In an attempt to make up for lost classroom time, there is talk in the UK of dropping the poetry element of English Literature in next year’s GCSE exams. Who knows, trigonometry may be next for the chop. The school curriculum has no shortage of subjects that can seem pointless to a 14 year old.
If something really has to be sacrificed, then the laboured analysis of poems may be fair game. But please, not the exposure to them, not the recitation and memorisation of them. Poetry reaches the parts other literary forms do not. How poets create their poems is a thing of enviable mystery to me. I can knock out a haiku and given enough time I can manage a clerihew. But a poem that goes beautifully and economically to the heart of something? Not a chance.
I don’t recall what poems I was required to study back in 1962. Some of them may be poems I can now, just about, recite by heart. It was much later though, in my 50s, when I caught the poetry bug. My husband was the carrier. Each month my challenge was to learn a new poem or a speech from Shakespeare. I retain remnants of them. I can usually start, but quite often I can’t finish. Some of them I refreshed in more recent times, to recite to Howard and try to reach him after he lost the power of speech, and it was one of his favourite Christina Rossetti poems that I chose to read at his graveside.
I don’t analyse poems, so I’d probably score an F if I had to take an exam, nor do I seek them out. Somehow they arrive in my life. If they speak to me, I keep them. If not, not. So far this year (and it’s only August) I’ve discovered three widely published American poets whose names had been unknown to me: Ron Padgett; Paige Riehl; Faith Shearin. I point you gently in their direction and offer you a sample of each. Poetry is a matter of taste. There will be no examination.
Don’t dismiss trigonometry, by the way. One day you may need to calculate how to fell a tree without demolishing your neighbour’s house. Just saying.