Re-introducing Poetry in Higher Education
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.