The Write Out Loud interview: Fiona Sampson

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Leading poet Fiona Sampson talks to Frances Spurrier.



It's a concern of some magazine editors that there are many people writing poetry but not enough people reading it.  Do you agree?  

Poetry Review gets 60,000 submissions annually.  It has 4,000 subscribers.  Why is this?    Most people have literacy, most people can write.  So everyone thinks they can write poetry.  It is like photography.  If I take a photograph and it comes out OK, I think There’s nothing much to this, I could be a photographer.  Of course, that’s not true.  Not everyone who plays occasional football for fun will get to play at Wembley, nor do they expect to. The problem’s not with quantity but with attitude:  hear the difference, have curiosity, read poetry, recognise the rules, do the hard work.


It seems to me that poetry is getting a bit of a raw deal in schools. I have read that many teachers at secondary level are afraid to teach it, feeling they don't understand it well enough themselves. Do you think contemporary poetry raised the bar in some way for poetry educators?

I don't think the problem is contemporary poetry.  When I was at school we were taught Heaney, PJ Kavanagh and the dead poets.  I think there is a vicious circle involved here.  Teachers lack confidence because they didn't encounter poetry themselves and there is a lack of confidence about poetry in society in general. Poetry in school should be encountered through pleasure, in its truth, humour and qualities of language.  Poems should be experiential. Young people do not have to be educated to the music they love - choosing it is tribal, part of their self-definition.  For the few teenagers who do find poetry for themselves, it may be equally part of the self, but this happens much less often.


Do you think westernisation (advertising, profits before all, collecting stuff, X Factor) affects our ability to read and therefore to write in general, but poetry especially. In other words, have we blunted our own sensibilities with too much getting and spending? 

Laying waste our powers? Yes.  This is definitely true.  We’ve changed our emotional metabolism and powers of concentration and can no longer dwell on things.  If we can't dwell then we can't go further into the moment or experience.  I do think we have become dumbed down.  By that I don't mean we’re less intelligent, but that we have become more impatient.  I do believe that in schools everyone should be taught the canon.  It is not elitist to teach that certain writers can be thought of as amazing - to present that as a fact.   There seems now to be this awful 'apologeticness' surrounding our presentation of music, art and literature in general.  It is a massive own goal, for effectively this is saying to young people - don't be amazing. We should remember that teens are bored in class anyway - so why be afraid to equip them with experiences that will last a lifetime, just because in the short-term they’d probably rather do something they can think about while texting  under the table?


Following on from these questions, I wonder if,  with increasing economic hardship and political instabilities around the world, people are seeing poetry as increasingly irrelevant. Yet many of the finest poets (Neruda, for example) came from politically unstable countries.

Yes, I believe political instability can generate poetry.   Being in extremis is a great head-clearer! I think good poetry does not arise from false consciousness  - by which I mean not being honest with oneself.  Besides, poetry is a very inexpensive form of entertainment!


One of your great interests has been poetry in healthcare settings.  Can you talk a bit about this work?

When I was a musician I became involved with music in hospitals.   Classical musicians tend to believe that music connects with a spiritual part of the self.  Later I became writer-in-residence for a health authority.  I think poetry is the highest form of discourse to which we have access; it is no coincidence that it is used widely at weddings and funerals.  Following this idea, I believe it is relevant for people who are ill, institutionalised, etc – again, people who are in extremis.  


What would this involve in practice?

Poem posters, hospital radio poems, workshops with a loosely evoked theme; using poetry as a way to talk about things.  I was involved with these groups for 12 years. In my work as editor for Poetry Review, if I am uncertain or hesitating about a poem, I still test it against those healthcare and community groups and their reactions.  What would they have thought of it?  Pretentious or genuine?  They always knew the difference. That is why I am fearless about the risk of elitism in my work as an editor. Having worked in prisons, in hospitals, alongside people with disabilities, I know these people were moved by the real thing, and only the real thing. 


In your book Poetry Writing, The Expert Guide, in the shape-shifting section,  you discuss writing haiku. Haiku is sometimes used as a “way in” to poetry for teaching because it’s short but of course it's a difficult form to write well.  Do you feel contemporary writers should study the haiku masters perhaps a little more than they do?

Honestly, no!  It is a very hard form to translate into English.  The sensibility of the haiku is about being very limpid and still - and this seems almost impossible to reproduce in English. 


This brings me on to translation.  You have translated Jaan Kaplinski's Evening Brings Everything Back and The Soul Descending, which is in his new Collected Poems from Bloodaxe.  There is a wonderful lyricism to his poetry.  What are the main issues facing the translator of poetry, apart from needing to speak the language?

I co-translated this work, ie worked from a rough translation into English done by the author. I do not speak Estonian!  Nor do I speak Hebrew but have also translated two books from that language.  Translating is not so much about linguistic fluency. In fact, a little learning can be a dangerous thing.  Linguists don’t have the original literary sensibility, nor a complete hinterland of cultural being, even if fluent.  It is like the person who regularly visits a foreign city, stays perhaps in the same hotel, visits people and places, believes he knows that city. He does not. Instead, literary translation involves questioning every word, over and over.  Taking each thing step by step.  For example, in Hebrew “living water” means just fresh water. It has no biblical or spiritual connotation that such a phrase might have in English. Translation is about trying to get a glimpse of what it was that excited you about the work.  About trying to keep the note right.  Translating reminded me of my work with the healthcare groups.  Asking, and trying to divine, what someone really means by the unusual things they say.


Many readers and users of the Write out Loud website are interested in performance poetry.  Although not everyone sees a distinction between performance poetry and written poetry,  do you agree that there is such a distinction, given the oral traditions of poetry and storytelling?

Given those oral traditions, no.  All poetry is performance poetry. There may be the occasional exception (eg, concrete poetry which is designed to be seen on the page) but it is the exception that proves the rule. There are particular kinds of performance emerging at the moment - by that I mean that performance poets are producing texts which may be incomplete without the author's performance of them.  But authors have always performed their own work.   Where a text can survive the author, then it is just a poem. For example, British Caribbean poetry in the l980s was closely related to the oral tradition but also lived on the page.   I refer to the work of Grace Nichols, John Agard, James Berry.  But now poets are forced to choose.  If they want to use that folk, oral tradition, they have to distance themselves from the rest of poetry and I think that is a shame.   Any dilution reduces the amount of creative energy in the art form.   Poetry is very largely to do with sound, music and rhythm.  It is an out loud form. 


Tomas Tranströmer has recently received the Nobel prize for literature.  The judges said that "through his condensed, translucent images he gives us a fresh access to reality".  Is that what all poets should attempt to do?

Not necessarily.  Poets have different ways of giving us “fresh access to reality”. Tranströmer’s poetry is wonderful in that way, other poets are wonderful in other ways.   For example, the work of Czesław Miłosz is generous, urgent and beautiful, not condensed or translucent at all.


Your collection Common Prayer  (Carcanet) was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize in 2007 and a poem in it for the Forward single poem prize.   Your new collection Rough Music  (Carcanet) was shortlisted for both the TS Eliot prize and the Forward prize in 2010 for best collection.  If I'm right there's somewhat of a search for ancestral voices going on in your work - links to myth and spirit.  In your own work what would you say are the main  influences?

Metaphysics in general is very important to me.  I am very interested in first things. Who are we.  What are we doing?  The mystery of being human.   I am always trying to write about the nature of experience, to clothe abstract thoughts in concrete metaphors.   My starting point will usually be an abstract thought about being in general.  For example, in Common Prayer, I use longer poems to examine notions of 'home' and what is home, homeliness.   Whereas Rough Music is more from the music outwards.  Much tighter and more formal.  Every book I've written is very different from the previous book.  Once I've finished a book I really feel that I have finished with that approach and must start again with the whole question of poetry.  I never arrive at a place where I feel, That's it, I understand what poetry is.  Or else it becomes a trick, feels emptied out. 


So do you believe in the writer’s voice?

I think there is one but would like to get rid of it!  I look for a music that's working.  CK Williams said that he couldn't write a poem until he had the music.  This is not just about rhyme or meter, but a kind of grammatical logic.


Who are your poetic heroes/heroines?

TS Eliot is huge for me.  And Milosz - a truly great poet of witness.  Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva: they took up the burden of meaning-making in terrible times and didn’t ask for any concessions because they were women – so we as readers don’t have to expect less of them because they were women.


Fiona Sampson’s most recent books include a new edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley for Faber (2011, Poetry Book Society Book Club Choice) and Music Lessons: The Newcastle Poetry Lectures (2011). She is published in more than 30 languages, and has been shortlisted twice for both the TS Eliot Prize and Forward prizes.  She works as a translator and editor (her A Century of Poetry Review was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation), and is currently Distinguished Writer at the University of Kingston. Her critical survey of contemporary British poetry, Beyond the Lyric (Chatto) appears this September, and her next collection, Coleshill, also from Chatto, in January 2013.

Photograph: Adrian Pope



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Adele Ward

Tue 14th Feb 2012 13:43

I didn't mean that the internet makes it easier for children to research. I meant that access to research material on the internet means that there are higher expectations and children/teenagers need to know far more than we did and include it in their assignments. I believe it's much harder to study now.

I don't help my children or hang over them, although somebody said this is now necessary due to the continual assessment. I know they won't be able to study independently in future if I help them too much so I leave them to do it themselves. If their homework hasn't been done on time I tell them that was their responsibility.

I would help them learn how to do a homework themselves if they were in trouble with it. But if they can't manage work, and if I don't do it for them, then the teachers can see that more teaching is needed. I was really surprised at a recent parent teacher meeting to hear that parents help with the homework so much.

I don't believe it's easy to get A grades. I wish it was. To get on to the best courses at university A level students have to work very hard. My sons have always been very high achievers at school but I know the A level years will be tough ones for my older son as he has chosen difficult subjects to go for some of the sought after careers.

My younger son absolutely loves music and there's no need to push him to work at it all the time. It's all he ever does!

I think we tend to believe the myths about schools and how easy it all is now, when really if you study again (as I have done) you find that the standard now is much higher. We should give our kids more credit. When they get As and get into university they deserve more praise.

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M.C. Newberry

Sun 12th Feb 2012 14:08

I remain unimpressed by the belief that one's
childhood and early youth are viewed as the yardstick by which future life is measured.
We never STOP learning, and receptive minds learn more. Life is one long process of learning. Note those who achieve success late
in life when, according to the accepted ideology. they should be nodding off in their
rocking chairs. University education is a
fine thing but I wonder if it is merely the
means of providing received wisdom. Does it
benefit the creative and inventive - or, perhaps, even stifle those qualities?

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Nick Coleman

Sat 11th Feb 2012 20:27

>>Poetry Review gets 60,000 submissions annually. It has just 4,000 subscribers. Why is this?<< I cancelled my subscription about ten years ago when a change of editor led to it becoming full of poetry as ugly, cold, and uninspiring as a 60's concrete tower block. If that is what some like fair enough, but not to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps I was not alone. Judging by this interview it is time I renewed my subscription.

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Sat 11th Feb 2012 18:59

I don't suppose we'll ever have a perfect education system, because everyone's opinion of perfect is different. I'm not sure I'd totally agree with you about the National Curriculum there Anthony. Adele makes the point, maybe 10 or so comments ago, that prior to the NC, teachers had too much freedom to waffle on about whatever pleased them. The NC tries to give a framework on which to hang the learning - areas that you can't skip - hopefully to broaden the learning experience. I'm not an expert on it all, but I do think that standards and expectations need to be set. Yes, I regret that creative writing has taken a backseat - in the same way that non creative students might have hated the dominance of it at the secondary school I attended.Things move on and change and sometimes they go full circle.

I was disappointed to learn that French literature wasn't studied at A level any more. That would have killed the subject for me - and what better way to cement a language, than to read it.

There is much more emphasis now on mental arithmatic. The flip side to this is that written procedures are horribly convoluted - a maths question that we would have done in seconds, now taking half a page to work out..

At primary level, I still think that the literacy time spent sitting on a carpet listening combined with grammar sheets etc is disproportionate to the actual time children spend writing anything for themselves. By the time some of the children have warmed up, the lesson is over. Not sure if it's like this in all schools. For me there needs to be a much better balance, even if this is at the expense of some of the modeling.

Change, change and more change - sometimes for the better and sometimes debatable.

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Anthony Emmerson

Sat 11th Feb 2012 16:53

I don't have children, so maybe I'm not entitled to a viewpoint on their education; but I'll venture one anyway, at the risk of public humiliation.

It seems to me that devices like the National Curriculum are designed, rightly or wrongly, to enable pupils to pass as many exams as they are capable of. This, since exam success is a measurable asset when considering employability.

Whilst I can see the benefits of this, in terms of the way society works, i.e. go to school, then to university then find gainful employment etc, it seems the process has limited aims in terms of producing well-rounded individuals/citizens, rather than just fodder for employment.

For me it's simply the imbalance in society reflected in how we tailor our education system.

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M.C. Newberry

Sat 11th Feb 2012 16:02

To take up A.E.'s point...
I read a number of issues of Poetry Review and the content seemed to be of a "type". Verse,
with rhythm and an inspiring use of vocabulary,
was absent. Hence my comment in another post
questioning the likelihood of a Betjeman finding favour. I see an analogy with much
modern music with its obsession about technique and having something "new" to say whilst deriding "tunes" as old fashioned. The gift of writing melody cannot be underestimated
and to mock its profoundly beneficial effect
on the mind is self-centred ego-tripping of the
worst kind that does its art and the audience
no favours. One is merely "of the time" whilst the other is "timeless".
I take the view that the same applies to poetry.

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Sat 11th Feb 2012 09:44

Your experience of state schools is inspiring Adele – and yes there is a lot of truth in the fact that a good teacher will bend over backwards to get those grades up for your kids. The work seems to be a lot more modular. Children can re-sit exams they have performed badly on, within the same academic year. The whole exam assessment is spread over a period of 2 years, rather than a few final exams and yes, you have the whole internet to draw on, if you are writing an essay. I think this does make it easier for children to achieve better results. At my daughter’s Yr 11 parents’ evening, I was told that if she wanted to pick up a few extra points and get an A*, she needed to take part more in class – put her hand up, ask questions. I was surprised that her natural shyness could have any affect on English grades. I now jab her in the ribs every morning to make sure she is awake before leaving the house. The lengths some mothers go to…
I must confess to ‘helping’ my son enormously with a French assignment he had. Those few extra points helped him to get a B and get into the right college to pursue his science subjects – which I could never help him with 

Meanwhile, another niece of mine, who is a head teacher at a very large primary school, now sets written tests for teachers when recruiting because she is finding that some teachers graduating from teacher training college, are doing so without an appropriate level of written skills.
I realise that I’m being very cynical here. The new system clearly has advantages over the old. The curriculum is controlled tightly to ensure a balanced area of study. Assessment is done over a period of time so that you can’t excel or flunk in the period of a 2 or 3 hours.
I suppose I liked the system I studied under because it favoured me. I’m a self starter. I wouldn’t have wanted a teacher or a parent hanging over me. I wouldn’t have enjoyed continual assessment. I liked writing essays and could handle the timed pressure of exams. What I wouldn’t have liked about today’s system, is the inability to excel. Very large numbers now achieve A and A*s. Every man and his dog goes to Uni – though that may change…

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Adele Ward

Sat 11th Feb 2012 01:42

How naughty, Isobel! I wish I could be sure it was that easy, and then I'd definitely advise my son to take English A level, but I'm pretty sure it's hard. In fact I think it's much harder to study now than it has been in the past, contrary to what people say, and as I studied when young and have also studied more recently I'm quite convinced I'm right.

