Make poetry a friend not a foe

June 7, 2002

Poetry has fallen victim to a culture that dismisses anything 'difficult' as elitist. But students should delight in the difficult - it can be exciting, argues Ruth Padel.

"We are not interested," said the public schoolboy reading his essay on the language of a Greek poet, "in Simonides' feelings about hinges." He was coasting. He had probably written it the hour before, had mistranslated a word (shields, not hinges), and missed the point of the genre. Simonides was not voicing personal feeling. His poem was an epitaph in the voice of a dead soldier. Given the privileged tuition and time (not to speak of money) that had gone into his knowledge of Greek, my student should have known better.

It is 25 years since that tutorial but his combatively arrogant approach has stayed with me and sums up what I think most closes students' minds to poetry, in whatever language. Simonides' father, as it happens, was supposedly once asked by two boys how they could make their friendship last. "By making allowance for one another's dispositions," he said, "instead of rousing each other's anger by a challenge of spirit."

For me, that is the best approach to a poem too - to make friends with it and help students to do so. Not, like my student, to assume that your relation with it is a duel, and anything you don't initially understand is boring and wrong. Instead, one should "make allowance for the poem's disposition", however alien, and be open to everything the words are doing with each other: how sounds resonate against each other, how words' resonances enliven each other.

My daughter, who is taking GCSEs, has very few friends who have read a 19th-century novel. "In 19th-century prose, we can get away with - I mean, we tend to do - short stories rather than novels," explained one teacher. "A novel takes a whole term because they find it difficult, but it only gets 15 marks." Schoolteachers seem forced by the syllabus to accept society's assumption that difference is difficult, therefore boring and elitist, while similarity of experience is the easy, therefore right, choice to offer. This attitude sometimes continues to A levels. I once asked an A-level student on a week-long poetry course what else she read besides poetry and suggested she would love Tess of the d'Urbervilles . "You can't expect her to be interested in female experience from such a different age," her English teacher said protectively.

The teaching I now do is writing, not reading, poems - but in society I see poetry pulled in diverging directions. Many people write poems without reading other people's, which seems insane. Would you buy bread from a baker who never ate other people's bread? To write in a voice responsive to the age you live in, you have to know what good contemporary poetry is doing.

Meanwhile, some academic critics studying and teaching the structure, historical context and background biography of poems, seem to have lost touch with poems written now. And the attention that the media (except radio) pays to poetry is becoming ever-more superficial. In response to my "Sunday Poem" column in The Independent on Sunday , hundreds of letters testified to a widespread hunger for poetry. These people wanted a depth of reading attention the media does not usually offer.

People have a right to poetry; to be shown how to be open to it and make it their own. Modernism upset relations between the poem and the reader: and since then British readers have gradually lost confidence in their ability to understand poetry written in their time. From the academic side, critical theories that emerged while I was doing a PhD and teaching - structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalytic theory - were passionately exciting and informative, but for some critics and students they became a weapon to "apply" to a poem, rather than doors to open into its understanding.

Just as modernism was wonderful for poetry - opening things up, blowing constrictions away - so theory was wonderful for criticism. It, too, opened up and blew away old assumptions. But in modernism, the combination of a newly vernacular voice and exotically erudite allusions, by both Eliot and Pound, cost modern poetry many readers too. It could (like critical theory) seem bossy, show-off, obscurantist: everything that goes into the catch-all accusation, elitist. Accusations of elitism seem to me a way of closing off to what you do not know by saying it is the wrong thing to know. Most good poets writing now are the opposite of elitist. Like top athletes they are elitist in the sense that they strive for the best. They love the best poetry, write the best they can. What they are doing is difficult. But they do not want their poems to be "difficult". They want them to be as alert and fun for the reader as modern film. Part of the delight in going to a film is working out what its language of gesture and light implies. Today's students have learnt film syntax from TV, and they develop sophistication in it all the time. Today's poets offer the same delight in subtlety and implication but students do not have the same confidence in responding to it. They do not feel in the same way that is it theirs to start with. Inspiring schoolteachers help students to develop that confidence.

At Islington Sixth Form College recently I was thrilled to meet AS-level students from deprived homes in love with Chaucer and Tennessee Williams. Their teacher was teaching ways of loving writing: of trusting, rather than fighting, an initially alien text. It is up to universities to develop that love, as well as critical skills. Well-grounded, objective criticism and analysis are essential but must be complemented by passion: by delight in learning from what is new so that strangeness, difference, anything you do not at first understand or find "difficult", becomes exciting, taking the student on a journey of understanding and revelation that will stay with her, or him, for ever.

Ruth Padel's 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem or How Reading Modern Poetry can Change Your Life is published this week by Chatto and Windus, £12.99.

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