Andrew Motion, Billy Collins, education, exam boards, GCSE, keystage 3, keystage 4, ks3, ks4, poem, poems, Poetry, The Effort, The Motion Report: Poetry and Young People, UK, verse
‘Would anyone care to join me / in flicking a few pebbles in the direction / of teachers who are fond of asking the question: / “What is the poet trying to say?” // as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson / had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts – / inarticulate wretches that they were’.
It’s easy to share Billy Collins’s irritation with the education system, expressed here in his poem, The Effort. Teachers who try to do right by their students often attempt to cover every conceivable exam question, whilst those without the confidence or skills reduce the reading of poetry to a feature spotting exercise. Either teacher can produce Collins’ stultifying lesson, the poem reduced to roadkill. Sure, it’s easy to argue that examination systems have the potential to suck the life out of all literature: poetry, prose, or drama. However, at least prose has an advantage: Of Mice and Men might also be dead on the slab but someone in the class will be enjoying Suzanne Collins or Stephanie Meyer at home. A poor experience with Steinbeck will be seen as the exception and not the rule. Poetry, on the other hand, lacks champions like these and, once the teacher kills it, there are no second chances. Billy Collins, with trademark playfulness, decides to ‘leave it up to Mrs. Parker, / who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard, and her students – a few with their hands up, / others slouching with their caps on backwards – // to figure out what it is I am trying to say’. Nevertheless, in the UK, poetry’s image problem, especially in senior schools, is being taken seriously and Sir Andrew Motion was commissioned to chair The Motion Report: Poetry and Young People, which makes for some interesting reading.
Motion’s conclusion is that many teachers, even those with an enthusiasm for poetry ‘need more support to develop their confidence and critical skills’. This is hardly surprising, as the current generation of teachers themselves experienced an educational landscape in which poetry was dissected for the exam. The idea of reading it for pleasure scarcely occurred to us. How many teachers enjoy reading contemporary novels and share these with their classes? How many teachers read poetry for enjoyment in the same way? Yet English teachers’ pigeonholes are crammed with advertisements for expensive courses on behaviour management and how to get graded as outstanding by Ofsted. What a sad state of affairs we are in when, post degree, English teachers lack exciting forums to keep their creative juices flowing. Pedagogy should be tackled by the whole school and more training courses should focus on subject disciplines.
Motion doesn’t make this point but poetry simply isn’t available enough. I recently surveyed the collections available across Oxfordshire via interlibrary loan: out of all of the material published in the last couple of years, only a handful are stocked by libraries. The situation in schools is worse, with a mouldering copy of The Rattle Bag and some war poetry sitting forlorn on the shelf if you’re lucky. (Junior years get a better deal, with bags of lively verse but, once you hit GCSE, you’re in a desert). So, it’s hardly surprising that English teachers and their students can’t access the good stuff.
Motion says that the range of poetry offered to children is generally too narrow. I’m not sure that this is strictly true. One area where GCSE boards tread carefully is in offering a culturally diverse selection of poetry. Sixteen year olds today are more likely to encounter great poets like Chinua Achebe, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Carol Ann Duffy than the safe choices from yesteryear. However, perhaps Motion means that the examination boards’ well-intentioned glossy anthologies define the limits of poetry in some students’ minds. The hidden message here is that poetry is a tricky area for the novice and that experts need to sift and repackage it before it’s ready for consumption by mere mortals. It’s a complex area, as these anthologies are already included in the examination entry fee, whereas, if students started to get their hands on real books of poetry, then the cost would have to be met either by the student, or by the school. Couldn’t the exam boards get together with a proper commercial publisher and cut a deal in which the nation’s young get their hands on some real books? That’s not going to appeal to the boards, as they’re mostly educational publishers as well: a conflict of interests if ever there was one.
Motion also makes the point that school poetry does not have ‘a deep enough historical reach’. He’s right. In making excuses and allowances for our young people, we sell them short. They’re as intellectually curious as any generation before them. Dull teaching might put them off Donne or Pope but sex, death and humour are unchanged: they’re as present in Donne as in Armitage.
