Friday, December 07, 2007

How to Teach Poetry

Poetry is not being taught at all in British schools. This is the actual, as opposed to the stated, finding of an Ofsted report. This will make, for sensitive Thought Experimenters, grim reading. Perhaps the worst detail is the list of poems most likely to be taught in primary schools - Noyes, The Highwayman; Milligan, On the Ning, Nang, Nong; Carroll, Jabberwocky; Lear, The Owl and the Pusscat; Stevenson, From a Railway Carriage; de la Mare, The Listeners; Wright, The Magic Box; McGough, The Sound Collector; Dahl, Revolting Rhymes; Ahlberg Dog in the Playground.
Plainly the primary school teachers need incarcerating in special camps to be taught what poetry is. There they would have to learn by heart, Wordsworth, Daffodils; Shakespeare, the Phoenix and the Turtle; Stevens, The Rabbit as King of the Ghosts; Raleigh, The Passionate Man's Pilgrimage; Wyatt, They flee from me that sometime did me seek; Tennyson, Ulysses; Eliot: Song for Simeon; Pope, The Rape of the Lock;  Auden, Like a Vocation; Keats, Ode to Autumn. All are entirely appropriate for primary school children, provoking, as they do, wonder, awe and longing. 
While incarcerated, the teachers would also have to read and answer detailed questions on Kenneth Koch's Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, the best book ever written on children and poetry. They would also have to write one thousand times, 'There is no such thing as children's poetry, there is only poetry.'


  1. I can never get beyond the first line of Daffodils. Clouds do not wander and - especially in Cumbria - they're rarely lonely.

    Was poetry ever taught in schools? You mean 'appreciation of'. Still it's a good starting point, I suppose. Unlike the first line in Daffodils...

  2. Dear God, The Highwayman's still going strong -and The Listeners!? There's something almost heartening in that...

  3. My father made me learn 'Ozymandias' by heart when I was 10. Didn't understand a bloody word at the time but I liked the sound of the thing.

    I have no problems with the kiddies learning 'Ning Nang Nong' - it's brilliant. But 'Revolting Rhymes' should not be taught in schools - it should be banned and thus be secretly discovered by children and smuggled in as subversive samizdata.

  4. From the Ofsted report (a small and easy download from their website): "In the primary schools visited, the same few poems were chosen again and again. This reflects the fact that large numbers of primary teachers are not English specialists and tend not to be keen or regular readers of poetry. This has been confirmed by a recent survey by the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA), which revealed that over half the teachers involved in their research could name only one, two or no poets at all."

    I'm not sure why you have to be an "English specialist" to know and like poetry but that is by the by. At best, it would appear that many teachers are only passing on the little they themselves learnt while at primary school, if they can remember it. No wonder Noyes and co are still going strong. Back to skool for teacher then. Nuff said.

  5. Virtually no one who studies English Literature at university can really understand or appreciate poetry; so presumably virtually no school teachers can either.

    i think it's partly a 'cognitive' problem, that we live in a world of constant, fast-streaming data, coming from all sides, and we're thus trained to process our sensory data very quickly & superficially. Anything requiring slowness, calm, deep attention, is beyond most people now.

  6. This dismal list does leave one in despair... especially the inclusion of some of the odious drivel that Milligan wrote....

  7. Hear, hear, Bryan! In the U.S., our kids get some good poetry almost accidentally. My son, who has a nearly photographic memory, walked in the other day reciting a long poem by Langston Hughes. Why? Because they learn about the Harlem Renaissance and thus they study the poetry of Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Baldwin, et al, and some of it is quite fine.

    By the way, in the interest of representing the younger generation, I feel obliged to say that rap is poetry, too. As Dana Gioia (poet & head of the Nat'l Endowment of the Arts in the U.S.) once pointed out, Snoop Dogg's rap is in iambic pentameter, ditto Shakespeare's sonnets. And some rap lyrics -- Eminem the main one I know, though my kids know many, many more -- are exceptionally clever and catchy.

    Poetry hasn't disappeared, it's just morphed into another form, a la that law of thermodynamics....

  8. Clearly, education in this country should be solved by Gordon Brown’s approach to everything: forcing it on every poor bastard until they can stand it no longer. Poetry should be a miserable chore, like reading Shakespeare. Every kid should be strapped to their desk and force fed poetry until they appreciate it or die!

    Actually, that’s what happened to me at school. It was only when I was a little older, wiser, and when I had the choice that I discovered poetry for myself.

    The problem with education is that teachers are acting like prison wardens and it will only get worse with this imbecilic plan to have compulsory education to seventeen. Compulsory education should stop at thirteen, with more flexible schemes for the subsequent years involving workplace apprenticeships for those who prefer that. If people go willingly to any subject – and people will choose literature if it’s an option – they will learn to enjoy it and the teaching environment will improve. Because it’s the great taboo of the middle classes, no government will remove Shakespeare from the curriculum. Yet at the moment, teachers are being forced to teach good literature via bad methods to people who don’t want to be there. It’s conducive to nothing but instilling in teenagers a lifelong hatred of what should be a lifelong pleasure.

  9. Elberry wrote: i think it's partly a 'cognitive' problem, that we live in a world of constant, fast-streaming data, coming from all sides, and we're thus trained to process our sensory data very quickly & superficially. Anything requiring slowness, calm, deep attention, is beyond most people now.

    That's a very solid point. The theft of attention, calm and the space in which to concentrate (all in the name of commerce, imho) is one of the serious problems of our time. My teachers (but not the ones in primary school) let us roam in a big library but stayed on hand for some gentle guidance and explanations of how such and such a poem worked, what certain poets were trying to achieve, etc. They were far too wise to try anything by rote or forcing. Instead they wanted to light that spark. I was very lucky.

  10. Send the teachers back to school!

    Incarcerate the teachers!

    Sounds like the same thing.

    Speaking for autodidacts everywhere, I'm glad that I largely discovered the pleasures of poetry on my own. Not only was there something slightly clandestine about it, but I got to really get into it from directions and in ways I'm pretty sure a set teaching curriculum would never have allowed for.

  11. My brain didn't wake up till i was about 19, so pretty much all my education was self-medicating; but it was kickstarted by TS Eliot, who i'd read at A-level, and who haunted me after i'd left.

    Education is a tricky thing. i think one should try, at least, to expose everyone to certain possibilities, in as intriguing, seductive & uncluttered way as is possible. i am grateful that my school taught Eliot at A-level, it hooked into my psyche, though i didn't notice at the time.

    The problem (i think) with education is it encumbers the raw forms of literature etc. with tests, 'how to get a A in the exams', 'what Leavis said' - one of the best moments of my otherwise crappy schooling was being taken to the music room, and the class listening, in silence, to 'The Flight of the Bumblebee' aged 11 or so. No explanation, no attempt to make us jump through official hoops to get a pass or A, just the thing itself. The explanations and hoop-jumping should come much much later.

    But in a highly-official education system such as ours, the hoop-jumping, the tests and evaluations, are really the centre of everything.

  12. 'Dear God, The Highwayman's still going strong...' and other similar comments on this blog ....

    In defence of primary school teachers, such as myself (I actually have an Honours degree in English Literature) bloggers should check out the National Literacy Strategy before they slag off the teachers; the Highwayman is a set text for Year 5.

    Hard pressed teachers use poems for which teaching resources are available, and they use poems that are recommended on LEA training courses ... Pie Corbett always recommends The Magic Box by Kit Wright, for example ... it is what the teacher does with the material, and how much enthusiasm the teacher has, that makes for inspirational poetry teaching, or otherwise.