They learned by rote what the poets wrote, then in the exam have to write. But is it right?
In the late 90’s I found myself at school, sitting in English lessons learning about poetry with teachers that I can now confidently say ‘knew their stuff’. They all did their best within the confines of a curriculum that was straining to make it engaging. For me they hit the mark with a varying degree of success, for many it missed entirely. The result? Another generation that left school with a limited understanding, passion and a distinct lack of love for poetry. It was to remain for many the torturous experience of trying to decode the often stale and dry mind of a long dead and totally un-relatable writer.
Fly forward the best part of two decades and I still find it hard to believe that that same disengaged child now adds the words Poet and Playwright to my CV. How did that happen? Why did that happen? What does it have to do with schools and kids today?
I often joke when there is a young person on the front row of a poetry gig by asking them their age. They will reply all eager and keen like a child who chose the front row of any performance normally does. They will say for example ‘8’. I then ask them all wide eyed and surprised how old they think I was when I wrote my first poem. With a little bit of stage craft and a heap of good fortune they reply with their own age. I then say ‘No! I was 24’. It’s not true entirely, but it gets a laugh (sometimes) and allows me to remember the line to the first poem. It might not be entirely true, but it isn’t too far wide of the mark.
Aged 15 there was a brief spell where Paul Cookson held writers workshops in my school and he helped to inspire me to have a go. A couple of the pieces I still cherish to this day. When I was at school my English poetry exam consisted of two unseen poems that I had to compare and analyse. This meant I had to understand poetic construct, form and meter and be able to highlight other poetic devices detailing why a poet may have chosen them and their impact on the poem and reader. A pretty good poetic foundation I think you would agree. However, the source material was dry and stale. Was written in a language a 15 year old boy would struggle to connect with, and often had a subject matter I had no interest or experience of. Furthermore the unseen element of the exam meant I didn’t spend time learning about specific poets, their story or any of the details of their work that could have made them more human. The disconnect between the skills being taught and the ability to engage myself and millions of others like me was huge.
Fly forward a decade or so and the exams evolve. Students are now presented with an anthology of 18 poems. Covering a range of topics, styles and writers. They now only focus on these 18 poets and poems. They spend time learning the back story to the poets and the poems. They learn every detail of the plethora of poetic devices being employed by some of poetry’s grandmasters. It is a fantastically more well rounded look at not just the A-B functionality of poetry, but also of the people behind the words. In many cases a fully holistic look at how life inspires creativity, and how writers craft can be so efficiently deployed to craft a refined work of art.
Yet we seem to be failing students again with the way we deliver it. Still the problem of presenting a room full of students with dry material, although brought to life a little more by its origin stories and context it is still often discussing emotions and feelings that students just haven’t experienced, and therefore cannot hope to draw upon.
Yet this is not even the biggest flaw. Now from this anthology of 18 poems they are only presented with one printed in full. The exam still expects them to compare and contrast, to reference and quote from two poems. They are expected to memorise all 18 poems from that anthology, along with all the details of each aspect of the meaning and poetic devices in use. For many the simple act of, under exam pressure, recalling 18 titles is a step too far.
So why do we want this? What benefit is the committing to memory of these poems? What is it they are actually being tested on? Most of the professional and talented poets I know read from their book. THEY read, THEIR poems, that THEY wrote, that THEY understand more than anyone. If they are not performing from memory what value does adding this to the exam pressure really have? Especially when 16 of the 18 that are studied so hard will not even be used. All we are doing is creating a new reason for yet another generation to grow up with a twitch at the word poetry. A new generation of young people who will at the first opportunity disengage entirely from an art form that has so much to offer.