Inspire the new Romantics
Not many people can remember everything about university, and neither can I. However, I do remember dancing the night away every Tuesday, running home from lectures to watch Diagnosis Murder and discovering the joys of our great English poets for the first time. Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge were largely absent from my GCSE and A-level studies. Apart from a cursory knowledge of Blake, our great poets remained a mystery to me.
I also remember being shocked that, for so many students of English literature, poetry was the poor cousin at the feast. What was going on? How could they not love poetry?
It got me thinking, and I'm still thinking about it now, because the answer lies in secondary education. Poetry is difficult to "get" and difficult to teach properly. You cannot wing it; you've got to know your stuff. It's mathematical. It's precise. It's the world and the grain of sand at the same time. It's sculpture. It reveals through representation. Structure and form wrap themselves neatly around a good poem and expose paradoxes in an excellent one.
Taught well, learners are drawn into understanding the story of the poem, and then into discussing meaning, identifying imagery and vocabulary choices, and making links with structure and form.
I am not saying that poetry is being taught badly, just that we are not making our students passionate about it because we don't get to teach the poetry we're passionate about.
Part of the problem is the lack of direction in the current key stage 3 curriculum, and poor choices by the KS4 exam boards. On the AQA legacy specification, the horrendous pre-19th-century section was enough to kill any love for the form (Robert Browning's My Last Duchess made me as homicidal as the duke). These poor choices undermined otherwise enthusiastic teachers' passion.
And this is where I make my confession. Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. I read the proposed changes to the English national curriculum with glee; nay, with relish. More poets, more reading and more Shakespeare. It will be compulsory for students to study Romantic poetry, not just a couple of poems plucked and ill-placed into a literary heritage anthology, largely amputated from context and meaning.
We will (hopefully) have time to explore how the Romantic poets looked at the rapidly changing world around them; how industrialisation focused attention away from the worth of the human soul and towards the value of human profit.
The Romantic poets explored how a vastly changing world would affect the human condition. They worried that nature had been taken away by ever-expanding cities. Are your students always tired? Do their thumbs look wilted? An acute case of Call of Duty? We're still worried 200 years later - there are more things than ever that prevent our young people from reflecting on their lives.
Being given the chance to explore this within English classes not only brings alive the magic of our greatest poets, but also teaches students that poetry is something to be liked and even loved because it is in us; poetry is who we are.
Amy Winston teaches English in the West Midlands.