I want to assert that part of the reason many people may fail to find any joy in poetry, is because the quality of the poetry to which they are exposed has been compromised. In other words, the poems taught in schools may not be good enough.
I really didn’t like coffee as a child. I didn’t like eggs much either. Nor did I like fruit centred chocolates, the kind you get in a box of Roses; or marzipan for that matter. Today, I love all these things, but only sometimes.
Until I was 20, pretty much the only coffee I’d had was instant. When tasting freshly ground coffee for the first time, I couldn’t believe the difference! At 22, I realised I’d still never prepared a fried breakfast myself, and so set out to do so. Reluctantly I included friend eggs on the list – didn’t particularly want them, but felt they needed to be part of it to be a real fry up. I guessed I should at least make sure I buy free range; as luck would have it some sort of ‘woodland organic super eggs’ were on sale, so I ended up buying them. To my surprise, I loved them! Having not eaten eggs in a long time, I assumed my taste must have changed, that was until I went to university canteen a while later, and saw the eggs on offer there. They took me back to my days in the cub scouts or the army cadets, fed on bulk-purchased uber-budget food; the eggs were small, pale yellow surrounded almost by a thin ring of rubber-like white. They were completely different to the eggs I’d bought from the supermarket myself. I did not enjoy them. Finally I used to get chocolates delivered each month from Hotel Chocolat’s sister ‘Chocolate Tasting Company.’ To date, they remain some of the best chocolates I’ve ever tasted. Occasionally though they would include marzipan chocolates, fruit centred chocolates, or even coffee chocolates, all of which I hated. The boxes were so expensive that I didn’t really feel I could afford to just leave them uneaten! I had to try them at least. Again, to my great surprise they were incredible; completely different to anything I’d tasted before. It’s probably clear where the analogy is going.
Battery farmed eggs – not that tasty
One thing that struck me about the ‘poems by heart’ app, was just how many of the poets, and even the individual poems, were familiar to me. I’d heard the name of almost every poem before; in my subconscious I knew they were somehow considered ‘great’ poems or at least certainly enduring poems, though I’d never read any of them before. I figure that in making the choices, the people at Penguin Classics probably just asked themselves what they thought the best poems were, some of their favourites, the most well-known, the most often read, or referenced, the ones that had been enjoyed by people for decades and even centuries. Then, they included many of those poems that came to mind.
How might this be different to the manner in which poems are selected to be taught in schools? In the 2007 publication ‘The Corruption of the Curriculum,’ Michele Ledda argued that the choices for the AQA anthology were made based on criteria of equal opportunities and relevance. By this system, the goal would be to have as wide a spread of cultures represented as possible, and an equal gender split. She notes that the vast majority of the poets are also contemporary, hoping to better relate to pupils. Is this a bad thing? Well, Penguin Classics didn’t seem to feel beholden to a similar set of criteria, and they have produced a collection of what seem to be considered greater poems. It’s not that there’s no nobility in trying to represent a wider array of poets and cultures, or that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but what I find some people refuse to accept, and they do so by skirting round the issue, is that in making those our criteria we necessarily relegate something else. If that weren’t the case, if the AQA anthology really were to represent the best poems we could offer to children, then there would be little need for such criteria. In deciding the anthology we could simply decide to include the best of what has been written, and naturally the current poems would be a part of the pool from which a final selection could be made. We could ensure there was equal representation at this second stage of the selection process. If they don’t make that cut without us specifying diversity as a priority, then we should question whether they’re really the best poems to pass on to the next generation. I’m aware that 2007 was some time ago now, and the anthology has changed, and includes more from the ‘literary heritage’. I’m told by some English teachers though that for various reasons the breadth still isn’t there, and there’s no guarantee a child will actually see any of the classics.
Do we currently value the idea of passing on the best that poetry has to offer?
I don’t really want to make any certain claims here; I’m no English teacher. The only two poems that stuck in my mind from school, though, were ‘Search for my tongue,’ and ‘Half caste.’ Many people I know are aware of these two poems; they too studied them at school. Curiously, the people at Penguin Classics didn’t feel the need to include either of these. I read back over the poems a few weeks ago – would I like them more now, with my new perspective on poetry? I was completely underwhelmed by both. I’m not saying either is ‘bad’, nor am I saying neither of them has anything to teach us – quite the opposite. In both cases I felt I learnt something that has stuck with me. From ‘Half-caste’ I learnt to appreciate how and why the term can be offensive when used to describe people of mixed race. From ‘Search for my tongue’ I glimpsed some insight into what it might be like to live from a young age with two languages battling for dominance in the mind. But still when I read them now, I am simply underwhelmed. In considering Ozymandias, If, Shakespeare’s sonnets, The raven, The second coming, and others I’ve mentioned before, when I think about how I felt as I started to unravel their meaning, or how long I sat engaged in thinking about the language and its construction, I feel like there was so much meat to them, so much depth, so much more mastery in their construction, that I can probably only just begin to grasp. By comparison, the former two poems seem… okay. They’re alright, not bad, but I’m not getting that same sense of substance.
In telling my food analogy to one friend, he noted how tastes are acquired with time. If I were to argue that it’s ‘low quality’ poetry in schools that mean people aren’t enjoying it as much as they could, I may be missing the fact that a ‘taste for poetry’ is something that simply might take time to develop. He’s right of course; tastes do develop over time. That said, I don’t think I was ever going to develop any taste for coffee if still only exposed to instant; I still can’t enjoy it to this day. Similarly I still can’t eat battery farmed eggs, and I will politely decline the fruit chocolates from a box of Roses. Maybe I still wouldn’t have enjoyed ground coffee while I was young, but if we are to hope someone might enjoy something at some point, we must surely give them the best possible chance to enjoy it, by introducing them to the highest quality version we can afford.
