Inspiring poetry through art in the secondary classroom

I have, for many years now, used photographs and illustrations in my classes to stimulate exciting discussion and to help pupils create original and, at times, brilliant writing.

I was amazed by the different settings, scenarios, plots and themes the pupils invented.

This use of art for inspiration is, of course, a fertile ground for writers: some of my personal favourites are the wishful Courtyards in Delft by Pieter de Hoogh; the spectacular Hunters in the Snow by William Carlos Williams after the equally spectacular painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder; and Anne Sexton’s turbulent poem inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night. All of these I have used successfully for both critical and creative writing.

Recently I read The Harvest Wake, a poem by Jim Carruth, Glasgow’s Poet Laureate, which was influenced by Sir James Guthrie’s The Gypsy Fires are Burning for Daylights Past and Gone. I found Jim’s poem strikingly haunting and decided I would use the famous Glasgow Boy’s painting as a hook to get my first year class fashioning their own responses.

Discussion and planning

First off, the plan was to get the pupils talking about what they could see in the painting. To facilitate this I gave them some silent thinking time to shape their own ideas on what they saw and felt. A note-making sheet (Word document) was supplied which the pupils then brought back to aid in the discussion.

After this chance for group and whole class talk, the pupils were asked to think of a possible narrative which could be related to what they saw. I was amazed by the different settings, scenarios, plots and themes the pupils invented.


My pupils were delighted that a poet of Jim’s standing would take the time to read their poems and encourage them to keep writing.

Next, it was the pupils chance to commit their thoughts to writing. For differentiation, a sheet outlining a possible structure (Word document) was issued to pupils but this was not compulsory, only if they wanted additional help. The first draft was completed in a loose prose style. The pupils were then encouraged to go back and cut out any unnecessary words. Next I modelled my own draft on the board and demonstrated where and why I would make my line breaks. This gave the pupils a chance to realise the importance of word placement, end-stopped and run-on lines. They then went back to their own poems and began line breaking for maximum impact.

Throughout the process the pupils were encouraged to use their five senses to help create striking descriptions.

Sharing the pupils' work

I was so pleased with some of the responses that, through my council’s Quality Improvement Officer, David Byrne, I contacted Jim Carruth and asked if he would pick out a winner from the five I thought were best in order that I could award a prize. Jim looked over the poems and told me that selecting a winner would be difficult. Instead he decided to reward all my finalists with a trip to the Hunterian Gallery at Glasgow University so that the pupils could see this famous painting first hand, hear Jim’s poem and discover how he came to write it.

This was a fantastic gesture by Glasgow’s Poet Laureate and my pupils were not only happy to get an afternoon out of school, but were delighted that a poet of Jim’s standing would take the time to read their poems and encourage them to keep writing.

Throughout this post I've attached the sheets I used to help my budding poets get writing. Below, you'll also find the responses of the five pupils Jim met, celebrated and motivated. Feel free to use/adapt my sheets to your own needs and please share your young people’s successes with the world.

I'd encourage you to visit Jim Carruth's website and read his work, especially The Harvest Wake, which you can find on the Sunday Herald website. I find his poetry incredibly thoughtful – just like the man himself.

Gordon has written lots of other fantastic blog posts for our website with great ideas for the secondary English classroom. Check out his ideas for using the Carol Ann Duffy poems 'Valentine' and 'War Photographer', and his guide to publishing your pupils' work in anthologies.

Top image by James Guthrie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


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Gordon Fisher

Gordon Fisher is the Principal Teacher of English at Lochend Community High School.