Auden was wrong - poetry can change the world

1st November 1996 at 00:00
"Poetry", Auden said, "makes nothing happen." Similar doubts were expressed about our section's contribution to National Poetry Day. We finally agreed that we would paste posters and poems in corridors and lifts, and we kind of agreed that each lecturer would begin classes by reading a poem aloud. "Won't someone just pinch all the poems? Won't they be covered in graffiti?" We kept the faith and went ahead. The result proved Auden wrong. What happened was a strange and magical collision of vocational and leisure classes, with a carnival atmosphere pervading room 910.

My creative writing students had brought in poems they had written themselves to discuss. Before long, hit-and-run "poets" descended on us. A colleague arrived to read William McIlvanney's account of a drunken man's encounter with Frankenstein's monster. "You don't mind a little strong language in the name of art?" she ascertained, peering over the top of her glasses, before placing them firmly on her nose and launching into the rhythms of Glasgow speech.

A bunch of our Higher National Diploma students arrived next, wearing their public relations caps. They were preparing a press release about the writing group and what they were doing for poetry day. Questions flew, notes were scrawled, and my group suddenly discovered what it was to be the centre of media attention. Good practice for when they reached best-seller status, they decided. They were thrown, just ever so slightly, when Peter asked, rather severely and somewhat out of context; "What do you think of Douglas Dunn?" There was a pregnant pause before James responded carefully, "Why, are you Douglas Dunn?" As if to prove that no, he wasn't the poet Douglas Dunn, it was romantic, with a nice edge of irony which drew chuckles from the group. Before the HND group left, Tom gave us his own rousing ode to a jeely piece.

What started off as a modest celebration of National Poetry Day ended up very special indeed - and not just because everyone who took part enjoyed it or because it allowed our full-time students to pursue and assessment in a realistic setting. In that conjunction of vocational and leisure classes we practised a very neat exercise in public relations ourselves.

My creative writers were impressed by the enthusiasm of our students, by the fun they seemed to be having and by the wide range of ages and backgrounds. If you accept the dichotomy of academicvocational education, then it is fair to say that my leisure class students have always occupied the "academic" side of the schism. Here they were learning about a vocational course which equipped students with very real skills in the job market - skills like video editing, radio broadcasting, desk top publishing - along with opportunities to develop critical skills in units such as critical analysis of texts, writing skills in journalism units, as well as interpersonal and problem-solving skills. They seemed surprised and impressed by the breadth of the course.

Recent trends show that more and more young people are rejecting "vocational" training and opting for the "academic" route. But to accept this dichotomy is surely to ignore the breadth offered in most vocational courses. We live in a world where multi-skilling is important, and where the new mantra in American business discourse centres around "employability", the individual's responsibility to develop skills and to stay desirable in a world where a job is no longer a job for life, and instead of commitment, a "marriage" between employee and employer, serial monogamy is the best that can be hoped for in a promiscuous world.

I find it astonishing that vocational education is being ignored not just by students, who, we are told, are voting with their feet, but by academics and researchers who are shrugging their shoulders and talking about irreversible patterns.

Perhaps the problem lies not with the young people who are clamouring to enter our ever-more-hungry-for-numbers universities, nor with employers who are favouring academic degree-holders but with further education colleges themselves, which are who failing to promote themselves, their courses, and the quality and diversity of the opportunities they offer. Employability? Further education wrote the book.

In a small way, Poetry Day allowed our vocational students to act an ambassadors for further education. Reversing so-called irreversible trends, however, will need more than a couple of quatrains and a nice ambience in room 910.

Meanwhile, we are flushed with success. No one pinched the poems, and the single graffito was restrained: underneath the banner proclaiming National Poetry Day, someone scrawled "How exciting - not". But hey, think of the balance of that line, the masterful use of the dash, creating the perfect narrative shape. . .

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College

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