A defence of poetry
Allowing a poetry opt-out is wrong
Just when poetry was becoming really interesting both to teach and even more important to study, it has fallen victim to post-covid curricuum cuts. Jill Pritchard laments the move.
Opting out of poetry
Every year, on the first Thursday of October (7th October 2021) National Poetry Day celebrates the wonder of poetry. This year’s theme, ‘Choice’ is ironic, as it comes at a time when the English exam regulator Ofqual, offered next year’s GCSE English literature students the choice to opt out of the study of poetry altogether. Ofqual’s decision (read – https://www.theguardian.com/) was predicated on the impact of Covid-19 on teachers’ ability to prepare students for the poetry aspect of the syllabus, believing that it will be ‘extremely challenging’ to teach this aspect of the syllabus and difficult for students ‘to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely’.
Dispensable and difficult?
Sadly, we see a creative and thought-provoking element of the curriculum being squeezed out, with the implication that poetry is dispensable and ‘difficult’ to teach remotely, which from my experience is just not true. My view and that of many other teachers I speak to, is that poetry should continue to be compulsory at GCSE. When delivered imaginatively it is fun to teach and learn at any level, including GCSE.
So, in Shelley’s words, the time is right to launch ‘A defence of Poetry’ (Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1821)
When we see the impact that award-winning poet, and teacher Kate Clanchy with her book ‘How to Grow a Poem’ has made on poetry teaching, it’s clear that with good teaching, schools can ‘build up a culture of success and confidence’ around poetry. Moreover, students are gaining a fresh appreciation of poetry arising from their interest in the poets’ life and times and the vision they want to share.
New life from the texts
Literary study now requires students to understand different analytical approaches to texts, such as Marxist feminist and eco interpretation, as well as relating to them on their own terms. This necessitates an understanding of various movements and schools of thought, which is both enriching and helps students to develop their own new ideas about their own lives.
Through poetry we are helping students to explore issues that they care about.
Use of new media
Before and during lockdown we have used short, curriculum aligned video content, helping students to understand the social and literary context in which the poetry was written. It’s hard for teachers to have the time to do all the background research on the poets, but high-quality video content can now provide background and context for the more challenging, but very rewarding, ‘heritage texts’ bringing the work of Romantic, Victorian and World War One Poets to life. These provide clear explanations and stimulating visual material, evoking the worlds the poets inhabited and the ideas and social conditions that influenced their work.
I particulalrly like ClickView’s poetry series, which offers a range of videos about modern and older poetry aligned to the curriculum at GCSE and A’ Level. Students enjoy learning about poets’ lives and through discovering their different worlds find common interests with them. Seeing the art of The Romanics represented, or a picture of a 19th century factory floor gives the student a vivid impression that can make the era more real to them, stimulating their interest. The ClickView series also provides tasks for the student which consolidate their understanding of the given content and allow for independent study.
Just when we are being given the choice of opting out.
Lives of the poets
The visual aspect of ‘seeing’ people of that time, being able to picture where poets were coming from, engages students’ interest. Whether the students are studying Keats, Byron, Blake, Shelly, Wordsworth, or Coleridge the learning can be applied to any poet.
The more students understand the experiences of these people, the more powerful the learning. For teachers, the interactive short questions that accompany the videos ensure that the students have watched them in class or at home.
Poetry needed more than ever
Clearly it is important to provide students with a level of guidance through the literary content to ensure they look at the poetry through the right lens, and if we go into another lockdown, there is no reason that this can’t be done remotely. More than ever, our students need a way to understand other people’s struggles and connect with their own emotions.
Poetry allows students to explore meaning, and connect with others on a deeper level: vital at a time when the pandemic has isolated so many and yet connected us in a global misfortune.
Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society recently told the BBC that, poetry ‘speak[s] directly to young people’s lived experience’ arguing that the study of poetry ‘opens up a space for the discussion of challenging subjects such as loss and isolation’. She continued, ‘all our usual certainties have recently been washed away. Poetry is all about uncertainty. It doesn’t give answers, it poses questions, and helps students understand that life may involve learning to live with complexities.’
Poetry starts conversations and debate. It encourages a love of language and history and supports students’ moral, cultural, and spiritual development. It helps them to add an informed perspective and value to society. Poetry should be a central part of every student’s learning.
This is particularly true when a poem and the work of the poet is seen in context. We need it more than ever, and I hope that you will be celebrating all it has to offer with gusto on October 7th! To find out more click on the banner below.
Formerly Head of English at Clifton High School, Bristol, Jill Pritchard is now a freelance English Literature tutor, editor and English teaching consultant.