Re-introducing Poetry in Higher Education

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My earliest memory of creative writing is that it was a punishment for forgetting my P.E. kit. As I watched the other children playing outside on the field, I was perplexed at how the task I had been given – writing a short story – was supposed to encourage me to participate the following week. On the contrary, I found the solitude of the empty classroom exhilarating, along with the exploration of my imagination and interior world. 

Formative experience of creative writing can have a significant effect upon us. We can either be inspired or deterred. Usually, and sadly, it’s the latter. Especially for children from economically-deprived backgrounds, poetry is a subject that tends to occur on the English literature syllabus. If it does appear, then children will most likely be given a recognised poet to study. The perception which often forms is that poetry is something other people do, those with talent. Likewise, if the poetry is from the past or makes reference to another place, the pupil can easily begin to assume that the discipline is particularly arcane or inaccessible. One entry point for the written or spoken word will more likely be song lyrics: this was certainly the case for me as I made my way through adolescence and began to develop an interest in the verse-chorus-verse structure and the ballad form. Without seeing words written down in this way, written by musicians I could identify with, I doubt that I could have segued into the discipline of poetry.

Now, in my teaching capacity at the Open University, I am often tasked with helping students to feel they can both analyse poems and write their own. This involves many difficult challenges. As a result of the childhood experiences I have referred to, social or cultural influences, students are often troubled or even terrified at the prospect of engaging with poetry, whether it’s reading it or (worse) having a go at writing something of their own and engaging with feedback:

In terms of dealing with prejudices and preconceptions, and developing confidence about poetry, I would certainly recommend the Open University as an excellent environment. Level 1 modules are designed to accommodate and nurture a diverse range of students, especially those who have been out of education for a while and always wanted to write. Poetry is included on the modules I teach (AA100 and A105), and creative writing can be pursued at Level 2 (such as A215). Once the myths about poetry have been deconstructed (such as the idea that it can only be written by a particularly skilled or technically accomplished individual, or that it’s highbrow and more difficult than other subjects), students tend to feel more enabled and begin to see poetry as a place of fun, experiment, playfulness, and revision. Contemporary examples can also be introduced, which can (as alluded to earlier) help students to find the subject more relatable:

The Open University is one place among many where this kind of re-introduction can occur. For young and disadvantaged people to express themselves through words is particularly important, I think. It can have incredibly beneficial therapeutic effects and give a voice to political discontent. I want to see a world where poetry is a viable area of study and vocation, and where it can again be an option, even after the negative connotations it can acquire through the national curriculum or peer pressure. It’s never too late to re-engage, celebrate language, and see that the margins can be brought to the centre. 


◄ Mappa Mundi Poetica

Collected Poems: Ken Smith, Bloodaxe ►


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M.C. Newberry

Tue 6th Nov 2018 16:35

I was interested in the author's mention of lyric writing
connecting to the "discipline" of poetry. Those familiar
with the former in the hands of practitioners like Hart, Porter, Harburg, Hammerstein and Lerner will realise that
it is an art form in its own right, requiring as much
discipline as any poetry. In fact, Alan Jay Lerner, whose
mastery is never better experienced than in his work for
"My Fair Lady", could take weeks to decide on a single line
to meet his satisfaction whereas late poetry often seems
to have been dashed off to "impress", neglecting efficiency
and economy in the effective use of language to achieve
a lasting grateful memory in the minds of recipients.
JF Keane's comments about the poets of the past and the
lessons they represent are valuable, and whilst poetry
has the luxury of "testing the water", it should never lose
sight of what value these lessons hold if the medium is to continue to mean anything of lasting worth to succeeding generations.

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John F Keane

Tue 6th Nov 2018 12:48

There is some validity to this perspective but think about it: do students proceed in maths, science or engineering by making their own way without reference to the accreted genius of the ages? If they did, half the population would be buried under rubble. The classical techniques of poetry have the same value they always did. Shakespeare's great soliloquies work because he was acquainted with these techniques (metre, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, etc.) and knew when and where to deploy them to achieve sublime effects.

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Julian (Admin)

Tue 6th Nov 2018 12:12

And not just in HE, perhaps?

This article serves as encouragement to us all to keep writing, Patrick. Your most important point, for me, is "The perception... is that poetry is something other people do, those with talent".

Indeed so. We all have talent of some sort, but self-confidence or personal circumstances oft preclude our using it. The current plethora of possibilities that now exists for all to have a go at writing poetry and share it with others is helping overcome such barriers, and enabling the less-confident to drop that prefix.

As you go on to suggest, we can be forgiven for thinking that those arcane references are added to identify the poet to as a member of some elite class known as "poet", a kind of poetry freemasonry closed to the rest of us.

McGough, Henri and Patten helped change all that with the publication of their seminal 1967 anthology, The Mersey Sound, praised for its “accessibility, relevance and lack of pretension”, republished by Penguin in time for the 50th anniversary celebration at the Liverpool Playhouse as reviewed on Write Out Loud:

And people who have started their poetry 'career' nervously reading out their words for the first time at one of the abundant open mic nights are finding their way onto degree and MA creative writing courses. People like Stockport Write Out Loud’s Linda Cosgriff, here telling us about enjoying her MA, and having a drink with Carol Ann Duffy:

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