This is the first of what will hopefully become an ongoing series of guest blogs featuring regularly on The Rialto website.
Education in poetry
During the day, when I’m not writing, you can find me running an antiquarian bookshop in North London, surrounded by piles of old books that threaten to topple over and make me go splat. This bookshop [Ripping Yarns] is owned by Celia Mitchell, wife of poet Adrian Mitchell, and recently I’ve been helping to sort through Adrian’s archive. He was a big promoter of the arts, and in 2000 wrote to a commissioner at the BBC with a proposal for Poetry FM, a radio station completely devoted to poetry, arguing that there wasn’t enough poetry on television or radio. When he didn’t receive a reply, he sent the same proposal every six months and, later, once a year. He never heard back. His last letter read: ‘If you don’t start replying, I’m afraid I’m going to have to come and camp out on your lawn.’ This got me thinking about how much importance is placed on poetry, and how it’s represented in non-poetry-centred places, and especially in schools.
A quick sweep of Facebook and Twitter confirms my own experience of poetry at school: rather unexciting. Obviously some of that is down to individual teaching and if you had a teacher who was really into poetry then kiss them for me. My junior school teacher, a chap called Mr. Binz, for instance, taught me haiku during break time, and I owe him a lot. In Year 10, I remember reading Heaney’s ‘Blackberry Picking’ several times over a couple of weeks, and analysing every line until I never wanted to see another blackberry again in my life. That poem was the most modern poem of the lot. The rest was war poetry, which made sense because it tied in with our history classes. And even when I got to A Level English we were still looking way back over our shoulders: Donne and Marvell, and at university the most contemporary poem put under our noses, bar Margaret Atwood’s ‘This is a Photograph of Me’ [love that, by the way. Excellent.], was by Ezra Pound. We’re talking massive gaps, here. This isn’t to say older poetry isn’t relevant, not at all; I could wax lyrical about Donne’s leaning compasses all day, he’s a genius, but we need a balance. I can’t help but feel that when it comes to teaching poetry, and literature in general, the syllabus I was taught shied away from things that were being written at that particular time. And when you shy away from things that are happening now, sometimes people lose interest.
Speaking of now, however, my experience of poetry and school is obviously ten years out of date. So, I went hunting around the AQA website, and had a chat to some of my friends who are teachers, and was pleased to see that in the current poetry package called ‘Moon on the Tides,’ there’s some poetry from Carol Ann Duffy, Margaret Atwood and Jackie Kay etc. Extra kudos for even having previously unpublished poems in there; that’s impressive. However, something that one of my friends said really interests me and, from my enquiries, still seems to be relevant. She was one of the very few who said that she really enjoyed poetry at school, but then she added that she misses it. This suggests that we’re brought up to associate poetry with learning, poring over lines with the express purpose of passing an exam, not encouraged to go out and seek it in ‘the real world’ once we leave the classroom. And, if this is the case, should poetry be taught for exams at all? Adrian expressly forbid his poetry to be used in any exam for this exact reason.
Nick Ward, an English teacher in south London, pointed out to me that, whilst more poets are included on the syllabus, ‘the opportunities for self-expression on the GCSE syllabus are quite limited. Poetry’s actually given rather high prominence but it’s taught rather poorly.’ This, he hastens to add, is not due to the teachers, but because of the way exams are marked, and obviously teachers want the kids in their classes to pass their exams. Therefore ‘all the emphasis is placed on analysis.’ So, in school, children are taught about metaphors, similes, juxtaposition, assonance etc so they can point out and name it. But what they’re not given the opportunity to do in secondary school is put these linguistic devices into poetry themselves. Whereas they are set lots of work on writing newspaper reports, persuasive pieces of writing and information leaflets. That isn’t to say that being taught and examined on persuasive writing is a bad thing; it’s a malleable skill for lots of jobs, and writing speeches and performing in front of the class is a great way for kids to feel more confident and get used to public speaking.
However, the exam-focused syllabus doesn’t give teachers the opportunity encourage poetic creativity in their students. [You might want to grab a tissue for this next bit.] In a recent report by Ofsted, they said that the way poetry was taught had ‘a negative impact on pupils’ attitudes’ and that, ‘whilst some pupils were encouraged to enter a selection of their poems for coursework, in general most pupils did not write any poetry during GCSE study.’ But folks, just think of all the teenage angst waiting to throw itself into poetry! Creative writing provides pupils with the chance to express themselves about issues that they are facing which they might not feel comfortable talking about in conversation. This is so important; teenage years at school can be very difficult for many people, and who can put a grade against the help self-expression gives someone? Just looking at ‘Jamie’s Dream School’ and the work Andrew Motion did there gives us some idea of its importance. By getting his students to write, using their own issues as inspiration, he successfully engaged them in a subject that was otherwise alien to them.
It seems that you don’t get people interested in poetry through analysing it to death; you do it by getting students involved with it, by relating it to their own lives. Ok, so perhaps not all English teachers are equipped to do this, and Nick [and even the Ofsted report!] agrees that having a poet in residence would be a great idea to inspire students. However, at Nick’s school, he requested one visit from a spoken word poet to get his kids interested in slam poetry, and his request for this was denied due to lack of funding. When I asked what kinds of things the English department would fund, he replied: ‘If it’s about the exam then they’ll give you the money. If it’s not, then they won’t.’
All this certainly doesn’t seem to encourage people to get involved with, read, and buy poetry once they stop taking exams and leave school. Poetry publishers, indie booksellers and poets’ livelihoods aside – what about the readers who would perhaps really enjoy poetry, and those who might have found their writer’s voice, if it had been made more interesting for them at school? I bet there are loads of people who have run away from it/since ignored it because it was stuffy/boring/too academic/not relevant/[insert your own words here]. And that’s a real shame.
So, if you’re reading this and you have a blog, why don’t you post some reviews or recommendations of things you’ve read recently? If you tweet, tweet about them. Why not buy a poetry book for a friend who doesn’t really read poetry and see if they like it? If you’re a teacher, I dare you to stray away from the syllabus a little. Try and twist your Head of Year’s arm to get a spoken word artist in. Write to someone in power. If you can’t get the time during school to get the kids to write because of exam work, then maybe set them homework to write, or set up an after school club. And, hey, if you want to go that one step further, go and open MS Word and write to the BBC asking if they’ll consider a proposal for something called ‘Poetry FM.’ In fact, photocopy it and send it in one hundred times. If you don’t do any of these things, I’m afraid I’m going to have to dig out my tent and come and camp out on your lawn.
Many of Jen’s own poetry recommendations, and interviews with authors/poets themselves, can be found over on her blog http://jen-campbell.blogspot.com