Bridging the gap between A-level and undergraduate poetry teaching

A paper produced by Ian Brinton for a Girton conference on Contemporary Poetry and the University, in which he deals with the gap between what is being taught in the Secondary school world and what might be expected at first year University level.

This short paper makes no claim to give an account of all schools and all examination boards but is intended to highlight one of the difficulties which face many first-year undergraduates as they attempt to make sense of contemporary poetry when their diet of reading up until this time has been dictated by a relatively conservative and self-asserting form of the art. In addition to this the examination system itself, a modular approach to Years 12 and 13 with the multiple re-takes available, encourages a sense of division of tasks which is sometimes at odds with the notion of learning how to read. I also will look at the challenging article written by Andrew Crozier in 1983, ‘Thrills and Frills: poetry as figures of empirical lyricism’ and his questioning of the notion promoted by the accepted figures of modern poetry which he terms the ‘intransigent fiction of the ordinary person’.

Let me begin by referring briefly to the syllabus offered by two examination boards as far as modern poetry is concerned and, let me emphasise, this is merely the syllabus not the assessment objectives which dominate the marking of the examinations. I do not intend to name these two boards since my aim is certainly not to suggest a sense of preference.

The first example outlines its purpose as follows:

The new English Literature A specification encourages students to develop interest in and enjoyment of English Literature, through reading widely, critically and independently, across centuries, genre and gender, and through experience of an extensive range of views about texts and how to read.

Well this sounds promising but we might examine how extensive this is when it comes to modern poetry. Poetry for the AS level paper has a theme of ‘identity within the world of modernity’ and candidates are asked to choose one of the following three volumes of poetry: And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou (Virago), The World’s Wife* by Carol Ann Duffy (Picador) or  Skirrid Hill* by Owen Sheers (Seren). The examination itself will take the form of a 2 hour paper consisting of two sections and candidates will answer one question in each section. Section B covers poetry and candidates may bring their set poetry text into the examination room. This text should be a clean text, that is, free from annotation. There will be a choice of two questions on each set poetry text and candidates answer one of them. One of the two questions will ‘foreground’ one particular poem and its relation to the whole text, the other will provide a view about the poems for candidates to discuss.

A general comment made by the board suggests that there will be an emphasis throughout both AS and A2 on the ‘development of the informed, independent reader of literary texts through a course of wide and close reading’. This again sounds very promising and we would do well to look at the range of texts offered. When it comes to A2 the board affirms that the skills of close reading and analysis, interpretation, comparison and the ability to evaluate the influence of various contextual factors will be assessed. In terms of modern poetry the following texts for wider reading are suggested: poetry by Simon Armitage*, W.H Auden, Gillian Clarke, Carol Ann Duffy *, Allan Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Jackie Kay*,Liz Lockhead*, Agnes Meadows, Grace Nichols*, Alice Oswald, Adrienne Rich, Gertrude Stein, Alice Walker, Benjamin Zephaniah.

A second examination board promotes the following two anthologies for study at AS level: Poetry Here to Eternity, ed. Andrew Motion with poems on the themes of either ‘Home’ or ‘Land’ or ‘Work’, and The Rattle Bag, ed. Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes with poems selected on the same themes. For this second board the A2 syllabus for modern poetry is a choice between Emergency Kit, ed. Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney (see Appendix 6 for the selected poems) and Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy*.

I shall not bore you with a list of the assessment objectives which dictate what will be given an A* at A level but allow me to quote from a recently retired Head of English:

A bright student in my school had a bad time personally in her AS year and after a poor English result, she needed to re-sit a module.  It emerged that she had said nothing about context, despite my warnings; hence, presumably, her D grade.  I told her to re-read the poems and gave her a list of eight contextual points (with an explanatory paragraph on each) that she had to memorise and work in. Afterwards, she said that she had not re-read any of the poems but she promised me faithfully that all eight points were in her essay. Result: A grade.

