How to read a poem
In response to the announcement of Simon Armitage as the new poet laureate, Observer columnist Kenan Malik argued that we all need poetry to restore us to some of the ambiguity and complexity inherent in language and encourage us to wonder at the proliferation of meaning poems can generate. As well as exploring the promiscuity of language, Malik argued that poetry can also ‘crush an intensity of meaning’ into a single image, freeing us to ‘find the extraordinary in the mundane… to wrestle with what may seem unsayable or unimaginable’.
It is this very human desire to transcend our limitations, and the audacity and power of poets to set it forth – as Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote, ‘upon the rein of a wimpling wing’ – that ensures poetry will continue to provide a necessary redress to the literal and banal use of language we experience in everyday life. However, many of us tend to find reading poetry difficult or unappealing today and it is worth asking why.
The children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, has castigated schools for the instrumental teaching of poetry to satisfy the requirements of school SATs tests. He argues these tests set up the ‘delusion’ that ‘a poem is like a sequence of facts’ in a way which wrecks the ambiguity inherent in poetry and shuts down the reader’s response. Older students are required to study ‘no fewer’ than 15 poems by at least five different poets for GCSE, but some claim that a dizzying circus ride of curriculum demands foisted on teachers in recent years has led to a target-based approach where ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ in English lessons in order to ace the exam rather than appreciate the poem.
In The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt deliberately addresses the ‘metrophobe’, since many of us have been put off poetry by such early encounters in the classroom. His book opens a series of poems up to a more exploratory approach, challenging us to think of poems as ‘fireworks stuffed full, not with exotic chemicals, but with ideas. When you read them, you light the touchpaper.’
What role should poetry play in education and why do people continue to search for poems to mark the big occasions of joy and strife throughout their lives? Bring your favourite poems to this session.