"Why do exam boards set so much bad poetry?"

16th September 2013 at 16:19
Professor Stefan Hawlin, University of Buckingham, writes:
That “the emperor has no clothes” is always unwelcome news, but – here we go anyway: The GCSE poetry anthologies of the main exam boards are full of bad, second-rate poems.
I’m not the first university teacher to make this judgement. Tim Kendall, professor of English, University of Exeter, has done a hatchet job on Moon on the Tides. (See his blog “AQA GCSE English – does it teach anything meaningful”.) The anthology includes “the bad and the downright terrible”, he says, and other parts are “utterly bizarre”. Senior teachers I’ve spoken to agree.
Of course, tastes vary, but this isn’t just a relativist argument. There is such a thing as a good poem and a bad poem. I would challenge the boards to provide a single serious critic who thinks that “Poppies” (Jane Weir), “Brothers” (Andrew Forster), or “Invasion” (Choman Hardi) are fine works. That’s the beginning of a long list.
What’s going on?
In different ways, Edexcel, AQA, and OCR have pretty much ditched “the heritage”.  The Edexcel board have only 8 of 60 poems from before the twentieth century. Most poems are from the last twenty years – and not even by major poets. There is one poem by Shakespeare, and one poem by Blake, but three by South African poet Ingrid de Kok. Flattering as that must be to her, perhaps even she is surprised to be so highly valued.
Of course, “accessibility” is all. The teachers who object to the boards’ anthologies tell me this: in the classroom it’s just as hard to explain the awkward complexity of a bad poem as to explain the stimulating, surprising complexity of a great one. Explaining a bad poem is like explaining a bad joke, very unrewarding.
Finally, the compilers of the anthologies are tone-deaf. A true moral point, a true political point, does not in itself make a great poem by magic – otherwise we’d all be great poets. Sometimes it’s hard to say this, especially when you agree with the politics. Benjamin Zephaniah’s “The death of Stephen Lawrence / Has taught us to love each other” isn’t really true (as he might be the first to concede). Lines like this don’t match the level of atrocity. Zephaniah may be a good poet elsewhere, but not in some of the boards’ choices from his work.
The boards’ idea of multiculturalism is to set writers from as many ethnic and national backgrounds as they possibly can. This simplistic version of multiculturalism sells it short. One great poem that seriously challenges a given group to see another point of view, to move outside its comfort zone, is worth a hundred bad poems about Asian shop-keepers in love or the dawn in Cape Town.
A good poem is an experience of depth, sometimes of mystery and wonder. That’s a vital element in education if we are not going to narrow our sense of it to purely instrumental and quantitative modes. To follow Simone Weil, perhaps serious education even has something to do with “civilization” – now, there’s a thought.
Sadly, this kind of experience of poetry isn’t going to happen in the anthologies set by exam boards.


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