The Magpie Teacher: On Poetry and Storytelling

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So, we've been reminded by the government that although English teaching is generally very good (praise indeed), the area in which there is most room for improvement is poetry teaching. One quite reasonable comment and five minutes later the man on the Clapham omnibus is asking in outraged tones if it's true that most English teachers can only name one poet, barely pausing for breath before reciting three lines of his favourite poem, memorised in a one room school approximately one hundred and fifty years ago. I try to edge in a word about the Jackie Kay reading at NATE conference last year, with a hall full of English teachers beaming with joy and queuing for a signed copy. Or a word about the years of enthusiastic, skilful and challenging teaching of poetry I had the good fortune to share, in a department where to say 'I don't do poetry' would have had about the same effect as 'I can't read'.

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But I also know there's a point here. Almost every class I've taught has initially expressed contempt for the form, although when probed there are also loved poets or poems lurking beneath the disdain and very often a confession to writing poetry on the quiet. It is very easy for people to blame this on English teachers--or, indeed, for English teachers to blame it on other English teachers--when it is part of a wider cultural landscape. That includes a bizarre mainstream publishing culture which markets poetry books as emotional self-help manuals; and an educational culture in which it is considered okay that only about 50% of secondary English teachers are graduates in the subject and a matter of little notice that high quality, subject specific professional development is hard to find and even more difficult to access. It is also a strangely fractured culture in which the man on the Clapham omnibus has a residual belief that poetry is important, but if you ask him when he last bought a poetry book or went to a reading he picks up his umbrella and gets off at the next stop.

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But it can't all be gloom and doom in a world where the Poetry Archive exists. If you haven't seen this before, cast this article aside and get online immediately at www.poetryarchive.org. And of course, read Jean Sprackland's words on page 30! The archive is, in its own words, 'the world's premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their work'. It's free, it's growing, and it's very teacher-friendly. I know exactly what some will think: 'hmph, well, I don't know why they're doing that; poets are the worst people to read their own poems'. So here's my no-fiddles no-fixes reader phone-in question: where on earth did this incredibly pervasive opinion come from?!! Just about everyone I've spoken to about the archive has muttered this, like it's divinely ordained truth. Poppycock, I say, and poppycock again! You may not think Eliot gives 'The Journey of the Magi' sufficiently dramatic emphasis (I agree--I'm the one with the special 'magi voice' for my own classroom renditions), but listen to the recording in the archive and prepare to be freaked by its own unique qualities and by the very idea that this is T.S. Eliot reading his poem. It's a voice beyond the grave that somehow makes poetry a more magical and swirling matter of expression and interpretation, something linked to real people and their individual voices and not the nigh-on-impossible Enigma code-breaking activity that it often seems to get represented as in the daily workings of School English. Those voices can be cracked with pain or rich with joy, crackling with emotion or just ancient recording technology, incantatory or dramatic or monotone, each one unique and compelling. I fell off my chair listening to Yeats reading 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', so strange and beautiful, and so utterly different from the chipper frippery of readings I'd heard before. I understood the poem differently afterwards.

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So, for your own pleasure, and as a way to refresh your understanding of familiar poems, the Poetry Archive is a great resource, but there's more. …