Bring playfulness back into poetry

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Studying poems should be enlightening, not reduced to miserable doggerel, says Lizzie Ballagher
Studying poems should be enlightening, not reduced to miserable doggerel, says Lizzie Ballagher

Picture Tom, 16, waving his hands, reaching for a word to describe someone he'd just met: "She was, oh, Miss, pure ... poetry!" And the metaphor was out of his mouth like the proverbial cat.

But what is poetry to pupils? A nursery rhyme recalled with embarrassment? Something nasty in the woodshed of the GCSE anthology? Anyway, to be avoided at all costs. How has poetry come to this? Is there no room for the playfulness of poetry? Is it to be consigned to the dusty pigeonholes of Sats Shakespeare and the infamous anthology?

Our masters make the right noises, with the Ofsted report in 2007 on the paucity and poverty of poetry in schools. They pay lip-service to making it enjoyable, but seem to have as much idea about how to foster enjoyment as Gradgrind in Hard Times.

Consider, for example, the joys of the four poem question, worth 40 per cent of the final GCSE mark on some exam board papers. Here pupils are asked to discuss how the theme of two poems (chosen for them) are conveyed effectively through form and language, then to weave in additional commentary on two further poems. As they are analysing four poems, comparing four poems, and considering at least six assessment criteria, there are a mere 48 possible considerations to weigh and put into a sensible order. Does this style of question make pupils love poetry?

Another well-known series of English textbooks invites pupils to follow a 300-word "recipe" for writing a Shakespearean sonnet, thus reducing sonnets to a paint-by-numbers exercise. I cringe and skip that section every year.

Poetry has become a droning, drudge-making system for responding to audience-language-structure-purpose-effect.

We are in danger of destroying the garden of delight in which children's imaginations might soar. Poetry is enjoyed by prisoners, hospital patients, refugees, soldiers and even nowadays (says Roger McGough) "by blokes". Then why not by teachers and pupils?

Lizzie Ballagher is an English teacher at Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School in Rochester-upon-Medway.

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