Three decades on and the comma is still the star

As she readies herself to lay down her red pen, Hilary Moriarty wonders if her sage advice has ever been heeded

What's really interesting, is the poet's use of the comma." I want to scream. I seem to have spent 1,000 years trying to persuade A-level Eng Lit students facing the literary criticism paper that words are more powerful than punctuation.

With the right words, a poet can startle you, delight you, sock you in the chops and punch you in the solar plexus so you never forget what he said and what you think he felt at the time.

Commas, on the other hand, have always seemed to me to have limited value, Lynne Truss notwithstanding. Of course they should be in the right place at the right time, but their place is always behind the words - or beside them, or around them - but not, so help me, centre stage.

The reason the spotlight fell on this particular statement in this particular lit crit was because I lifted the red pen knowing it would be my last batch of marking. Ever.

It hasn't actually been a thousand years of teaching and marking. It's been 34. I began as a lecturer in English in Croydon Tech in 1972. In my first week, I taught the full range, from liberal studies for vocational and professional students to (then) GCE and A-level English language and literature. On the first Friday, I sat on a train doing my first batch of marking, my new A-level group's first bash at a poetry criticism.

I was so proud of my new status. I almost wanted to walk up and down the aisles with a placard: "I'm a lecturer, you know, and I can teach these young people all they need to know about Shakespeare and Pinter and Milton and Larkin and, oh everybody! And see, I can mark their work, in such detail and with such care and perception, that they will flower before my very eyes and become great writers and appreciators of literature!" Ho ho ho.

That Friday night I discovered they would all rather talk about punctuation than get to grips with words. Literary criticism, which I thought was common sense, was to them incredibly difficult. Which may be half the problem with a life in teaching - we love our subjects because for us they're easy, but they're not at all easy for at least half the students in every class we teach. And they may not get any easier, despite our efforts.

Here I am, 34 years later, still wielding the red pen, with teenagers still reluctant to grab the poem by the throat, preferring to poke it gently with a stick from a distance, as if hoping it won't bite.

Which of course it will if it's any good. Great poetry bites you in the arse. Enjoy it.

Strange that my marking career should end exactly where it began, marking poetry appreciations. Strange, too, that the difficulties should seem to be exactly the same, so you can't help but wonder what was it all for? Did I make a difference? Was anyone any the wiser for the millions of words I must have written on pupils' scripts? Did anyone even read them: "What did you get?" "I got a B." "What did she say?" "Dunno, can't read her writing."

All of which reminds me of something my mother used to say in times of stress and irritation: I'd have been better rearing pigs.

Now there's a thought.

Hilary Moriarty is to become National Director of the Boarding Schools'

Association in August. She writes in a personal capacity

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