Seven reasons not to give up on poetry

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Kate Tempest and George the Poet are among a new generation of poets bringing fresh audiences to the form

Tennyson, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and Imtiaz Dharker. These are just a handful of the poets GCSE students in England may study for their exams as part of a curriculum that spans from 1789 to the present day.

But poetry is set to become an optional subject area in England next year, under changes to English literature and history exams in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

So why continue to study poetry – and how is it relevant today?

1. Reading diverse voices

The Poetry Society, which promotes the study, use and enjoyment of poetry, has said it is important to recognise that poetry provides “a lot of the diversity” in the GCSE English curriculum.

“This is where students encounter the voices of writers of colour like John Agard and Imtiaz Dharker, Raymond Antrobus and Zaffar Kunial,” the organisation’s director Judith Palmer told the BBC.

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Poet, playwright, short story and children’s writer John Agard, who was born in Guyana and came to Britain in the 1970s

She said poetry anthologies had been kept updated to include recent works that “speak directly to young people’s lived experience” and urged people not to “scrimp on the poetry”.

“All the research that we do with young people comes back showing that they are desperate to read more diverse writers, and that this increases and widens engagement,” she said.

2. Discussing challenging subjects

Exams watchdog Ofqual said it had decided to offer students a choice of topics, following concerns that it was hard for them “to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely”.

But Ms Palmer also stressed that the study of poetry “opens up a space for the discussion of challenging subjects such as loss and isolation”.

“In these Covid times, poetry has never been more relevant,” she said, noting that many students returning to the classroom will be processing trauma.

She added: “All our usual certainties have recently been washed away. Poetry is all about uncertainty.

“It doesn’t give answers, it poses questions, and helps students understand that life may involve learning to live with complexities.”

3. ‘Teens read and write more poetry every year’

Writers have also responded to the changes, including Scottish writer and teacher Kate Clanchy. She tweeted that dropping poetry at GCSE “sends a signal down the school that it’s the dispensable bit of English”.

Ms Clanchy, who regularly shares her students’ poems on Twitter, insisted: “Poetry is core, and teenagers read and write more of it every year.”

She called for the return of open book examinations as an alternative way to relieve pressure on students.

4. The power of poetry

Meanwhile, British-born Cypriot poet and writer Anthony Anaxagorou said poems “do so much more” than other ways of using language.

“Poetry shouldn’t be regarded as an analytical exercise, a response to memory, a means of introducing literary device,” he tweeted.

“Poems do so much more, getting into spaces [and] subjects other modes of language can’t.

“Presenting it as an ‘option’ does nothing but reduce its cultural value more.”

5. Poetry ‘will always have a mainstay in pop culture’

Wilson Oryema, a multidisciplinary artist and writer from London, is among a new generation of poets who have adopted the form in the digital age by sharing work on social media.

This movement comes alongside the growth of performance poetry and spoken word – led by artists such as Kate Tempest and George the Poet – bringing new audiences to poetry.

He told the BBC poetry will always “have a mainstay in popular culture”.

“Social platforms have created a whole new way for interacting and creating poetry,” said Mr Oryema, who shares his work on Instagram, said.

He added: “Now there’s a quick consumer culture it’s very rare that people read long books anymore. It’s usually just quick interactions […] so I think poetry is one of the best mediums we have for communicating our ideas.

“Poetry holds value for so many people and it is a form of expression that has been used for centuries. As more people interact with these mediums, either to type poems or create videos, I can’t see it slowing down, only increasing.”

6. Coping with lockdown

Back in April, Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke told fans that poetry had helped her cope with isolation during lockdown.

In a moving video posted on Instagram, she read aloud from a collection called the Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart, which presents poems as prescriptions for various states of mind.

Her chosen poem dealt with loneliness because, as she put it, “isolation is a funny thing”.

She asked fellow actors to do the same for a series she called “poetry pharmacy goodness for the time of Isolation and Covid”.

Helena Bonham-Carter read one prescribed for self-blame, and Stephen Fry for depression. Andrew Scott said his poem addressed the need for reassurance and Thandi Newton said hers was for those struggling with inertia.

7. Poetry for the NHS

Poetry also brought people together in a shared appreciation for health workers during the pandemic. Front-line workers contributed poems about their experiences to two anthologies that raised money for NHS charities.

Poems for a Pandemic by Angela Marston sought to explore a “global effort to rescue humanity from the teeth of an invisible enemy”, while Kate Amiel and Deborah Alma’s These are the Hands – named after the Michael Rosen poem – was described as “crystallising the most beautiful and painful moments of being human”.

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Media captionBBC presenter Sophie Raworth reads These Are The Hands by Michael Rosen

In the foreword of the latter, children’s author and poet Mr Rosen – who was seriously ill with coronavirus himself – praised the fact that the anthology featured NHS workers’ poems alongside contributions from well-known poets.

“There is no place for us to say that because, let’s say, you’re a nurse you can’t also be a poet,” he wrote.

“Quite the opposite: we need poems by people who do things other than write poems! We need to be able to talk to each other and listen to each other in the way that this collection enables us to do.”

At a glance: GCSE English literature poetry

GCSE specifications for English literature in England require students to study a selection of poetry since 1789, including the Romantics.

To give an example, the AQA exam board says students should study 15 poems from the AQA poetry anthology, which includes writers such as Byron, Maura Dooley, Seamus Heaney, Daljit Nagra, William Wordsworth, Simon Armitage and Jane Weir.

There is also an unseen poetry section of the exam, for which AQA says students should experience a wide range of poetry in order to develop their ability to closely analyse unseen poems.

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