Yesterday Macmillan publishers and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education announced the result of research done on the place of poetry in primary schools – the first of its kind since a report by Ofsted in 2007.
The conclusions make depressing, but not entirely surprising, reading: many teachers don’t feel confident teaching poetry and there aren’t many books in the classroom. In response the organisations have launched a project delivering training to thirty teachers – Macmillan also have a new book.
Reading the article I couldn’t help but think of the huge brouhaha last year over the poetry curriculum at GCSE. The argument revolved around the removal of a poem by a certain poet called Philip Larkin, who found himself collateral damage in an effort to bring in more diverse and/or contemporary poets. I say huge: I don’t know how far it ‘cut through’ but there was a period where you couldn’t move for articles in political magazines decrying the decision as, in the words of the (now disgraced) Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, ‘cultural vandalism’.
At the time I found the whole debate frustratingly narrow, even damaging. I was no fan of the decision to remove ‘An Arundel Tomb’ itself, especially when there was still space for James Fenton’s ‘In Paris With You’ – great, sleazy fun but not the kind of thing which offers much on a second reading. You wonder whether Fenton kept his place partly made because the poem’s rollicking rhythms and repetition lend it nicely to the formulaic rubrics used in modern examinations. (‘An Arundel Tomb’ also contains words like ‘blazon’: most people know what Paris is.)
But that Larkin’s poem is one of the most beautiful of the twentieth century, at least in my book (‘His hand withdrawn, holding her hand’) doesn’t mean it was wrong for an exam board to want to refresh a selection. Larkin will last whether or not he is in any one particular anthology (it doesn’t say much of your opinion of his poetry if you think otherwise). As ever, there was a real story hidden beneath the superficial crud of the culture wars and an exam board’s press release: how little poetry there is in schools and how little it is actually valued.1
The numbers here tell their own story. OCR’s GCSE poetry anthology currently consists of three groups of fifteen poems, of which a class is only expected to read one. At AQA, one of OCR’s main competitors, there is even less choice: two sets of fifteen poems. Fifteen poems. Choosing what exactly to include must feel like shuffling chairs on the Titanic.
Last year, thinking I would try and write something along these lines, I dug out my own heavily-annotated AQA GCSE poetry anthology and confirmed a hunch: no Larkin in there either. That was fifteen years ago. But my anthology did include a choice from two sets of eight poems from ‘Different Cultures’ in English and, in ‘English Literature’, sixteen poems from either Seamus Heaney and Gillian Clarke, or Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy, plus a further fifteen classics in a ‘pre-1914 poetry bank’. (The implicit lesson being that ‘Different Cultures’ and ‘English Literature’ are somehow different things which have to be kept separate.)
Looking back, my AQA anthology begins to look like a luxury. In fact, it was a downgrade. Armitage, now Poet Laureate, has described the importance of his own school anthology, Worlds, to his poetic ‘creation myth’: Worlds was a real book. It had lengthy selections from seven modern poets, from Edwin Morgan to Adrian Mitchell, introductions from each writer and a black and white photographs: Thom Gunn ‘rocking a pair of hipster jeans’ or ‘agricultural-looking Seamus Heaney… going about in a peat bog’ (‘modern at the time… and, unsurprisingly, all male and white’). Everyone in Armitage’s school – the first new comprehensive school in the north of England – got a copy. They also got a copy of Ted Hughes’s The Hawk in the Rain. Armitage never returned either.2
This, then, is a story about books. Those, Armitage notes, are expensive, ‘initially, at least, and certainly compared with… the flimsy, stapled-together booklets distributed by our current exam boards.’ (For what they offer, books aren’t very expensive at all.) But they are invaluable ‘because they recognise the physical certainty of poetry, acknowledge the symbiotic pleasure of being possessed by an object while being the possessor of it, and reinforce the connection between literature and the time-honoured device by which it is most effective delivered.’
Ultimately, the only thing poetry needs to survive is readers. How exactly you go about making those is not exactly simple. Some would argue that the classroom isn’t the place to encounter poetry at all. (I can hear Larkin himself saying something along those lines.) Several people I have spoken to since have talked about being exposed to Larkin at school in large quantities, simply because their teacher loved the poems. This is how poetry operates. In one case this produced a true believer – in the other it put them off him. (This is also how poetry operates.)
For better or worse, school is where many people are first introduction to poetry, at least on the page. A book like Worlds offered a kind of variety, but also, through the length of the selections, depth: Armitage could get to know the individual poets and choose the ones that worked for him (Ted Hughes, as it happens). If we were being genuinely ambitious for young people, at the very least we would be advocating for them each to be given a book like that, offering introductions to a wide range of poets writing today – real portals into other worlds in a format that says: this is something valuable – this is worth keeping.
1 The only person I saw addressing this at the time was the poet Kate Clanchy.
2 The Armitage quotes come from his book A Vertical Art, based on his (very good) Oxford Lectures. You can listen to those here.
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