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Friday 7 December 2007

Learning about poetry

At last, Ofsted has got around to poetry. For years we have heard how poorly maths - and to a lesser degree - science is taught, but poetry has had to wait its turn, and being of less importance than almost all the other aspects of the curriculum, its turn was almost last. The main reason that poetry is taught badly - I would say, for the most part not taught at all - is surely the fact that most teachers were themselves taught badly. It has become a vicious circle, the same vicious circle that bedevils maths teaching.

I have said before on my blog that although I had the (dubious) privilege of a grammar school education, I suffered very much from a lack of poetry teaching. Poetry (reading, not teaching) was an opportunity to identify various figures of speech. I learnt to spot a simile at twenty paces and to distinguish it from a metaphor, but I learnt nothing about form or rhythm. (Other than that the rhythm used in "How they Brought the Good News from Ghent unto Aix" was intended to imitate the rhythm of a horse galloping. But nothing about how the poet had performed that particular trick.) We certainly did not write poetry, and like many of the classes inspected by ofsted, we did not study poets - any poet - only individual poems, none of which were lyrical, but almost all of which were of the public or narrative variety.

All that was a long time ago, but since then I have spent most of a working lifetime in classrooms, and the impressions gained there do not conflict with my memories of my own school days. However, it does surprise me to hear that half the teachers responding to a survey (by The United Kingdom Literacy Association) cited by the ofsted inspectors, could not name more than two poets. I would like further information on that. But it does not surprise me to learn that at the Primary level teachers knew too little about poetry to be able to teach it, and did not know how to respond to attempts by pupils to write verse.

The inspectors made much of the use of nonsense poems, but they and nursery rhymes have their place. The problems are two-fold: on the one hand, the narrowness of what is studied and the vastness of what is not, and on the other the way in which it is studied. Young children still enjoy poetry and still write it, it seems; older pupils do not write it, and at best learn something about certain poems, but they learn about the poems as though they were chopped-up prose, which for most pupils (and teachers?) is what they remain. There is very little of that engagement with the language which is at the very essence of poetry. There is no reason why they (pupils and teachers) should not at the very least be introduced to iambic pentameters, dactyls, trochees, uses of the various meters and rhyme schemes, the importance of ambiguity etc, etc, always with the proviso that such introductions come in the context of an enjoyable experience. They do not need to be au fait with the whole gamut of what is available. And if such introductions might be thought not appropriate for all pupils, I could live with that. But there are many for whom it would be appropriate, who would enjoy a more nutritious diet in the 'poetry lesson', but who are at present missing out. I know, I was one of those.

Read The Poetry Society on the subject

1 comment:

Jim Murdoch said...

I wrote an essay a few years ago about technique in poetry in which I mention the kind of things that make poetry stand apart from prose. It was aimed at young poets of the it's-a-poem-because-I-say-it-is school of thought. When my website goes live it'll be up there with all the rest and I sincerely hope some of its intended demographic run into it.

Personally I had a fairly decent introduction to poetry at school, perhaps a little heavy on the Burns but that's what I get for being born in Glasgow. Thinking back on it though our education did focus on interpreting poems, it had little interest in the construction of these wee time bombs. Since then I've had to teach myself and, thankfully, there are still books in print like A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry to help those with a genuine interest.

I suppose it all comes down to preconceptions and these get developed pretty quickly. It's like classical music. I was taught it chronologically, from Gregorian chant through to serialism, which is certainly one way to do it but why leave the good stuff till last? I'd rather have started off with Bartók and Stravinsky and worked my way back. I would certainly have been more tolerant of their predecessors I think.

To this end I wish more contemporary poets would talk about their work. I've just posted a link to the Best Scottish Poems of 2007 on my website. It is a lovely, clean site but the best thing about it is the fact that the poets write about their poems and at length. This is the kind of things kids need to hear about. These poems are a response to the real world, the world they live in.