A student from another school whom I tutored briefly showed me an AS answer that had been given top marks by the board and used as a model.  This may have covered what was formally required but Browning’s poetry lay lifeless as a result.  The discussion was formulaic and revealed no ear for tonal nuances at all, yet the candidate had delivered.

Before I move on from these comments about the current state of play let me just add that under the old A level scheme there were two years of sixth-form study which ended with an end-of-course examination. This meant that in some schools where the practice of reading was taken seriously much of the first year could be used for a wide range of different texts that allowed the teacher’s own interests to communicate themselves with enthusiasm. There was a possibility for pupils to become engaged with the intriguing, sometimes mystifying, challenging nature of reading different works without them becoming ‘examinable’. There were opportunities for teachers of real commitment to work with pupils in a way that was not circumscribed by the frenetic urgency of getting all the right boxes ticked. A fine example of how this might work was revealed in the current issue of PN Review where one of R. F. Langley’s former pupils paid tribute to that extraordinarily powerful figure:

I first met Roger Langley in 1985. I had just started my A level studies at Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield, and Roger, then Head of English, was running after-school sessions for anyone who wanted to think seriously about literature outside the constraints of the curriculum. I went along, with a group of seven or eight others, and we started with this: ‘What does not change / is the will to change’. The first text I studied as a sixth-former was Olson’s ‘The Kingfishers’. Langley took us through a vortex of the unfamiliar and (to us) new: the Aztecs, Mao, Pound, Heraclitus, Rimbaud, the problematic concept of civilization, composition by field. We continued into Olson’s prose, The Maximus Poems, Ed Dorn, and Robert Creeley. I started to get it. Here was someone who wasn’t disconnected from the substance of his teaching. It mattered, and it was obvious that it was of direct relevance to the way he thought about the world and his place within it.

Let me return for a moment to those words from one examination board quoted at the beginning of this paper: a general comment made by the board suggests that there will be an emphasis throughout both AS and A2 on the ‘development of the informed, independent reader of literary texts through a course of wide and close reading’. It is at this point that I wish to remind us of Andrew Crozier’s seminal essay ‘Thrills and Frills; poetry as figures of empirical lyricism’ which first appeared in 1983 in a collection titled Society and Literature 1945-1970, edited by Alan Sinfield, in a series devoted to the ‘Context of English Literature’. My reason for going back to this essay, and its sequel ‘Resting on Laurels’ first published in 2000 in another book edited by Sinfield, British Culture of the Postwar, is because the thrust of Crozier’s argument hinges upon what he refers to as a canon which has remained largely unchanged in half a century. His opening question in ‘Resting on Laurels’ hits to the heart of the subject:

Is there any reason to expect that an up-to-date account of British poetry since the war will differ in important ways, except perhaps in details of personnel, from an account of the poetry of the first twenty-five postwar years written twenty years ago? If not, then our poetic culture—represented by the poetry on view in the chain bookstores, or that taught in schools (little poetry is taught, or read, in universities nowadays)—has remained largely unchanged in half a century.

Crozier’s earlier essay examined the nature of the readily-accepted canon of British poetry during the fifties and beyond:

If we want to ask questions about the context of poetry, with the idea, perhaps, that the broader our frame of reference the better our knowledge, we should find ourselves at the same time having to ask the question: What poetry?’

For the purposes of study at A level is the only modern poetry ‘in evidence’ that which ‘is at hand’? Does the exam board’s noble statement about developing the independent reader become closely linked to the methods of publication and if so then does this present an implicit commitment to particular literary judgements.
Andrew Crozier’s earlier essay opened with the question ‘What is the canon?’ and he quoted Blake Morrison on Seamus Heaney:

Seamus Heaney is widely believed to be one of the finest poets now writing. To call him ‘the most important Irish poet since Yeats’ has indeed become something of a cliché. In Britain he is as essential a part of the school and university syllabus as are his post-1945 predecessors Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes; in America scholarly articles reflect a growing interest in his work; on both sides of the Atlantic influential critics…have pressed large claims on his behalf.

