Substandard Poetry in Exam Anthologies


Yes, I remember Adlestrop. But some of the other GCSE poetry, I’d rather forget.

I’ve been working on finalising my resources for teaching GCSE over the summer, and it has caused me to reflect on some of the material I am required to teach. In selecting novels and plays, I have been able to make choices of texts which I know will build cultural capital. As well as being great works of art, the literature I have chosen – Macbeth, A Christmas Carol and Animal Farm  – are all texts which have had a significant influence, and which form reference points which are valuable to learn for the sake of cultural literacy.

In selecting poetry, I have a choice of three collections put together by the exam board. All of them contain poetry from 1789 until the present day: in other words, from the Romantic era onwards. Firstly, the 1789 start point is a missed opportunity. It cuts out the work of wonderful poets such as Donne, Marvell and Herbert entirely. Still, I am grateful that at least it goes back that far. The older selections are all worthwhile, both as works of art and as culturally influential, but once we get past the middle of the twentieth century, the quality goes rapidly downhill. In the selection I have chosen, which I consider the least worst option, nothing later than Elizabeth Jennings is good enough or culturally influential enough to merit the time and effort of studying it in preparation for a major public exam.

I have a simple way of testing whether poetry is worth studying, at any age or level of ability: is it worth memorising?

What makes a poem worth memorising? Firstly, the beauty of the words that the poet has chosen, in the order which he has placed them, make great poems priceless intellectual possessions which we should want to give to our pupils. Secondly, great poems, precisely because they are memorable and beautiful, make a significant contribution to the culture of our nation. Are they likely to be referred to by educated people? Have they had a large impact on later writers and thinkers? William Morris said that everything in a house should either be useful or beautiful. Great poems are both. Memorising great poems is a rich and exciting experience for young people, which gives them an intellectual and aesthetic gift which will last a lifetime.

That’s why it’s such a tragedy when substandard poetry of questionable cultural importance forms such a large part of exam board anthologies. Huge numbers of young people will be focusing their minds on these poems. They may even be memorising them (although this practice is strangely rare). If they’re going to put all that effort in, it should only be for the best and most important writing. It should not be for lines like these:

let me be your vacuum cleaner
breathing in your dust
let me be your ford cortina
i will never rust

Is anyone seriously going to claim that such lines merit as much space in the nation’s poetry study as Blake’s

I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Ask yourself: if you were going to memorise one of these, which would it be?

Anaesthetic in Various Forms

800px-Syringe2Everything’s terribly friendly at my local hospital these days. When your child goes in for an operation, you get a glossy card explaining all the things that will happen before he goes into the theatre. Evidently, they are trying very hard to make you feel involved in the process.We are told that:

An anaesthetist will discuss with you and your child the best and safest way for your child to be anaesthetised.

I was delighted to hear this. As a taxpayer, I believe that my views should be consulted. All these newfangled methods of rendering my child unconscious seem deeply suspicious to a traditionalist like me. I think we need to re-examine some of the nineteenth century methods which used to work so well. How about ether? Or perhaps opium, or a bit of good old fashioned whisky?

Or maybe not. Maybe we won’t be having a ‘discussion’ with the anaesthetist. Maybe my views are completely irrelevant to the methods he will use. Maybe he knows a little more than I do about the ‘best and safest’ ways to do his job. In a more sane world, the word ‘discuss’ would never appear in these patient guides. The expert explains what they do; they know what they are talking about.

In an area of genuine expertise, authority is undermined by the language of participation. Then, on the other hand, we have the pseudo experts: the ‘play specialists’. Lovely smiley ladies are on hand to advise parents on how to prevent their children becoming bored as they await their operation.

The soft language of participation and inclusion and the soft skills of play: they have in common the determination to make everything as painless as possible. Both children and parents must be protected from experiencing any kind of difficulty or distress at any time. Parents must be protected from the humbling experience of submitting to the authority of experts; children must be protected from any kind of struggle whatsoever. The managers who promote participation and the specialists who teach children to play: all of these legions of tax-funded smiley happy people work hard to make us feel good about ourselves and protect us from distress. Who could possibly disagree with that?

Footnote: none of this should be read as a specific criticism of my local hospital, where lots of people are working hard to do a decent job in a rather mad world. The anaesthetist, for example, did not in fact waste time ‘discussing’ methods: he gave a brief and sensible explanation. Thankfully, management diktats are not always obeyed.

(Image from Wikimedia)