Thursday, December 06, 2007


Since I was at school during a time when it wasn't an ideological debate but just something that you did (if you happened to be between the ages of 5 and 16) it always seems (a) amazing that I turned out to learn anything and (b) that most of my classmates also learnt things (like being able to spell and write etc) without ever coming close to an exam. So the Comprehensive system kind of worked; it didn't exactly push people like me - but we did our exams okay - and the less able weren't that badly disadvantaged (example: a few years ago my dad was getting new double glazing and the cheapest quote was from a firm owned and run by one of my peers, who, when I knew him, was an archetypal thick as shit skinhead thug.) So what is one to make of this most bizarre of studies from OFSTED. If ever there was a bureaucracy less likely to stand up for poetry, you'd think OFSTED was it, yet, apparently, maybe this is where bureaucracy has its uses - against the very nothingness that it usually inspires. Apparently, poetry in schools is taught badly, that a very narrow and unchallenging number of poems is popular, and most teachers don't understand it.

Our kids are being taught this "classic" from Alfred Noyes -:

"The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding-
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door."

Which is purple prose to make even a beetroot blush. Poetry is an unforgiving beast, but there are good poems out there in the world that probably deserve to be central to the curriculum.

I wrote this WHEN I was eight-:

"When the world was young and full of love
Down came God from the world above
He gave Pandora a magic box,
Pandora, who, was sly as a fox,
Tried to open the box, but no!
She tried again, and lo!
The box was open and out had flown,
All the evils, she gave a grown,
They stung her friends as they flew past
And evil was in the world at last."

It's still the only poem of mine I can recite word for word, and I remember even at the time hating the fakeness of that "and lo!"

Which is to say, that poetry is not la-la-la stuff but a challenging thing, and stuff like Spike Milligan (funny) and Walter De La Mare (pretty) isn't really where its at. I'm not entirely sure at which point you should introduce Keats and Donne, but surely if even OFSTED thinks we're getting poetry wrong, we can begin to see where the problem lies about appreciating it later in life...


Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, given the time constraints, I received a decent enough introduction to poetry at school. At primary school we got a lot of Robert Burns hammered into us obviously enough but also standards by Wordsworth (The Daffodils), Masefield (Sea Fever), Tennyson (The Brook), Robert Louis Stevenson (The Vagabond) – you get the idea.

At secondary school we covered the war poets (Owen, Brooke and Sassoon), Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and I even remember a student teacher trying his level best to introduce us to Ferlinghetti.

God alone knows what they're teaching kids these days but none of the above did me any harm, the very opposite. Larkin's poem Mr Bleaney in particular had a tremendous impact on me as a young writer.

As for my first poem, which I wrote about the age of nine, it was about a public hanging written in Scots. Don't ask. Sadly it's the only poem I don't have a copy of any more.

Jim Murdoch said...

If you want to read Children's Laureate Michael Rosen's thoughts you can see them here.

Dave King said...

I don't remember poetry in the primary school. I remember it at Grammar School (I'm old!) taught by those who had never been taught it. The vicious circle is as vicious as ever - but I won't go on. I've just finished blogging about it myself!
Dave King