Classroom encounters with poetry can be the deciding factor in public attitudes to the art form, according to the first major survey on the subject, compiled by the Arts Council.
A little alliteration goes a long way, the report says, with positive experiences of poetry at school instilling a lifelong love. On the other hand, many people's aversion to verse dates back to uninspiring teaching with the emphasis on rote-learning.
The report criticises the national curriculum for failing to reflect what is happening in contemporary poetry. Its focus on pre-20th-century works "serves to compound further the image of poetry as something of the past rather than a living, vibrant art form.
"Teaching poetry as an academic subject rather than as a means of personal expression or as an art form to be appreciated and enjoyed throughout life contributes to its negative and inaccurate image."
Some respondents among the 50 adults questioned in depth by the Arts Council complain that the poetry they were made to study at school had no rhyme or reason. "When I think of poems I think of poems rhyming. I hate poems that just waffle on about nowt and don't even rhyme," says one. "I have shied off poetry since school; like we were murdered with poetry by our teacher - I really hated it." Others said that for a boy to like poetry was regarded as sissy at their schools, while black and Asian participants complained that poetry teaching was too Eurocentric.
But many had good memories of enthusiastic teaching. In the report, one respondent describes writing a poem at school about Bonfire Night as "the best thing I have ever done in my life... I were really proud of it, right chuffed with myself . . . I didn't think that I could do it."
English teachers express concern over the the training they received in the subject and were keen to develop ways of promoting poems in school.
But Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said this week that poetry teaching is much improved. "Poetry is much more widely taught in schools than it used to be and most schools use a lot of modern poetry. Children love anything with rhythm but in order to feel involved they need to be free to voice their own opinions about it and develop their own tastes."
She says that the national curriculum does a good job of promoting poetry from other parts of the world and teacher training gives fairly comprehensive coverage. "But teachers should look at ways of developing their teaching of poetry."
Children should hear a wide range of poems, but it is wrong to revere pre-20th century verse. "Some of it is terrible. It's not necessarily better because it's old."
The Poetry Society has just issued a schools poetry pack featuring nine poems by contemporary writers (see story, right). According to its education development officer, Alison Combes, "Poetry as a form has been neglected. The idea is to to try to inspire teachers to do things differently. We realise how hard- pressed they are and this is an encouragement to them."
Overall, the Arts Council survey says that interest in poetry has increased, despite a negative image among the public, who perceived it as gloomy, complex and highbrow. Attendances at readings and competition entries are up, and book sales, which account for 2 per cent of the total UK market, are worth more than Pounds 15 million a year. In 1994, nearly 1,800 poetry titles were published, an increase of 26 per cent on the previous year. As well using publishers' data the Arts Council collected views from teachers, poets and a cross-section of the public who attended its round-table discussions.
Many participants responded to poems which had had particularly wide exposure. For example, WH Auden's "Funeral Blues" sold more than 100,000 copies after it featured in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Also, the Poems on the Underground scheme on the London tube is well known nationally.
A Poetry Survey for the Arts Council of England: key findings is available at Pounds 10 (inc pp) from Karen Woods, Literature Department, Arts Council of England, 14 Great Peter Street, London SW1p 3NQ. Cheques to Arts Council of England.