A Defence of the Dispensable

Michael Brown

One might assume that poetry is quite capable of fighting its own battles these days. That in 2021 the muse no longer requires me or any other embittered, self-righteous hack to weigh in on its behalf and protect its dark art from permanently being consigned to a state of utter oblivion or irrelevance which it has periodically threatened to inhabit.

No need for such a grandiose, Shelleyan intervention, then?   After all, this most democratic of arts is now more widespread and more prevalent in English universities – notwithstanding Geoffrey Hill’s implied criticism of MA programmes – than it has ever been (Flood).  All you need is a pen, a Zoom platform and you’re half way to an ISBN.

And yet a defence, it seems, is necessary after all.

Following the 2020 closures of schools as part of lockdown, ‘significant concern[s]’ were expressed by teachers as to the lack of available classroom time to complete the teaching of all components of the English Literature curriculum for the 2021 cohort of children (‘Coronavirus’). The Government’s belated response was to offer schools optional routes through the labyrinthine curriculum so that pupils would no longer be assessed on poetry if the teacher deemed it too time-consuming.  Shakespeare, sacred national institution, remained compulsory of course, but poetry along with its bloody-minded refusal to conform to the margins of a page was relegated to “an option”.

Having spent 30 years teaching English Literature in a secondary classroom, I have seen first-hand how the fear of poetry’s complexity can affect teachers’ strategies to engage young people with a poem that is nuanced or ambiguous.  Ever conscious of senior management and the drive for results, many alter their teaching methods to become overly didactic so that phrases such as “the poem’s meaning is…” or “this is an example of persona voice” are stated as gospel platitudes and submissively scribbled down by students who have been denied the opportunity to explore and investigate the subtleties of language for themselves. We’ve done that one. There is usually another one to do next lesson.  Poetry has been devalued by being regarded as something merely to be “got through”, a body of liquid knowledge that has to be poured into receptive empty vessels.  A bit irksome and onerous but something to be finished on time. Like adolescence.

It has become a one-way process.  But poems ‘do things to us as well as say things to us’ (Eagleton 90). We have lost sight of the distinction.  Impact is every bit as important, if not more so, than a poem’s supposed single empirical meaning and the cold interpretation of words.  Shelley said that ‘poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world; and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar’ (681).

What poetry needs, then, is a defence of its possibility to take young, embryonic minds out of their known selves, their natures and put them ‘in the place of another’ (Shelley 682). A poem read well has the potential to ‘penetrate far beneath the intellect, infiltrating the visceral depths of the body and its secret psychical domains’ (Eagleton 92).

In a society where teenage depression and anxiety is said to be increasing at an alarming rate even before the national lockdown (83% of teachers reported rising cases of self-harm and anxiety amongst pupils) and where some charitable mental health services say they have seen a 70% rise in demand over the past three months post-covid (Weale; Savage), there has never been a more relevant time to bang the drum for this ancient mode of language.  We live in times of accentuated uncertainty (this has particularly affected young people – if not through hospitalisation – at a stage when many are only just beginning to discover who and what they might actually become). The trusted structures of time and habit have had to change.  We have all had to adapt.  A lot has been put on hold.  Losing certainties at such a young age, however, can have a profound effect on self-esteem and relationships.  Not being able to look ahead with much clarity of vision or a degree of conviction for the next few weeks, let alone years, has meant many cannot imagine their next steps into adulthood, a future career path, or, indeed, when or whether they are going to university as they had originally planned.

What poetry needs is youthful readers; young readers need poetry.  Poetry rarely offers up glib, easy answers to life’s complexities and as such it is in step with the uncertainties young people are facing now more than ever. As the poet Anthony Anaxagorou puts it: ‘Poetry shouldn’t be regarded as a response to memory … [it is able to] get into the spaces other modes of language can’t’ (qtd. in Wills and Shearing). The rise of spoken word artists such as Kate Tempest and Holly McNish has highlighted the relevance of poetry to the young through powerful live performances that resonate as “gigs”. In addition, the fast-paced, quick interactions of social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube, used by a majority of teenagers, appear to be conducive to the brevity of what we used to call the lyric poem.

