Nostalgia or factual analysis?

22 Mar

There is no doubt whatsoever that Patrick Buckridge is suffering from galloping nostalgia, even if in defence of a good cause, when he goes in to bat for poetry on ABC: Poetry: better than texting!

It’s a strange thing, but in the current enthusiasm for creative writing courses in Australian universities, poetry – the oldest of the literary art forms – has been left out in the cold.

In Brisbane, for example, Griffith, UQ and QUT all teach full Creative Writing programs, but I’ve heard of only one poetry-composition course (irregularly offered by the Brisbane poet Ross Clarke at QUT.)

Maybe it’s to do with the market: new poetry books certainly don’t sell like fiction or media scripts. Maybe it’s because so little poetry is read in high schools these days. Or maybe it’s because poetry doesn’t look like it would train business students in ‘effective writing’, in the way prose is conveniently supposed to do.

Whatever the reason, it’s a great pity, because reading, studying and writing poetry is easily the best way of learning to take pleasure in language…

The virtual absence of poetry from school curricula is a particular worry, because it deprives children of the opportunity to experience the simplest and most basic pleasures that poetry has to offer, namely those of rhythm and rhyme.

This loss has been happening gradually for decades, though it may have accelerated in the last 10 years, as critical literacy has tightened its deadly grip on the English curriculum.

When I was at primary school in the 1950s we didn’t actually do anything much with poetry in the classroom – literal comprehension, rather than active appreciation – but the mere fact that certain poems were still there in the old school readers, archaic vestiges of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, meant that all you needed was one encouraging parent, friend or teacher, if that, to be able to experience the magic of the (abridged) Ancient Mariner, the delightful absurdity of John Gilpin’s ride, the breathless excitement of bringing the good news from Ghent to Aix, or the luxuriance of Kendall’s ‘channels of coolness’.

All of these have stayed with me not because they were ‘good stories’ (and certainly not because they seemed ‘relevant’ to anything in my life – though I suppose ‘Bellbirds’ may have seemed relevant to the heat of a Brisbane classroom), but because they were poems…

Fifty years ago there were no university courses in the writing of poetry, none whatsoever. What we had instead was, in the main, “new criticism”, with an emphasis on close textual analysis which, when translated badly into the classroom, could lead to poeticide. Judith Wright at one point famously denied permission for her poems to be studied for the HSC on the grounds that this was not what poetry was for.

I can only say that one of the things I may have done well over my forty plus years teaching English in Australia is the teaching of poetry, and I certainly wasn’t alone. Most English teachers I have known have had a deep, if varyingly well-informed, love of poetry, which is perfectly compatible with an interest in “critical literacy” (aka “bullshit detection”). Quite often I encouraged the reading of poems simply for pleasure, though the “rigorous” among the powers that be also demanded certain hoops to jump through for exam purposes, so I also did my best to enable such jumping. But again and again I told my student that no poet in his or her right mind wrote poems in order to have students write critical responses, of whatever persuasion, in exams.

The greatest thrills of my later years have been ex-students who tell me that I kindled in them a love of poetry. A few in fact have testified to that on this blog! And as for encouraging writing the stuff, I certainly have paid my dues: that links to one direct outcome of my activity as a teacher of poetry.

As for “not taught in high school”: how come 8,323 hits so far on my post on English/ESL on Australian poet Peter Skrzynecki? That is the most hits for any post on any of my blogs. Search English/ESL for even more.

Oh, and I never abridged “The Ancient Mariner” — even when teaching it in junior secondary classes.

Related: The HSC English moanings of Miranda… (July 2007). On Floating Life Sans Words today: Gustave Doré’s “Ancient Mariner” illustrations.

Site Meter


2 responses to “Nostalgia or factual analysis?

  1. Jim Belshaw

    March 22, 2008 at 11:21 am

    You make your point very well, Neil. As a matter of interest, my Judith Wright pages are all relatively high hits pages.

  2. ninglun

    March 22, 2008 at 11:35 am

    Yes, and my various Oz Poetry entries always attract quite a few hits as well.

%d bloggers like this: