Poetry By Heart – reflections on new, reactionary ‘revolutions’ in poetry
So the UK government’s Department of Education (DfE) have given “£500,000 of funding to The Poetry Archive to develop and run the National Poetry Competition as part of its commitment to help bring poetry to life in schools.” The competition is called ‘Poetry by Heart’ and, says DfE, it aims to “promote understanding of poetry as a dynamic art form and enable pupils to develop self-confidence and creative understanding” and to teach the “skills of memorisation and performance.” Of course, “memorisation” appeals to Tory heartlands. It is resonant of the kind of old-fashioned teaching which reactionaries feel that the mythical ‘PC Brigade’ have outlawed.
First of all, it must be said that the money spent seems outrageous for what they have produced. With additional funding for the website coming from weird grammar geeks ‘The Full English’, it is hard to imagine how the whole thing cost half a million pounds of public money. The first round of the competition will be arranged in schools and will cost The Poetry Archive nothing. Presumably the county and national final will involve venue hire, refreshments, technical crew and MC. They may even pay the transport for students to come to London for the national final, though I doubt it. There is Andrew Motion’s fee for choosing the poems (more on that below). Hopefully there are copyright costs for publishing the poems on the website. But it seems like you could have done the whole thing on 10-20% of the budget. If I had £500k to ‘promote understanding of poetry as a dynamic art form” in schools, you’d get a much more ambitious project than this one, I promise you, and there’d definitely be some handouts for poets and educators.
Having said all that, I am not in any way against the idea of young people learning poems and practicing reciting them. Motion praises “the marvellous form of two-way travelling that poetry allows us: into ourselves, and out into the world, at one and the same time.” I think that’s obviously true and it is why literature is a good thing. I agree that good poetry is about “the deep recurring truths … in terms that are especially beautiful and resonant”. As for the benefits of learning poetry, he says that the emphasis is on “learning by heart, not on learning by rote” although does not explain what the distinction is. I suppose rote learning is about copying and repeating a teacher rather than copying and repeating to yourself for your own reasons. There probably is a difference in terms of ownership of what you’re learning. And with no qualms of immodesty, Motion boasts that this whole personally lucrative process “is part of the same benevolent revolution in poetry-proving [sic] and poetry-teaching that formed a part of the original intention in founding the Poetry Archive during my ten years as Poet Laureate.” Andrew Motion leads the ‘benevolent revolution’, the kind of revolutions that conservatives dream of – rather than unseating the corrupt, class-based oppressors of humanity, they bring back old-fashioned values in a way that successfully enables them not to get their heads kicked in. But, what is this “poetry-proving”, Andrew? Proving what? Please explain.
DfE announces that “The body of work will give students and teachers the opportunity to study a coherent range of poems from different periods, and will provide a foundation for exploring poetry over time.” And here we come to the crux of the matter. They have decided that the competition must involve a set curriculum of poetry. In fact, DfE calls it a “national poetry anthology for teenagers”. It is, despite the apparently anti-PC world of Gove and Motion, very politically correct in its content – even in the pre-1914 (why always this cut off point? Is that really the start of modernism? Why not 1900? And if the 1st World War changed things, why not 1918 after the war ended?), when, due to massive disparities in literacy rates there were many fewer women writing (and certainly fewer publishing) poetry than men, a good range of female poets are included. There are even two 19th century/ early 20th century black poets in W.E.B DeBois and Paul Dunbar. Overall, 43 of the 130 poets are female and the poets of the last fifty years do, as The Guardian says, “span a range of cultural backgrounds”. I am pleased that two of my friends-in-poetry, Anthony Joseph and Jacob Sam La Rose have been chosen, and this competition will give their work well-deserved wider appreciation.
