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Column: It’s time to break down the barriers around poetry

Can’t we get more from our vast historic and modern wellspring of poetry? We are, after all, the nation that has reputedly more poets per square mile than any other in the world, writes Stephen Downes.

Stephen Downes

ANY OF US who have been through the Irish education system are familiar with this scene; an English Leaving Cert class, late into their sixth year, the syllabus covered twice over and the late April sun beating down through the window as the teacher’s voice slips into a drone on how methodically proficient Gerard Manley Hopkins is compared to the blah blah blah …

… the students doze off and the teacher, who wanted to open up the subjective beauty of the power of words and poetry to young developing minds finds themselves part of the very mantra of exam-driven schooling that they probably hated at school themselves.

It’s a scene that will be repeated up and down the nation in the months leading up to the exams, and despite two years of preparation and my eternal optimism in young bright minds, many students will seek grinds this year as they have done in previous years – and the most popular English grind of them all is poetry. Why is that? Why is the most common complaint from students ‘I just don’t get it’; is it because the poetry is out-dated and out of cultural touch with modern life? Or is it the teaching system that has reduced poetry to a form of obtuse building blocks and memory tests? I believe it is in the latter, far more than the former, that the problems lie.

Why is it that  students struggle with appreciating poetry?

The issue is, can we get more from our vast historic and modern wellspring of poetry? We are, after all, the nation that has reputedly more poets per square mile than any other in the world, so why is it that most students at best struggle with appreciating poetry, and at worst leave school with an unhealthy dislike of everything to do with the word ‘poetry’?

I doubt that the fault lies with the poetry. Ancient, classic or modern, poetry has never been more popular, there are more poetry books published now (globally) than ever before, literally thousands of websites dedicated to writing, reading and valuing poetry (many of these designed and used by teenagers of Leaving Cert age).

The influence of exam-driven syllabi has long been a debate among academics (and occasionally politicians), its negatives and positives for whole and subject-specific education has been weighted many times. In the case of poetry I believe the negatives of such practices far outweigh the positives. There are no beneficiaries from exam-based poetry teaching: students fail to get an appreciation for poetry at a fundamental level; more aspiring pupils are frustrated by over-analysis, stilted terminology and lack of opportunity to express real critical opinion; and teachers are forced to break down the great works of literature into meaningless component parts, ripping the soul out of what is, by expression and nature, the very language of the soul itself.

Limited opportunities for subjective responses

The problem with teaching solely technical ability to dissect poetry is that it destroys our appreciation of it, and the fact that pupils are provided with limited opportunities for subjective responses to poetry is just another problem facing the future of teaching the subject. The solution may lie in allowing teaching poetry in schools to be opened up to represent the vibrant and dynamic cultural shifts in our society, and never have those shifts been more rapid.

The late Seamus Heaney once said that Eminem had ‘sent a voltage around his generation’ comparing him with any important social voice in poetry that had gone before, and why not? Lord Byron was, in his day, considered a rebel, a discontenter, a youthful fade and ‘a voice of his generation.’ So why not let Leaving Cert students have the freedom of critical engagement, the freedom to compare one of their own icons with some of our greatest men and women of letters from the past? Are we as the ‘adult nation’ too afraid that such wordsmith giants like Swift, Kavanagh and Yeats will be ignored or chastised as compared to the words and lyrics of pop stars, gothic rock bands and performance poets?

Note that in the UK, punk singer and poet John Cooper Clarke, the very voice of the anti-establishment X-generation, is now a standard read on A-level English.

If we are to save more generations of Irish boys and girls (and teachers) from ‘making’ poetry boring, then the Leaving Cert will have to undergo as radical a change as it did in 1999. In just those 15 short years the world has altered beyond anyone’s predictions, we need to embrace new forms of poetry, encourage new media for publication and re-instil a love of words from all periods of our history into the most creative generation the world has ever seen.

It’s time to open up the windows and let in some fresh air

It’s time to break down the barriers of what is and isn’t ‘poetry’, what is and isn’t sublime creative genius; let those studying the subject choose what love poems/lyrics can be compared to those of Yeats; let them choose to write about how their own poetry compares to the intense emotions of Sylvia Plath, or debate of gender roles they encounter outside of school to the works of Adrienne Rich.

It’s time to open up the windows and let in some fresh air; why not judge a student on writing poetry rather than understanding the work of others who are distanced through time and culture?

Instead of a systematic dredge through simile, metaphor and technique, let us write in our exam book what the poem actually meant to us, and what better way to do this than compare it with our own life experiences.

Steve Downes is an Irish contemporary poet, playwright and novelist, currently living and working in Ireland. Steve’s first novel, Cosmogonic Marbles (part 1 of 3 in a series) is a comedy fantasy written in the style of his literary hero, Douglas Adams. He is currently working on the second fantasy novel in his series as well as a new poetry collection, he also is in the process of publishing an anthology of new Irish writers.

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