As some of you may know, last Thursday was National Poetry Day in the UK, and it was also Exeter Poetry Festival this week, so in that spirit I decided to book a place at a public lecture about the categorisation of contemporary poetry. Instead of spending my Friday evening queuing in the rain, waiting to go into a sweaty, noisy, crowded nightclub in the centre of town, I made my way to a lecture theatre on campus for Beyond Borders.
I had assumed it was going to be busy, and so I turned up a little early to ensure I got a decent seat and avoid trying to get past a row of people to that one spare seat in the middle. I needn’t have worried, as the lecture theatre was not even half full in the end. Waiting outside though, I was struck by the fact that I was very out of place… at least in terms of age. I’m pretty sure I was one of only two undergraduates there, and nearly the only student. The rest of the audience was comprised of academics, poets, and other professionals. Nevertheless, I’d paid for this lecture and I was honestly interested in the subject, so I went ahead and took a seat…
The event itself was actually really enjoyable. There were three guest poets, one representing each category of poetry: the performance poet, the mainstream poet, and the avant-garde poet. They each did a reading of some of their poetry, which I mostly loved, even if I didn’t understand all of it at first hearing. This was followed by a debate which was open to the whole room and this was when it really got interesting for me. The discussion covered a number of topics, and jumped around a lot, I guess due to the number of people trying to voice their opinions in such a short amount of time.
What interested me most, maybe because it affects me directly, was the discussion about education and the place of poetry within education. One of the arguments made was that we need this categorisation of poetry so that it can be taught to students without having to constantly explain to them that the boundaries between the categories are generalisations. This confused me a little, as the students in question were not children but university students. As one myself, I have little trouble understanding that there is a fluidity between these categories of poetry, that some poets, and even some poems, do not fall neatly into one of the three boxes. I feel that education is not a reason for maintaining these rigid borders between different types of poetry. If anything, education is actually a reason to dissolve these borders as those being taught creative writing are the poets of the future, the ones with the power to change the way poetry is written, read, spoken etc.
However, it is also true to say that education is a large part of the reason why we have these categories. The poetry that is taught in schools is the poetry that is published in those compilation anthologies. The curriculum is comprised almost entirely of dead poets and the most famous of the living poets; it is comprised of mainstream poetry, and this is perhaps as much a cause of the formation of these categories as an effect. GCSE students are forced to analyse these poems and pick out similes, alliteration, and lines of iambic pentameter. Never once while I was studying for my English GCSEs was I asked “do you like this poem?”; it was always, “what makes this poem a ‘good’ poem?”. The latter seems like the more complicated question, but in reality they are very much the same question. Deciding whether you like a poem can quickly be followed with “why?” or “why not?”, which can lead to a very similar analysis, but this approach takes into account the tastes of the student, and allows them to form their own opinions about poetry.
I would suggest that outside of those people on my degree course, very few of my friends and acquaintances have read poetry since they were forced to at school. I would also suggest that sadly a large part of this is not down to them disliking poetry, or it being inaccessible, but rather that they were never taught that it was okay to have opinions about poetry, even that it can be enjoyable.
One of the audience members at the Beyond Borders event started talking about how performance poetry (or spoken word poetry) has is now taught in some schools, and this is an instance in which I feel these categories can be useful as it takes poetry away from the mainstream and encourages engagement with poetry in a way that is different and exciting. The next step is to encourage this same engagement with all types of poetry, to make it exciting for a generation that can feel very removed from the world of Hardy, and Keats, and even Heaney. If this means asking the questions in a different way, then why not? After all, fostering an appreciation for poetry must have more long-term benefits than teaching students to write about iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets (the former of which I’m certain nobody in my class understood at all anyway).
Part of me feels a little disappointed that I didn’t really get any sense of a solution to the many problems that were brought to attention throughout the discussion – education being only one of them – although the more rational side of me knows that solutions would be impossible within the incredibly short time frame we had. What I can say is that it definitely got everyone in the room thinking, and that can only be a good thing.