This is not all. Poetry must be defended for the diversity of voice it brings to audiences and readers.  Poems such as ‘Checkin’ Out Me History’ by John Agard or Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘Tissue’ (both included in AQA’s most recent syllabus) ask more questions than they provide answers for and each poem gives a marginalised voice a platform at the centre of a stage.  Poetry has a unique ability to showcase a range of voices from outside the immediate spectrum of a reader’s peer group.

Are we really saying that such encounters are dispensable?

It is quite possibly because it does not always provide such simple answers that poetry is sometimes marginalised either by Government or teachers or both.  But the classroom needs to keep step with what is happening outside of its four walls.  Kate Ariel and Deborah Alma’s anthology for the NHS, These are The Hands, based on Michael Rosen’s tribute poem, is another example of poetry’s responsiveness and engagement with recent events.  Poetry is a form of song that can deal more spontaneously with unexpected and transient trauma so it seems counter intuitive not to foster its practice in schools.

To mangle Adrian Mitchell’s reductive and oft-deployed soundbite:  Most people [have] ignore[d] most poetry because most poetry explores most people. And, indeed, people are complex, multi-faceted creatures.  They don’t fit so easily into an answer book.

Despite society’s efforts to contain, trivialise or prescribe its boundaries, poetry seeps through the cracks anyway and gets to some of us; it is our collective effort to dissect, analyse, consider or even imagine the ‘circumscribed … internal world’ (Shelley 696) by entering the territory of another creature through the portal of this poetry bug that has been resistant to all known viruses for millennia.

Our world has become a whirling diamond of consumable stimuli from 24 hour rolling news, the post-truth Twitter outrages of an hour: what’s trending?  Poetry, in its own inimitable way, is still trending and it, too, has become just such a commodity; but it is, as it always was, a kind of beautiful antidote to loneliness, depression, anxiety and trauma, though you wouldn’t know it unless you knew where to look and some of our youngest, most creative and troubled minds might need a bit of help in finding it.

Works Cited

‘Coronavirus: GCSE students allowed to drop poetry in 2021 exams’. BBC,  4 Aug 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-53645824. Accessed 14.05.2021.

Eagleton, Terry. How to Read a Poem. Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Flood, Alison. ‘Carol Ann Duffy is “wrong” about poetry, says Geoffrey Hill’. Guardian, 31 Jan 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/31/carol-ann-duffy-oxford-professory-poetry. Accessed 14.05.2021.

Savage, Michael. ‘Doctors fear new child mental health crisis in UK, made worse by Covid’. Guardian, 27 Feb 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/27/doctors-fear-new-child-mental-health-crisis-in-uk-made-worse-by-covid. Accessed 14.05.2021.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. ‘A Defence of Poetry’. The Major Works, ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill. Oxford UP, 2003, pp. 674-701.

Weale, Sally. ‘Mental health of pupils is at “crisis point”, teachers warn’. Guardian, 17 Apr 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/apr/17/mental-health-young-people-england-crisis-point-teacher-school-leader-survey. Accessed 14.05.2021.

Wills, Ella, and Shearing, Hazel. ‘GCSEs: Here’s why you shouldn’t give up on poetry’. BBC, 4 Aug 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53648412. Accessed 14.05.2021.

Michael Brown is a retired English teacher. He taught students English for 30 years. Michael’s work has been published widely in magazines including The Rialto, Southword, The North, Finished Creatures and others. He was selected by Clare Pollard for a Northern Writers’ Award (New North Poets) in 2017. His pamphlets, Undersong (2014) and Locations for a Soul (2016) are available from Eyewear Publishing and Templar respectively. His first collection, Where Grown Men Go, was published by Salt in Autumn 2019. He will begin a research degree in Poetry at Newcastle University in 2021 where he completed an MA in 2007.