In this guest blog post, Neil Bowen, Head of English at Wells Cathedral School in the UK, ponders the role of modern poetry in education
During my degree course, 25 years ago, the gamut of English Literature ran all the way back to Anglo-Saxon texts, such as Beowulf, and all the way up to about 1950. Literature, it appeared, stopped someplace shortly after WWII. About the most modern poets we studied were T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and perhaps a little Larkin.
During my teaching career many A-level exam specifications have featured post 1950 literary texts, especially modern novels and to a lesser extent plays. Occasionally one of the big hitters from the world of poetry sneaks on to a specification, a Heaney, or a Hughes or perhaps some Plath. But it is only recently, as far as I am aware, that exam boards have started to include anthologies of modern poetry on specifications. In particular, a couple of years back Edexcel exam board made the bold decision to feature a published anthology of modern poetry, Forward’s Poems of the Decade: An Anthology of the Forward Books of Poetry on their new English Literature specification. Less radically perhaps, but still to their credit AQA also have an anthology of modern poems on their A syllabus, although in their case this is a selection of poems AQA have made.
In AQA’s case, teachers choose whether to study a collection poems from a Pre-1900 or from a Post-1900 anthology. Though I’ve completed no thorough research on this, it seems that the Pre-1900 is by far and away the more popular choice. Why is this? Because the Pre-1900 poems are better, more varied, span a wider range of periods and cultures, styles and forms? Perhaps. But my guess would be that teachers (and students) also feel less confident tackling modern poetry, especially when there are no critical resources to fall back to check their interpretations against. Just as my own degree prepared me exceptionally well for reading Romantic poetry, but offered thin preparation for reading the modern stuff, my guess is that’s still the case for many English teachers. We simply have more expertise on the older Literature and are, therefore, more confident and comfortable teaching it. And, if we don’t fully understand a poem we can research its critical reception and get our heads round it that way.
The tremendous success and popularity of Edexcel’s Poems of the Decade might, however, make us reconsider the potential benefits of studying modern poetry during a two year A-level. Ideally, during the course, students should study a broad range of texts, from different periods and genres, cultures and styles. At my school we always try to provide as much variety by choosing the oldest and newest texts available, such as Chaucer and a modern novel, but also by selecting comedies as well as tragedies and texts written by men and by women, and so forth. For texts from the established canon students habitually read background and criticism. It is one of the great advances since I studied A-level that as well as establishing an understanding of the play itself, nowadays students also develop a critical appreciation of how a play such as Hamlet has been read and re-read over time. An inevitable corollary of this, however, is that students know they are joining the back of a very long line of other readers and writers on canonical texts. Hence, it’s hard to find anything that hasn’t been said before. At its worst, this can lead to the feeling that students earn marks simply for re-hashing what other people have written.
In my experience, and I expect of that of many of my colleagues, there’s also another downside to the rich range of critical resources available on almost every canonical text. There’s a temptation to reach for these resources too soon, as a crutch to reading. In this way, sometimes students’ engagement with textual complexity is curtailed and the result is they don’t develop their own critical reading of a text – instead substituting a critic’s views for their own. And I have taught many able students who have felt anxious if there was a lack of critical support material available for a text we’ve chosen to study.
It might sound tough, but, in my opinion, students should come across texts on their course that require them to develop their own readings without the support of other readers. This is the sort of experience that, in the end, will make them the kind of independent thinkers who will thrive at A-level and beyond. And, developing this independence through the small, concentrated scale of a collection of modern poems seems the ideal way in.
And there’s a more positive way of putting the case. A modern text floats free of critical baggage in a way a canonical text does not. This means more time can be devoted to actually studying the texts themselves, developing close reading skills and so forth (like in the old days). The first readers of modern texts are also in the business of shaping the critical reception of these texts – they are at the very front of the critical queue. Reading a modern text can be liberating and exhilarating. Lastly, in my experience, students often find it difficult to think of a poem as a constructed piece of art. Instead, they tend to view them as monumental museum pieces. Reading a modern poem about issues in the modern world helps to break down those perceptions and make it easier to explore the artistic decisions the writer did and didn’t make.
That’s the theory and it’s all very well. But what if the poems just aren’t any good? Fortunately, both Edexcel’s selection from Forward’s Poems of the Decade and AQA’s Love Through The Ages, Post 1900 selection are excellent. Both feature some real poetic humdingers. Personal favourites from the former include John Burnside’s philosophical ruminations in ‘History’, Sinéad Morrissey’s wonderful, tender villanelle, ‘Genetics’, Tim Turnball’s revved-up ‘Ode to a Grayson Perry Urn’, Vicki Feaver’s unsettling ‘The Gun’ and, of course, Ian Duhig’s fantastical and mysterious ‘The Lammas Hireling’. Even that brief survey indicates the extraordinary rich variety of voices, styles and subjects that are packed into the collection, from poems on identity and family, on love to ones about technology and immigration. Together the poems form a complex picture of the world around us and invite us as readers to engage with key issues in our world.
AQA’s selection is as rich and illuminating. This features poems by big-hitting masters of the art, such as Robert Frost, Philip Larkin, Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney (Heaney’s stark poem ‘Punishment’ is surely one of the most powerful set at A-level) as well as perhaps less familiar work by poets such as Anne Sexton. As well as serious, issue-based poems, there are beautifully tender ones, such as those by Wendy Cope and Tony Harrison. And if you don’t know the work of Paul Muldoon, a poet reputedly able to rhyme ‘cat’ with ‘dog’, here’s an excellent chance to get acquainted.
Reading, teaching, studying modern poetry is a challenge. An exciting challenge. Teaching poetry this new is refreshing and exciting, the sort of journey of discovery we want all texts to be for our students. And in learning something new ourselves as teachers we model the approach we wish our students to take to their learning. And, if we feel the need for a safety net or a sounding board, fortunately some of our colleagues have begun the process by developing rich critical resources on both the Edexcel and AQA poems.
An experienced Head of English, Neil Bowen has worked in both state and independent schools. He has a degree in English Literature from Bristol Uni. and a Masters In Literature & Education from Cambridge Uni. As well as writing books, he has delivered CPD for organisations such as OCR and The Training Partnership. This summer he will be running a session on teaching poetry for Inspire SW. He’s also a member of Ofqual’s Experts panel for English. Realising there is a gap between A-level and University study of English he started the peripeteia project about 5 years ago. Aiming to bridge this gap peripeteia is a not-for-profit project promoting discussion of literary issues among students from different institutions and teachers and academics.