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No more poetry at GCSE

August 5, 2020

It seems that the study of poetry is no longer going to be compulsory for English GCSE, following a re-think and slimming-down of the curriculum due to the pandemic. And if it’s not going to be compulsory, my guess is that many schools won’t do it, and many teenagers will miss out on the opportunity to be entranced, delighted, moved and of course annoyed and frustrated by poetry. Which I think is a great shame.

It’s true that teaching poetry for English GCSE is not easy. Students sometimes resent the fact that poets don’t seem to be able to say what they want to say without cloaking it in mystery, metaphor and symbolism. They treat the poems like cryptic crosswords; and it is all too easy to teach them like that too. But if poetry is not taught as a form of puzzle-solving, but instead students are led to pay attention to the rhythms, the rhymes, the musicality, the images, the structure, the way it’s crafted etc, they can learn to appreciate it as a work of art without worrying about the meaning – something that just sounds good and stirs your imagination. (Of course once they’ve been through all this the teacher had better tell them what it means as well; they’ll need to know that for the exam. But by that stage the meaning(s) should acquire a lot more significance for them.)

I still remember with pleasure many, many lines of poetry I learned at school. Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note. Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me. Had we but world enough and time this coyness, lady, were no crime. Go and catch a falling star; get with child a mandrake root. And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds. Do I dare to eat a peach? Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forests of the night. Clear, unscaleable ahead rise the mountains of Instead. I think we are in rats’ alley where the dead men lost their bones.

If pressed on what any of these lines mean I might be able to dredge up some sort of answer, but that wouldn’t really be the point. They are just lovely, evocative, memorable, mood-changing arrangements of words; and that is what GCSE students who don’t do poetry are going to miss out on the opportunity of experiencing.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    That is a shame. I can never see the lines –
    The cobbled streets silent, and the hushed, courters and rabbit’s wood, limping invisibly down to the slow, black, sloe-black, crow-black fishing-boat-bobbing sea…
    without reading them, or indeed a lot of Thomas’ work, aloud just to enjoy the feel of the words.
    It seems ironic that poetry should be out of favour after decades of rap music which depends on it’s own lyric rhythms.

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    Another excellent post, Brandon. I agree that it is hard to teach poetry at GCSE, but that should not stop schools trying, otherwise, as you say, you lose a lifetime’s treasure-trove of spine-tingling lines –

    ‘and let their liquid siftings fall
    To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud’

    ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
    His mind moves upon silence’

    ‘the dolphin-torn, the gong-tormented sea’.

    I suppose that I was not so much taught poetry at school, I was introduced to it, and that is probably the important thing. I caught the enthusiasm of the teachers (although some more than others) and that inspired me to explore further.

    The one exception to being ‘taught’ poetry, however, was Paradise Lost, which I was ‘taught’ in meticulous detail by Tim Jones, and I am grateful to him for this day, for without that introduction I would never have grown to love the poem as I now do.

    If you remember Jean Giles (and I am sure you do), she once said something which I think is very perceptive, namely, that it is hard to write about poetry unless you are a poet yourself. Otherwise, you either resort to a dry, technical analysis of the poem on the one hand, or a fruitless search for ‘meaning’ on the other hand. Both, taken by themselves, are dead-ends. And when it comes to meaning, I always remember the famous story about T S Eliot. An earnest interviewer asked him

    ‘Mr Eliot, what did you mean when you wrote –

    ‘lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’

    to which Eliot replied,

    ‘I meant, “lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree” ‘.

    Staying on the subject of ‘meaning’, I always remember Tim Jones teaching us the poetry of Edward Thomas for GCSE, and the poem ‘And you, Helen’, nominally addressed to the poet’s wife. Mr Jones suggested that the poem might also refer to the universal womanhood of Helen of Troy. As an adult reader this strikes me as thoughtful and perceptive, but the idea was met with howls of derision by the class who regarded this, as you say, as pretentious rubbish.

    On the subject of poets writing about other poets, the best poetry criticism I know is Clive James writing about Philip Larkin. James avoids the binary decision of talking about either technique or ‘meaning’ by calibrating the poet’s vision to begin with, pointing out – which I had not noticed before – what it is about Larkin’s sensibility that is essentially poetic, and moving from that starting point to a reflection of how the technique bodies forth the vision. That is criticism of the first order. I guess he would have done pretty well at GCSE and would have been an amazing teacher as well.

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