I also see what our kids have to do at secondary school. It's much more demanding than the courses we did because the internet makes so much more research available so they're expected to know more.

I would quite like my son to opt for the 'writing heavy' subjects (as they call them) because he's quite interested in studying law. It's definitely not an easy option though.

It really annoys me that so many myths abound, like the idea that it's easier to study now (just try to do a degree now and see how it compares to your first experience), and also that state schools don't support children because there's too much bureaucracy.

Charles Dance was banging on about this on the One Show. I can only think he has no experience of state secondary schools now. I had just come back from Hendon School where my son is just choosing his A Level courses. The commitment of the teachers to helping students is incredible, so Charles Dance and others of his ilk who say state school teachers have no time to help students realise their potential are completely wrong.

I wish they would spend some time in state schools before they opened their mouths. Do they really want to help the Government dismantle state education with a load of myths?

As for text speak - my sons are in a standard London comprehensive. All of their friends use proper grammar when they text. Most of their friends live on London council estates. We really shouldn't underestimate teenagers. Their education is better than ours was. They are better people than us. Things improve although we love to perpetuate this myth that the old days were better.

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Fri 10th Feb 2012 23:43

Heh heh - it's a Friday night and I'm bored - so perhaps I'll wave my red rag around...

If English literature is considered such a hard subject to study at University now, perhaps that's because standards of English have dropped. The subject will be largely essay based I presume and demand a good command of the written language.

I have a niece who is a teacher at a local college. A good number of assignments handed into her are of a poor standard initially, with much text speech and spelling creeping into the language. I get the feeling that much more teacher involvement goes on to get work up to a passable standard. Of course, colleges and students may well vary across the country. I wasn't born into the texting culture, but must admit that it does lead me into bad habits sometimes.

I can't substantiate anything I'm saying of course - it's just an idea I thought I'd throw into the pot. Besides, the government keeps telling us that the nation is getting cleverer each year so I must be wrong :)

I can remember thinking French would be more useful to me than English. The truth is, that translating jobs go to those who have spoken it from birth. Unless you want to use it on holiday you end up teaching. A good command of the English language should take you quite far in many jobs I'd imagine. No point in knowing all the facts and figures if you can't manipulate them to your advantage verbally...

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Adele Ward

Wed 8th Feb 2012 13:40

My 16-year-old son said something interesting about this. He surprised me by saying he is now thinking of doing A level English, partly because he's loving the GCSE (and he says it's the poetry that got his enthusiasm going)but partly because he would really like to be good at such a hard subject.

He would like to feel he could achieve A Level standard in English literature, and the way he said this made me realise it's a subject that pupils consider prestigious.

This is quite a change. When I studied English loads of people did it, making it hard to get into university due to the competition, and even then everybody thought I had chosen an easy option and a bit of a 'non-subject'. My parents pretended to the neighbours that I was studying French, which they thought sounded like more of a serious subject.

I hadn't realised the view of English literature had changed in schools. I then went to a parents' evening about English GCSE and the talk did focus on what a hard subject it is and how parents and teachers can help.

Perhaps English literature is finally getting the respect it deserves as a subject - no longer just the 'easy option' I was told off for taking.

I have a feeling the people criticising the national curriculum, like Fiona Sampson, might not have experience of state secondary schools, but I'm only guessing.

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Adele Ward

Wed 8th Feb 2012 13:30

In answer to the person who said teachers don't write often enough or go to open mics:- Although I wanted to be a writer and loved both literature and language lessons at school, I don't think teachers or students have to be able to write in order to be good at teaching and studying literature.

Readers are also important, and there are plenty who come to events to enjoy them even if they have never written. They often come in feeling a little bit awkward and asking if it's ok if they aren't a writer.

Being a good English literature teacher isn't necessarily something that requires the teacher to be a writer, or to be active at writing events.

Even a teacher who says 'poetry isn't my speciality' will have studied poetry at GCSE, A level and university. Whether or not they can teach it depends on their professional skills, and the enthusiasm teachers communicate does vary.

None of my English teachers at any level were writers. I never would have expected them to be, but perhaps with all the creative writing courses these days people do imagine English teachers will be writers. A writer might prefer to teach the creative writing courses, which combine literature and a practical creative writing element.

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Julian (Admin)

Mon 6th Feb 2012 15:09

Alan, interesting points about universities' attitudes to open-mic poetry. We have found both sets of attitudes, pro- and anti-, although even the pro- tend to be wary of open/live poetry. The problem seems to me to be one of control; or fear of lack of it. If teachers are in charge of telling you what a poem is about (the 'right' answer), that tends to be within their comfort zone (not all teachers, of course). And of course, they have their notes that can tell them exactly what a published poem is 'about'.
Put the means of production - sorry, creation - in the hands of the students and the teachers are on more difficult ground, where they perhaps feel they might need to give their own meagre opinion, and might expose their lack of understanding, or paucity of hinterland.

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John Ling

Mon 6th Feb 2012 09:20

Enjoyed your interview. thanks. I used to be in a job that involved visiting hundreds of schools of all ages, observing children with certain disabilities. This involved in many cases observing how lessons were taught, and now and then would include English lessons. I don't know how many times I had to listen to lessons on "The Highwayman"!

Many lessons, especially in primary schools were not about creative writing, but about linguistic features, such as metaphor and simile and adjectives. I have seen displays on the walls of the foyer of some schools labelled "These are our simile poems", and comments in some children's books such as "try to use more adjectives".

I can't remember ever coming away from such a lesson thinking "that was good", or finding the children enthused by poetry. And in many cases teachers would praise work which was clearly very bad, because they did not have the time to spend in showing the children how to make it better.

In no case did I ever encounter a teacher simply sharing good poems or having fun! There always has to be some interruption, as there often is in story telling, to ask a question, or point out some feature, as if they are afraid to just let children enjoy the story or poem for itself without having some "educational" point made.

When I was at school ( a long time ago!) the thing I remember most of all was those teachers who set aside large chunks of time, usually at the end of a day for a cracking good story, (uninterrupted) which kept us rivetted, and longing for the next episode. Or the ones who allowed us to wallow in good and funny poetry, and have fun making up our own rhymes (yes - rhymes!) for the sheer pleasure of words.

Seems to me some of today's teachers have either lost the sense of fun, or have had it squeezed out by the demands of the NC, as many of you have pointed out.John Ling

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Alan Gillott

Sun 5th Feb 2012 21:59

A fascinating discussion. One of the difficulties we face is that poetry is not a part of the Ethos of the country. In some parts of the world, being a poet will get you extra votes as a politician, here it will dramatically reduce your credibility.

I am leery of blaming schools or teachers because the system is now designed to discourage anything that is not SATs orientated. There are a lot of excellent local poets who could be brought into schools but there are huge administrative hurdles to overcome. We have made several attempts to interest local English teachers in encouraging youngsters to support local open mics but they see it as a distraction.

Peer pressure is also discouraging any interest in reading or writing poetry is suppressed until at least 18 or more. One local university won't even allow students to run an open mic on campus; and as the campus is in the middle of nowhere any interest in extra-curricular poetry is effectively suppressed though a few stalwarts go to local events or put on their own events miles from campus: poetry is effectively subsidised by small bands and comedy.

Even academics with an interest in poetry (apologies to those few exceptions who teach in at Leeds Trinity who otherwise might be personally offended by this generalisation) eschew the local poetry scene so have no idea what sort of local brilliance there might be: we have given up attempting to link up with acedemic poets at our local major university.