Websites like the The Poetry Archive and The Poetry Trust in the UK, or The Poetry Foundation in the US offer both new and habitual readers of poetry a fantastic range of resources. Even a quick search on iTunes will yield laugh out loud performances from current greats like Paul Muldoon. Motion suggests that there needs to be ‘an improvement in the digital offer’. There does. However, many of the resources are out there already and someone in the Department of Education needs to sit down and create a decent links page for the profession: this is the kind of centralised tinkering which most teachers would welcome. In an instant, teachers will stop crucifying their students with yet another PowerPoint and start seeing information technology as a way to connect their student readers with the living, breathing world of poetry – a world which is, by the way, only too happy to forge links with readers, teachers and schools.
Finally, schools must either get their students off campus to work with poets, or poets must come in. In an ideal world, it would be great to see individual schools, or local partnerships of schools, creating ongoing links with their local poet. We all know that the stuff needs to be read aloud but to hear a poet read his or her own work is a different proposition. Once poetry has a human face, once it escapes from the page and into the lives of young people, then it starts to possess some power and relevance.
This ought to be an easy sell. In our secular age people are increasingly turning to poems and song lyrics to mark ritual occasions like weddings and funerals and, viewed like this, it’s possible to argue that poetry has never been more valuable or more relevant to our society.
I agree! This made me think back to last school year, when my daughter was in fifth grade and asked me for help writing a poem. The teacher gave them a topic, the poem had to have the one word topic in the poem, it had to rhyme, and the last sentence had to be the same as the first. It also had to be a certain number of sentences, but I can’t exactly remember how many that was now! My daughter has quite the creative imagination and she loves to write short stories, but still, after going over poetry in class she could not put this together. I thought this was a little unfair. I think the teacher should have let the kids pick their own topic and their own method, from which they had gone over in class, to execute their piece to express their own way of writing. I, for the life of me with the parameters of the assignment, could not get it either! I finally told her to write what she felt, then take it to her teacher and ask for help.
In high school, I enjoyed my English and Literature classes. I always did well in them. While, I liked reading the older poetry and learning about poets. It is sometimes hard to discern what they were feeling at the time they wrote it, when someone who has no interest in the subject matter gets called on to read it before the class and reads in monotone! I never read a piece just once. I read it over, take in the words, then read it a couple more times. I feel that is the best way to connect and get the true, full meaning, and level of emotion. I also agree it is a different and much better experience to hear the poet read their own work.
Thanks for this, this morning!
Hi Liss, I’m pleased that you liked the post. Thanks. English poetry assignments are a toughie – you could take the view that they are exercises, like learning a musical instrument. However, the majority of students would not wish to approach writing like this and flexible tasks are important.
You’re right – reading poetry aloud is the way forward. If you fancy it, check out Paul Muldoon’s Poetry Lecture for the Poetry Foundation, available on iTunes as a podcast. I could listen to him speak all day!
absolutely true. poets need to be welcomed into the school system, even paid (god forbid!) to undertake aspects of the poetry unit or to educate the teachers in enjoying the music of language….!
Thanks, OCD Crow. A visit from a poet is quite an occasion. You’d think that in a world pinging with Facebook and Twitter that young people might sneer at something as old school as a face-to-face encounter with another human being. Not so. We’re all suckers for a good story well told and always will be.
Serena Trowbridge said:
This is really interesting – I hadn’t seen Motion’s report but will read it now. I teach poetry to undergraduates and often find they had a negative experience of poetry at school; it seems to be perceived as ‘difficult’ or just boring, and have little idea how it might relate to them personally.
I’m not surprised that they perceive it as difficult. Thinking time in classrooms has been measured by the likes of Prof Paul Black as amounting to little more than a second or two. Poetry needs a chance to simmer – time that most teachers feel that they do not have. So, the students are led by the nose, confirming their fear that poetry is too hard and not for them. In terms of wider reading at school, it’s the thing I really try to promote. Reading lists always carry a couple of accessible poetry titles. Whenever I read a personal book in a library lesson, I try to make sure that poetry is represented.
