An unapology for poetry in school

Written by: Kathy James | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Poetry in schools can open the door to so many other areas of learning and skills. It can be the springboard to other literature and texts, more articulate and confident students, and can engage students like no other medium. Kathy James offers some ideas...

There is too much fuss about poetry being difficult and irrelevant, when in fact it is the stuff of everyday life. It is there in our song lyrics, birthday cards and read at most weddings and funerals – and so it is no surprise that it delivers good things in the classroom.

Poetry offers food for thought, and lays down a real challenge to young people when trying to express their readings and reactions.

Wales still includes spoken communication in its GCSE English language, and while moderating a discussion – The School Curriculum: Education for Life or Exam Factory? – we were interested to hear a year 11 lad (articulate, but much much more likely to be found chatting Chelsea than Shelley) say that studying poetry had stretched his spoken skills, and got him “talking about complicated ideas”.

TS Eliot said that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”, and as we have all had learners say to us “I know what I mean, miss, but I don’t know how to say it”, poetry and explorative talk are a productive pair. A new poem taps nicely into inference skills and requires nuanced adjectives.

Poems are generally short, which means that they are easy to incorporate into reading diets – a kind of linguistic, thematic superfood – and can be a springboard into non-fiction texts, expository writing and unexpected avenues. Novels do this too, but not as nimbly.

All English teachers will have their age-appropriate favourites but the scope is endless. Take Human Interest (Carol Ann Duffy) or Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover and you will quickly generate serious talk and writing about relationships.

At a faster lick than I was expecting, Tennyson’s Charge of The Light Brigade has led to a study of war reporting and Crimean military history. With year 7, we have looked at bits of Chaucer as a route into English’s roots and etymology, via some ribald medieval practices.

In Wales, the current literature GCSE introduces learners to a range of Anglo-Welsh poetry but – to repeat – poems are short, so you can offer that most valued classroom commodity: choice. In my department, we often set up a poetry speed-dating lesson to match learner with the right poems.

The Anglo-Welsh focus puts learners in touch with heritage writers, old and new: from Dylan Thomas to Owen Sheers. Everyone knows The War Poets, but writer Alun Lewis – neglected by the canon, but killed in action – often touches a chord with young Welsh learners. Lewis writes less about doomed youth and crazy generals, and more about the simple tragedy of being ripped away from the person you love.

And of course, poetry is all about the right word, or in the more memorable one-liner by Wilde: “A poet can survive everything but a misprint.”

The specificity and compression of meaning in poetry leads learners to dictionaries and in these days of vocabulary under siege, that has got be good (constructive, beneficial, propitious...).

As I work in a Welsh-medium school, with learners who are at the very least bilingual, we are about to run a plurilingual workshop, where learners will read and write poetry in English, Welsh and modern foreign languages. Our session will be led by distinguished poet, translator and linguist Mererid Hopwood, who feels that “working cross-lingually broadens horizons, and builds empathy as well as creativity”.

The learners have asked for poems on environmental themes and one student is digging about for poets who use multiple languages in their writing.

There are also newer and digitally enhanced reasons to use poetry in today’s classroom. The rise of Instapoetry is a trend covered in unlikely places (i-d, Vogue and even stylist.com, if you please), and an actual source of income for online poets like Rupi Kaur.

I have used Instapoems at A level, for contemporary poetry which “is becoming more democratic ... there are a wider range of voices and subjects out there than ‘Autumn’ which reminds me of my own death and everyone else’s”, according to poet Hera Lindsay Bird. This “wider range of content” includes some pretty direct writing about sexuality, gender and cultural identity, so selection is crucial. But extracts from Bird’s Monica give a lead into rhythm, form and tone, and a fresh poetic subject:

Monica
Monica
Monica
Monica
Monica Geller from popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S
Was the favourite character of the Uber driver
Who drove me home the other day
And is the main reason for this poem
Because I remember thinking Monica???

It is also fun to ask learners to write about sitcoms, celebs and anyone else they fancy, once the notion of conventional poetic themes has been loosened. More broadly – and sorry if this makes any Instapoets cross – you can invite them to critique this “democratic” use of the form. Is Instapoetry as good as the stuff Faber and Faber gives us? When does it become a few words in fancy font?

My sixth-formers had thoughtful things to say about whether Thom Young’s experiment with Instapoetry (PBS, 2017) is snobby or enabling, and how his Insta-pieces (see below) compare with his conventionally published work, Gills.

Whatever you make of “love made her wild” – one of Young’s Insta-pieces (see PBS, 2017 – link below) – there is a resonance in the way words and an arresting form play together, which gives poetry Insta-appeal.

“Poetry might be the perfect literature form for the smartphone,” says BookRiot (see below). Surely, text and image is the basis for great commercial advertising too, so Instapoetry builds life skills, and is not just for garrets; there are obvious opportunities for learners to blend their English and graphics work.

A lot of the above focuses on reading and thinking about poetry, but there are so many ways to promote the enjoyment of poetry. A list is always useful, so:

  • Try out a poetry app. There is a nice collection of links here on the Teacher Bootcamp website (http://bit.ly/2JsRlVX) and in this round-up from BookRiot (http://bit.ly/30uc54S).
  • From watching Kate Tempest, to running a recitation event, speaking poetry develops great skills. Poetry by Heart is a video-based competition with linked resources. The American version Poetry Out Loud has advice on organising your own event, and has lots of ways into poems: www.poetryoutloud.org/teaching-resources/lesson-plans
  • Poets deserve an audience and a spotlight. In Wales, we are lucky to have a national anthem which specifically mentions poets, and an annual cultural festival (The Eisteddfod) which puts poets centre-stage, literally. Use your school Eisteddfod to celebrate talent. If you do not live in Wales, you can still encourage entries to...
  • ...other competitions. There are too many to choose from on https://ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk/poetry-opportunities
  • However, if you can only manage one, go for the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, which is the biggest competition run for young people by The Poetry Society, and really well supported: https://foyleyoungpoets.org/


Kathy James is assistant headteacher and head of English at Ysgol Plasmawr in Cardiff.

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