I don't know how to fix this, or who needs to get up on which soapbox, but we do need to be selling poetry as an intrinsic part of our national life.

Unfortunately the country sees Pam Ayres as the exemplar of National Poetry and the BBC insists on broadcasting anodyne middle of the road material, often read by actors who haven't a clue how to read poetry properly. Yet there are many excellent local poets who are entertaining, vital, and whose words just make you think and rethink immediate political and social issues - they are NOT being heard and until they are, you can bet younsters will give poetry a miss.

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M.C. Newberry

Thu 2nd Feb 2012 12:24

The point about technique brought forward by
Martin Nelson encourages me to say that the most interesting technique is of little use unless the subject matter is of interest to the
viewer, reader or listener.
The subject matter must connect to the sensibilities. Certainly, technique can enhance its subject and the audience view
accordingly but it cannot retain the interest
on its own. I am a great film fan, going back
fifty years, with recollections of watching
film technique that I was unaware of at the
time, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway if
the subject hadn't been of interest.
With poetry - what is written is vital. How it
is written can enhance or detract, according
to the skill or otherwise, of the writer.
Technique is a tool of the trade, there to
embellish and assist an intended message.
But if what you have to say is of little interest or consequence, then what does it
achieve? Enhanced boredom?

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Martin Nelson

Thu 2nd Feb 2012 09:29


I'm just trying to understand your position a little better.

If its that everyone can write poetry but not everyone becomes an artist I'd agree.

The question you ask about Betjeman...I think could be applied to almost all creative fields today. Personally, I dislike fast cutting in film-based media, and have heard rumours that tracking shots are not done in film. Despite this I still think that Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Henry V benefit hugely from their tracking shots and the artistic way in which it was shot.

That said if you look at The Artist, I wouldn't go all the way and say it was art, but it gets close...perhaps we just have to hope that the odd master of a given artform manages to slip though the nets?

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M.C. Newberry

Wed 1st Feb 2012 13:56

Poetry is, perhaps, seen as "everyman's
plaything"...something most of us can do.
Wrong, but the conceit may well enable it to
continue healthily into the years to come.
The film "The Dead Poets' Society" starred
Robin Williams (playing brilliantly against
type) as an inspirational teacher who encourages his adolescent class to open their
minds to poetry and its possibilities in
enriching their lives. The wider media has
featured the occasional poem to advantage and
we must embrace that. Poetry is popular as long as it connects with the humanity in us -
and the reaction of those without the ability
to write it themselves is often gratifying.
"You write things I would like to say but can't put into words" - isn't that as fine a justification as can be for writing poetry?
Some contemporary poetry reflects some modern
music - meandering...with no centre. And as
the late symphonic composer Alan Hovhaness
observed in a related context - everything in
creation has a centre.
Rules may be there to be broken, but to defy them is merely vanity without knowledge and
discipline to fall back on - and the result
is often just that: vanity, with "technique"
taking precedence over worth of content.
I suspect that in the "poetry world" (editors,
publishers etc.,), birds of a feather flock
together and like begets like. Hence the type
of poetry found in the very few mainline poetry
publications in print.
Would a Betjeman have got past the door today?
And if not, what does that say about poetry
today? Has it become too insular and self-serving for its own good in the wider world?
Art is merely a state of enhancing the human
condition, no matter how purple the prose
adopted to worship the word itself. We must
never lose sight of that.

Tom Cunliffe

Tue 31st Jan 2012 17:48

I have worked on a number of poetry related projects with English teachers at secondary and primary level and the general consensus among them has been that "poetry is not my specialism".
Let's look at it this way (I taught Art for 30 yrs)......There is an amazing assumption made about Art teachers that they can ALL teach Art History, Critical studies, ceramics, painting, drawing, design, sculpture, printmaking, photography......mixed media and cross fertilise all.... for real fun etc..... oh! and tackle abstract and the figurative at the same time. Of the hundreds of Art teachers I've known over the years no more than a handful could competently deal with the FULL range.
Let's apply the same thought to poetry. Of the 50 or so English teachers I have come across in recent years in schools (via poetry workshops) only ONE writes poetry, comes to 'LIVE' poetry events and is confident about teaching poetry in his school.
Teaching itself stands on one VERY weak premise....that what you learn in school and UNI will have to keep you going for the rest of your teaching life...UNLESS you personally ADD to, update and extent the 'pot of knowledge' about YOUR given SUBJECT.
So ......what percentage of art teachers still do their own artwork? ...How many English teachers do a creative writing course or write independently for themselves?
Sadly one thing that teachers CAN be sure of is that their 'professional development programme ' WILL NOT include anything that remotely relates to 'hands on' their writing poetry or doing their own Artwork. Crazy! Passion for a given SUBJECT drives the teacher not 'education' in itself.
Sadly this leaves us with many teachers, at both primary and secondary level, in need of substantial support. Some years ago I did a 'free' basic drawing workshop for Primary school teachers ...the moment they entered the room they all told that 'we can't draw'. Yet, as teachers they all played their part in teaching Art in the National Curriculum.... presumably they stayed one step ahead of the kids.
When so many English teachers feel that, in teaching poetry 'something is missing' they will, I feel rely heavily on the GCSE 'ANTHOLOGY'...... that dreaded volume......feeling that by 'covering it' kids will learn something about poetry. Mmmm. But I am sure of one thing, that students should have received a VERY good introduction to poetry well before they EVER set eyes on it at KS 4.
Last yearI met a brilliant 18 yr old student. How she hated that GCSE anthology.....saying to her teachers, on many occasions..."There must be more to poetry than this!" In the end the kids started their own poetry club in school... I love it.
How can things change?
All departments at school are in charge of their budgets. They themselves could be imaginative...plan ahead and set money apart (direct from capitation) and invite a poet in do some workshops with the students. (I did it annually with visiting artists.) Or they could 'make an internal bid' ..horrible phrase...having to go cap in hand to the principle...when, as any teacher would know, you are propounding a brilliant idea. Or the school pays for teachers to go on a poetry courses...seeing that it will pay dividends later. ( I know the problem here... livelessl senior managers) Tricky for many schools...for it requires both thought and panache.
Selection, however is a problem .... ALL good poets do not make good tutors. But then you may feel that a poet reading their work and talking about how and why they write might stir things up a bit with the students.
When school budgets are tight poets fees are also a tricky issue...I asked one guy recently if he would be interested in doing a 25 minute reading at a 'live' poetry event I run....£500 was his reply....You can imagine my reply to him.

A couple of further points... I can assure you Fiona that many British poets write 'brilliant' haiku and that international recognition acknowledges this. haiku is a wonderful art form that would play an equally valuable role in schools.
'Magma' have recently supported a very good competition that solely focussed on 'the short poem'.... a much neglected area...... It is rewarding to see a magazine prepared to take on board risks and challenges. British poetry needs a MAJOR shake up....whenever I think of it the word 'cosy' comes to mind, usually followed by 'predictable'. One phrase Fiona mentioned in her intro was the importance in 'recognising the rules'.......My point is clear .....once you have done that and you know them well.......BREAK EM! and then... BREAK EM again....and that is what is missing in British poetry....Don't get me started.....

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Martin Nelson

Tue 31st Jan 2012 14:05

Isobel, I'd agree that making poetry come alive is something to aim for. It's just that it's determining whether a teacher/lecturer/other educator actually knows if they are achieving that. I'm fairly sure that our lecturer thinks that she is engaging I knew of her and her work long before going to uni. It would be more than a little cheeky for a student to say 'did you know that your delivery of poetry is a little lacklustre?'.

For some people perhaps she is making the poetry come alive. For me though, she is not...I guess that's another factor educators have to contend with. Not all students will be as engaged in the same way. Personally, I'd prefer to see a raft of poets come in perform and talk about why they've written their work in the way they have, than see a lecturer read a poem and ignore the punctuation that is signalling where to pause...or putting a pause in the wrong place (A CAD poem I've heard CAD read).

