‘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.