Don't make poetry an optional 'add-on' in schools, warns poet laureate

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The poet laureate Simon Armitage has added his voice to those criticising the decision by the exams body Ofqual to make poetry optional at GCSE. Armitage, whose work is part of the GCSE syllabus, said the move was sad, at a time when “poetry seems to be really having its moment, because of the comfort, consolation and form of expression that people have found in poetry over these months.

“Among younger people, it seems a very vibrant, popular art form. It’s a worry that making it optional might have a knock-on effect and just make it one of those add-ons that it’s been at times in the past. Poetry is language at play, and a lot of the time in a school or classroom environment, students are expected to use language in a very rational, logical and informational way. To be denied the opportunity to think of language as nuanced and playful is a pity,” he said.

The poet laureate took issue with Ofqual’s assertion that many of those that responded to its consultation “highlighted the difficulties for students in trying to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely”.

“Yet Shakespeare’s in there?” he said. “There’s a huge variety of complexity within the work that’s presented at GCSE level, so I don’t think you should underestimate students’ capacity or even their ambitions for taking on language.”

Another leading poet, Imtiaz Dharker, said: “People have reached for poetry like a lifeline in this pandemic. That’s why it is a pity to treat it as expendable, even for a year. Especially this year. Poetry is where language opens its heart and lets everyone in. That’s the poetry so many young people have been responding to, and that great teachers will persist in teaching even if it is unruly. It is needed now more than ever.”

Andrew McMillan, judge of Write Out Loud’s Beyond the Storm poetry competition, for poems about the Covid-189 era and beyond, said making poetry optional at GCSE was “a dangerous first step”. He called for “much more tailored choice” in the poetry studied around the UK.

“Yes, it’s important that kids read a wide range of poetry that allows them to access different worlds but they need to know too that their street, their village, their town, is worthy of great poetry. Why aren’t they studying Geoff Hattersley in Barnsley schools or Liz Berry at every school in the Black Country, or Caleb Femi in every London school?” he said. “Poetry still occupies an important place in society. We use it for weddings and funerals. We still think of it as high art. To let children know that their own lives are worthy of poetry is really vital.”  

In an editorial headlined “poetry in schools: don’t let it go”, the Guardian newspaper said: “The unresolved, open-ended nature of so much poetry, where meaning has to be extracted from intense engagement with language, is all too appropriate for our present age of uncertainty.”

It concluded: “If the pandemic is making the current exam system unworkable, find another way of encouraging young people to study – and, better still, to love – literature. Poetry is about response, not regurgitation; the joy of intellectual inquiry; the free play of the spirit. That is what Ofqual should be protecting.”





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M.C. Newberry

Tue 11th Aug 2020 12:57

Poetry has to relate not only to life but our own aspirations and hopes
about it. The timeless themes still resonate - even though it is
difficult to see how a lot of modern poetry can compete with the
content of Shakespeare's centuries-old sonnets in that context.
But maybe there is a connection between the modern song and the
modern poem? Will either stand the all-important test - the test of
time? Is illiterate emotion hand in hand with illiteracy in general?
Are today's gatekeepers up to the job of encouraging, let alone ensuring poetry "in perpetuity"?

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