Like I said earlier though, there's as many different tastes are there are people in that room...oh well!

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Tue 31st Jan 2012 13:38

Yes - I think quality of teaching will inevitably vary from one teacher to the other, regardless of the discipline.

My A level English literature teacher was the pits. We'd spend hour upon hour copying out her dictated university notes in longhand. Photocpiers did exist back then - but it was a nice easy way for her to fill the lesson...

I'm sure she had an excellent degree in English. I got an excellent A level in it. It killed the subject for me though - to the point that I studied French at Uni instead of English Literature - something that has been a life long regret.

I think there is a huge burden of responsibility that goes hand in hand with teaching. As others have said, making poetry come alive would be a good thing to aim for; a balance being needed between study of others and writing and performing our own.

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Martin Nelson

Tue 31st Jan 2012 13:15

I'd like to just weigh in here as someone who is currently having to sit through a module of poetry at university.

If I look back to secondary school (10+ years ago) poetry was not just wrapped up in reading, but in writing and presenting (speaking aloud). I was fortunate enough to be at school when Future Voices anthology was being brought out. This meant that I could see a poem of mine in a book at a rather early(ish) age.

That did get me writing poetry, but it was not until I began reading and listening to the work of poets that I actually began looking at how to improve my own poetry.

Unfortunately, I sit here now very uneager at the thought of having to get up and head to a lecture room where the poetry is presented to us in such a dry style. Now it's not so much to fault of the lecturer. I see she means well, but there seems little enthusiasm from her over the subject matter. More importantly she seems overly concerned with poetic fashion.

I think that is the truely terrible thing. Poetry following 'fashion'! Part of me felt like shouting out that there's as many different fashions as there are students in the room (around 80-100)! Publishing houses seem to specialise and look for different things, so god only know where they get the idea of fashion in poetry from!

I digress though. Many of the students I know were actually looking forward to studying poetry becausde they'd never studyed it before. Now though the energy seems to be somewhat lacking.

Personally, poetry in education I think is a dodgy thing. Just like everything, you get the good teachers and the basd teachers.

I'd rather see more exposure of poetry. Street poetry is not only wonderfully fund but give you a great rush...and you give people poetry that are not normally exposed to it. I'm sure that's not the only way though!

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Denis Joe

Tue 31st Jan 2012 09:23

Adele, the mention of teachers being afraid of poetry is not my idea but one that the questioner raises in question 2.I hear a lot of this rubbish about art being intimidating. What the people really mean when they are peddling this rubbish is that they think ordinary people are to stupid (or fragile) to engage with art.It is a trait of the new elite that they tend to look down on the majority of people as being incapable of engaging with art. Their main approach is to patronise and debase the arts. Thus slam and the idea that if you break a piece of writing up into line you have a poem, are said to be poetry. Ms Sampson suggests that we do not study the Haiku masters because it is too difficult, it is a pity that she isn't more consistent and sticks to her maxim "Learn the rules, do the hard work" that Kate Fox quotes below.

Why should we settle for their head-patting? We are quite capable of learning the rules of poetry (even if only to break them)and we are quite capable of engaging with the most elaborate forms, but instead we are told that it is all too difficult for us.The one thing that can be said about the old elite is that, although they feared 'the barbarians at the door' they at least valued the art enough to try and protect it.

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Lesley Whittaker

Mon 30th Jan 2012 22:02

I have read what is being said about poets and their poems. Personnaly I feel there is a great need for poems in this society cos it brings the romance back into peoples lives, but of course not everybody likes poetry! Only today I took some poetry into work to read and there was a work college who was looking for something to read in break time.... I asked her would she like to read my book of poems? (not mine personnaly of course, another poet)The look that she gave me well!! So not everyone apreciates poems, I dont think some folk understand it and find it boring... To me I feel it brings the imagination out of us. A few times ive been asked why dont I get my own book published?, the first thing I said was.... there's loads of poets out there doing that and no one buys! It would be good for students to study poetry for what it portrays in life and about life in general.

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Adele Ward

Mon 30th Jan 2012 21:06

I'm not sure if teachers are afraid to teach poetry but I'd be very surprised if this were true. The English teachers always seem to be good, even if it can be hard to get good teachers in other subjects. Teaching is one of the popular careers for English graduates to go for. They have studied poetry and they have great communications skills, as would be expected of English literature graduates. They usually have a love of their subject so they should be able to communicate enthusiasm.

I wasn't sure how many poems from the anthology they studied. The whole anthology would certainly be far more than the amount we had to study in grammar schools when I was a teenager for the poetry part of our O levels. As I remember we studied four poets and a small selection by each, so sixteen poems must be fairly similar. In my day we studied Keats, D H Lawrence, Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas. No women and no living poets.

My son's class were given a choice to see which part of the anthology they wanted to study. They chose the relationships part, although he wasn't keen as that doesn't really reflect what the poems are like. This section includes Robert Browning's My Last Duchess, which has become one of his favourites, Christina Rossetti, Carol Ann Duffy's 'Valentine' and other wonderful poems.

I think English GCSE teachers would be surprised to hear they're afraid of teaching a subject they've studied and loved for years, and the selection of poems is one I would have liked myself as I really wanted to read women poets and living poets when I was doing GCSE.

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Denis Joe

Mon 30th Jan 2012 20:16

Dave, the distinction between what is art and what is entertainment has become very blurred over the past century. I don't make proscriptions. The problem is that treating poetry, or any art, as entertainment is lazy. It does nothing to engage the audience, in fact it does the opposite. Art does not challenge us simply by its presentation. A work of art will force us to engage with the work, it will tell us about the world and it will force us to understand. In short; it will impel us to actively engage.Entertainment, on the other hand, works to pacify us; helps us to, momentarily, escape the world. I would not like a world where we are forced to treat poetry as engaging, just as I would not like a law that says we cannot use a chair to prop open a door. My problem is not with the audience but with those who purport to be its practitioners, but who seem to view the audience as being incapable of appreciating art on its own terms.

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Dave Bradley

Mon 30th Jan 2012 19:57

Poetry should not be treated as entertainment? No doubt, it can do all that you've said, Denis, in the way of challenging, exploring meaning etc. But should those who use it for entertainment be told to stop? Or told that it isn't poetry at all? Surely not.

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Denis Joe

Mon 30th Jan 2012 18:37

I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised any more that those who are in a leading position of British poetry seem to have the same contempt for it. Fiona Sampson starts out by correctly saying that not everyone can become a poet and then spends the rest of the interview talking complete dross, fashionable dross, but dross nonetheless.

Of course this might also be because of the questioning. Teachers scared to teach poetry? Then they should find another job, because educating children requires that the teacher is the voice of authority and that the role of the teacher is to bring new experiences and ideas to children. If they haven’t experienced poetry and they are supposed to be teaching English Literature then they shouldn’t be teaching. Children may well find thing that they ‘love’, but education should be about the things that are alien to children; things that will challenge and push them on.

There is no basis to the idea that the political and economic fortunes of the world are a determinate in writing good poetry. Like all art poetry is the expression of our humanity. We respond to the world whether things are going well or whether they are not. Right from the time of the Ancients poets, such as Homer, were composing poetry that is still with us to these days, in a world in which Greece was one of the major powers. Unless you view poetry as misanthropic whining, then there is no basis to the claim that “political instability can generate poetry” any more than its opposite premise.

