Students like clear answers. A question they often ask of poems is: “What’s it about?” The problem is that any poem worth studying will give no clear answer.
Students don’t like that, but they do need it.
The decision by Ofqual to make poetry an optional part of the 2021 GCSE curriculum, taken alongside nationally declining A-Level English literature uptake, means that the relevance of poetry has never felt more contested. While Shakespeare remains a core part of the curriculum, Ofqual has implicitly made the judgement that poetry is not.
English departments across the country feel under increasing pressure to supply an answer to the now perennial question: “What’s the point of poetry?”
It’s tempting to build a vocational narrative: that poetry’s value and relevance should be seen in terms of the practical skills that studying it confers. We can do better; we need to do better.
Expressing feeling through language
In contrast to many subjects, which deal with empirical truths and facts, at its core poetry attempts to express complex and often nuanced feeling and thought through language, while retaining as much ambiguity as possible.
It is precisely the ambiguity that allows poetry to approach an authentic reflection of human experience.
Studying poetry isn’t just about studying language – it is about learning that absolutes rarely exist when it comes to humanity. It’s about learning to dwell comfortably in ambiguity.
Building a convincing interpretation of a poem is a process of recognising the various strands of meaning that it develops, holding on to them even when they seem to contradict one another, and finally reflecting these strands of meaning in a coherent understanding of the whole, without reducing them to something more simple, something less complex, less true.
Where is the value in that?
Uncomfortable with ambiguity
We live in a society that is increasingly uncomfortable with ambiguity and nuance. We are wrestling with new, more absolutist forms of public debate. Cancel culture seems to be in the ascendancy, and our faith in our political institutions to represent the views and opinions of the people is at an all-time low.
As Lord Sumption argued, in his typically erudite 2019 Reith Lectures, we are increasingly comfortable turning to courts to tell us in definite terms what is right, rather than looking to political process to debate issues and find compromises that can accommodate a plurality of opinion.
This is a real problem. The health of our public discourse relies on the willingness of our public to be comfortable with complexity, without reducing contestable issues to right-or-wrong orthodoxies of opinion. More and more, we try to deal with complex issues by eliding nuance, expecting conformity, rather than trying to balance multiple, sometimes contradictory perspectives.
If, in the future, our students are to constitute a well-functioning society, we need them to be comfortable with the idea that there may be no objectively right answer on issues that matter, even when such a view is held by a majority.
Compromise is the basis of democratic process, and it requires recognising that a grey middle ground is sometimes better than the clear-cut alternatives. Our elected representatives need to have the freedom to find that middle ground, without losing the trust of the people they represent.
For that to be possible, the populace of tomorrow needs to be able to be comfortable with accommodating perspectives that contradict, holding on to nuance without feeling the need to reduce complex issues to simple right or wrong answers.
Polarised public discourse
Our GCSE students are comfortable with fact-based subjects – it is indeed comforting to know that there are empirically right answers. But facts, too, can contradict.
One current example is the Black Lives Matter movement, which has highlighted serious inequalities in our society. The imperative to correct these inequalities is right. But there are other inequalities, too, that we need to discuss: government data shows that disadvantaged white working-class boys are 40 per cent less likely to go into higher education than black boys with the same socioeconomic status.
What do we do with data that resists a simplified reading of a complex issue? Faced with such ambiguity, and motivated by a polarised public discourse, there is a real danger that we ignore it.
Poetry has an intrinsic aesthetic beauty, cultural significance, and faculty for conveying fundamental human truths, which are obvious to most English teachers. We should feel confident too that, in an educational environment that increasingly prioritises empirically based subjects, poetry has an essential role to play in building a more humane world.
Studying poetry forces students to recognise that, in the natural world of human experience, absolute positions are aberrant rather than the norm. It teaches them to embrace ambiguity and complexity, without looking to reduce it into a soundbite, and in turn it allows them to find and accept compromise. We need that now more than ever.
Charles Griffin is deputy head of English at RGS Guildford, in Surrey. He is also an educational researcher and postgraduate student at the UCL Institute of Education