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This item is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.Editorial
Now there’s a quick consumer culture it’s very rare that people read long books anymore. It’s usually just quick interactions [...] so I think poetry is one of the best mediums we have for communicating our ideas.
—Wilson Oryema, multi-disciplinary artist and writer
‘Poetry establishment outraged’: such a headline would have struck the reader as ironic a couple of decades ago, when there was no perceived poetry establishment. If we had thought in ‘establishment’ terms, we would have identified several such, at war with one another and themselves riven by internecine squabbles. The words ‘poetry’ and ‘establishment’ seemed to exist in different registers.
What a change is here! The current poet laureate is joined by the dowager children’s poet laureate (Michael Rosen), the Makars, National Poets and other worthies, protectors of an abstraction which grows more sacred and more abstract by the year. The latest outrage is the decision by Ofqual (the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation – who named that poor baby?) to make the study of poetry optional for GCSE English Literature students next year, and only for a year.
Before we connive in civilised outrage, we might ask what exactly ‘the study of poetry’ entails in the current GCSE syllabus. A ‘themed anthology’ entitled Power and Conflict may be the set text: up to a score of poems, one each by poets from Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, Browning, Tennyson, Owen, to the present, represented by Hughes, Armitage, Duffy – a brace of laureates – and others, the poems various in subject and manner but all possessing a narrative line and relating to studyable ‘contexts’. At GCSE level this handful of poems provides a sufficient metonym for ‘poetry’ itself. On Facebook one quondam GCSE student remembered being asked to enumerate ten ways in which love is like an onion in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Valentine’. The approach has as much to do with arithmetic or olericulture as with poetry. ‘I am trying to be truthful.’
Ofqual adduces the distortions caused by Covid-19 as the reason for its decision. Students need accelerated education, to make up for lost months. Speed requires a slimmed-down syllabus. In PNR 254 we reflected on the impact the illness has had on the rate of poetry production (which continues unabated). It had already established itself in the Muses’ domain. As against the frenzied increase in verse output, students (directed by teachers) will have a choice: to avoid it altogether. Shakespeare remains safe: a play must still be studied. But only two of the three remaining topics need be pursued: the nineteenth-century novel; fiction or drama from the British Isles since 1914; and poetry. Poetry has an advantage for the sprinting student. It entails the least reading… There is no ‘fiction’ or ‘drama’ establishment or Ofqual would have heard from them long ago about the either/or – as though there was some generic or qualitative equivalence. Poetry has had a louder institutional claque all along.
But not as strong as science. Kate Clanchy commented in the Guardian, ‘The content of double science – the popular three-in-one science GCSE – is presumably also, as Ofqual says of poetry, difficult to deliver online, but Ofqual isn’t telling teachers they can pick between chemistry and biology next year providing they stick with the physics. It would cause outrage: we all know that all three sciences are important. So what do we know about poetry? Cutting just English and the speaking elements of modern foreign language sends a wider message about the importance of these subjects, a message about who can be bossed and what is dispensable.’ This begs the question, what is GCSE poetry?
Simon Armitage is worried that making poetry optional ‘might have a knock-on effect and just make it one of those add-ons that it’s been at times in the past’. At issue is poetry’s reputation. But what is the educational value of what is being taught – the exiguous syllabus, and its outcomes? He says, ‘Poetry is language at play, and a lot of the time in a school or classroom environment, students are expected to use language in a very rational, logical and informational way. To be denied the opportunity to think of language as nuanced and playful is a pity.’ But playfulness in language exists in other disciplines, and to count ten ways in which love is an onion is ‘very rational, logical and informational’. If playfulness were one of the outcomes, one might leap to the defence, but outcomes are described in staid, solemn terms. I lectured a few years back to a group of GCSE students about the poems of Philip Larkin, suggesting that they could be read without reference to the poet’s life. At the end of my talk the teacher, thanking me, reminded the students that they had been provided ten biographical facts about Larkin that they must mention in their answers to the examination questions. Such an ‘informational’ approach did little to free up Larkin’s poems for the young readers. There was no measuring the ‘sense of play’.
This ‘option year’ may prove an opportunity to re-assess how, and what, poetry is included in the future GCSE syllabus, how to make it more demanding and rewarding a subject when it becomes compulsory once more.
Poets are emphatic spokespersons for keeping poetry compulsory at GCSE regardless of the educational crisis produced by Covid-19. They insist on poetry’s popularity and relevance. If their arguments are true, poetry may not need to be squeezed into the Covid-foreshortened classroom next year. The limiting syllabus and the outcome-orientated impoverishment of exam culture can damage natural enthusiasm and condition the response of young readers. Their exam answers must be comparable and markable. Ten facts about Philip Larkin’s life, ten ticks in the margin. Ten rings of the love onion.
Maybe a year of voluntary rather than compulsory GCSE poetry will be good for the art, the artist, the teacher and the developing reader.
This item is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.