Whilst there is a cathartic element to all the arts, there is something cheap about the manner in which poetry has become a healthcare tool. It has also given a wider and negative image of poetry. Poetry performances these days sometimes make you feel as though you are in some sort of psychiatric therapy ward. The doggerel of the poet laureate’s Guardian pieces or the adolescent whining that one experiences at many readings these days, may well make the author feel good, but it doesn’t make what they are doing, poetry. Like all art, poetry should challenge an audience rather than be something as banal as a coffee break chin-wag. As much as Ms. Sampson might think otherwise, poetry should not be treated as entertainment. Having meaning is not the same as something being relevant to one’s life. Meaning is something that one discovers through interaction, relevance is just a comfort blanket.

I have a high regard for the poetry of Fiona Sampson it is a pity that she seems to have such a low opinion of the art itself.

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Mon 30th Jan 2012 16:48

I think Adele has made some very valid points. With a flexible curriculum comes greater responsibility. Fine if you have brilliant teachers – not so find if you have boring windbags, who neither teach nor inspire. What strikes me from this discussion is that we all have different perspectives based on our own personal experiences at school. At GCSE level, my experiences were great because the teachers majored on aspects of English Language that I enjoyed. Had they concentrated on grammar, writing letters, comprehension, or doing summaries of text, I might not have enjoyed the subject as much. Clearly some kind of balance needs to be achieved and that is what a National Curriculum should try to achieve.

Adele was also right to say that some sweeping generalisations have been made throughout this interview and some follow on comments. I had the perception that no creative writing was done at secondary school. I based this on conversations I’d had, plus the lack of evidence from what my children bring home. I’ve just taken a look at the AQA curriculum. I see that 15% of the final exam is based on a creative writing exam , the other 85% going to : understanding and producing non fiction texts, speaking and listening, understanding spoken and written texts (comprehension?). I personally, would like to see that 15% increased significantly.

As Adele points out, the opportunity to study poetry is included in the GCSE with an impressive anthology that includes both contemporary and classical poetry. I think the problems may stem from the way that poetry is presented to pupils in the classroom – and that may vary depending on which school is attended.
Of the 63 poems in my daughter’s poetry book, the class only read and studied 16 – all the poems relating to relationships.
I think pressure is on teachers to achieve the best marks possible – after all, league tables and reputations depend upon them. To achieve the best results, they cut corners. Any pupil inspired by this one section of poetry though, would have the opportunity to personally read and enjoy the 3 other sections of the book...

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Adele Ward

Mon 30th Jan 2012 14:08

My son was annoyed with me for saying there wasn't creative writing at GCSE level. Apparently they do creative writing - he would just like to do even more of it! And I think he fancied more creative writing exams as they wouldn't need revision.... But they do creative writing after all.

It was so lovely when I told him about the discussion on here as he was just going out the door and smiled to think we were talking about teenagers and their study, while also commenting on the coincidence - he was off to meet his teenage friends in Costa to start on discussions of Romeo and Juliet.

I wish you could all see these very street wise London teenagers at a standard secondary and how they learn poetry, both from the canon and contemporary, and how they love it. Some of them have only learnt to speak English in recent years. Poetry does talk to teenagers and they respond to it.

I'm glad there's a national curriculum. When I was at school so many hours and days were spent listening to teachers rambling on about their own lives, and repeating it all over and over. Teachers can still be creative around the national curriculum, and at least they can't waste children's time rambling on about their own interests and what they think would be best talked about in class.

Jennifer Mathews

Mon 30th Jan 2012 10:35

Brilliant interview--thank you! We've shared it on the Cork Spring Poetry Festival facebook page. People who'll be in Ireland next month should check out Fiona Sampson's reading on Thursday, 16 February at 9pm in Cork (Metropole Hotel, MacCurtain Street). More about the event here:

Kate Fox

Mon 30th Jan 2012 10:11

Fiona Sampson: "Learn the rules, do the hard work".

Rosalind Bentley (journalist): "Reading a Billy Collins poem isn't like stepping into a room where you haven't been invited".

The latter comment was in my Google Alert summary for "Poetry" today-lots of sentences like that come up in the articles on there. The "Shock horror poetry can speak to people after all" trope is probably the most common one in general journalism which covers poetry. I'd be happier to see unapologetic elitism balanced with a recognition that this trope needs more active combatting than "If we build it they will come". They won't you know. There are too many subtle messages that you didn't build it for the likes of them- and Poetry Review sends them frequently. Maybe let it remain unmolested but also have a journal that unapologetically speaks to a more general readership too? It can seem like a room into which few are invited.

The "invitation" bit is missing from most of Fiona's interview- apart from when she speaks eloquently about the power of authentic poetry in healthcare settings. I think the "Disenfranchisement" Anthony writes about is real and strong.

Many of the school poetry projects I've been involved in have provided the invitation by getting students and teachers to write and speak their own poetry alongside their reading of the work of contemporary poets. There are many, many projects still focused on getting poets into schools to work on this. Lots the Poetry Society run, plus the Well Versed project run by various literature development agencies, the Arts Council funded, Apples and Snakes led "Shake The Dust" slam project running across ten regions and many others...not enough, but lots.

At University I read and loved Lawrence and Whitman and Plath. I was a sitting duck for being invited to the contemporary poetry room. But school (canon reading only) hadn't done it, open mic nights in pubs where I wouldn't have gone on my own couldn't do it for me, a London-centric Poetry Society with a journal I'd never encountered couldn't do it- it took poetry coming into a world where I was already active and comfortable (stand up comedy of all things) for me to be pulled in and then reach out. The more worlds poetry is in, then the more it might connect with people and then and only then will they "learn the rules and do the hard work".

(Link here to the Billy Collins interview-it provides a great counterpoint to much of what Fiona says)

steve mellor

Sun 29th Jan 2012 15:07

I'm re-posting a thread from the 'X Factor' discussion, purely because there seems to be an overlap between that Discussion, and this interview, and that I believe that what happens in school at the very earliest age has a massive impact on what follows:-
Picking up on Anthony’s thread, there are several elements that I, in turn, wanted to comment on, or put out for discussion

I ‘volunteer’, with Years 5 and 6, at a local Junior & Infant School, doing 3 half-days a week, so I have just a little (and I mean a little) experience about what happens in the way that children are exposed to poetry. From what I see, the teaching staff are so constricted by the national curriculum that there is only a limited exposure to poetry, and much of that is given over to the comprehension of the work, rather than in the appreciation of the specific poem.

I have the idea that the teachers may like to go off-curriculum, but SATS are always on the horizon, and that seems to control every activity, no matter who might like to think otherwise.

‘My’ school is wonderful. It appears to have limited funds, even for those things which are a must, and finds it difficult to attract funds from parents for extra-curricula activities. Poetry would, I am sure, if voted on, not even register on the clapometer. So, for the last 2 years, I have put together a smallish booklet of my poems (those which couldn’t be taken anywhere close to the wrong way, and hopefully won’t warp the child’s brain), and given the 10 and 11 year old’s (Years 5 & 6) a copy each, for them to take home. The response is, to a simple soul like me, a little overwhelming. I have a few children who approach me and recite the odd, simple, poem to me (something I can’t do, even though I wrote them), and there are several who tell me that they read my poems at home.
I have contact with one child who particularly enjoys poetry, but his parents have told him that he’ll never get anywhere with poetry!

It appears to be difficult to get those in authority (not teachers or Heads) to appreciate that exposure to poetry can allow a child’s mind freedom to think in the abstract, thereby assisting in the more conventional aspects of literacy within the school

So, what is the Poetry Society, or anyone else for that matter, going to do about making poetry available to children and schools.

Any ideas?

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Anthony Emmerson

Sun 29th Jan 2012 12:45

I'm saddened, but not surpised, at the demise of "creative" writing in schools. Creative writing requires creative thinking and imagination, useful assets in many disciplines. Successive governments seem to have done their best to restrict this.

Is this, I wonder, a deliberate attempt to restrict creative thinking and shoehorn all future generations into the one-size-fits-all, 5 GCSEs, 3As and a degree mould required by our corporate masters?

