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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to

This article is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

The Teaching of Poetry David Orme and James Sale

Far too much time is spent on 'undemanding and unprofitable' formal exercises in English, says a recent HMI report.1 Teaching English is not simply a matter of hammering a few skills into children. As Frank Smith puts it: 'there is only one essential precondition for children to learn about language, and that is that it should make sense to them'.2 This is salutary advice - we respond to what we understand - but how is it to be implemented? How are children to make sense of English? Does our content need to be examined? our methods? our presentation? ourselves?

There seems to us a clear divide in the way teachers have attempted to enable their pupils to make sense of English. Few now think that language study alone provides a sufficient base for an appreciation of language. Literature is the key. (Why this is so we shall deal with subsequently.) But it is in the approaches to 'English Literature' that the divisions occur. And, of course, it must be admitted that the concept 'English Literature' is itself problematic: there is no consensus about what constitutes 'literature', and, more worryingly, about whether such a consensus is desirable: a literary 'hierarchy' predicates a social one; a social hierarchy is bad, and so a literary one must be. In educational circles this becomes the indictment of 'élitism'.

The first way, then, that teachers have attempted to enable their pupils to make sense of English is by eschewing 'élitism': attempting to make literature relevant by choosing 'relevant' literature.3 Often this is allied to the prevalent heuristic methodology, which states that learning comes about by the 'discovery' inherent in doing.4 The connection between these two positions is found in their emphasis on involvement: 'relevant' literature should enagage attention, whilst writing 'literature' should employ imagination.

Set across these two parallel strands lie two new movements. The first may be termed a 'back-to-the-classics-in-the-classroom' movement.5 Sketching how the desire for 'relevance' leads to Do-it-Yourself literature, Brian Morton rejects both:

Literature, it was argued, should quite precisely reflect the experience and needs of the people who consume it. That kind of populism very quickly leads to the conviction that ultimately the consumers have to produce their own literature. The contemporary publishing world is the outcome, flabby and overblown, geared to hiding the divide between good and lasting work and the merely meretricious. The blame has to lie with an educational principle that lost its grip on 'relevance' and turned literature into an increasingly subjective formula, a sugar coating to 'problems' or 'issues'; in other words, the imagination becomes a means not an end.6

He concludes, 'children are being taught ... to create literature before they are taught what it is'.

The second movement emphasizes the process of imitation. It can be summed up as 'study what is good, and do likewise'. In practical terms, such work involves studying the techniques of writing, even to the extent of bringing professional writers into the classroom. This approach places the 'how' of writing in a position of paramount importance, and the content - 'relevant' or no - is subordinate to this. Although this movement seems 'new', it is in fact old. As Peter Abbs puts it, '... this practice, deriving from Renaissance and Greek education, possesses a certain wisdom which has been overlooked. As G. H. Bantock has pointed out: "the purpose was to encourage a high degree of internalization of the best writing so that the grasp acquired could then be re-deployed in 'free composition'".7

We reach, then, the nub of the matter: are we faced with stark alternatives - to choose between relevance, participation, knowledge of 'classic' literary texts, or writing as a craft-based activity?

Our answer is that a synthesis is possible and also necessary. Just as effective literature itself consists of content, form and imagination in a state of tension, we must forge effective teaching from the tensions that exist between these apparently disparate methodologies. We premised at the beginning that the precondition for children learning about language is their making sense of it. For language to make sense to them, it must be relevant, they must participate in it and with it, and they must be informed of writing techniques and the linguistic possibilities realized in our 'classic' texts. We would argue, too, that these conditions, including relevance, contain or imply a strong literary bias; for the 'relevance' that we refer to is not 'quick ideological stimulus' (ibid) but that relevance without which the work cannot possibly be a 'classic' text at all. 'Classics' are so - in the first case - by definition of their being relevant, whenever written. (At the same time it would be foolish to pretend that the English teacher is exclusively occupied with 'classic' texts: often it is necessary to deal with various forms of good and bad writing.) It is the teacher's job to expose and bring that relevance into the pupil's consciousness.

