Larkin and Owen poems dropped from GCSE syllabus
“What will survive of us is love.” This is the often-quoted final line of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’, which has not survived a rethink of a GCSE English literature course by an examination board, in favour of a more diverse range of authors. The first world war poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen has also been discarded.
OCR, part of Cambridge University Press & Assessment, said it was revising its range of poets examined to “replace some Victorian and 20th-century poems which have either become overfamiliar through the assessment process, or which have proved to have unexpected difficulties or seemed less accessible for students”.
The Larkin poem will no longer be included in the ‘love and relationships’ section of the GSCE anthology, while Owen’s will disappear from the ‘conflict’ section. Poems by William Wordsworth, Lord Byron and Emily Dickinson will remain. The new authors include the award-winning British-Jamaican poet Raymond Antrobus and the Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky, whose poem ‘We Lived Happily During the War’ is included. Kaminsky has recently published a collection of reports from poets whose homes have been occupied or attacked by Russian forces during its invasion of Ukraine.
“Our anthology for GCSE English literature students will feature many poets that have never been on a GCSE syllabus before and represent diverse voices, from living poets of British-Somali, British-Guyanese and Ukrainian heritage,” OCR said. “Of the 15 poets whose work has been added to GCSE English literature, 14 are poets of colour. Six are Black women, one is of south Asian heritage. Our new poets also include disabled and LGBTQ+ voices.”
The move was praised by Judith Palmer, chief executive of the Poetry Society. She said: “It’s fantastic to see this new selection of poems from OCR including poets from such a range of backgrounds and identities, writing in such diverse forms, voices and styles. We are sure young people will welcome the opportunity to study poems by some of the most striking new voices in contemporary poetry, alongside a refreshing selection of classic texts from diverse authors. These poems will speak powerfully to the experiences of young people today.”
There is a statue of Larkin, above, at Hull's Paragon rail station. But publication of the poet's private correspondence after his death in 1985 revealed a number of racist comments, and language about people of colour that is unacceptable as well as unprintable today.
However, the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, described the removal of Larkin and Owen from the syllabus as “cultural vandalism”. He added: “Larkin and Owen are two of our finest poets … Their work must be passed on to future generations – as it was to me. I will be speaking to the exam board to make this clear.” Zahawi insisted: “As a teenager improving my grasp of the English language, Larkin’s poems taught me so much about my new home. We must not deny future students the chance to make a similarly powerful connection with a great British author, or miss out on the joy of knowing his work.”
The minister has previously recounted how he arrived in the UK with a poor grasp of English after his family fled Iraq as refugees in the late 1970s. In a recent interview he said: “I couldn’t make any sense of the Telegraph because my English wasn’t good enough. But I started reading the Sun and it actually helped me improve my reading.”
Owen’s fiercely anti-war poem, now dropped from the OCR syllabus, mourns the deaths of youths “who die as cattle”. Its last line includes these memorable final words – at least to this 1960s school pupil … “each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds”.