Axing poetry is not the solution. Instead, we must rewrite it

I spoke to former Children’s Laureate/poet collector Chris Riddell about the ways in which poetry is suffering under GCSE teaching

ABOVE: Spoken word artist Isaiah Hull performing at TEDx Manchester in 2017
[photo credit to Dermot Doherty]

Cast your mind back to when you were in Year 10. It’s around April or May; the weather is starting to warm up, rendering the air in corridors and rooms slightly sticky. Exams are looming on the horizon, and there is a permanent buzz of nerves lurking under the tables, among the abandoned chewing gum and gentle graffiti. An English teacher welcomes students as they filter into a stuffy classroom. She asks one of them to hand out the poetry anthologies. The class collectively groan.

Poetry didn’t become something I actively loved until I left school, but I can still remember having a particular affinity for it. An annotated page remains a wonderful thing. The imagery will always stick with me; black and blue scribbles bleed from the centre text, while arrows and uneven circles mark out the geography of the poem. Even the students around me who loudly rejoiced that “poetry is shit” would have notes similar to mine.

The best discussions my class had were over the semantics and meanings of poems. Even the student who laughs off the suggested subtexts, mocking the various interpretations, is engaging with poetry in a way that other materials cannot offer. They are fine-tuning their critical thinking skills, behind a screen of teenage apathy. Poetry is, for better or for worse, totally evocative, even in the constraints of an exam.

When looking back at the Moon on the Tides anthology that the class of ’14 studied, my housemate Katie and I recognise almost every single one. Katie identifies ‘next to of course god america i’ by E. E. Cummings as “the first weird poem” she’d ever read. It made her realise the full spectrum of things that poetry was ‘allowed’ to do, or, more specifically, the ways in which poetry does not give one toss about whether it is ‘allowed’ or not. For me, John Agard’s ‘Checking Out Me History’ is a nostalgic punch. Growing up in very white parts of Brighton, I’d literally never been exposed to a voice like Agard’s, whose accent is made palpable by the writing of his poems.

When talking about GCSE English, I cannot ignore the blatant issue of the lack of BAME voices within the curriculum. Last month, a Bristol statue of black poet Alfred Fagon was defaced with bleach. Of the top 100 bestsellers of 2016, only one author was a non-white Briton (Ethnicity and Race in the UK: State of the Nation). The current AQA poetry anthology includes 30 poems, of which only three (‘Singh Song!’ by Daljit Nagra, ‘Tissue’ by Imtiaz Dharker, and ‘Checking Out Me History’ by John Agard) are the work of BAME poets. Even so, GCSE Poetry remains one of the most diverse assessments across English Literature exams.

By giving students the option to drop it, which most of them will take, as the exam requires studying a huge amount of content, it stunts a whole year group from realising that they have valuable things to write. In particular, it creates yet another another barrier for young BAME artists, who may have never seen themselves represented in poetry (as it is yet another form of literature that continues to be academically dominated by old white men), and subsequently never considered themselves possible poets.

Some people feel that the backlash to the Ofqual news is unjustified. Paul O’Farrell tweets, “FFS…One more time. 1. Poetry isn’t been made optional 2. 1 text CAN BE dropped for this year only 3. Anyone thinking the GCSE anthology thrills kids hasn’t taught it 4. English teachers will still share the joy & beauty of poetry regardless. We do that.”

1. True, the new rules don’t specifically name poetry as the subject being made optional. Under the Ofqual policy, a Shakespeare play remains mandatory, leaving the options of one 19th century novel, one post-1914 British piece of literature, or fifteen individual poems. Even as someone who adores poetry, the benefits of choosing the two prose options are obvious.

2. The policy is for 2021 currently, but we have no idea how long COVID will cause disruptions to schools. Chances are, the policy will continue as a means of relieving pressure on many of the following year groups. Plus, any classroom of any generation deserves an educated exposure to poetry, especially the one that is growing up in the eye of the post-COVID storm.

3. If the poems aren’t ‘thrilling’ students, that isn’t the fault of poetry itself.

4. I hope so.

This issue that O’Farrell raises– the poetry curriculum not containing ‘thrills’– is what I discussed with Chris Riddell, who was the Children’s Laureate from 2015 until 2017. His latest anthology, Poems To Save The World With, is being published with Macmillan Children’s Books, and includes pieces of work that focus on the ongoing pandemic.