This may sound a little "1984" for some tastes, but just who is calling the shots in contemporary education policy? I suspect it's the same people who call the shots on most other policies of "public" interest . . .

steve mellor

Sun 29th Jan 2012 12:42

There seems to be a slight overlap of info/thoughts being expressed on this section of WOL, and the Discussion 'X Factor'.
Anthony Emerson raised very valid points
I believe that, like most things, the earlier you introduce poetry to children, the better it is

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Greg Freeman

Sun 29th Jan 2012 12:33

Very heartening to hear about the wide spectrum of poetry being studied in schools, Adele. Just don't tell Michael Gove: he'll try to stamp it out.

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Adele Ward

Sun 29th Jan 2012 11:59

OK I'm going to list the poets he had to study to show that it isn't just a few poets and one comparative essay. There is a comparative essay in the GCSE exam by one of the poets from their anthology, to be compared with a poem they haven't seen before.

The anthology includes the canon, and poems from various periods including our own. Here are the poets in the anthology (I think the teachers can focus on various sections of the anthology for the exams):

Carol Ann Duffy,Sophie Hannah, William Shakespeare, Martyn Lowery, Grace Nichols, Fleur Adcock, Elizabeth Jennings, Brian Patten, Robert Browning, Edna St Vincent Millay, Gillian Clarke, Vernon Scannell, Choman Hardi, Tony Harrison, Ian McMillan, John Agard, Daljit Nagra, Ciaran Carson, Ingrid de Kok, Wilfred Owen, Mary Casey,Christina Rossetti, Simon Armitage, John Scott, W H Auden, Alison Fell, Pie Corbett, Mike Hayhoe, Grace Nichols, John Davidson, U A Fanthorpe, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Robert Bridges, Mandy Haggith, Andrew Greig, Sir Walter Raleigh, Carole Satyamurti, Peter Porter, Ella Wheeler Cox, Benjamin Zephaniah, Imtiaz Dharker, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Matthew Sweeney, Simon Rae, Dylan Thomas.

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Adele Ward

Sun 29th Jan 2012 11:45

Isobel has brought out an important point. I think the teaching of literature in secondary schools is excellent, as is the choice of novels and poetry for the national curriculum.

The sad thing is that creative writing is no longer a part of GCSE English for most students. My sons really miss it. They probably write more than we used to when I was at school as they work on so many types of writing for all sorts of projects. But not creative writing of fiction and poetry.

The children who have difficulties with English do get the chance to work on creative writing, as if it's the easier option and will help them learn the language. But creative writing could be an important part of encouraging enthusiasm for literature.

On the other hand, they do far more writing - journalistic writing, blog writing, project writing.... I think given the choice between my schooling and theirs I'd have no hesitation in choosing the way they study now.

Children have never written and read so much. Just because it's often on a screen doesn't demean it. They have access to far more research. From what I can see, the expectations at secondary school are much higher than they were at my very good grammar school.

Children's vocabularies are larger due to this. I hope the present government doesn't damage education, and I'm pleased my sons went through schools as they are now.

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Adele Ward

Sun 29th Jan 2012 11:38

As my children have been through primary school and are now doing GCSE at secondary school I'm very aware at the moment of the types of poetry taught. They are taught both the canon and contemporary poetry.

It's really not the case that poetry from the canon is harder for the teachers. In many ways that part of the course was easier than contemporary poetry. I watched my sons working on Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Teaching about rhythm, metre and poetic form gave all the children something they could understand and write about. They also really enjoyed the poems and going deeper than the analysis of form.

They do study use of language in metaphor and far more - in fact they came up with some descriptions of the use of language I hadn't come across and I have two postgraduate degrees in literature and creative writing.

When you think that theirs was a 'failing' secondary school the year before my older son went, and the new head teacher has turned it around, you'll understand that this is just the normal GSCE curriculum.

The contemporary poetry was much harder for them, and harder to teach. I did go through it with them but it was tricky. It wasn't just harder to help analyse the form and the use of language, but the meaning wasn't something they could identify with. This makes the choice of poems very important.

If you go into W H Smith and find the GCSE study books for the poetry module you can see the good mixture of poems they study.

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Sat 28th Jan 2012 17:30

I guess there is a bit of a lottery goes on as to where we all go to school at any particular time. I went to a secondary modern but was blessed with the most wonderful english teachers. I can remember writing short plays and staging them for parents' evenings. Drama, poetry and creative writing were right up there - with the occasional nod to other aspects of english language.

My comments are based on those experiences compared to what I see my children do now. Yes, the G.C.S.E has one section, in which a small selection of poetry is studied and compared/contrasted for the exam.

I asked about creative writing at parents' evening. The english teacher told me that much less was done at secondary level now. Perhaps it's a question of the national curriculum being much tighter - teachers having less freedom to teach what they like?

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Julian (Admin)

Sat 28th Jan 2012 16:49

I find it heartening to see what poetry students are learning in school. We did about four poems in our Eng. Lit classes, just reading them with no discussion except notes as dictated by our bored teacher. Never any creative writing, except 'essays'or 'stories', usually judged by number of words and spelling accuracy. The nearest we got to creativity was in our excuse notes for missing P.E., the best being one poor soul in our class who brought a note from his mum saying he had forgotten his kit.
I spent most of my final year at school playing truant and spending time in the library, reading for pleasure.
On which note, how many of our fellow open-mic poets read published poetry, or buy it? Perhaps not enough?

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Adele Ward

Sat 28th Jan 2012 13:42

I do wonder sometimes if people look at the poetry teenagers are studying before they make comments to criticise schools, or if there's a bit of an urban myth going on. My teenage sons are in the middle of doing GCSE English and as part of it are studying poetry, both by living poets and by poets from the past. As it's my own interest I sit with them to help with revision. They're at a secondary school (Hendon School) full of children from all sorts of backgrounds. I'm impressed by the poetry they study and the way they're studying it. They find it a difficult subject but get together in Costa and work together on it, or discuss it with each other on Skype. As I have sons, I'm talking about teenage boys (who are often described as not reading) and the group includes teenagers from North London council estates - which is irrelevant but I know some people will answer that I'm probably talking about middle class privileged kids with litarary parents like me. We stereotype teenagers and I feel the things said about schools and the curriculum aren't really accurate. They built a whole set of large index cards with their thoughts and analyses on each poem, and this is one set of revision cards they treasure enough to have kept safely for future use. I didn't initiate any of this - it's how they were doing it under the guidance of their teacher.

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Sun 22nd Jan 2012 10:41

I suppose it is easy to take certain comments in the interview out of context and assume a certain bias that may not be there.

Re Fiona's belief that children in school should be taught the canon - I don't think she is suggesting that contemporary poetry shouldn't also be looked at. Just that amazing poetry, that has stood the test of time, should be recognised for what it is. Hopefully some of our contemporary poetry will stand that test of time also.

It must be much harder for teachers to teach classical poetry though, because language skills are not what they were. In fact, I think they may be in rapid decline - though some on here would just see that as 'development' ;) The majority of kids have far too many other distractions to sit down reading for pleasure. You need a love of language before you can start to appreciate creative writing or classical poetry - it also helps to have an imagination. The way many children play and develop that imagination is changing. I won't bang on about it any longer - I'm sure it's a pretty obvious fact. I think teachers have to respond to this - by and large they are teaching to the majority, not the elite few, the gifted and talented - who were probably nothing extraordinary in a different generation.

John - I realise that you can't teach people to write poetry - to some degree it is an instinctive thing. You can introduce them to it in though, inspire them to have a go, find new and more exciting ways of presenting it....

Jon Stone

Sat 21st Jan 2012 22:59

Good interview with lots of points to pick up on. I have trouble reconciling this -

"Poems should be experiential. Young people do not have to be educated to the music they love - choosing it is tribal, part of their self-definition. For the few teenagers who do find poetry for themselves, it may be equally part of the self, but this happens much less often."

