Great Britain

Poetry saved me. Don’t deny it to next generation, pleads award-winner

I was a bit of a troublemaker in secondary school. I got sent to “time out” for busying myself with trying to make my peers laugh. I got detention for skipping homework, and extra homework for skipping detention – basically any kind of soft rebellion you can think of, I gave it a go. Like many kids, I found formal education at times exhausting, uninspiring, and an interruption of more important things like who fancied whom.

Although I was in the top set for many subjects, there were only a few classes that I felt genuine curiosity for, one of them being English literature. There were fewer absolutes. It felt like one of the only spaces in education where what I thought seemed to matter.

Yet in recent years, it has felt as though anything linked to creative or critical thinking has been stripped to the bare minimum. Last year art was excluded from the new English baccalaureate; this year poetry has been dropped – English-exam regulator Ofqual announced last week that 2021’s GCSE English literature students will be given the option to drop poetry completely due to “difficulties for students in trying to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely”. Many see the move as damaging to young people who, should they choose to opt out, may never get the opportunity to fall in love with verse.

Not every student will like poetry, but those who do are enchanted by its rhythm, humour and the politics held within. It examines experiences that are otherwise left unexplored by the rest of the curriculum, namely identity. Reading Half Caste by Afro-Guyanese poet John Agard was one of the first times I remember encountering Caribbean patois in a classroom. The poem sounded like a conversation I might overhear on the streets of my neighbourhood. While I enjoyed reading Macbeth, Of Mice and Men and other classic texts, poetry was the part of English literature that spoke directly to me and made me want to write.

In 2014 my old secondary school, now known as Leeds City Academy, announced that it would be teaching English as a foreign language, as more than three-quarters of pupils were not native English speakers. When I was there in the early 2000s, I remember it as a melting pot of voices, accents and languages. The poem Search For My Tongue by Sujata Bhatt explored bilingualism in a way that I know resonated with the students from Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Sudan and elsewhere. The loaded, almost gruesome imagery used in the poem – And if you lived in a place you had to/ speak a foreign tongue/ your mother tongue would rot/ rot and die in your mouth/ until you had to spit it out – always stayed with me and occasionally crosses my mind when I think about migration and assimilation.

Perhaps the most profound thing about the poems we memorised at school is how they have stayed tethered to us – how a line can resurface years later. I fear young people of today will not experience the way poetry teaches you how to savour, observe, ponder, extract meaning.

Indian-born Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has gained a large young fan base through sharing her poems on social media platforms.
Indian-born Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has gained a large young fan base through sharing her poems on social media platforms. Photograph: Laura Aziz

I studied for my GCSEs in the social media-lessness of 2006; but in the 14 years since then, there have been several poets who have used online platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram to share their work and gain massive young fan bases – for example, poets Rupi Kaur and Nayyirah Waheed, whose popularity has shown that teenagers are not only interested in, but also buyers of, the genre. In 2019, poetry sales soared, thanks to millennials.

To put poetry on the side-table so early in a young person’s life is to uninvite a whole generation to a movement that is speaking up for them. Poetry has long been a vessel to engage with politics, humanity and philosophy; luckily for me, I could engage with poetry through spoken-word events, but it would be a shame if a pupil’s only experience of poetry was outside the classroom – or worse, not at all.

If there were ever efforts to decolonise literature, and make it more accessible to people who don’t resemble William Wordsworth, this new move by Ofqual undoes this labour. If we tell students the arts aren’t at the core of education, we are sending the message that their future lies in pursuing other things – especially those who come from less privileged backgrounds. Uptake in English literature was down from 41,000 to 37,500 in 2018-2019.

The next Carol Ann Duffy or Benjamin Zephaniah may go undiscovered because of these reforms. They may have lyricism and imagery to give to the world, but will never know because they chose to study a 19th-century novel instead. A school barren of creative subjects leaves no space for free thinking. Whether painting a canvas, or writing a haiku, students deserve to be challenged in ways that go beyond equations and formulas.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that 15- to 16-year-olds would struggle to get grips with complex literary texts remotely, when they are a generation who have spent most of their lives on the internet. If we can’t trust our governing bodies, I hope we can trust our young people to see the value in poetry. I hope they decide to enrich their lives by feasting on Simon Armitage and Daljit Nagra and John Keats and Grace Nichols, because I don’t know where I’d be without poetry. Perhaps still in detention.

Kadish Morris is a winner of the 2020 Eric Gregory award for poetry

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