It is because literature has superior internal coherence to normal language that it is so suitable for teaching purposes. Poetry, pre-eminently, has the 'highest degree of patterning'. As Nowottny says, 'if there is not, in any respect at all, a recognizably higher degree of patterning than ordinary language affords, there will not recognizably be a poem'.8 Genette's more recent study of Valéry reinforces this even further by making ordinary, 'imperfect' language the very condition for poetry: 'The non-mimetic character of language is thus, in a certain way, the opportunity and the condition for poetry to exist.' And from this we find 'there are two languages in language, one of which (everyday language) is left to arbitrariness and convention, while the other (poetic language) is the refuge of mimetic virtue, the locus of the miraculous survival of the primitive verb in all its "incantatory" power'.9 Genette exposes this belief as an 'implicit fundamental article of our literary aesthetic', and suggests that its truth is not self-evident, and may now be redundant. But if so, it is difficult to see what would replace it; rather, given what would - and does - have to replace it, it is difficult to see how literary critics could go on - with a clear conscience - drawing their salaries as literary critics when poetry, per se, would no longer exist.

The essential distinctiveness of poetry is: 'Even the greatest critique or commentary . . . is dependent, secondary, contingent. The poem embodies and bodies forth through a singular enactment its own raison d'être.10 Abolish its ontological privilege and we are where the '... Modernist poet rejects all notions of art as description or mimesis ...', where 'multi-media, cacophany, abusiveness, dreams, children's games, drugs, psychedelia, automatic writing, nonsense and a-syntactical poetry, calligrams, violently incongrous images and surprise effects ... are ... legitimate', and where 'the right of everyone to practise poetry as he wishes becomes the equivalent of the right of everyone to political self-determination; the lowering of status of language implies the rejection of all forms of "élitism".'11

And would this be wrong? Perhaps the most damaging criticism of this state of affairs is Gerald Graff's: 'The loss of belief - or the loss of interest - in literature as a means of understanding weakens the educational claims of literature and leaves the literature teacher without a rationale for what he professes', and 'insofar as radical criticism makes the extirpation of high cultural snobbery the central objective, it encourages the illusion that mass culture is the democratic expression of the people, as if mass culture were not owned and operated to suit private interests'.12 Pointedly and ironically he concludes: 'the obstacle to individual freedom is no longer the stifling weight of inherited institutions and beliefs but the anomic meaninglessness and triviality of a "freedom" without content or direction.'

In the light of these observations, we, then, as teachers feel compelled to re-assert our belief in Steiner's contention: 'we must read as if the text before us had meaning. This will not be a single meaning if the text is a serious one ... only weak poems can be exhaustively interpreted or understood.'10 Simultaneously, this assertion does not imply our acceptance of the charge 'élitism' - on the contrary, we see our work as 'liberating'. Therefore, as we move from the rationale of our practice to the practice itself, we are compelled to assert that the teaching of English could be improved by far greater emphasis being placed on the role of poetry.

That poetry teaching causes widespread disquiet especially amongst teachers, is well-known,13 and the Bullock Report's twelve paragraphs devoted to poetry in a whole chapter on literature further illustrates our point.14 However, there is no short cut: he teaches well who understands. And understanding is the essence of the mind's delight. It is because so many do not understand that the need for a radicalized and effective in-service training is more urgent than ever.15 What teachers need who attend these courses is not more theory, 'skills', or work schemes, but informed contact with poetry. In this spirit we offer the following: thinking through aloud a familiar poem. Such activity should be an integral part of the term's work.

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan whistles

                        'in Just' - e.e. cummings

'in Just-' deserves double attention in the reading: breathless excitement, mirroring the child's own zest, is justified by noting the repetition of 'and', and the lack of punctuation; the typography suggests the pause points traditionally understood as caesuras.

Performance, then, is crucial - teachers unable to rise to excitement in reading are failing in a fundamental requirement of their job.

Once pupils hear, they should be hooked; then they see the poem before them. Questions arise in their minds: about the strange punctuation, the peculiar word formations, the mysterious identity of the balloonman, and ultimately, though probably not immediately, the meaning of the poem.

One important assumption always made abundantly clear to pupils is: there is no such thing as an irrelevant letter, word, phrase or sentence. Everything contributes to meaning - to empowering meaning - and in so far as something in the poem could be shown to be redundant, by that much is it marred and its power diminished. This assumption is important because it helps solve the problem of our initial approach; for it should be obvious that if a poem 'coheres', then whether we treat small details first and hope that these corroborate the meanings, or whether we take an overview and trust that nothing in the small print invalidates our interpretations, makes no difference: everything works together for good at all points of analysis.