Now we get into the argument over who determines what is ‘high quality.’ If I’m honest, I find this line of reasoning a little fatuous. We’re hopefully all old enough and intelligent enough now to recognise that people have different tastes, but in as much as that also holds true for foodstuffs, at least there we seem able to agree that a spectrum of ‘low to high quality’ exists! Of course it might be that ‘Search for my tongue’ might have greater emotional resonance with someone who has experienced that situation for themselves, or similarly for ‘Half-caste.’ Because we can always undoubtedly find someone somewhere who thinks something is the best thing they ever read, does that really mean we cannot arrive at some form of loose consensus as to the quality of poems? Are people really claiming we cannot make an objective judgement as to the quality of an artwork, without necessarily enjoying it ourselves? Are we really so impotent as to be incapable of judging one piece of work as better or lesser? This always then leads into the tiresome chorus of ‘but who decides?!’ I don’t, or wouldn’t mind that question, if it weren’t so frequently uttered by the seemingly disingenuous. It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask, once it has been agreed that someone has to decide. What irks me is how people use it as an insidious way of implying that, because we cannot answer such a significant and important question on the spot, it must therefore be impossible to answer, and thus no-one could possibly decide, and therefore each poem of choice is as good as the next. What I find all the worse is that of course someone is deciding, every day! Choices are being made as to what is studied in school, and this seems to be done in secret, rather than out in the open where we could all participate in the discussion, or at least be party to the rationale of those who are making the judgements.
Just who is deciding what’s worthy of study each day?
We can always go as relativist as we want, and in the process get nowhere, and marvel at our own ability to vaporise worlds; watch in wonder as everything turns to nothing. It’s a marvellous feat of doublethink, since, secretly, we all know that some pieces of work can be considered of greater or lesser quality than others. Outside of schools, that debate is surely always raging as the boundaries and battle lines between opinions are set and defended. Inside schools, we appear to take that to mean nothing is of value, everything is of value; no choice makes any difference. The ‘debates’ I hear, such as they are, remind me of philosophy students discovering Descartes for the first time, or younger teenagers first viewing The Matrix, suddenly determined to opine that we can’t know anything is real; even if we were to allow for that, it’s no way to live a pragmatic life day to day. By the same token, pretending no line in the sand can be drawn over the quality of poetry we wish to share with school pupils is no way to build a curriculum.
I observed a poetry lesson once where the emphasis was entirely on discussion about the poem, and what it might mean. The poet wasn’t mentioned, nor the title of the poem. There was no sense that this was a poem worth knowing, worth being aware of, worth having knowledge of, worth remembering into the future. It was a temporary prop, a disposable tool to be shortly cast away once the discussion had been had. The discussion was thought important, the poem was not.
It’s reasonable to some extent to want a better definition of what constitutes ‘quality.’ I’m fine with that expectation, and with the idea of defining it. I don’t like it when people direct that question to people incapable of answering it, again insidiously hoping to imply that therefore it is a question impossible to answer. I don’t think it is, even if I don’t have much of an answer to it myself. The best I’ve heard recognises the ‘test of time.’ We can teach contemporary poets and poems, but how can we know if they’ll be worth knowing in the future, if they’ll still be known, still be read, still be appreciated, or if they were merely a transient flash in the pan, later considered not worth remembering? I said that many people I know remember ‘Search for my tongue’ and ‘Half-caste;’ well they are no longer a part of the anthology, so would a generation only 10 years younger have even heard of them? Yet, I’d hazard there’s a high chance they’ve heard of ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,’ despite not being part of the anthology either. Of course we won’t place any emphasis on memorising poems if we can’t be confident there’ll be any value in knowing them in the future, and we cannot have that confidence if we refuse to acknowledge the worth implied by a poem having survived centuries to still be enjoyed and read by millions today. That simple test seems a decent proxy for enduring quality, one reasonable enough from which to start building a curriculum. It doesn’t have to be that we preclude contemporary poets outright, but it would be nice if we could start valuing our literary heritage enough to want to share it with a new generation.
To reiterate, I don’t see anything wrong per se with the kind of lesson I described, or with some of the poems that make up the anthology. The problem I perceive is the lack of conviction in our education system – a system that seems content to offer an anaemic study of poetry to the poor, while the rich continue to study the classics behind the walls of their private schools. I’ve heard those who would defend this status quo as arguing it somehow elitist to want people from less wealthy backgrounds to have the same education as those from affluent backgrounds… the absurdity of such reasoning almost bewilders me. While there may be nothing ‘wrong’ with what we are doing, there seems to my mind to be much wrong with what we’re failing, or refusing, to do.
Are we failing pupils by refusing to value classic poetry?
In truth, I don’t much like writing about this kind of issue. I don’t much like debating it. The problem is that it is fraught with relativist arguments – people who will smugly ask ‘What is quality? What is value? Who decides? Relevant to whom?’ and so forth. There’s little intellectual honesty in such debate, and I certainly don’t possess the knowledge or mental faculty to argue the case effectively; usually I will leave that to others. But I never knew or saw any of the poems or poets in the Poems by Heart app while at school; poems that have already passed the test of time, and will likely endure on into the future. In this, I personally feel deeply let down by my school education. Had I seen them and simply been unable to appreciate them at that young age, well fine, but I wasn’t even given the chance; it’s not enough to wave our hands and say ‘no-one really knows what’s worthy of study.’ Today, this same failure seems to be perpetuated in classrooms, and I’m not okay with that.
I said before I’m not an English teacher, so if I have an inaccurate view of poetry education in the UK, please feel free to offer your view of it based on your experience. This is the story of my experience with poetry, in four parts.