On Teaching Poetry and Learning to Love It

It’s the worst party you’ve ever been to. The music is dire, the people are dull and they’ve run out of nibbles. You need to escape without looking rude.  What’s your ‘out’?

Take a hint from an English geek: nothing drives people away like poetry.

A brief mention of the p-word – or better, a suitable quote thereof – generally serves to make your non-literary companions (and even some of the literary ones- there are English geeks who only care about prose) react in one of two ways. There’s the frequent assumption that you’re one of those pretentious navel-gazing, bleeding-heart types – you know the sort.

The other response is that familiar shudder as long-repressed school memories resurface and the defence mechanisms kick in. Either way, chances are your company will fully accept whatever excuse you make to escape.

It’s a form that gets a bad rep, and most of it comes from those traumatic clashes with the AQA Anthology and other such volumes that are meant to ‘teach poetry’ to pupils. My generation are all too familiar with the standard English lesson format: teacher picks poem; teacher reads poem; teacher looks around room and says something along the lines of “So who spotted a simile in there?” Invariably, pupils leave an hour later having gained nothing but a grudge against Seamus Heaney.

Still, it could be worse, I always thought. We could have been that generation who were forced to learn poems by heart.

Earlier this year, when Michael Gove spewed out some of his standard guff about returning to “traditional values” in education, the poet Simon Armitage wrote of his concern. Essentially, he was worried about the return to a more austere and proscriptive system in which children are made to feel bad for ‘not getting poetry’ – in itself an acknowledgement that the institution has an idea of the ‘right way’ to understand literature. That’s dangerous enough.

His other concern, however, was more culturally proscriptive. If children “are allowed to find the poems that fit their voices or appeal to their imaginations and their cultural inclinations”, then great: if, however, they’re supposed to “chew their way through The Lady of Shalott in a feigned and foreign RP accent”, “and if in Michael Gove’s master plan English literature is actually a byword for Englishness”, then poetry is better off out of it. He’s worried about poetry being used to assure conformity to a cultural ideal – one set out, inevitably, by a specific social group who hold institutional power to do so.

Of course, said a rather condescending reply, that’s just the discourse of class war. Howard Jacobson’s reply in The Independent talks at length about how wonderful The Lady of Shalott is and states that he’d have children recite it “in any accent rather than deprive them of knowing it at all”.

“Learning a poem by heart is a joy for life”, his headline declares, and if children only read what they “are allowed to find”, then we cut them off from some of the broader cultural awareness that studying English is meant to promote. Simply put, make them study things they don’t like (yet) and they’ll thank you later.

Neither is unreasonable, but neither is wholly right.

Studying literature is important. It’s important because after all the technical analysis and theorising, you’re left with the study of people. It’s about you. It’s about the people you know. It’s about people you’ve never met and can never be, but whom you feel you understand: you’ve had a glimpse of life from their perspective and it’s altered your own view of the world.

If I didn’t truly believe that, I wouldn’t have spent the last four years studying English. To that end, Jacobson is right – if we only allow children to engage with literature that we think is somehow ‘relevant’, that ‘suits them’, then we’re depriving them of one of the principle benefits of studying this subject.

Equally, if we spend too long forcing upon them the poetry that teachers (and, more often than not, exam boards) think is important, we won’t encourage them to form their own relationships with literature – to find the writing that speaks to them as individuals – and we’ll fail them all over again. Armitage found a refuge in poetry, and it’s not unreasonable to hope others have the chance to do the same.

But you won’t do that by making them learn verses by heart.

Though I fully admit to being a poetry geek, there’s little I can recite. They include a few beautiful lines from the end of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ (I rejoiced at their recent appearance in Skyfall), and this.

My life closed twice before its close –

It yet remains to see

If Immortality unveil

A third event for me

So huge, so hopeless to contain

As those that twice befell.

Parting is all we know of heaven

And all we need of Hell.

-Emily Dickinson

When I studied Dickinson’s work for my A level I learned quotes, but not whole poems. That brilliant last couplet was perfect for the exam, but the rest was well forgotten.

Much later, I rediscovered it by accident. It’s stuck with me since then because by that point, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune had made it painfully relevant.

It’s not about carrying poetry in your head. It’s about knowing where it is when you need it.

Like when you need to escape a dull party. Maybe one day that get-out clause will fail, because poetry won’t scare your companions. In the meantime, you may as well use it to your advantage.

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