- with this:

"I do believe that in schools everyone should be taught the canon. It is not elitist to teach that certain writers can be thought of as amazing - to present that as a fact."

My experience of the kind of person who is usually sweepingly dismissive of contemporary poetry is that they're someone who was taught the canon, who was taught the 'fact' that a particular group of writers are amazing. Poetry doesn't seem to form part of their 'self' in the way Sampson talks of teenagers discovering music; instead, they understand it as a system of specific techniques that modern writers have abandoned. Something has gone wrong when the equation in their minds seems to be: "Wordsworth is a great poet + Wordsworth rhymes = great poetry must rhyme."

Surely we can teach poetry not apologetically, not coyly, but still leave children room to discover their real value themselves, rather than prescribing what is 'amazing'?

Rob A Mackenzie

Sat 21st Jan 2012 20:47

Isobel, yes, I wasn't meaning to be narrow in a conception of poetry. John Burnside's poetry clearly has an introspective side to it, but touches on significant themes that go beyond himself. The same, in very different ways, with Alice Oswald or Mark Ford. Comic poetry, at its best, riffs on important things (just as the best comedy tends to do). I think no poet can escape a moral role though. If you are human, who you are and what you do and say (or don't do or say) has moral implications. Poets are no different, even if they would like to be.

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Dave Bradley

Sat 21st Jan 2012 20:35

What a fascinating thread. I agree with what Izz says about variety and choice, and also most of what Fiona says. I would want to qualify her view that poetry is mostly a matter of sound, music and rhythm and is an 'out loud' form. That is probably true of the great majority of what most people receive as the best poetry. But all sorts of things are put into all sorts of words and have the label 'poetry' attached to them, and if someone else receives it as such and likes it, then who are we to gainsay them? A friend doing a philosophy masters degree insisted we couldn't, at any rate, and was persuasive.

Eliza's article (for which many thanks Rob) is very moving. All Europe should be aware of Lampedusa. I've been a trustee of Asylum Link Merseyside for 9 years and help in an English class every week. The class has had a Libyan and a Tunisian recently. In class, we never ask people how they came to the UK, leaving that to the caseworkers, but I will certainly look at them differently next week.

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Sat 21st Jan 2012 19:59

That is a very moving article Rob and an interesting angle you've chosen to consider. More reading might lead to a greater connection with humanity, the bigger picture - a move away from introspection - which many poets are accused of.

Personally, I don't think anyone can say what poets should and shouldn't write about or whether they should or shouldn't have a moral role. Variety is the spice of life. I love to be moved by poetry - I like poetry that looks beyond the self - but if every poem I read was of the same ilk, I would tire of it. I also like the light hearted, the comic, and yes the cathartic - if it is written well and not overly self indulgent.

Most people could do with reading more. If you want to write to a particular form, you can't go wrong by studying that form - and the masters of that form - otherwise it's too easy to get it wrong.

Rob A Mackenzie

Sat 21st Jan 2012 19:24

Interesting interview and comments. I was especially interested in what Fiona says on voice and music. People are often advised to "find their voice" but that can often be very limiting. Once you've think you've found the voice, it's too easy just to stick with it. That might explain why some people seem to write the same kind of poem over and over again.

I agree that music is vital and that it's not just about rhyme or meter, but the phrase "a kind of grammatical logic" doesn't exactly capture it either! I wish she had expanded on what she menat by that. On the other hand, it's maybe impossible to deal with a subject as big as this in a blog interview.

On the question of westernisation, I'm sure that we do have less ability to concentrate and to go deep these days. On the other hand, it does provide an opportunity for poets, something to react to or (sometimes) to react against. I was thinking about this when reading the fantastic article in this month's 'Poetry' magazine by Eliza Griswold - Towards the end, she writes, "I think of what Wallace Stevens says in 'The Necessary Angel'. A poet has no moral role. A poet has to use imagination to press back against the violence of reality. I don’t agree. He also wrote that reality was growing more insistent, more violent. I agree with that." She's talking about more sinister moral and physical violence than generally exists in popular UK culture, of course, but the question of a poet's moral role can no longer be brushed aside by poets.

As for the small amount of readers compared to the large amount of writers, I guess it has been so for a very long time. I do wish people would read more. It's vital to support magazines, poets and publishers as well as to pick up ideas and techniques for one's own work.

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Sat 21st Jan 2012 18:12

Anthony - I do love your presence on WOL - you make me laugh. I think you could take Jeremy Paxman on when it comes to grasping the nettle...

I love your question though! Maybe we should politicise the Poetry Society - get it to demonstrate and lobby.

Suggested slogans for the placards:-



You'd have to swell the ranks of the poetry society to get it to work though. Maybe having no fees to join might help. Or help for those on benefit/tax credits...

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Frances Spurrier

Sat 21st Jan 2012 16:03

Thanks for your comments everyone and an interesting discussion following.

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Anthony Emmerson

Sat 21st Jan 2012 15:40

Interesting interview, and critical (rightly so) on several areas. The question I would like to have asked is:

"What, are both Poetry Review and The Poetry Society doing in order to involve those aspects of society who feel disenfranchised by poetry?

From what I've read of Poetry Review it is hardly an "all embracing" publication, and I hazard a guess that its contents would do little to inspire those on the outside.

The Poetry Society? Grand name which reeks of authority - but whose Poetry Society? It certainly doesn't seem as if it's for all poets; maybe just those who've "made it."


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Sat 21st Jan 2012 14:11

Sadly no - creative writing is taking a back seat even in primary school - from my experience anyway - and I am a teaching assistant....

I think I was very fortunate in the period I went to school. Drama - ad lib drama - was very much flavour of the day with young forward thinking teachers. I just loved it. I was actually shy by nature, but could lose myself on a stage - be anyone I wanted to be. I'm not much different now :)

Charlotte, I'd agree that writing any type of formally structured poety is a useful exercise in discipline. It's just that often the essence of the form is lost, by poets just looking at a syllable count. Often the essence of what the poet is trying to say is also lost - wrapped in chains that shouldn't be there. It obviously depends on the poet and the poem. Some do everything brilliantly.

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Charlotte Henson

Sat 21st Jan 2012 13:18

@Isobel, it's funny, 'cause my strongest memories of creative writing in schools was in primary schools. i used to love it. i had it in my head that this level of education would still have the highest level of encouragement to participate in creative writing but i guess not anymore. i find that pretty sad.

i did more about persuasive texts in secondary, and now i'm in college we do a nice variety.

i like the haiku as a form. it forces you to think in a disciplined way about the words you use.

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Fri 20th Jan 2012 23:58

I enjoyed reading this - great questions and interesting responses - particularly relating to poetry in schools.

I currently work in a primary school and have children at all levels in the education system. What strikes me now is the fact that creative writing ceases after primary level - and even there it is much reduced, from what I remember when I was at school. There is much more emphasis now on 'persuasive writing', and writing to inform; writing leaflets, instructions etc. Believe me, it is the most tedious exercise imaginable writing out instructions on how to get ready for P.E....

How can we expect our children to engage with poetry when they are not having a go for themselves - experiencing first hand the fun that can be had with language?

On that score, I'd agree also in the dumbing down of society - I don't reckon a TV and playstation in every bedroom helps much! I've even heard that the abbreviation gr8 is acceptable in certain english exams, where spelling isn't deemed important.

I would agree about Haiku also. Most english examples of it are pretty poor - just carving up of syllables really.

Not sure I completely agree with the response to page/performance poetry. Clearly, all poetry can be performed, just as all poetry can be read. Certain types of poetry work better on page than stage though and visa versa.

Think that's me done. Great interview - I enjoyed.

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