Sunday, 24 April 2011

Promised Poetry

So, having broken radio silence, I feel compelled to actually blog about poetry, as promised.

1) (Going back three days later to find this article was quite difficult - the Guardian has had five articles about poetry since then. Impressive.) This Guardian review of two collections of poetry aimed, one each, at boys and girls, was much more balanced than it needed to be. It does beg the question whether poetry is gendered. My hunch would be that more women read - and write - poetry than men (and now is not the time to get into a deep discussion on the dominance of men among published poets), so perhaps there's a case to be made for a Boisterous Boys' Book of Verse to get them enthused. And I suppose if you're a publisher, it seemed like a good idea to include a companion for girls.
But I'm in wholehearted agreement with the reviewer that soppy verse with flowers and nature is not inherently girly, while many boys would view the Charge of the Light Brigade with equal disdain.

In the Good Old Days, which, I hasten to add, were actually before I was born, the gem in the UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, which eventually became OCR) crown was something called the Plain Texts Syllabus, which was all about letting people have actually responses to texts, and tended to involve setting examination questions like 'So, how do you respond to this poem?' Great for openness, less easy for quantifying Assessment Objectives. Famously this syllabus set Thomas Hardy's anti-war poem 'Drummer Hodge' the year after the Falkland War (entirely unintentionally) and then watched the fireworks, which were somewhat more spectacular than the gentle furore over Carol Ann Duffy's 'Education For Leisure'. The emphasis in teaching it was less on learning a set of points about the language of the poem, and more about experiencing and enjoying poetry. I can't say that I've ever felt any really good poem was gendered - I think Plain Texts might be more pointful than Great Poems for Specific Group. In fact I suspect that picking poems that speak to stereotypes of gender might well be counter-productive. I can imagine the response if I'd presented my all-girls' classes with something about lambs because it was 'great for girls'...
2) I've read two things recently from organisations in which I have a vague interest, both of which are serious mainstays of British poetry, lamenting the loss of their Arts Council funding and begging for support from anyone who might be interested, in order to keep them open and doing the good work that they do. One is the Poetry Book Society, who send members 4 poetry books a year, chosen from the pick of the crop, and give them a 25% discount on other orders (and who are doing a new, free student membership, which gives you access to the online version of their bulletin, and the discount, though sadly not the free books). The other is Salt Publishing, who are one of the biggest poetry publishers in the UK, and whose Just One Book campaign managed to keep them afloat - just - through the recession so far, but who are now faced with cutting back a lot of their intended work.
The Arts Council has a lot of demands on it, and has lost a lot of central funding. It's no surprise that it's had to make hard decisions about where to spend its remaining dosh. I'm quite sad that both these organisations, both of which make a substantial contribution to keeping the poetry scene in the UK live and vibrant - the printed one, anyway - didn't make the cut. Vast numbers of people in the UK write poetry, for their own private benefit, or with the intent to try and publish themselves. Nowhere near as many read it. Some people are afraid of it or think it's too intellectual, or too snobbish. There is a poem (and a poet) out there for everyone.
In the interests of saving an endangered species, can I make a plea that you consider buying someone in your life a book of poetry? Possibly not '100 Great Poems for Car-drivers', but Just One Book goes a long way.

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