The AVBOB Poetry Competition | Blog


Promises for the poets of the future    
Mon, 16 November 2020

How do children come to poetry? And why do children love poemsWorld Children’s Day (20 November) is a time to consider how poetry impacts South Africa’s children. Early childhood is a time when learning is mostly embodied, so sound and rhythm are key to many activities, starting even before breathing and speech. 
Poetry is, quite literally, in our bloodstream while we are growing in the womb. The mother’s heartbeat pulses in time to the iambic foot! Long before our perceptual organs are formed, the “Da-dum da-dum da-dum…” that sustains our existence is coursing through our veins. 
Later, lullabies are sung to infants, rocking them to sleep in time with the words. Once a child is old enough to walk, skip and run, nursery rhymes, counting chants and word games help to consolidate their development. Reading, writing and counting are rhythmic activities that rely on language to make meaning. Successful educators integrate multiple teaching methods to ensure that children’s right to education is met.
Poetry helps children to play with words and grasp new ideas while enriching their learning and social interaction. Rhythm supports children as they acquire physical co-ordination and cognitive skills. Poetry is also a delightful tool for parents to engage with their children, fostering humour, affection and connection. Local literacy non-profits Nal’ibali and Book Dash offer free downloadable books in all eleven languages, so that parents can read to their children and participate in their learning. 
Book Dash director, Julia Norrish, shared some titles that have strong poetic elements: A fish and a gift contains rhythm and alliteration; Walking Together and Is there anyone like me? are both rhyming and have also been translated into many South African languages. Excellent children’s poetry can help children think about and talk about difficult yet universal topics, like diversity, divorce and death.
The AVBOB Poetry Project has a special link to children because it was birthed in response to a two-year-old boy who succumbed to cancer. His grandfather, left speechless beside his grave, could only utter the words, “Tata, kiewiet!” (“Goodbye, little bird!”). In that moment it was clear that a response was needed to help people find the words that could express the inexpressible. 
Because poetry gives language, shape and form to overwhelming emotions, poems assist us in making sense of and enduring extreme feelings. The AVBOB Poetry Project meets those in mourning and offers them poems in their own language that will provide a map through the journey of grief. This tender history is more fully shared in an Afrikaans interview with renowned poet and AVBOB Poetry’s Editor-in-Chief, Johann de Lange, on Litnet.
But what of children who are alive and more-or-less well, facing the uncertainties of 2020? The AVBOB Poetry Project specifically reached out to them during Youth Month. A call went out encouraging South African children under the age of 18 to share their experiences in poems which would be seen and heard, and included in the AVBOB poetry library. Many sparkling words of comfort arrived for children from children who were also dealing with the uncertainties wrought by COVID-19.
Once a child can read and write, the role that poetry plays in their lives changes subtly, but importantly. Tweens and teens must read the United Nations child-friendly document which sets out the promises made to the children of the world 30 years ago. This undertaking is now upheld by 196 countries globally and it enshrines several rights that have special relevance to the poets and philosophers of the future: the right to think for yourself, the right to a private life, and the right to take pride in your culture.
The AVBOB Poetry Competition aspires to enable young South Africans to seek out the safe space of the page and look inwards, where they will discover their own feelings – in their home language, in words of their own. We long to hear the sounds of pens flying across the paper pages of notebooks as young poets craft the words in their mother tongues. 
Most of all we hope to hear those voices that will reach into the future sounding like none other but their own selves emerging as precious and unique. We urge parents and educators to protect the future generation of poets, by supporting the children learning to know and live their deepest, most creative truths. When young poets think for themselves and discover their most private thoughts, this World Children’s Day, the future of the planet will be a richer place.
And I live to honour the child in me
And she lives to honour the child in we
And we live to honour the child in thee
Every child, my child is wrapped in a ribbon of rhythm
Lebogang Mashile
Youth poets (with the consent of their parents or guardians) are welcome to enter the fourth annual AVBOB Poetry Competition. Register and enter online at before 30 November 2020.