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Rhyme of the Times: state of poetry in schools

Poetry is not dying with a ‘dying fall’ as the poet TS Elliot might have said, and as Edinburgh academics certainly say, even though it’s been downgraded to ‘optional’ in parts of GCSE exams.

Studying a poetry collection, an anthology, will no longer be compulsory in English Literature GCSE exams this year after OFQA, the exam authority, and AQA, the leading exam board, changed the rules. So what does this demotion say about the state and status of poetry in our society today? 

Dr Alan Gillis, an Edinburgh University lecturer and poet, says poetry is no more on the ropes now than it ever was.

“There’s never been a good time for poetry really. It occupies a strange ground where it is sort of central to ideas of culture and it’s all really massively marginalised at almost every level and it doesn’t have the infrastructure and the cultural backing that its reputation would suggest it has. So anything that’s happening in schools is a tiny part of a bigger cultural picture.”

Image: Dr Alan Gillis via Jude Holden

Under the new rules, GCSE students have to do a compulsory Shakespeare paper and then choose two out of three other topics, one of which is a poetry collection.  If they don’t choose the anthology, the only poetry element in their exam is a compulsory analysis of a previously unseen poem.

But Dr Gillis is not phased by this. In fact, he is positive about the state of poetry in secondary schools.

“One reason why I’m not doomy and gloomy about what I know of poetry in schools is that a few years ago I was the judge for a high-school poetry competition.” He read hundreds and says that they were all of an “extremely high level” and from “the diversity and the enthusiasm, just the sheer energy one got from reading it” he concludes that “there’s no crisis here, there’s no problem.”

The head of Dr Gillis’ English department at Edinburgh, Professor Alex Thomson, agrees with that analysis. “People have been saying that poetry is in decline for hundreds of years [but] poetry is actually doing quite healthily at the moment. There’s a lot of interest from young people in poetry in ways which there weren’t before and that a lot of people have rediscovered their love of reading poetry given that it’s the year in which we’ve not had much to do in the outside world.”

For Thompson, poetry is very much an art form for the 21st Century. “Poetry must be much more accessible now than it ever has been given that anyone with an internet connection or a smartphone can access a lot of poetry very, very easily.”

Both men see the status of poetry rising in the digital world. Dr Gillis says that’s not even something for the future – it’s here now.  

“Newspapers, magazines, journals have almost been wiped out by and replaced by digital media. Fifteen years ago, it was already being colonized by the digital world so it’s not something that’s happening it’s something that’s here and now and still evolving, there’s no question about that. I think that books still have a place but of course any good publishers are also publishing an e-copy so most poetry readers are 100% digital.” 

For Professor Thomson, also, the state of poetry has taken on an electronic life:

“It’s certainly true that poetry is circulating in new forms whether that’s on Instagram or through digital poetry magazines and things like that and organisations like the Scottish Poetry Library for example”.

If there is a problem, Dr Gillis says, it lies in politics not in changing school exams. “The government has disempowered the idea of culture and the arts generally. Look at the actors and the people in the music industry and stuff. Everybody is in a form of hell just now. So one thing about poetry is it’s almost free to do; if there’s a library all one needs is some books. There are always far more poets out there than you would ever imagine,” he said. 

“If there’s a problem with poetry right now, it’s to do with austerity and Covid which doesn’t really differentiate from any other art form in culture just now. So, you’ve got a much bigger crisis than just the poetry crisis if there is one.”

Image: Book via PIXNIO