A cultural quandary

Including poetry from different cultures in the GCSEsyllabus is all well and good, says Rachel Redford, but what about the issues not yet addressed?

This September thousands of GCSE students will be studying "Poetry from Different Cultures", and in June 2004 they will be writing about it in their English examination. The metamorphosis of this new course element from "Texts from other Cultures", which has been in the syllabus since 1998, is the result of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's directive that there should be four and not five pieces of coursework from 2004. It sounds simple, but QCA also directed that none of the required syllabus elements was to be dropped. Something, therefore, had to "double-up", so "Poetry from Different Cultures" was born, with its subtle change of adjective from the them-and-us "other" to the diversity-embracing "different". English poetry, by poets such as John Keats and Ted Hughes, is now studied for English literature.

One could ask whether it is the best use of our students' time for them to be studying Polish poet Anna Swir or the Aborigine Oodgeroo Noonuccal (previously known as Kath Walker), at the expense of British poets? Surely, French students would not be directed to study poetry from "different cultures" in preference to their own. So why are ours? Is it a tacitly political way of acknowledging the diversity of British culture? Are educational objectives being sacrificed to the political? There seems to be some agenda which has never been seriously thought through and certainly not clearly explained. It makes me uneasy.

I have spent a considerable time choosing poems from different cultures for publication in the AQA syllabus B pre-release booklet, which is studied by students before the examination. It has been interesting work and there is certainly a wealth of powerful "different cultures" poetry that's well worth studying. But there are considerable problems involved in selecting it for national GCSE study.

There is the question of translation. Some - such as Ezra Pound's translation of ancient Chinese poetry - are probably very far from the original. Does it matter? There is the problem of the different languages of English. Should students in Britain, whose first language might be Mandarin or Vietnamese, be asked to study poems in West Indian patois, rather than in standard English? (The answer, I think, is no, which further limits choice.) Another problem is that the understanding of many poems depends on their extensive cultural, geographical and political background - and this is an English language examination!

But, apart from all this, so much of the best poetry from different cultures is an expression of anguish, protest and suffering. Kenyan Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye's understated and ironic "Freedom Song" charts the "progress" of the child Atieno, from a house slave in her uncle's house to death at age 14 from "post-partum bleeding". It's a beautifully crafted powerhouse of cultural issues, but is it right for Year 10 on a Friday afternoon?

Many of the most stunning poems are from victims of torture, war, hideous regimes, cultural customs abusive to women, disasters, and so on. They are just too terrible, shocking or sexually explicit - and, above all, do not show the acceptable face of "different cultures" that exam boards want in pre-release booklets.

Censor the central issues of these global voices in this way and what is left? Certainly, there is something worth studying. Students will be reading about a famine-struck Aboriginal hunter climbing a tree "like a native cat" to retrieve a quarried wallaby from an eagle's nest; a Cuban expressing his love for his green island; an 8th-century Chinese wife lamenting her separation from her husband; and peasant villagers trying to lessen the suffering of an Indian woman bitten by a scorpion.

These poems might be more unusual and interesting for our students than Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry-picking" or "Digging", but what a rag-bag of cultural off-cuts! Is it of real value in extending students' knowledge of different cultures? But, presumably, that is not what it's all about?

Rachel Redford is principal examiner for GCSE English for AQAsyllabus B

African Visions 2002

Ghanaian children's writer, Meshack Asare; Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta; and Zimbabwean writers Shimmer Chinodya and Charles Mungoshi will lead the African Visions 2002 tour organised by the Africa Centre and the Arts Council of England from October 18-25. Specially commissioned writing and poetry on the theme of Childhood and Identity can be found on www.africacentre.org.ukafrican visions2002.htm along with a programme of events and a primary writing competition.

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