Great post, thoughtful and stimulating.
I’ve been trying to write a response to this for an hour, but now see that many of my “A star” points have been covered by yourself and other commentators! So I’ll try to overcome the habit of a lifetime (fostered by discussions in English class!) and be fairly brief.
Studying Shakespeare (which was well taught from early on at my “Progressive” school) showed me how rewarding untangling complex poetic language can be, though T. S. Eliot at ‘A’ level almost put me off, until his work (not all of it!) finally began to ring true.
Admittedly, the emphasis on finding all possible meanings has had a sometimes unhealthy affect, something I explored in my as yet unpublished first novel “Claire and Sophia”! Still, poetry can offer the insight, which is anathema to our testing times, that no answer can be entirely right for everyone.
The box ticking, “attainment goals” culture of schools nowadays, when they are expected to “improve year on year”, seems hostile to poetry and such things as thoughtfulness and acceptance of ambiguity or difference, despite plenty of lip service to PC truisms.
I think people should read poetry to find something out about themselves at least as much as to be provided with role models who can show them how it’s done.
Sadly, I wasn’t allowed my first choice of BA English Lit thesis, on “Lyrics in popular music”, as “there hadn’t been enough written on the subject yet”. Yes, it still grates! However, when I invited one of the first groups I ever taught to bring in the words of a song to share, it was a bit embarrassing when a bright lad brought in “So Fucking What?”, engaging toe tapper though that tune is.
I know what you mean. As a teacher, I am often left cherishing the moments with non-examination classes when there is the time for them to read and to discover poetry for themselves. I would also like to see poetry given a higher profile in reading initiatives like World Book Day (niche days for poetry are just insulting) – reading is reading and poetry should be promoted in just the same way as the reading of fiction for pleasure.
Thanks for responding to my comment John. Doubtless we could continue this absorbing and maddening discussion indefinitely but alas, even at my great age, I have to return to more of those “box ticking” exercises that have become such a dominant feature of modern life.
Enjoy those boxes!
Rob Packer said:
I really hope it has positive effects and children really do start enjoying poetry. I can only speak from my own (potentially hazy) experience of English lessons in the 90s, but in the five years up to GCSE, I remember studying 1) The Ancient Mariner, 2) some oblique references to war poets in History lessons, 3) three Browning monologues, 4) Twelfth Night, 5) ten Sylvia Plath poems and 6) ten Seamus Heaney poems. I could be missing out a bit, but I really think that was it in terms of poetry—there were some pretty awful YA novels we read over those years too. I remember liking everything, Coleridge and Browning in particular, but by then the rot had set in from being constantly told that poetry was compulsory but boring (yes, even by the teachers) and I thought them flukes, rather than representative ways into poetry. After that, English seemed a bit of a waste of time and I didn’t go on to A-Level. To be fair to my teenage self, little to no exposure to a medium that isn’t necessarily straightforward is probably going to end up in agreeing that your elders are right and poetry is difficult and irrelevant. Little did I know that years later I would discover what poetry actually is…
Ha ha! My experiences of school poetry were pretty poor. I remember a yellowing anthology called something like Dragon’s Teeth (?) The dated prog rock art work and hideous black and white photography told me pretty clearly that this wasn’t a real book and certainly not a book for me. It singlehandedly killed Ted Hughes. At 14, I couldn’t believe I was being made to read total rubbish like View of a Pig and Tractor.
I feel torn about poetry’s presence at GCSE and A level. Learning to read and learning to love poetry is undoubtedly a good thing. I want the up and coming generations to be able to love this vital part of our collective expression of our humanity. However, at the same time, set poems, essays, exams and time pressures can also kill the thing I love… it’s quite a tightrope.
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Teachers don’t get a choice 1 about what poems they teach and 2 how they teach them. This is dictated by the system.
I could offer brilliant explorations and try to sneak this in at times, to engage the student, BUT if I get caught, I’ll be asked why I’m covering unnecessary stuff that doesn’t link to the exam.
Get real Andrew Motion. Teachers are slaves too.