Wednesday, March 20, 2013

English Lessons: The Death of Poetry?

I post poems here all the time.  Following the recent article in The Independent about the high culture which we introduce young children to; I recalled a conversation I had had with my fellow English students - who all hated poetry.  Largely because of the experiences that they had with poetry in English lessons.
English lessons are often the first contact-point people have with poetry.  An enormous responsibility is then put upon teachers, exam boards, and schools to choose the right syllabus.  A syllabus which will give its students a rounded view of what poetry, and indeed literature, entails.  My own experience of English lessons, however, largely consisted of teachers teaching what they were interested in.  Until I met Mrs Clegg - who would start lessons with poems, often crying whilst reading them, but it made you even more determined to love the poem - to feel as strongly about it as she did.

"I don't really like poetry..." is often followed by an admission that the only poetry someone has encountered has been that which they did at school.  There seems to be a mistaken conception that the poetry on a school syllabus is there to give you a taster of 'the best' poetry.  If you find nothing you like, therefore, among the best poems you must not like poetry at all, right?  I remember we had one teacher who was finishing her training and spent the best part of a month analysing the poem "Limbo" by Edward Kamau Braithwaite.  We did the poem to death.  I still remember the poem today - and not in a good way.  That poem is nowhere near what I would regard to be 'the best' poetry and I am lucky enough to have had alternative experiences with poetry, to not leave the classroom thinking all poetry was like that.  

My mother's generation, however, were learning Coleridge, Tennyson, Keats in their English lessons.  And by 'learning' I mean reciting the poems until many years later - they still know them all off-by-heart.  There are anthologies published entitled Poems we learnt at School - presumably because they bring back fond memories.  I still cringe remembering the English essays in which I would liken the sonnet form to a bomb.  Small but powerful.  My mother was shocked at the poems, or lack of, which I was learning in school and sat me down with a copy of The Nations Favourite Poems and we went through them all.  It is these poems, which I didn't dissect to death, over-analyse  just sat and read through with my mother which I remember with fondness.

I think there's so much confusion about how you should treat poetry, let alone teach it.  

Are you supposed to read it aloud or in your head?  
How much of the imagery is supposed to be analysed?
What purpose does a poem have?
What significance does the form of the poem have on the overall impact?

And it is killing any enjoyment children could gain from poetry.

I just wish we could give children a chance to truly enjoy poetry before killing any enjoyment with over-analysis.  Just read a poem - don't think about it, just enjoy it, for what it is - a poem.  

Here's some of my favourite poems which I've previously posted.

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Nell said...

Loved this post, you really hit the nail on the head here. I loved being able to discover poetry on my own and enjoy it for what it was. Although I think education did equip me with the skills I need to understand poetry and know what to look for and appreciate, there's too much emphasis on the "right answer" - which does take the simplicity and beauty of it away.

Bea Sempere (Denise Baer) said...

I agree with you regarding the first introduction to poetry. For years I didn't want to look at another poem after dissecting them, learning iambic pentameter and analyzing the author's words and what s/he meant. The one poem that sticks out for me is Wasteland by T.S. Elliot. The footnotes were longer than the poem. To me, that's not poetry, it's history.

By now, I've recovered from my Wasteland days and read and write poetry. I'm not a poet laureate, but I learn to enjoy and find the beauty in the words. Poetry is about emotion and that's what I makes a poem for me.

Thanks for posting.

Eleanor Mclaren said...

Totally agree. I'm currently studying A2 Literature; A Level studies have exposed me to a higher quality of poetry which has sparked an interest in the medium again after a tedious 2 years of studying GCSE. I also studied Limbo, and although I can probably recount the whole bloody poem to you, I wouldn't want to. It's awful. It seems that exam boards want to expose children to a wide variety of cultures and are sacrificing high quality, enjoyable writing to fulfill this purpose. I am now in love with Auden's work after my AS Literature studies, maybe they focus on better writing at A Level because it's obvious the student actually has an interest in the subject? I don't know.
Great post!
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Alice @ said...

Secondary School is the reason I never really enjoyed reading at all when younger. I think you are right, we need to find a way to introduce poems to children for pleasures, rather than solely educations, purpose. So they can see the beauty and perhaps be encouraged to write their own - this was encouraged in Primary school, but gets lost when learning becomes less creative. Maybe there should be a creative writing GCSE, if we can have an Art GCSE, I think Creative Writing makes as much sense.

I think another side to it, is that Poetry is often seen as the classical music of literature - you're a bit snobby if you read it. Which, with only the littlest of education, can be rectified.

Louise from: //This Book Is Reserved// said...

so glad someone else feels the same way about "Limbo" as me. *shudder* xx

Louise from: //This Book Is Reserved// said...

yes! couldn't agree more! there should be more focus on creating your own poetry and developing an understanding of the art form from that aspect - much more fun and enjoyable than reading through an old anthology.

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