Britain's Poets Gain New Status on Campus

By Shola Adenekan Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

Britain's Poets Gain New Status on Campus


Shola Adenekan Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Jane Draycott's lecture on poetry is marked by laughter and good humor. In a study room at Oxford Brookes University (formerly Oxford Polytechnic), the class - mostly female students - listens with deep interest as she discusses the work of Arthur Rimbaud, the precocious boy-poet of French symbolism.

As she distributes handouts and asks about work in progress, Ms. Draycott enjoins her students to "feel" and "smell" poetry. "Creative writing is a journey of discovery," she says. The very act of writing poetry, she explains to her rapt students, uncovers new meaning.

An award-winning poet, Ms Draycott is part of the growing movement of creative writers working in British academia and spreading the gospel of poetry outside the familiar landscape of English departments and arts faculties.

From botanical gardens to bus companies to college campuses, having a poet-in-residence is now the in thing to do. So much so, that some in the media and the academic world are now calling poetry the new rock 'n' roll.

Young and old, the students attending these classes come from a variety of backgrounds and different walks of life.

"One thing I've learned is that poetry as a language has a much faster route to the brain," says Alison, an artist and a student in Ms Draycott's class. "It is also international because it's shorter. People are more likely to read it than long, wordy texts. Poetry is economical and rhythmical."

Poetry is now so popular that British universities face a supply- and-demand dilemma. So many students want to sign up for poetry classes that there are not enough professional poets to teach them.

Administrators believe the appointment of a resident poet to work in local schools, libraries, and the media helps to publicize both the arts in general and more particularly the value of an arts- based education to students who might not otherwise have thought of it.

"We particularly wanted [a poet] with a thorough knowledge of issues concerning ethnic minority school children and their approach to the arts and education," says a spokeswoman for the University of Central England in Birmingham (UCE) - an institution with a large percentage of local black and Asian students. "We also wanted someone who could do a limited amount of teaching and extracurricular work with our own students."

But the outlook for poetry has not always been so rosy in British education. Not that long ago, higher education in general - and particularly the newer colleges - were more apt to focus on practical subjects like technology, engineering, and business studies. Subjects like poetry and creative writing were seen as frivolous and unnecessary.

Then came the push by the government to get more students from minority and working-class backgrounds into higher education. With the increase in the numbers of ethnic minority students, the poetry studied in universities expanded to include a broader selection, meeting a demand from a diverse student body that the literature they study come closer to reflecting their own experiences and backgrounds.

"Poetry and creative writing are booming now because there is a market for it among students," says Ms. Draycott, whose tenure at Oxford Brookes University is being sponsored by the Royal Literary Fund. …

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