See Michael Rosen’s very amusing blog ‘The Poetry Recitation Police Department: PRPD’

Michael Rosen et al (in fact plenty of ‘et als’ – mainly poets, mainly poets, like Michael, who I admire) recently reacted, I thought rather unfairly, to La Gove’s initiative,

Children should learn some poetry ‘off by heart’.

Andrew Motion supports Gove’s notion and so do I.

No, I am no fan of Mr Gove. If he were a baby I would throw him out and keep the bathwater. That’s where I stand on almost every policy he has spun. However, just because a man is usually wrong about everything it doesn’t mean that he’s always wrong about everything. And just because you take a dislike to someone… You see where I’m going with this. Similarly, just because you are a fan of Mr Rosen and generally agree with what he says…


Let me say why I believe that children should learn poetry by looking for a moment at the arts in general.

Most good composers – of whatever ilk – classical, jazz, blues, rock, pop, have begun by learning other people’s material. Most directors, actors, script and screen-writers have learnt parts from others’ scripts. There was once a tradition amongst the visual art’s colleges; that of copying the sculpture, drawing and painting of the great and the good. There were, and remain, reasons for this methodology; most of which is probably self-evident and needn’t concern us here. The argument about whether children should be made to learn a poem or not does not presuppose we are trying to create future poets by the educative process. That may be a by-product but, in much the same way, we are not teaching simply to create future artists, musicians, architects, actors etc. We do, however, want to educate for a broadly literate society. One that is discerning and appreciative of the arts. We also need creative thinkers.

Above all we, those of us involved in education, are trying to lead out rounded, rational human beings.

So why should we ask pupils to ‘learn’ a poem or two?

  • It helps boost self esteem amongst those who feel they have nothing to say or those who feel they have no means of saying it. From the three syllable poem, Ode to a Goldfish, (‘Oh Wet Pet’) through to, ‘Ode to the Daffodils’ and Shakespeare’s soliloquies.

Rather like an actor with his lines these poems can inhabit someone else’s mind. For a brief period the pupil can have some dominion over the best words in the best order.

I have worked for many years with challenging children and I have seen the pleasure, the feeling of accomplishment, the joy of the words, demonstrated when a poem has been learned. These students have not been shy about reciting the lines either. They are someone else’s words. They do not have to be held responsible for the sentiment expressed.

  • In learning a poem we get inside of the thing. It creates a burgeoning sense of what words can do – the power of words, the playfulness of words, the understanding of the poet’s craft  and devices such as metaphor and idiom … Without a basic understanding of metaphor, for example, we are likely to miss out on the inherent concepts in most works of literature, film, fine art etc.

That understanding can also help pupils who are on the autistic spectrum. If they get it within the poem they often begin to get it in life.

  • It is a natural thing to do. This of course does not make it right. (Any weekend philosopher could point us toward the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’*.) It is a tradition however, that has given most of the great religious texts, myths, fables, legends and folk tales a longevity and gravitas that may otherwise not have been accorded them.

They do it already. Almost all children learn rhymes, songs, raps, sayings and jokes of their own volition. Because such learning has been part of the human tradition it should be encouraged. I would argue that, at best least, we are doing our children a disservice if we do not give them poems to learn. At worst we are depriving them of something that is both essentially free and priceless.

  • Once a poem is learned you have it for life. Unlike a book you may or may not decide to re-read, a film you might decide to re-watch, a play you may decide to go and see for a second or third time, your learned poems remain with you better than the stored information on an iPod. Learn several and be surprised by the mind’s internal ‘shuffle’ service. Often in early summer when I’m walking through a park or a quiet part of town I hear,

          “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

          The holy time is quiet as a Nun

          Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

          Is sinking down in its tranquillity;

          The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea:”

I can’t see quince jelly in a supermarket or on a plate without wanting a slice and a ‘runcible spoon’. Why because I want to, ‘dance in the light of the moon’.

Watching a pint of ale being poured puts me immediately in touch with,

“a draught of vintage! that hath been

           Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,

          Tasting of Flora and the country-green,

          Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

          O for a beaker full of the warm South!

          Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

          With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,”

I am not saying that poems to be learned should be totally prescriptive. There should be no, “All pupils must learn ‘such and such’ by the age of 7 and ‘so and so’ by the age of 11” (although ‘So and So’ and ‘Such and Such’ are enticingly good, potential titles). That would be a separate argument. I do believe that all pupils should have access to a broad range of poetry, some of which should form part of a common cultural heritage.)

As alluded to above I am no fan of Mr Gove’s approach to Education. But here I am with Mr Motion, where Gove has got it right.

Apart from anything else, learning a poem or two would probably help raise the status of poetry.

It used to be the old rock n roll you know!



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