My department is getting flustered about teaching the new literature GCSE. Some poems are so sexually charged that they make Belle de Jour seem like Mansfield Park.
I'm sure the exam board has a good reason for the selection. They obviously think that, since teenagers are fascinated by sex, chucking a few dirty ditties in might spark their interest in literature. Sadly, it just fuels their lust for sex. Besides which, there's something not quite right about teachers introducing pupils to erotica; it's like your mum taking you to Malia: it's embarrassing and you won't enjoy the holiday in case she gets topless on the beach.
One poem in particular is causing consternation. In its online support materials, the board points out that the contemporary poem Ghazal uses "sexual language" to express love in "erotic terms". They're not kidding. There are arrows flying and things rising and dropping all over the place. The board makes some helpful suggestions about how we can approach the poem, one of which is to ask pupils to identify the "most sexually euphemistic line".
Given that the writer uses more double entendre than Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun, this is no easy task. Asking pupils to find the innuendo isn't the problem; expecting them to do it sensibly is.
Teenagers are already primed to pick up the most tenuous sexual references. In their bawdy hormonal world, even telling them to "stand up" reduces them to fits. So asking pupils to play "Where's willy?" with a text will result in their finding more lewd references than the writer possibly intended. And expecting them to read beyond the sexual imagery to pick out the writer's purpose is like expecting a builder to go into Greggs and come out with a nice salad. I suspect that, by the time we get to the line "Come and I'll come too when you cue me", we'll end up drawing two gingerbread men humping on the board and move swiftly on to the next poem.
Kids aren't the only ones who take a skewed approach to language. Meanings are not only culturally conditioned - where I live the word "canny" is a synonym for nice while in other places it connotes a sort of shrewdness - but also domestically determined.
The rub and polish of our own experience puts a spin on language. In the same way that when you are pregnant you notice bulging bellies or when you're my age you become aware of chunky jewellery and the whereabouts of the nearest loo, the way we interpret meaning is shaped by who we are. Take, for example, the following two lines from Yeats' Song of the Old Mother: "I rise in the dawn and I kneel and I blowTill the seed of the fire flicker and glow". If the first thing you see is a beleaguered, worn- out woman battling with a Zip firelighter, then welcome to my world. If not, your husband is a luckier man than most.
The problem is that once you invite pupils to uncover "layers of meaning" they just don't stop. For them, there is no sensible hierarchy, there's only a semantic free-for-all where words can - and do - mean anything. And in meaning anything, they signify nothing because, without consensus, communication is lost. David Lodge, in The Art of Fiction, reminds us that the novelist "should make his spade a spade before he makes it a symbol." Maybe it's time to remind our pupils that an arrow can be an arrow as well as being a cock.
Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.
Resources to explore:
Teaching resources for `Ghazal' by Mimi Khalvati - a 20-page pupil booklet with a range of teaching resources, activities and worksheets.
MP3 readings and commentaries - three audio files to aid study and revision of the poem. One is a straight forward reading of the poem (no SFX), one a reading with sound effects, and one a commentary on the poem.
Mimi Khalvati reading `Ghazal - Mimi Khalvati reads the poem `Ghazal' to the backdrop of a rural park. It is a contemporary piece focusing on relationships.
Mimi Khalvati discusses `Ghazal' - Mimi Khalvati talks about how the piece reflects her interest in poetry from her cultural background and her approach to writing poetry.
`Ghaza', by Mimi Khalvati - a poetry reading and audio commentary of `Ghazal', by Mimi Khalvati