Poetic spirit lives to haunt again

31st March 2000 at 01:00
ANYONE over 40 will remember the old days of poetry teaching: hours of drearily managed rote-learning, narrow concentration on the classics; little or no attempt to combine creating with criticising; and little or no contact with contemporary writers.

Occasionally, at A-level, there was a chance to study someone not long dead - or even still alive - but whether or not these chances were taken depended on an enigmatic higher authority.

Not surprisingly, poetry's reputation for being "difficult" or "irrelevant" (the preserve of weirdos, cissies, egg-heads or super-sensitive souls) remained unchallenged - even though events in the wider world suggested it might not be entirely justified.

What about the Albert Hall reading - didn't that prove poetry could be part of life? What about Poetry International? What about the Poetry Society, or the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia - weren't they looking for ways to bridge the gap between writing and educating?

With hindsight, these things seem not so much isolated items as signs that a new spirit was emerging - one that continued to form through the 1970s, as publishers began to realise they could do more for their poets than simply bring out their books and wait to see what happened.

During the 1980s, this spirit found its focus. Bloodaxe prospered as a publisher, quickly building a list of new voices which outshone and outwrote many of their so-called competitors. The Poetry Society reinvented itself. The poetry-reading circuit expanded dramatically with help from the Arts Council and the regional boards. And, perhaps most significant of all, the "new generation" of poets appeared - such people as Glyn Maxwell, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, whose talents as writers were matched by their gifts as performers and communicators.

It didn't take long for these developments to affect education. Instead of seeming fusty or precious, poetry was "the new rock and roll", and every fresh initiative seemed to confirm this, especially National Poetry Day, which began life as a kind of consciousness-raising carnival but quickly grew into something of real educational value (without forgetting the pleasure principle).

Suddenly, contemporary poets were everywhere: in schools, on the radio and TV, on syllabuses, on "placements". By the turn of the century, the old order of poetry teaching seemed well and truly banished. And a good thing, too. Yet, as the new spirit settle in, it's clear that much still needs to be done. In the non-school world, the price that poetry has paid for its greater visibility is to be more connected with personality than work.

Unless this changes, the danger is not just that poetry will become mere entertainment, but that what is accessible will be privileged in ways that marginalise what is more demanding and makes its effect gradually.

There's a similar danger within schools. Because students who find poetry daunting are likely to respond to work which connects brightly and immediately with their own world, their teachers fight shy of presenting them with anything antique seeming, or obscure. It's completely understandable. At the same time, many teachers feel that because poetry suffered so badly under the old dispensation, all the old emphases are inevitably tainted - particularly the concentration on strict poetic forms, and the importance attached to learning by heart.

Yet, there's a palpable and widespread reluctance to see these things suffer complete neglect - and that's quite right, too. If we promote poetry that is contemporary and reader-friendly at the expense of the great traditions, we destroy much that is priceless, and insidiously damage what remains.

We make poetry a bubble moment, without history or precedent. If we neglect to talk about a variety of poetic forms, we restrict our chance of understanding and writing it as we might. And if we don't accept that learning by heart can be fun, we deny a basic human truth.

All of which is to say that the prospects for poetry in schools are better now than they have been for many generations. The new spirit is recognised and relished. Interested parties such as the Poetry Society, the Arts Council and William Sieghart of Forward Publishing are all doing their bit; the Department for Education and Employment and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are paying attention.

But a good thing never stays a good thing for long, if it remains the same. The new spirit needs to be clarified and expanded if it's going to preserve its newness: clarified by a programme of literary entitlements for all pupils, which connect the best recent initiatives with the best of the time-honoured; and expanded by the establishment of regular refresher seminars for teachers of English, where they can share pleasures and problems and meet writers.

And that's just for starters...

Andrew Motion is Poet Laureate


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