Chris says, “When I was taught poetry at school it was this amalgamation of the very fashionable and the very dull. You would be bludgeoned with Chaucer, and then excited by Roger McGough. I studied Ted Hughes at school, and found it completely transformative. But then, I was also hit over the head with Shakespeare, and plays and sonnets, in the most tediously academic way possible.

“So when I heard about the GCSE decision, I thought, well, there’s a certain way that poetry is taught where it’s almost better to allow it to escape from that straitjacket. But then, you risk neglecting it as an art form, which is what a lot of poets have responded to.”

“Learning to make ink or bind a brush is not vital to the painting of something.”

Chris Riddell

We discussed how this problem is bigger than just poetry, and how it effects all education of the arts; “I think it’s incredibly important to teach poetry at GCSE level, but it’s got to be taught well. There’s a tendency for art subjects, which are hard to teach in a quantitative way, to be put into boxes: “We will teach you the terms in which to appreciate poetry in order to test your appreciation of it.” There’s this notion that writing poetry is in some way presumptuous, and that you need to learn the tools of the trade, but learning to make ink or bind a brush is not vital to the painting of something.”

But, fundamentally, Chris and I agreed that being exposed to poetry is a vital part of a young person’s education. “At its essence, it allows expression. I think it’s got profound uses in wellbeing and mindfulness, and in one’s emotional development. It is often an aid for getting in touch with difficult feelings– to express something in the form of a poem can often get you over a block to express that same emotion in a therapeutic context.”

I told him about my own experience of publishing a poetry book. Reading back on old poems forced me to reflect on where I’d been in relation to where I was now. The penny only dropped when I realised that I was relying on the creation of my book as a type of therapy. I was processing my own traumatic experiences from both an internal and external place, without even realising it.

Chris shares his own ‘light bulb’ moment; “I had an extraordinary experience, with the latest anthology, which is coming out next month. I was just doing a final edit, and I couldn’t trace one of the poems I wanted to use. It was lovely, but we couldn’t trace the author because it was published online, so we couldn’t include it, but I’d already illustrated this poem. It was about how the Coronavirus has changed us, and made us reflect on society, and brought out kindnesses, and re-wilded places. Entirely contemporary.

“So I thought, I’ve got to put in a new poem, and new illustration. And as I was browsing, I came across a John Clare poem, again, about the restorative qualities of nature, and I suddenly realised that I could put these three stanzas exactly into the design I already had. It worked perfectly. The images that I’d done for the first poem fitted completely with this early 19th century poet. In the form of poetry, [humans] are close, because it is about human experience. Context changes, but there are universal things that connect us.”

The decision made by the government, while somewhat understandable as a desperate effort to make students less stressed, is not fully formed. There are other ways to ease the pressure on students. I’m no curriculum organiser, but surely it would make more sense to just allow annotated texts in exams, or by reducing the amount of content that kids are expected to memorise.

Making poetry one of the optional modules is an unproductive move– it means that will be less BAME representation available for young people, and that the form will be assumed to be ‘lesser’. Instead, a much greater task must be tackled. The entire way that poetry is taught needs to change (to be honest, any art teaching in general needs a reform, but that’s a whole other can of worms). As Chris puts it, “You can’t just draw out the parameters and then say, “Here is poetry. We’ve decided.” It’s an open form. The question is, how do you teach that?”

Source used was Ethnicity and Race in the UK: State of the Nation by Sarita Malik and William Shankley (pp. 173).

2 thoughts on “Axing poetry is not the solution. Instead, we must rewrite it”

  1. This is so well written!! As someone who fell in love with poetry whilst analysing the anthology, and also perhaps fell in love with my cruel sporty/mathematic classmates being forced to study the thing I loved (I sound terrible but there’s something to say for the way nerdy english kids are forced to do cross country and algebra no matter how much it isn’t “thrilling” them). But yes I went off topic, this is beautiful and such a passionate response to the governments choice! Looking forward to more blog posts maja! xx

    Liked by 1 person

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