Poetry is not just "something for clever dicks and posers"
The British government plans on rolling out a new curriculum and, as might be expected, some parties are up in arms over the proposed changes and what those changes imply. One involves requiring school children to memorize and recite poetry by heart. Simon Armitage weighs in on the merits and drawbacks of memorization by reflecting on his own school days:
Where I found refuge in poetry, and thought of it as an alternative to the mainstream, many of my former classmates felt either humbled or humiliated by it, and came to view it as something for clever dicks and posers. It's for those reasons that I'm nervous about the noises currently being made by the Department for Education about returning to "traditional values" in schools – values which would see children as young as five being expected to learn and recite poetry "by heart". My concerns are mainly about labelling poetry as something solid, traditional and worthy, something belonging to the establishment, a yardstick against which most people won't measure up.
I'm also worried that by poetry, what the government might really mean is "poetry", or POETRY – that is, grist for the spoken English competition, in which students at my school were expected to stand on a stage and chew their way through The Lady of Shalott in a feigned and foreign RP accent.
If those are the values being pursued, and if in Michael Gove's master plan English literature is actually a byword for Englishness, or learning "by heart" might actually mean learning by rote, then I'd prefer poetry to have no part in it.
Armitage goes on to say that there are real benefits to memorizing verse, but it has to be done in a way that connects with and speaks to the lives of students:
If, on the other hand, children are allowed to find the poems that fit their voices or appeal to their imaginations and their cultural inclinations, then I'm on board. It's a well-established fact that poems learned at an early stage in the form of nursery rhymes stay with us for life, and that people suffering with Alzheimer's and other forms of memory loss, who struggle in later life to remember their address or the names of their children, can often recite nursery rhymes without any difficulty. The brain is always keen to seize on pattern and structure, and the growing brain seems to instil poetry at its core.
The mind too, as it expands, needs forms of language that go beyond the rational and the prosaic, and which mirror our fragmented, highly metaphorical and moment-to-moment perception of life itself. My granddad could recite huge chunks of Shakespeare, to the point where he seemed to have a quote for every given situation. He'd worked in the mill, as a hospital porter and as a fireman, and was virtually self-taught in terms of literature. Sure, the quoting was something of a party piece, but I also felt that he was processing or validating his own life experiences, not to mention sharing those experiences with the planet's greatest ever wordsmith.
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