I have been thinking for some time now about poetry and the way it is generally taught in schools. Like many school students I used to find poetry baffling and boring, I used to sit with my pen poised waiting to be told what notes to write in the margins, waiting to be told what kind of emotion the poem was suposed to evoke in me and what the poet’s real intention was in writing it. Then I’d close the book having garnered just enough information to pass the exam question once it came.
One day I was asked to read a poem out loud. It was a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called Felix Randal. I had hardly read two lines of it when the teacher looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you read it as if you are reading a book. Read it as you would if I asked you to read out a paragraph from a novel.’ So, I started over again. And it worked. It is a beautiful poem and I was able to make sense of it myself, merely by reading it in a normal way. Not chanting. Not line by line. But sentence by sentence, as I would read a story. This one simple thing changed the way I looked at poetry.
I now read poems for the beauty of them. For the simple and the difficult things they talk to me about. For the ways in which they makes me laugh or think. For the way they make me picture things, places and people. I do not dissect them, or interrogate them line by line. I do not want to. If they make me think of something that at first reading is not obvious, then that’s wonderful. If they don’t, they don’t. I read them as I would read little stories. Some are good. Some are downright awful.
I like the fact that poetry is included in the teaching of English, as it is one of the form of expression of the language, but do not like the way it is taught. And yes, I know there are exceptions. But, generally the teaching of poetry to secondary school students serves only to ensure that they will not, of their own volition, go looking for poems to read. Why would they? Their image of poetry is still of that page in their prescribed poetry book where every bit of white space has been filled with scribbles, explanations and notes. Where words have been highlighted, sentences underlined. That is not what a poetry book should look like.
Anyway here are some poems that I love (I was going to put in others … but got distracted by Edward Lear’s limericks and I find them and his drawings irresistible, so here are a couple.)
There was a Young Lady of Turkey,
Who wept when the weather was murky;
When the day turned out fine,
She ceased to repine,
That capricious Young Lady of Turkey
There was an Old Man of Cape Horn,
Who wished he had never been born;
So he sat on a chair,
Till he died of despair,
That dolorous Man of Cape Horn.
There was an Old Person of Burton,
Whose answers were rather uncertain;
When they said, ‘How d’ye do?’
He replied, ‘Who are you?’
That distressing Old Person of Burton