Teaching Poetry: Unpopular Problems

It’s National Poetry Day.

We wonder which poems are being recited in schools throughout the land today. Coleridge? Byron? Auden? Or something more contemporary.

We also wonder whether children and young people have been asked about their views on poetry. Do they have a poet that they particularly admire? What if that poet is a lyricist? They’re probably more likely to be able to recite lyrics from a favourite song than a prescribed text on the syllabus.

In many ways the lack of freedom to choose specific poetry exemplifies the sort of constraints that many of our teachers feel when it comes to being creative and imaginative in the classroom.

National Poetry Day

Mr Gove continually said that he wasn’t attempting to direct the content of the English curriculum. He said that he’d never suggested ‘banning’ “Of Mice and Men” and that teachers should be free to teach, within reason, whatever content they wished.

Simultaneously, however, he placed certain ‘orders’ within the National Curriculum that veered examination boards in a certain direction, e.g. the study of the Romantics.

For example, in the Key Stage Four English curriculum it says, “Pupils should be taught to read and appreciate the depth and power of the English literary heritage through……poetry since 1789, including representative Romantic poetry.”

There’s no mention of contemporary works specifically at KS4, though admittedly there is a brief, generic reference in the Key Stage Three programme of study.


To be fair, in theory, there’s commitment to reading for interest. In his English GCSE: Myth BusterGove said, “Parents will rightly expect their children to read more than four pieces of literature over two years of studying for their GCSEs.” However, truth prevails and this statement is concluded with Gove’s real purpose for encouraging wider reading.

“…….It is important that pupils read widely, as they will in future be tested on two unseen texts which can be by authors outside of the exam board specification.”

The other unspoken truth is that young people feel so pressurised by the amount of work for GCSE and A-Levels that they have little spare time to indulge in the masterpieces of contemporary literature unless they have a specific interest in reading. They’re exhausted, and whilst we might suggest that reading is an excellent way of freeing the mind of the mundanities of life – that enables all of us a learning experience throughout life, we acknowledge that this isn’t how every young person wants to spend their limited free time.

So how do we get our young people to enjoy reading? Perhaps we should ask them what they would like to study in school. If we ‘legitimised’ their choices in school by including them in the curriculum, they may feel more engaged in their studies and more likely to discover contemporary works of their own.

reading for pleasure

Let’s look at the list of suggested poets for the National Curriculum.

Contemporary poets include,

“Examples of major poets after 1914: W H Auden, Gillian Clarke, Keith Douglas, T S Eliot, U A Fanthorpe, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, Wilfred Owen, Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith, Edward Thomas, R S Thomas, W B Yeats.”

“Examples of recent and contemporary poetry: Simon Armitage, James Berry, Douglas Dunn, Liz Lochhead, Adrian Mitchell, Edwin Muir, Grace Nichols, Jo Shapcott.

There are some interesting and thoughtful poets listed here but no mention of Dylan Thomas or the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Certainly no mention of Benjamin Zephaniah or John Cooper Clarke. Definitely no mention of Plan B (Ben Drew) or Suli Breaks. And of course, the lyricists from the other side of the Atlantic, such as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, aren’t banned but certainly aren’t welcomed.

What’s wrong with our young people listening to, analysing and reciting from memory some of the following texts from the poets mentioned above?

Plan B and Suli Breaks

Follow me as I descend into madness
With gladness,
For years I’ve been surrounded by this badness
No time to waste
It’s high time I escaped out the forests gates
I’m sorry mate but these ends are in a sorry state
You can’t relate

                     Plan B: “Follow Me”

Because the industrial revolution was beneficial technologically
But it coerced a lot of people into factories
For ridiculous salaries to benefit their families
And that shaped people’s mentalities exponentially
And it essentially became the norm
To work for someone else by the turn of the century.

                      Suli Breaks: “American’t Dream”

Aren’t some of these lyrics going to resonate with young people in the 21st century? They’re history and sociology lessons too.

How about extracts from these two poems?

Zephaniah and Cooper Clarke

Dis poetry is like a riddim dat drops
De tongue fires a riddim dat shoots like shots
Dis poetry is designed fe rantin
Dance hall style, big mouth chanting,
Dis poetry nar put yu to sleep
Preaching follow me
Like yu is blind sheep,
Dis poetry is not Party Political
Not designed fe dose who are critical.

                      Benjamin Zephaniah: “Dis-Poetry”


I wanna be your vacuum cleaner
breathing in your dust
I wanna be your Ford Cortina
I will never rust
If you like your coffee hot
let me be your coffee pot
You call the shots
I wanna be yours.

John Cooper Clarke: “I Wanna Be Yours”

There’s plenty in these poems to discuss too – content, rhyme, contemporary language – all the elements for appraisal and analysis or as the Programme of Study for Key Stage Four suggests – “summarising and synthesising ideas and information, and evaluating their usefulness for particular purposes” or “analysing a writer’s choice of vocabulary, form, grammatical and structural features, and evaluating their effectiveness and impact” OR for the sheer enjoyment of appreciating the brilliance of the English language and how it is used so effectively, so powerfully and so differently.

Here’s a extract from The Guardian’s interview with John Cooper Clarke earlier this year about what poetry means to him.

“I was writing poetry all the time, to no particular end. I started when I was about 13. I never saw it as self-expression, I was just trying to answer the call. When you write poetry you are always addressing the world somehow…………….English teachers are valuable because language is the stuff we all deal in every waking hour. Unlike logarithms. To use language in a powerful or persuasive way is in everyone’s interest every minute of your life………………..Poetry is not something you have to retire from. There is no heavy lifting involved.”


So here’s another #TellNicky to consider. Our teachers and young people should be able to “study” and enjoy any poet, any poems, any literature that has meaning for them – and that includes song lyrics. Not only are these poets contemporary, ‘clever’ and worthy of study, within their work they also provide huge opportunities to bring elements of PSHE and personal/social development into a young person’s learning.

Wouldn’t it be great if a teacher felt able to buy a CD one day and take it into school the following day – to enjoy great literature and amazing poetry with his or her students, sharing the teacher’s passion for language (and music) without feeling that it’s somehow detracting from the prescribed learning for the day?

Now that really would be progress.

Popular Problems

I was idled with my soul, when I heard that you could use me
I followed very closely, but my life remained the same
But then you showed me where you had been wounded
In every atom spoken is the name.

I was lost on the road, your love was so confusing
And all the teachers told me that I had myself to blame
But in the arms stands the illusion
The sweet unknowing unifies the name.

Word of words, and the measure of all measures
Blessed is the name, the name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
That’s all I know, I cannot read the rest.

                       Leonard Cohen: “Born in Chains” from new “Popular Problems” album.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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