The lines of beauty

As an essential curricular element, poetry is on the critical list, but Greg Garrard has a plan to make students adore it

April 9, 2009

Works of art are sometimes unjustly forgotten, but no work of art is unjustly remembered." Auden's line may once have been a handy rule of thumb, but he reckoned without the AQA, the board responsible for 42 per cent of English literature A levels. There can be only two excuses for requiring anyone to study the drab, whining, incompetent poetry of Anne Bronte: utter lack of critical discrimination or overactive feminist historicism. It is not enough that poetry be interesting in some anthropological sense, or merely express strong emotions. Unless we are deliberately choosing bad poems to foster discrimination, every poem we teach must be superb. It's not as if there's a shortage.

Poetry itself is not in decline, as the rude health of creative writing demonstrates; rather, it is that fewer and fewer people read it. As Richard Miller observed at the most recent English Subject Centre conference, in about two decades there will be more authors of poems than readers of them, which in most cases will be an unalloyed blessing. Despite the efforts of their teachers, who know different, creative-writing students seem to think that reading other people's work will cramp their own style. Poetry as budget therapy will thrive, but as a serious verbal art it will die.

Despite their dependable attraction to short texts, English Lit undergraduates shy away from poetry, so thoroughly has the school system poisoned them against it: skimpy anthologies laden with token minorities and the inevitable Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, silent unseen exams, test-and-table fever, and teachers petrified of poetry make sure of that. The resilient few cite an inspiring teacher who provoked an answering passion in them. The rest are, as a recent Ofsted report pointed out, given barely adequate tuition.

I am not suggesting that, as in Matthew Arnold's view, poetry alone can save civilisation: I am merely expressing regret that most students read so few poems altogether during their literary education. Assuming that the total may number only a few score, we surely cannot afford to indulge what Arnold called the "historic estimate": choices motivated more by scholarly considerations than by true prowess.

It is no good whingeing from the sidelines, and I imagine that the AQA headquarters is secured from rash assault. The awful proliferation of exams and league tables may at last be in reverse, and it may not be too late to put the Brontes back in the grave where, as poets, all bar Emily belong. Historicist, formalist and ideological lecturers alike must teach students to adore poetry: to communicate in inspirational terms the view of one colleague that John Donne is the "Elizabethan love god", and the evidence of another from Sylvia Plath's manuscripts that she wrought her devastating poems with a concentrated intelligence belied by overemphasis on her interesting death. The lure of the archive, for those who feel it, and even the fascinations of ideological aporia must take second place to the pedagogical necessity for unequivocally brilliant poetry and nothing but.

The present downward spiral must be addressed on several fronts, some of them outwith universities. Our contribution is to ensure that far fewer graduates emerge blinking into the spotlight of teacher training untutored in poetry. I propose a two-pronged approach: one embarrassingly old fashioned and the other so novel it doesn't yet exist.

For the first, students should be made to memorise, recite and discuss a poem or two at some stage. After all, most of them know dozens or hundreds of songs, weaving them into their emotional lives. Only by learning an excellent poem by heart can one deeply know its generative rhythms and verbal texture.

The second is an imaginary web application that will integrate existing poetic analysis tools with a slick interface to transform the teaching and learning of poetry. The program would visualise any selected poem through a palimpsest of readings, each provisionally independent of the others: metrical, rhetorical, phonemic and so on. Students will be able to see the poem as a "system of systems", as Yuri Tynyanov had it.

'Tis not too late to seek a better world of poetry teaching. Who's with me?

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