What Good is Poetry?
By Andrew Jamison, Teacher of English
In the wake of the Covid crisis impacting public examinations, schools up and down the country were given the option to drop an element from the English Literature GCSE. They had the choice of losing the drama, fiction, or poetry element, and the vast majority of schools decided to leave behind poetry. Individual schools will have made their own decisions, carefully considering what would be most advantageous to their students, and who could blame them? For example, a large inner city state school with a high percentage of students speaking English as an additional language may well be forgiven for deciding against tackling Robert Browning’s tricky syntax in ‘My Last Duchess’ in favour of the everyday, conversational tone in J.B Priestley’s drama ‘An Inspector Calls’. It should be said, however, that even if a school did decide against the taught poetry element, the unseen poetry element in the exam would have been compulsory, so on this occasion there was no way around it and students would have had to face up to the challenge. To see so many schools opt to drop poetry and to witness such animosity towards this wonderful art form, though, was quite remarkable if not tremendously sad.
Coronavirus and public examinations aside, it has been fascinating how this situation seemed to stoke a national debate about poetry’s relevance, worth and place in the curriculum today. If so many schools and students were happy to abandon poetry, what does this tell us? Why could it be so unpopular? What good is poetry, anyway?
To some degree, this situation is not helped by the often limiting way in which exam boards assess student responses to poetry. However, this literary form, by its nature, has gained a reputation for being difficult and indeed there is much that is challenging about poetry. It is, in many ways, one of the most contrary literary forms, offering a plethora of interpretations, yet resisting any definitive one. Then, of course, you have the obscure language, the ambiguity, the complicated syntax, the forms, not to mention the meter and rhyme. By its essence it is elusive, and, in many ways anti-everything, or as the poet Derek Mahon once said ‘poetry is the other thing that is the other thing.’ The challenge of it, though, is surely one of its great pleasures, and I’ve no doubt that through studying poetry and discussing its meaning, students are not only stretching themselves, but also becoming more independent learners, growing bolder in their personal responses to language, and also enriching their critical skills and eye for detail. Reading poetry, then, is as much an exploration of the imagination as it is an exercise in rigour. And in response to recent debates on diversity, it is one of the best gateways to understanding other cultures in a meaningful and intimate way, understanding how identities across the globe are shaped by language.
In our information age of quick internet searches, poetry offers the perfect antidote requiring concentration and patience; in fact, there is a great pleasure and reward to be found in revisiting and re-reading poems time and again. In a world dominated by science and technology it offers us the chance to delay, daydream and delve into the unsolved equation of ourselves. T.S. Eliot, writing at the start of the twentieth century, encapsulates this idea of modern life getting in the way of deeper reflection when he writes:
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
At Abingdon, apart from our National Poetry Day celebrations, poetry takes up an important role in a curricular and extra-curricular sense, with lots of creative opportunities for the students in all years. Poetry by Heart is a club we have held, open to all years promoting the joy of reciting poems with the prospect of participation in a national competition. Scribble is a third year creative writing group run in collaboration with the School of St Helen and St Katharine in which students constructively critique each other’s work. The Post Men, and Words and That, respectively, offer students in the Middle School the opportunity to write and publish their poetry, while in the sixth form the AFA in Creative Writing course offers a university style creative writing workshop environment.
So, what good is poetry? Can it help me get a job? Will it help me gain more followers on social media? Will it make me more successful? The joy of reading poetry should be reward enough; that is its gift. W.H. Auden, the famous English poet, wrote the following lines in commemoration of another poet, and I’ve always thought they point so well towards the educative power of poetry, why we still need it, and the good it can do.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
from ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ by W.H. Auden
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