Ella Crowsley explores the degradation of the poetry curriculum in schools, and why poetry is vital for student minds
As a third-year English student, it’s no surprise that I have a passion for poetry. I’ve always admired a poet's ability to compact such intense images and emotions into so few words. This style of literary work portrays such immense expression through the use of a distinctive style and rhythm in a way that, in my opinion, nothing else can. Poetry can have such great panache, so why is it that it doesn’t seem to appeal to young people in the modern-day?
I was shocked to find out that amongst the chaos of school exams in the time of Covid-19, poetry is one of the few topics that will become optional within the English Literature GCSE course in the UK. The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation has stated that it had decided to offer students a choice of subject matters after schools expressed “significant concern” about their ability to cover all areas of the syllabus. Whilst the struggles held by teachers are entirely understandable throughout the next year, why should poetry be considered any less important than, say, 19th-century literature; an area that is still being covered?
It seems such a shame, not only because poetry can immerse young people in a genre of imagery and imagination, but because there is so much that can be learnt from it in both reading and writing. Poetry can teach students how to understand and interpret any text, as well as encourage precise yet detailed writing. By investigating the grammar, punctuation, and writing style of others, they can enhance their own. This is a skill that can be applied to any career or discipline later in life. Poetry is unique as a literary form, in that it essentially has no rules. There’s no accepted standardised length or form, no conventions. To me, this enhances the excitement a piece can offer.
Perhaps the typical tired lessons of iambic pentameter and metaphors have left students disengaged with the art form. Within school English classes, a single short poem almost seems frivolous against a whole novel; like it’s become a supplement and not something to be studied on its own. I always wonder if the frustration stems from the seemingly futile hours of studying such a short piece in so much detail that it makes you question whether that’s really what the writer originally intended, or whether you’re merely picking out meaningless annotations. I can remember my younger sister commenting when revising for her GCSEs that the writer never thought ‘I’m going to make the sky blue to represent loneliness and depression… the sky is just blue!!’ She did have a point. It seems that many English teachers delve into such detail, with each and every word is being investigated, that it can’t help but feel tedious. And yet, despite this, there are more poetry magazines and journals than ever before. More collections are being published; more poetry programmes are being taken at universities. So why does poetry feel so elusive in the world of reading for pleasure, especially for young people?
My first thought on this is that poetry is often considered a ‘higher’ art form. Something to be admired and studied, rather than to be purely enjoyed. I think this stems from the fact that good poetry is so difficult to write because of its concision and the precision of its words. In the past, only the higher, educated classes would have been exposed to the art form and its intricacies. But now, there’s no reason why it can’t be enjoyed by the masses.
Perhaps if exam boards could choose more modern, representative poets to feature in their exams, young people would find it instantly more engaging. The years of Wordsworth and Elliot are not relatable for teenagers. Poets such as Jackie Kay and Benjamin Zephaniah have risen through the genre, offering modern perspectives and form to the traditional poem. Tishani Doshi’s incredible 2017 poem Girls are Coming Out of the Woods depicts the “multitude of scars” that young women face as they grow up. Themes like gender don’t just need to be seen as the cliched ‘women are housewives who were seen as less than men’ that we’ve all grown accustomed to, but instead can target topics that students actually encounter in their day to day lives. I wonder, if more relevant and even taboo topics were presented to young people in schools, would they be drawn to poetry?
Andrew Simmons points out that “poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions”. This offers an interesting perspective that’s not often considered regarding poetry, that not only can we study poetry in the academic sense, but maybe it can aid us in personal skills. Whether it’s understanding different perspectives of people across multiple cultures or societies, or helping students express emotions in a controlled way, there is no doubt that poetry can really help young people find their own voice. Poetry writing has never been part of the GCSE syllabus in the UK and perhaps has been greatly overlooked as a useful skill. Whilst it could be argued that poetry writing is subjective and therefore cannot be marked fairly, it can still be seen as a valuable skill, if not in exams, then purely as an activity. In an age of social media and young people closing themselves off, surely it’s more important than ever to be encouraging methods of self-expression?
While conducting research for this article, I spoke to four student poets about their thoughts on how poetry is taught in schools and their experience of poetry growing up. The overwhelming feeling was that poetry is taught to young people as clinical analysis in order to answer mundane questions, rather than the beautiful and free-flowing art form that it truly is. Two of the writers mentioned the alienating style of tuition regarding poetry, commenting that the pressure from schools to interpret poetry correctly pushed them away from merely enjoying the pieces. It seems that writing your own poetry, or even simply enjoying poetry as young people in our generation is often stigmatised as overly emotional. All four poets I spoke to talked of the outlet that poetry has been for them, allowing thoughts to be expressed honestly and freely. Furthermore, all agreed that if school and exam boards could take advantage of new and emerging writers and forms of poetry, perhaps young people would be more engaged. Spoken word and the ever-growing Instagram poetry scene are the perfect way to draw in students to a relatable and appealing style of poetry.
An argument against teaching poetry in schools that’s often presented is that poetry is too complex for young people to understand. But surely this is the point of education? To expose young people to cultures and works that they may not understand at first. Poetry doesn’t even necessarily need to be understood but can merely be enjoyed for its beauty and composure. By exposing students to language, voice, and representation, we allow them to broaden their perspective of society and reflect on their own lives.
I’m saddened by the lack of engagement with poetry amongst young people, and I hope that many schools make the decision to keep the topic as an area of study for exams in the future. I would encourage anyone thinking about writing to give it a go, even just to get words down on a page. Reading and writing is an activity that should be learnt by all, if not for pure enjoyment, then for the attitudes and aspects of history that all can learn from.
Thank you so much to James McNinch, Chloe Chuck, Sophie Sullivan, and Evelyn Hoon for assisting me in researching this topic! You can take a look at some of their own poetry below.