Yet, why must we have a proscribed selection? Of course, when you choose one poem from 130 English-language poets, most people are going to find poets they like. Also they are going to disagree with the poems chosen and be upset at some of the exclusions. Personally, I am aggrieved that among the modern poets, four poets of my political persuasion are missing. No Christopher Logue, Adrian Mitchell, Linton Kwesi Johnson or Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. Benjamin Zephaniah is there, but of course you can’t exclude him, given the amazing impact he has had on the cultural landscape. (Incidentally they describe his poem as “light-hearted”, which it isn’t unless you consider his religious belief, his veganism and his anti-war stance to be light-hearted ventures.) But of course, you cannot please everyone, a fact they acknowledge by the ‘argue with the anthology’ section of the website, which nevertheless does not publically show the comments and feedback they receive as part of their ‘discussion’. And this is the point. Why proscribe a series of poems? Why cannot these just be suggested selections? The may well be opening up poetry from outside of the exam syllabus – though many of the poets and indeed some of the poems themselves are already in GCSE anthologies – but they are still restricting people to Motion’s selection. The students will be marked on the “level of difficulty” of the poems they choose – The Poetry Archive’s way of dealing with the problem that these are poems are very different in length and complexity. It is not as if they are claiming to have chosen equal and comparable poetry to learn.
In a series of workshops I was running with Year 9s (13-14 year olds) last year, I brought in Stevie Smith’s ‘Major Macroo’ and Zephaniah’s ‘A Modern Slave Song’ for the students to practice and develop methods of performance. When I came back the next week, one girl (whose first language is not English, by the way) had learned the whole of ‘Major Macroo’ off by heart and, before I could begin the next session, she proceeded to recite it to me. I had never asked the young people to learn those poems, but simply because the students had been given half hour to work on and make that poem their own, it became a part of themselves. She had wanted to learn it because it had captivated her.
The reason educationalists were against learning by rote was because it does not give the learner any agency over her own learning. I run slams, I am not against competition. I think, in fact, that the students who take part in this event will get to know a poem quite intimately and enjoy doing so. But if you want something approaching a ‘revolution’ in poetry teaching then you need to change the idea of proscription. However diverse your cannon is – and it has only become diverse because of grassroots agitation across society for better treatment of women and non-white people – it is still a cannon, protected by gatekeepers like Andrew Motion. The former poet-laureate has been banging on for some time about the changes he wants in education, some years ago publically complaining that students did not know ‘The Bible’ and Milton anymore. He admitted, that yes, we could drop poets like Dryden and Pope, but there were important parts of the literary heritage that it was vital for young people etc etc. The point being, he wanted them to learn the poems that he liked.
The Poetry Archive’s ideas of what make a good performance, again make interesting reading. To make the point I will quote the whole section from the Dramatic Appropriateness (1-6 points) category below:
“Recitation is about conveying a poem’s sense primarily with one’s voice and is closer to the art of storytelling than theatrical performance. A strong performance relies on a powerful internalisation of the poem rather than distracting dramatic gestures. The dramatisation subtly underscores the meaning of the poem without becoming the focal point of the recitation. A low score in this category will result from recitations that have affected character voices and accents, inappropriate tone and inflection, singing, distracting and excessive gestures, or unnecessary emoting.”
Once again, these are dubious proscriptions. Who says that ‘dramatic gestures’ are ‘distracting’? If you watch youth slam you will see a great change in the way in which people are using theatricality when performing poetry. You are on stage. Why stand in polished stillness behind a lectern? Why not use your physicality and movement and audience engagement to enhance the visual aspect of the performance? Some story-tellers would object to this distinction too. Furthermore, would it be wrong for a non-Jamaican student to perform Zephaniah’s line “I could work de ital kitchen” in a Jamaican accent? Or Joseph’s father’s voice “Picka foot jook wood” in a Trinidadian one? Would it be affected or simply taking on the character in the poem?
For students to pick up poetry as “a dynamic art form”, it would help, I believe, to have them experience poetry more, not have it taught at them with a tick-box of ‘poetic techniques’ or given a restrictive ‘anthology’ to choose from with arbitrary prejudices about what is ‘light-hearted’ or ‘difficult’. The National Curriculum of the 1980s and most changes since then have restricted teachers.