Poetry is a path to a deeper sense of self

21st October 2005 at 01:00
When I was a child growing up in the late 1950s and early 60s, everything I heard about poetry made it sound either as weird as clog-dancing or as difficult as arithmetic, or both.

We had five books of poems at home and they were either my parents' unread school prizes (Francis Thompson and Rupert Brooke), or a leather-bound survivor from my great-grandfather's shelves (Tennyson). The only two that had been bought for pleasure were Wavell's anthology, Other Men's Flowers, and Betjeman's Summoned by Bells - bestsellers my mother kept by her bed, which I never actually saw her read. At school, poems were lines we had to learn -either for learning's own sake, or as punishments. I never met a child whose experience was any different.

Things have changed a lot since then. The curriculum encourages a wider range of reading, teaching is generally more sprightly, learning by rote is out of fashion (though I wish more learning by heart had taken its place), and many writers visit schools to prove, among other valuable lessons, that not all good writers are dead writers.

This has encouraged a greater general interest in poetry: sales have improved, public readings are commonplace, prizes abound, and examples of new and old work appear in newspapers, on the radio, even on the Underground. It amounts to a quiet revolution, and we all benefit. Or that's how it appears. But when I visit schools and talk to teachers as well as pupils, it's evident things are not so rosy. Poetry, I'm often told, is "boring", or "irrelevant", or "too difficult", or (for a lot of boys) "girly". Why? The explanation may have something to do with practical things: teaching methods, the choice of texts, the comparatively small amount of time allowed for "creative" work. It may be that poets themselves are to blame, or the alluring mass of other entertainments available to children. But the fact remains that most people still feel poetry is "not for them", in a way that few people would feel fiction isn't, or film, or the theatre.

I feel that something essential to poetry has too often been forgotten. It is essentially a very primitive thing - the sign of a basic human wish to make things that are beautiful, true, and memorable, and which in the finest examples of its many forms will not just please, console and stimulate, but will survive when the poet him or herself is long gone.

Children themselves are proof of this. Whether they realise it or not, their most likely first experience of poetry is in the playground, chanting -delighting in rhythm and rhyme for its own sake, enjoying like sounds, and finding how the sight of familiar things, let alone their rearrangement, can lead to wonder.

This is the bucketload of magical qualities that has to be carried unspilled into the classroom, and, of course, it's a difficult transition.

As children begin to learn the mechanics of poetry, as the pressure of exams grows, as the language of appreciation becomes more informed, so poetry's primitive nature becomes threatened. And when these difficulties are combined -as they inevitably are - with a generally hostile zeitgeist, they can become overwhelming. That's why we need to focus on how best to promote and protect poetry in schools. But it's also why we can reasonably believe that children who feel poetry is "not for them" are not expressing a deep truth, but parroting learned behaviour, or showing they never had the chance to feel that poetry even might be for them.

Everyone who cares about education, as well as poetry itself, must fight for this larger choice. And I don't just mean teachers and figures in government, but parents, librarians, and other interested parties.

Their efforts can give children the chance to discover poetry for themselves. They can prove that what pleases children about their playground chants is equipped to survive the acquisition of more adult knowledge and result in a deeper sense of the world - at the same time as it deepens their sense of themselves and others round them.

Andrew Motion is poet laureate and a patron of the Children's Poetry Bookshelf, a book club for children aged seven to 11. For details see: www.childrenspoetrybookshelf.co.uk

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