch

and spilling along the hoof racked rills of sand ..."

Sonja Moore, 16, London

A keen flamenco dancer as well as budding poet. Cites her elder brother, who studied creative writing at university, as her biggest inspiration.

The Frame

"A photograph, still upon a white window

Gathers the curls and the smile of a girl,

Strong and awakening in a plated frame.

She watches, at dawn, the shining east

And the sleeping form of her sister;

In summer, in winter, she stays all the same …"

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