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?