Poetry is important to me. As a writer, as a teacher, as a reader and listener. Life can be framed by the mundane or can be wonderfully exhibited before you in language shaped and crafted into meanings both intended and consequential.
Poetry is a mindset. You can look out the window and see the sea or you can watch the swarming waters clamber back and forth in the tempest of their endlessly repetitive march.
Our understanding of the world is still just the best version of the story that we know. If we start to limit the ways we can express that story and our ideas then we limit ourselves.
To all of the “why not just say it as it is” crowd – well in my opinion because a poem is often a better way to get across a concept than a piece of prose. Brooke’s ‘Peace’ tells us more about the naivety at the start of the war than a World of War documentary can. They are Brooke’s words- shaped and crafted to express the meanings and the truths of his time.
It’s my favourite part of the year when we get to the poetry units. In particular I love teaching contemporary British poets to KS3 and giving them the tools to start to unpick the world of popular culture around them. The most moving pieces of writing I have read from pupils came as a reaction by “bottom-set-white-working-class-boys” (or whatever the pseudo-scientists are labelling them now) to Simon Rae’s “Ballad of Hillsborough”.
I love the indignation pupils have as we unpick Benjamin Zephaniah’s “What Stephen Lawrence has taught us” or their confusion at the stupidy of racial slurs in John Agard’s “Half Caste”.
When it comes to KS4 an in-depth understanding of the Enlightenment and the Romantics is essential for all – not just those who intend to pursue English at a higher level. These are the ideas our society is based upon. These were the ideas that created America, these were the ideas that forged the modern British soul. They are not high brow – not the preserves of the elites – they are our words and frame our meanings.
Teaching poetry is teaching truths and can be a much more valid way to develop critical analysis than looking at extract after extract. It’s hard not to analyse and evaluate meanings in poetry!
Examples of work by Year 9 pupils on the Romantics can be seen here – highlighting that nothing is too challenging.
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