Poetry for pleasure

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"Most people ignore most poetry because poetry ignores most people," said the late, great Adrian Mitchell. Well, not quite.

Absolutely. They commission things. They seem to consult. Then issue policy documents about teaching poetry in primary school. They have not been listening at all. It’s the usual faux consultation with consequent bossy edicts from the Gove. Pupils must learn poetry by heart. There must be compulsory recitations of prescribed verse – a lot of that dead white men heritage stuff, I shouldn’t wonder. Tots elocuting Tennyson. The Lady of Shallot. That area. So it’s yet again about obedience and control. Poetry once again becomes almost punitive, just like it was in my school days.

I can still recall failing to recite The Owl and the Pussycat in primary school. I just kept looking at my Start-rites and blushing, while Miss Nutcase kept prodding me with a stick. It was no better at the Royal Grammar. I had to stand up in grey flannel shorts and attempt a recitation of some Longfellow, while my philistine chums fell off their chairs, as I slowly conked out. Nor did it stop in the 6th form. I had to recite from the French Classic Tragedian Racine’s Andromaque – Hermione’s interminable dying speech after having been stabbed in the breast. “More passion!” yelled Chunk Jones, my very disturbed teacher, as more chums fell smirking off chairs. I got a detention, in which I had to learn it properly. It put me off anything French and passionate for life. Poetry as punishment again. 

There’s nothing wrong with learning poetry. It’s a hugely good thing, but it must be voluntary. Most children actually like most poetry. It’s hard work turning them off it. They listen to it on the Underground, buses, streets – and your lessons. All kinds of stuff at often plane crash volume. They can get intense pleasure from Shakespeare. I still remember Little K’s Richard the Third rap. “Performance art, sir!” Indeed. He wouldn’t stop. I had to keep shutting him up, during the National Curriculum. 

My favourite teacher, the legendary “Min” Hills, got it right. The great sage suggested we might do a lot worse than learn the Tomorrow speech in Macbeth. Its dark nihilism might offer consolations for later life. We did. It does. I recite it while enduring things like root canal surgery, an England penalty shoot out, management blue-sky thinking – or any politician telling us how to teach poetry.


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