At the chalkface: Poetry

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

Is Billie Holiday less good than Emily Dickinson? Eh? Is Lightnin’ Hopkins as good as Gerard Manly Hopkins? A close call, but all meaningless comparisons.

My favourite part of teaching English was poetry – writing, learning and studying it. The pupils seemed to prefer it too. Even Dave Mania left school knowing bits of Macbeth by heart, which would serve him well in later life.

“Blood will have blood,” became a tattoo.

We did all kinds, high or low, rarefied or populist, Sappho or Beyoncé. We all knew the difference – which is why we can do without the latest smug musings in the august poetry journal PN Review from Rebecca Watts. She savages young female poets, like Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur – all rather popular with our sixth forms.

She accuses their work of being, among other things, amateur, dumbed down, consumer-driven, and replete with lazy thinking, easy feeling and cheap sentiment.

Moreover, they are mere performance poets who are insufficiently difficult, complex, nuanced or too accessible. Cor lummy! That’s telling them.

I rather like them. They’re good lyric poets. That’s the form they mostly use. Doesn’t Rebecca Watts see this? And haven’t we been here before? She sounds very like my crusty, old grammar school teachers pronouncing my own teenage maunderings “woeful”.

I was 15 and very much in the tradition of the sensitive Chatterton.

Isn’t this the old high and low art chestnut? Is Bob Dylan as good Keats? Of course not, he calls himself “a song and dance man”.

Is Billie Holiday less good than Emily Dickinson? Eh? Is Lightnin’ Hopkins as good as Gerard Manly Hopkins? A close call, but all meaningless comparisons. They are using different forms. Tennyson isn’t Hip Hop. Leading poet Don Paterson concurs. “It’s like saying TS Eliot was a terrible hip-hop artist. True, but so what?”

Mind you, old Tom was a pretty good rapper.

“Twit twit twit jug jug jug jug jug jug.”

Look, pupils like “accessibility”, especially the lyric. Too often they experience inaccessible poetry and have to subject it to desiccated analysis. No wonder they get turned off. And “bad” poetry – we can all recognise it – sometimes turns pupils on, even a meretricious pop song. They will eventually learn to discriminate. There is only good and bad poetry. I think these poets are often more than good. These poems explore hitherto unexplored territory, often the lost and disenfranchised and female voice.

Right now there might just be an urgent need for this.

I hope Rebecca Watts doesn’t diss the fabulous Liz Berry. Check out the delightful Patron Saint of Schoolgirls, a lovely, nuanced, difficult, complex and accessible poem, which your pupils will really like: “Wherever girls’ voices are lost, I am.”

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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