Monday, 18 June 2012

Poetry should be subversive...

Arts for Health are out of the office and on the road with Musique et Sante. So, in place of the usual weekly blog, here are two articles of interest. The first is by poet, Simon Armitage who writes eloquently in response to the Education Secretary’s policy plans for English. This was first published in the Guardian on Tuesday 12th June 2012. The second is an interview with Grayson Perry, and is self-explanatory. Back to normal service soon...C.P.

If Michael Gove's plan for English means reciting Tennyson in posh accents, it's nothing to celebrate

If businessman and philanthropist Scott Griffin committed a misdemeanour as a young boy, he was sent to his room and not allowed out until he had read and remembered some piece of classical poetry. Scott now presides over what is sometimes described as the world's richest poetry award, the Griffin prize, with prize money totalling 200,000 tax-free Canadian dollars.
The psychology by which an intended punishment became a lifelong passion might only be explained by a close analysis of that particular father and son relationship; but in any event, poetry (or at least a few poets each year) is certainly better off because of it. Yet I've also seen the reverse happen. In fact it's more common that a well-meaning elder, often a teacher, has instilled in a child a lifelong abhorrence of verse by drooling over an unfathomable passage from Chaucer – or, worse still, insisting that a pupil "explain" a poem, as if it were a riddle to which an answer should be provided.
Where I found refuge in poetry, and thought of it as an alternative to the mainstream, many of my former classmates felt either humbled or humiliated by it, and came to view it as something for clever dicks and posers. It's for those reasons that I'm nervous about the noises currently being made by the Department for Education about returning to "traditional values" in schools – values which would see children as young as five being expected to learn and recite poetry "by heart". My concerns are mainly about labelling poetry as something solid, traditional and worthy, something belonging to the establishment, a yardstick against which most people won't measure up. I'm also worried that by poetry, what the government might really mean is "poetry", or POETRY – that is, grist for the spoken English competition, in which students at my school were expected to stand on a stage and chew their way through The Lady of Shalott in a feigned and foreign RP accent.

If those are the values being pursued, and if in Michael Gove's master plan English literature is actually a byword for Englishness, or learning "by heart" might actually mean learning by rote, then I'd prefer poetry to have no part in it. If, on the other hand, children are allowed to find the poems that fit their voices or appeal to their imaginations and their cultural inclinations, then I'm on board. It's a well-established fact that poems learned at an early stage in the form of nursery rhymes stay with us for life, and that people suffering with Alzheimer's and other forms of memory loss, who struggle in later life to remember their address or the names of their children, can often recite nursery rhymes without any difficulty. The brain is always keen to seize on pattern and structure, and the growing brain seems to instill poetry at its core.
The mind too, as it expands, needs forms of language that go beyond the rational and the prosaic, and which mirror our fragmented, highly metaphorical and moment-to-moment perception of life itself. My granddad could recite huge chunks of Shakespeare, to the point where he seemed to have a quote for every given situation. He'd worked in the mill, as a hospital porter and as a fireman, and was virtually self-taught in terms of literature. Sure, the quoting was something of a party piece, but I also felt that he was processing or validating his own life experiences, not to mention sharing those experiences with the planet's greatest ever wordsmith.

At school I had to learn passages from Goldsmith's The Deserted Village, Wordsworth's Michael and several Ted Hughes poems, to regurgitate in exams. I should have resented it, (was it an English exam or a memory test?) but in fact I never properly understood those lines until I had committed them to memory, as if remembering them were a further part of the analytical process. In fact they've stayed with me to such an extent that I'm still finding new meaning in them even today.

In a lot of the work I've done with prisoners or with people who've missed out on a decent education, I've found a whole section of society who have plenty to say but no way of saying it. They've never been exposed to language at its most ingenious, have no models to draw on and no mechanism for expressing their interior lives to the outside world, and when people can't articulate how they feel, problems follow.
Isn't it also the case, on a very basic level, that if we are going to remember language (and we are going to remember language) then we might as well remember the good stuff? I say this as someone who can still quote the whole of the Hoseason's boating brochure advertisement. It was implanted in my head sometime in the early 70s via ITV, has stayed there until this day, and has never once been of any value to me whatsoever. If only I'd been watching the BBC, where I assume they were broadcasting Chaucer instead.


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