Along with many other poets, I receive many invites to go into schools to share my poetry with pupils, to talk about how and why we write and read poems. I’ve been doing this since 1974. We think it’s a good idea because teachers, children and poets value poetry. If you put a group of poets, teachers, pupils and parents in a room to talk about why we do this, we come up with a wide range of answers. Here are some I’ve collected: it’s a good way to open up conversations about our lives, experiences and feelings; poetry often uses the sound of words to express feelings without actually saying what those feelings are; it’s a good way to express “big ideas in small spaces”; suggest things without necessarily coming to a conclusion; express a single moment without necessarily relating the consequences; play with language without it having to be literal; confess things about our lives; soap-box about our beliefs; express identity and culture; and, because it “borrows” voices from a wide range of sources (including poetry itself), it has an infectious quality that enables many of us to imitate it, parody it, learn it and play with it. We are able to do all this without any direction from on high. We just do it.
What messages about poetry does this guidance give? That we read a poem in order to “retrieve” exact information from it
Now, though, there’s an official view of what poetry is for: “Standards and Testing Agency, Key stage 1 English reading, sample questions, marks schemes and commentary for 2016 assessment”. Here we find Where Go the Boats? by Robert Louis Stevenson, followed by eight questions, their correct answers – that’s to say, the only answers that are allowed, and a commentary to explain what’s being tested. This will lay down the activities of thousands of teachers, children and parents between now and May 2016. Thousands of hours of school – and homework – time will be focused on these correct answers. It’s no use you, or any Ofsted report, telling us that it’s only bad teachers who teach to the test. Because of your system of enforced conversion to academy status on the basis of schools not scoring high enough on tests, schools will teach to the test. Inevitably, this test will enforce what reading poetry is about and what it’s for and that doesn’t coincide very much with what poets and people interested in poetry have to say about it.
What messages about poetry does this guidance give, then?
First, we discover that we read a poem in order to “retrieve” exact and correct information from it, and we are supposed to “infer” exact and correct meanings from it. This means that it’s not for speculation, interpretation, or for making a connection between the reader and the poem at the level of empathy – that is, sharing our thoughts and feelings. Instead, a poem is a chunk of language to be used for purposes seen as important by government-hired experts. It’s irrelevant whether these have anything to do with what poets try to do, but then who cares if this test runs counter to what poets think?
Where Go the Boats? A poem in a little child’s head
Letter: When my class of six-year-olds from a deprived council estate looked down at the Avon, a little voice said: ‘Dark brown is the river’
The “commentary” refers to pupils having to identify rhyming words and “simple literary language”. The example given is the phrase “on either hand”. But this is not literary, it’s a common everyday oral metaphor. Spotting rhyming words is a way of turning rhyming poems into train-spotting, the great advantage for examiners being that there are only right and wrong answers. It has the disadvantage of separating rhyme off from everything else a poem does in order to make the rhyme work – rather as if the only thing we notice about a game of football is the goalscorer. And it will set in motion thousands of hours of rhyme-spotting lessons, so defining poetry falsely for thousands of people between now and the test.
One question asks the pupils to “find and copy the line that tells you that the poet is not sure where the boats will end up”. There is of course only one correct answer: “Where will all come home?” In fact, I spotted another couple of lines that suggest being not sure. Meanwhile, the examiner hasn’t noticed that it’s not “the poet” who is in this poem, it’s a child who is playing with boats. That’s how many poems work. Welcome to literary language, Mr/Ms Examiner.
A further question asks: “What would be another good title for the poem?”. There are four possibles and you’re only allowed to pick one. This is a gross distortion of the poetry-game that some of us play, where we do indeed invite children to come up with alternative titles as a way of talking about possible and interesting interpretations, not one correct one out of four.
The final roadcrash comes with “Why does Robert Louis Stevenson use a question for the title of this poem?” There are of course many possibilities here – including the entirely legitimate answer, “we don’t know” – but the only ones allowed must include the idea that the poem gives “answers” (really?) or that the poet (!) doesn’t know where the boats will turn up. If I had written, “because a lot of poems eg Who killed Cock Robin? begin with questions”, I would have been wrong. So, what we have here is a mini-syllabus in how to wreck poetry for five- to eight-year-olds. Thank you, Ms Morgan.