Consider the balloonman: who is he? The repetitions finally tell us: 'little lame ... queer old ... goatfooted'. We know characters in the first two categories, but the third ... 'goatfooted'? And, of course, as if to confirm our suspicions, it is now the balloonMan. With only two capital letters in the poem, this must mean something? What? We use capitals for proper nouns, but then we notice 'eddieandbill' and 'bettyandisbel' - aren't they proper nouns? Through astute probings pupils can be led to see that the balloonMan is Man because he is special: Pan, a god, and he is exactly the opposite of (for he contrasts with) the children, who are treated as common nouns because - as the compounds suggest - they are typical of children everywhere. In this connection notice how the boys and girls are kept in their separate peer groups: a truly observed playground phenomenon. Following the balloonMan, of course, dissolves their distinctiveness. Punctuation communicates subtle shades of meaning.

Further: hyphens link. To see how precisely: 'mud-/luscious', which is, paradoxically, also divided (as 'puddle-wonderful' is not). This dividing of a compound formation effects a double sense critical to the meaning of the poem: the equivocation between the world being 'mud' - bad/and it being 'mud-luscious' - delightful.

This duality of perspective is even more marked in our other hyphen usage: 'in Just-'. Here the capital letter draws attention to the status of the word - a proper noun. The hyphen indicates incompleteness - it must be 'Just-ICE'. As spring arrives - by the hair's breath of 'Just' - so the ICE disappears. Thus the hyphen (correctly used) effects the double vision: in Just - righteous; or in Just-(ice, understood) - unrighteous.

Of course, as there was a reason for dividing 'mud-/luscious' so there is one for not separating 'puddle-wonderful'. Assonance binds the oxymoronic 'mud-/luscious'; weak, unstressed rhyme creates a mimetic rippling effect with 'puddle - wonderful' - the ripple (or echo) of sound needs to follow on from its source, and a line break would create inappropriate staccato. Hence, the line break becomes an indicator of opposition (mud-/luscious) and co-operation (puddle-wonderful).

This leads to our concluding remarks about the poem. Superficially the poem seems to be happy in tone. But as the 'in Just-' of the opening conceals ice, so finally a sensitive reading must take into account the uneasy dislocation of 'far/and/wee' and its sense of incompleteness: what has happened to the children? One could argue 'in Just-' is a cleverly disguised adult version of 'the Pied Piper of Hamelin'. (Space here prohibits detailed analysis, but a contrast could be drawn between the treatment of 'lameness' in both poems.) This time the only place the children could have disappeared into is adulthood: a fertile spring of hairy, lusty goathood. 'in Just-' is concerned with growing up, loss of innocence, dangers and injustices concealed from view but followed because the call draws us to the toys flying so attractively high.

How does our analysis of this poem achieve the synthesis we see as essential?

'in-Just' is a poem about and for schoolchildren. It presents exciting possibilities for imitation and imaginative extension in creating compound words, experimenting with typography, linking names and playground activities. The poem links a 'classic' text - with the allusion to Pan, literally a 'classical' text - to children's everyday experience, and in turn, takes that experience and turns it into magic. Children will delight in discovering just how relevant it is to them.


  1. 'Education Observed 2', DES Publication, 1984

  2. 'Essays into Literacy', Frank Smith (Heinemann).

  3. 'Political Shakespeare', Alan Sinfield, TES, 2.4.85.

  4. 'Cutting out the Frills', David Holbrook, TES, 2.11.84. 'But now do we know', David Self, TES, 4.5.84.

  5. 'The Inner Journey of the Poet', Kathleen Raine (Allen & Unwin, 1982), pp. 11, 88. 19. 'A Taste for Greatness', Linda Hall, TES, 29.4.83.

  6. 'Rules of the Imagination', Brian Morton, TES, 3.5.85.

  7. 'English Within the Arts', Peter Abbs (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982),p. 122.

  8. 'The Language Poets Use', Winifred Nowottney (The Athlone Press, 1962), p. 122.

  9. 'Valéry and the Poetics of Language', Gerard Genette, from Textual Strategies, ed. J. V. Harari (Methuen, 1979), pp. 364, 365.

  10. 'A new meaning of meaning', George Steiner, TLS, 8.11.85.

  11. 'The Crisis of Language', Richard Shephard, from Modernism ed. Bradbury and McFarlane (Penguin, 1976), pp. 329-36.

  12. 'Literature Against Itself, Gerald Graff (University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 7, 95, 211.

  13. 'The Problem of Poetry', Margaret Mathieson, The Use of English, 31.2, 79/80.

  14. 'A Language for Life', Sir Alan Bullock (HMSO, 1975).

  15. 'What the ORACLE found', TES, 12.10.84. 'In 1982 HMI reckoned that 22% of English teachers in Secondary Schools had "no discernible qualifications" for the job.'

This article is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

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