In defence of GCSE poetry
Friday, 19 July 2024 21:45

In defence of GCSE poetry

Published in Education

Razia Parveen criticises the government's decision to make poetry optional for study at GCSE level. The image above is of John Agard

The Tory government has recently announced that poetry will be optional for the 2021 GCSE exams. This retrograde decision will undoubtedly deprive thousands of children of the opportunity of learning about other cultures beyond Boris Johnson’s Little England. There is something particularly offensive about a largely white, privately educated group of privileged politicians deciding to obstruct access to the highest levels of literature to huge numbers of BAME working-class pupils in state schools.

On the current list is a diverse body of writers, both traditional English writers as well as contemporary poets that cover topics such as the Holocaust, diasporic identity, child poverty and Japanese fighters during WW2. Teenagers in their formative years are introduced to a multifaceted range of writers for the first time. For many students this will be their first encounter with a writer of colour or non-English writer. For instance, the haunting message of  Vultures by African writer Chinua Achebe provides an invaluable lesson on the consequences of racism:

indeed how love in other
ways so particular
will pick a corner
in that charnel-house
tidy it and coil up there, perhaps
even fall asleep - her face
turned to the wall!

...Thus the Commandant at Belsen
Camp going home for
the day with fumes of
human roast clinging
rebelliously to his hairy
nostrils will stop
at the wayside sweet-shop
and pick up a chocolate

for his tender offspring
waiting at home for Daddy's

Praise bounteous
providence if you will
that grants even an ogre
a tiny glow-worm
tenderness encapsulated
in icy caverns of a cruel
heart or else despair
for in the very germ
of that kindred love is
lodged the perpetuity
of evil.

Classroom discussion which begins with an analysis of the poem leads to a discussion of the wider aspects of humanity, including the timeless contest between the powerful and the powerless, and the necessity to fight the scourge of fascism wherever it appears.

We, as teachers, can broaden the students’ learning experience by taking them to locations such as the Holocaust Beth Shalom Centre in Newark. The student feedback when I took a group there a few years was hugely satisfying with comments such as “the poem has come to life”, “I really understand it now” and “I didn’t know poetry could be this important”. By taking poetry off the table we are surely doing this generation of children a massive dis-service. This pandemic has already taken so much from us, and we must not let it take swathes of our cultural heritage as well.

For many years now, Ofqual has rightly facilitated the expansion of children’s minds through the poetry of Shelley, Browning, Eliot, Dharkar, Bhatt and many others. We have canonical works sitting beside contemporary poems by writers of colour, and children are shown the beauty of language through the medium of GCSE textual analysis. Many of these children have continued to study English Literature at university and then onto a lifetime of appreciation and love for the written word. A number of them, no doubt, go on to be teachers of poetry themselves and, thereby, the torch of learning is passed down through generations.

The importance of poetry in these difficult times is impossible to exaggerate. The popularity of reading poetry has surged during lockdown, due to the ability of carefully crafted verse to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness. Many are convinced that reading poems in times of crisis has a cathartic power as it promotes some peace of mind in a world that seems to be out of control.

For instance, William Blake in London speaks of child poverty occurring in English society during the Victorian era but this is a poem that also tragically resonates in the Britain of 2020:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

This poem explores themes of both yesteryear but also tells of the current crisis of child poverty and can facilitate important conversations about the impact of austerity in the 21st century. Many schoolchildren in the education system are living the reality of deprivation both at home and at school, so it becomes a poem that they can relate to, unfortunately. This poem is familiar to students of GCSE English and can therefore become an extremely powerful tool to generate discussions that go beyond the narrow focus of passing exams.

Anti-racist poetry

Making poetry optional now also takes away the prospect of many children going to the theatre for the first time. Many contemporary poets are happy to read their poems on a stage for GCSE students. Trips to the theatre organised and led by English teachers are now in danger of becoming a thing of the past. Many children, for example, listen to John Agard’s voice and hear the anti-racist poem Half-Caste come to life and sit in awe as he performs his work:

Excuse me
Standing on one leg
I'm half-caste

Explain yuself
Wha yu mean
When yu say half-caste

Yu mean when picasso
Mix red an green
Is a half-caste canvas?

Explain yuself
Wha yu mean
When yu say half-caste?

Yu mean tchaikovsky

An when moon begin to glow
I half-caste human being
Cast half-a-shadow

But yu come back tomorrow
Wid de whole of yu eye
An de whole of yu ear
And de whole of yu mind

An I will tell yu
De other half
Of my story

This poem is best appreciated when read out aloud and to have the author in person read his own words to an enthralled audience is an unmissable experience. I recall taking a group of mainly black working-class boys to see John Agard perform his poetry at the theatre in Leeds. For this cohort of children it was the first trip to the theatre, as this is a pastime they would normally associate with the more privileged.

It was the first time that these boys heard someone reflect their own sense of community identity and belonging through the power of the spoken word. This experience was crucial to their own sense of identity and connects to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has provided a moment of hope in these dark times.

We also experienced Carol Ann Duffy reading In Mrs Tilscher’s Class and the vividness of the classroom situation swirling around the children’s eyes as they sat enraptured:

You could travel up the Blue Nile
with your finger, tracing the route
while Mrs Tilscher chanted the scenery.
Tana. Ethiopia. Khartoum. Aswân.
That for an hour, then a skittle of milk
and the chalky Pyramids rubbed into dust.
A window opened with a long pole.
The laugh of a bell swung by a running child.

This was better than home. Enthralling books.
The classroom glowed like a sweet shop.
Sugar paper. Coloured shapes. Brady and Hindley
faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.
Mrs Tilscher loved you. Some mornings, you found
she’d left a good gold star by your name.

The scent of a pencil slowly, carefully, shaved.
A xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form.

You ran through the gates, impatient to be grown,
as the sky split open into a thunderstorm.

These experiences can stay with a child far beyond the examination period and allow them to question the world around them, potentially for a lifetime. These school-based excursions become memories firmly embedded in a generation of children. By taking poetry away from them, Ofqual has not only become the bogeyman of poetry but also the snatcher of memories.