Crozier suggests that we should attend in particular to the implicit strategies of this argument, which strip from the notion of a canon of excellence any suggestion that the criteria involved might not be universal. First of all, the argument is contained within an unspecified concept of quality, ‘the finest poets’. It accomplishes itself by means of ostensibly neutral chronological markers (‘since Yeats’, ‘post-1945’); yet, while 1945 is an important date in social history (the election of a Labour government, the end of the Second World War—although neither was directly an event in Irish history, surely), ‘Yeats’ is a function of literary history. The notion of an autonomous literary history is implied by the concept of succession, Yeats-Heaney, Larkin-Hughes-Heaney. As Crozier puts it:

such succession is not simply chronological but is concerned with authority and status and, it would seem, relations of descent; a version of tradition, in other words, though not that of Pound or Eliot. Something British perhaps? Whatever the case, the argument derives its force more from its air of unassuming conviction than from anything it says about the poets in question, and it functions rather like those systems of radio interference used to jam other signals. The message that is allowed to come through is the persuasive notion of major quality, quite unbiased, simply the best. It is a salesman’s message (seeking in fact to develop the market for a series of primers on ‘Contemporary Writers’), appealing to a variety of tastes, a variety of English-language cultures, but appealing above all to the taste for quality. (It should be remembered that the appeal of quality is always pitched towards the individual customer.)

Crozier goes on to give a short account of The Movement in terms of its historical status and reminds us of Morrison’s account of its ideological characteristics: the Low Church and middle-class origins; the concern with classlessness and upward social mobility; the hostility to the ‘posh’ and the ‘phoney’, and the nostalgia for traditional order; the connection with provincial universities. Crozier’s views on this notion of a canon of poetry had been made clear in a review he wrote as a third-year undergraduate at Christ’s College Cambridge to be published in an issue of the magazine Granta in October 1963 where he looked closely at Robert Conquest’s recently published New Lines 2. In the review he suggested that the poets included in Conquest’s anthology ‘are our orthodoxy, not our rebels’ and noted that most of Robert Conquest’s poets showed a total separation of their form and their content:

Maybe by ignoring form (in fact just accepting iambics, rhyme and periodic stanza patterns) they think they can pay attention to their content; but, their content is trivial.

Crozier also claimed that the New Lines anthology ‘codified a successfully assertive group position based on exclusion and prejudice’:

The point is this: by the adherence to an iambic line, their use of rhyme, and their use of stanzaic patterns that impose an arbitrary pattern on the poem once the first stanza has been composed (even supposing that it has not been taken ready made from a source other than what the poet might have to say) the ‘New Lines’ poets have closed their poetry to most experience; they have little to say to us. What they give us in place of their experience is a dilute poeticism, so many words slotted into a pattern, a pursuit of metaphor and simile as interesting in themselves.

In these poems from New Lines 2, where objects were always defining something or other rather than being allowed to exist in their own right, Crozier saw ‘a disabling force which predisposes the poet to a thinness of presented experience, and a lack of humility in his approach (as poet) to the external world.’ Towards the end of his essay Crozier suggests that ‘It is surely worthy of consideration…that our three canonical poets, Larkin, Hughes and Heaney, share the same publisher, are apparently thought to possess similar market potential, and imply the same sort of readership’ and concludes

In the poetic tradition now dominant the authoritative self, discoursing in a world of banal, empirically derived objects and relations, depends on its employment of metaphor and simile for poetic vitality. These figures are conceptually subordinate to the empirical reality of self and objects, yet they constitute the nature of the poem. Poets are now praised above all else as inventors of figures—as rhetoricians, in fact—with a consequent narrowing of our range of appropriate response. Poetry has been turned into a reserve for small verbal thrills, a daring little frill around the hem of normal discourse; objects and relations in the natural and social worlds have an unresistant, token presence; at its most extreme, they serve as pretexts for bravura display. It does not wish to influence the reader’s perceptions and feelings in the lived world: its intersection with that world is attenuated and discourages reading back; transformation is confined within the surprises and routines of rhetoric.

