Poetry is important. It holds truths that cannot be expressed in any other way; it offers a mode of expression which is an alternative and a compliment to prose writing. This allows learners to experiment with language and to see the importance of metaphor and precise lexis in our lives. Furthermore, poetry helps learners to dissect and play with language and thus poetry contributes to an understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Reading and writing poetry stretches student’s abilities by demanding that all of a word’s possible meanings are considered, profound experiences are dealt with, and powerful complex emotions confronted. Most of all, poetry opens up learners’ minds to the pleasures of rhythm, imagery and language results in a much more sophisticated appreciation of communication. It is because, poetry embodies such sophistication of language that it is central to English teaching and also, stretches the abilities of even the most able learners (Dean 2001; Thomas 2003).
Yet, poetry’s dynamic potential is rarely tapped at Key Stage 4(KS4). According to the
Ofsted report on the teaching of poetry (2007:6)
At GCSE level, the amount of poetry to be studied often had a negative
impact on teachers’ approaches and pupils’ responses. Very few pupils
wrote poems in English lessons during their GCSE course. In general,
pupils’ experience of poetry did not prepare them well for
A-level study in English literature.
The problems associated with the teaching of poetry do not seem to apply to other forms of writing. The report makes it clear that, even in schools where English teaching was generally of a high standard, the teaching of poetry was of a lower standard than other areas of teaching. Whereas teachers of English do not seem to have any problem in setting about teaching the components of a good short story, a letter, article or review, they falter when faced with teaching and assessing poetry. A secondary school teacher I interviewed commented that:
I know where I am with other types of writing but, with poetry I am
impressed with much of the writing done and I don’t know how to help.
What is even worse I don’t know how to assess my learners’ efforts. If
anything, I discourage learners from entering such writing for any
His responses are in keeping with Ofsted’s findings that teachers lack confidence in such
assessment and, find it difficult to offer meaningful advice. This lack of confidence has led to a
steady erosion of opportunities to write poetry post Key Stage 3 (KS3).
Teachers tend to cite the demands of examination syllabi as a reason for not developing poetry writing post-13.We need to challenge this view. No English teacher would dream of stating that only those with a specific talent for writing stories or letters should be expected to write them but, there are those who would limit writing poetry so that only those who could write it with ease had the opportunity to develop poetic skills. That was exactly the sentiment expressed by an examiner who commented that:
in assessment terms writing in this genre is only beneficial to those with
highly developed skills in this area.
It is difficult to ascertain how learners achieve ‘highly developed skills’ in poetry without specialist teaching or without that writing being recognized as embodying higher order thinking.
Although, it would seem strange to learn music without ever making music, or to study art and never make any representation, it is commonplace for learners to study poetry and have few, if any opportunities to create their own poems. Poetry’s sophisticated and complex mode of expression, its refinement of language and its dependence on precision of meaning, offer opportunities for student’s to grow in linguistic expertise and understanding.
Poetry writing is a creative process and shares some common features with other creative acts. In teaching poetry writing, it is inevitable that a method of operation will emerge; a pattern of behaviour, whereby an idea is taken from first thoughts to completed action. Some of these characteristics, such as brain-storming, gestating, polishing etc. are common to all creative activity. Furthermore, writing poetry not only involves communication skills but, may offer opportunities for elements of other key skills to emerge, such as critical thinking and digital literacy in presenting poetry in a modern context.
Writing poetry is a discipline which can have an effect on the whole person, providing a sense of achievement and long-term interest in language. Learners benefit from being taught the rudiments of poetry and its key features so that when they write, they have access to a whole range of techniques in order to make meaning. These strategies result in learners producing stunning and superb imagery and fluent, often original writing. In so doing, learners can experience the joy of creation and develop creative, flexible minds, unafraid of challenge or uncertainty and ready to cope with paradox, ambiguity and complexity. Educationists and examination boards are in danger of reducing the study of language to something impoverished and pedantic; they mistake knowing things about language with the ability to use language in all its glorious complexity. Most of all, learners need to be shown the pleasure of self-expression and the centrality of poetry within the English subject area. In poetry, as in other areas of the curriculum, learners do not learn by just being told about poetry. It is by learning practices linked to learners’ lives and experiences that they make writing poetry their own. The best strategies for teaching poetry writing are student-centered, consistent, rooted in good classroom practice and based on the fundamental principle that poetry matters and that the reading and writing of it, is pleasurable.