Friday, 9 October 2009

National Poetry Disgrace? - Lucy Coats

Today is National Poetry Day, and Britain's favourite top three poets are, in order, T.S.Eliot, John Donne and Benjamin Zephaniah. So far so good.

Thomas Stearns Eliot I first discovered as part of my English Literature degree, and my battered and well-thumbed copy of his Collected Works is full of impenetrable studenty scribblings such as 'theological beliefs also fragmented throughout but imagery becomes predominant here.' Nowadays I prefer to savour his words out loud, letting them linger on my tongue and relishing the sound of them falling into silence. Poetry, for me, is a pleasure of both eye and voice.

John Donne was also a degree course discovery--and again, my copy of his works is annotated by my secondhand interpretation of that long-ago tutor's ideas on the metaphysical. Those were the days of frantic deconstruction, and it took me a while to shake off the dust of that horror from my feet. One of my favourite poems of all time is Goe and Catche a Falling Starre--something about its hypnotic, spell-like rhythms speaks to the soul of my imagination, and I even tried my own tribute to it, thus:
(for John Donne 1571-1631)

Go and save a dying star,
Seek magic from an ash tree root,
Ask me where the Fair Folk are,
Grasp a firebird's feathered foot.
Treasure up a seal's soft singing,
Hold fast to a nettle's stinging,
And find
What wind
Blows spellsongs at a wizard's mind
As for Ben Zephaniah, my May blog about him will tell you that I am a huge admirer of his work, and I am delighted that the people who entered the poll obviously feel the same way. He is passionate, funny, delightful, controversial, honest, challenging--all the things a poet should be in this modern age.

But you will see that the title of this piece is 'National Poetry Disgrace?' Why? Because a less happy headline today has been that 58% of primary school teachers (yes, 58%) cannot name more than two poets and just 10% could name 6--the number asked for. Although the article is in the Daily Mail (not usually my paper of choice), the study was a joint one done by Cambridge, the OU and Reading Universities--all reputable bodies. We are also told by Scholastic Magazine that more than a quarter of parents have never sung or read a nursery rhyme to their children. In combination, these two reports lay bare a devastating lack in our children's education. Poetry--and nursery rhymes are also poetry--teach rhythm, rhyme and pattern--all important developmental building blocks for young ones. Luckily Booktrust's Bookstart has made a beginning attempt at addressing this disgraceful situation by distributing one million books with 8 favourite rhymes in them--and also promoting storytelling, song and poetry sessions all over the UK, I just hope it's enough to start us on the long steep road to recovering our poetic heritage for the next generation.


Brian Keaney said...

Primary School teachers' noses are pressed so closely to the grindstone, Lucy, they scarcely have time to breathe. Give them a break!

AnneR said...

Brian, they should be able to name poets just because they are human beings. It's not as though (horror) they were asked to READ any.

Katherine Roberts said...

Spellsong is a lovely poem, Lucy.

Brian Keaney said...

Anne, that's all they hear all day every day. They should do this, they should do that. So now writers are joining the Daily Mail in throwing brickbats. Great.

Leslie Wilson said...

I'd be more disturbed if English teachers were named as not having heard of poets. Maths teachers is a different matter. But I am surprised about the primary school teachers, don't they use poetry, and aren't they all-rounders? On the other hand, though the survey was done by reputable universities, and Reading, much to my pleasure, has a reading centre (I live near Reading)- that's not to say that the Mail has correctly represented the findings..

Brian Keaney said...

There is no must about poetry
no have to, no forced to,
no learn this or you’re for it,
no see me in my office,
no government inspector,
no guardians of culture,
no thundering headlines,
no disgusted of the suburbs,
Poetry has better things to do

catdownunder said...

Children here in Australia are much more likely to study an advertising jingle than a limerick. I am told that this is more important and that there is 'no time' for the teaching of poetry!

John Dougherty said...

Brian, I'm sorry, but as a former primary school teacher myself I have to disagree with you.

Primary school teaching should require a certain breadth of general knowledge. No-one's saying every primary teacher should know the names of lots of poets, but if more than half don't know the names - just the names, mind you, not the titles of any of their poems, not first lines or quotes but just the names - of more than two, don't you think that indicates a problem with our culture?

You're right - teachers have for years been used as political whipping boys, and we should give them a break. And clearly we shouldn't respond to this by suggesting teachers go and learn lists of poets. But neither should we pretend there is no problem here.

Lucy Coats said...

I'm glad to see this has sparked a debate. Brian--I am not trying to use primary teachers as whipping boys (or girls). I know what a hard job they have and how many wretched Governmental directives they have to comply with, noses pressed to the grindstone. However, I am with John and Anne here. A teacher--any teacher--should have a certain amount of general knowledge of this kind before they even start in the classroom--it's not a question of something they must or should be learning after they are in the profession. If our education system has been broken for so long that 58% of this generation of teachers cannot even name, say Milton or Shakespeare (both poets), then there is clearly a very big hill to climb indeed before it is mended. The sampling was, from memory, a fairly large one for a study--over 2500 teachers. I do not know whether they were taken from one area or across the UK--and Leslie makes another valid point about whether the Mail has interpreted the findings in a balanced way (as I said, it's not my paper of choice). However, I felt it was important to draw attention to this study because, if true, I find it very worrying to contemplate such a large lacuna in what should be basic knowledge in the very people who have care of the education of our next generation. If we do not acknowledge it we cannot start mending it--ignoring it is not an option.

And thank you, Katherine. I am glad you liked it.

adele said...

Primary school teachers and everyone else should have read some poetry/ learned who the poets are LONG LONG before they even get to be students. In their childhood. But THEIR teachers ( and PARENTS!! Let us not forget that people have PARENTS) should have taught them in their turn and so on down the line. EVERYONE has a right to know about poetry and be exposed to it and lack of knowledge leads on to MORE lack of knowledge....I'm sounding like a Grumpy Old Woman I know but there you go...

Lucy Coats said...

No, Adele--not a GOW at all. You are quite right and hit the nail squarely on the head. That's the bit which scares me--the lack of knowledge leading on to more lack of knowledge. The 'poetry car' is running very low on petrol and needs filling up soon or it will grind to a halt. But how do we do this--how do we start to redress the balance--and I mean all of us collectively, rather than just an initiative like Bookstart?

Lucy Coats said...

that last line was meant to read 'rather than just relying on an initiative like Bookstart?'

Anonymous said...

I understand that the actual question asked was to name "6 good poets writing for children". This surely makes a huge difference?

John Dougherty said...

If that's the case, Colyngbourne, then it makes an enormous difference. That's certainly not how it's been reported - on Radio 4's Today as well as in the papers - but the media isn't always that good at reporting studies accurately (another problem to which attention needs to be drawn!).

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Daily Mail article 'damning' teachers is here (with a comment beneath explaining the misrepresentation) -

Then the actual report is here

and the actual survey ("Name 6 'good' children's poets") is here

Anonymous said...

Oops, sorry, it missed the last bit of the address off that:

Nick Green said...

There we are then... just the Daily Mail up to its usual foaming at the mouth.

steeleweed said...

Hanging out in bookstores (USA) I have noticed that almost all who buy poetry books are themselves poets. Makes me wonder if anyone reads it these days except poets (and some English teachers).
Sad, really. Nothing teaches a language better than poetry, and the lessons learned go far beyond just poems.