In the second of the two Crozier essays, ‘Resting on laurels’, 2000 he then summarizes the ‘Thrills & Frills’ essay:

In a glibly titled essay…I suggested that a canon of contemporary poetry had developed in the 1950s and 1960s, and cited Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney as its foremost representatives, establishing each in turn a poetic succession from decade to decade. This was hardly contentious then, nor is it now. I proposed that despite polemic disagreements on the score of gentility, in which a poem by Hughes might be held up as significantly of the postwar world and serious, in a way that one by Larkin, by virtue of its nostalgia, was not, the canon thus constituted was homogenous. I further argued that this homogeneity consisted in those common features of canonical work—its discursive habits—that constituted it as poetry: the enunciation (as we have learned to say) of an empirical subject, and a textual insistence on figures of rhetoric as the discernible sign of the poetic. That is to say that these two features, which are related, were (and, I shall maintain, still are) generally understood to be the necessary conditions of a poem; that is to put it at its best. At the worst they were (and are) its sufficient conditions.

David Kennedy’s The New Poetry published in 1993 reached its tenth impression by 2005. In 1996 it was followed by a complementary volume of essays by Kennedy, New Relations, The Refashioning of British Poetry 1980-1994, complete with an Appendix ‘The New Poetry—A User’s Guide’ giving ‘pointers on using The New Poetry with GCSE and Advanced Level examination syllabuses for 1996 and 1997’.

According to the introduction

The new poetry emphasises accessibility, democracy and responsiveness, humour and seriousness, and reaffirm’s the art’s significance as public utterance. The new poetry highlights the beginning of the end of British poetry’s tribal divisions and isolation, and a new cohesiveness—its constituent “parts” talk to one another readily, eloquently, and freely while preserving their unique identities.

The alpha and omega of this anthology are Pauline Stainer and Simon Armitage. The persona of the world of Armitage’s poems is ‘an average citizen or common man. This is the poet who is like his readers to the extent that they don’t normally read poetry, and are pleasantly surprised that it deals with the routine stuff of everyday life: probation officers, football, drugs. Discursively, that is to say, Armitage’s poems are directed by an intransigent fiction of the ordinary person and the dreariness of this viewpoint can be registered by comparing some of his work with the originals whom he seems to be imitating. ‘Very Simply Topping Up The Break-Fluid’ is a re-working of ee cummings’s witty ‘she being brand new’ and ‘poem’ reduces Frank O’Hara’s ‘A Step Away from Them’ to banality.
If I can end by taking you back to that memory of Roger Langley as a teacher it is clear from the account given by a former pupil that his teaching was challenging:

Nearly every lesson opened a new area of pursuit, and gave new insight.

And with that thought in mind may I suggest that students reading English at university, coming to terms with contemporary poetry, would be better served by looking at the anthology Vanishing Points, edited in 2004 by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella where the opening remarks of Mengham’s introduction set forth the challenge for the easy-answers brigade:

The vanishing point lies beyond the horizon established by ruling conventions, it is where the imagination takes over from the understanding. Most anthologies of contemporary verse are filled with poems that do not cross that dividing-line, but our contention is that many poems in this volume are situated on the threshold of conventional sense-making. They go beyond the perspective of accepted canons of taste and judgement and ask questions about where they belong, and who they are meant for, often combining the pathos of estrangement with the irascibility of the refusenik.

If I could leave you with two comments which I think are useful for sixth-form pupils to bear in mind when preparing for university. Firstly JHP’s advice to first year students concerning Practical Criticism:

a method of teaching (and testing) skills and developing insights which would enhance deeper and more alert understanding of literary works through detailed analysis of short text passages…the aim is to sharpen perception and to develop more precise powers of description, diagnosis and critical judgement… In fact and in practice…close and broad reading skills reciprocally energise and complement each other. Regular exercises in close reading both sharpen and deepen accurate response to local texture and also feed into enhanced perception of larger-scale structure, to make us all-round better readers.

And secondly John Hall’s comment to Tim Allen in interview:

Poems happen between people or not at all and they have limited powers to keep at bay all the other things that happen between people.


Ian Brinton 2011



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