In the last year, another government initiative has created a compulsory part of the curriculum: learning poetry by heart and the new (2016) tests for Key Stage 2 children (7- and 8-year- olds) will probably include a paper on poetry. A draft paper is now up on the government website and it involves what they describe as ‘retrieval’, ‘inference’ and ‘identifying literary language’. Though this kind of paper does not stipulate what kind of poet might appear (the example given is a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson), it does demonstrate what kind of questioning teachers and children might expect. This will inevitably have a knock-on effect on how poetry is taught in the first years of the primary school as the combined scores that a school gets in such tests determines the school’s future – will it be forcibly turned into an academy or not?
The questions are extremely narrow, eliminating open interpretation or any kind of emotional or reflective connection made between the child and the poem. Under the heading of identifying literary language, the examiner has made the absurd error of talking of the persona of the poem as ‘the poet’, when the poem cited is told from the point of view of a boy playing with boats.
This kind of examining is a form of government control of literature. Though it does not involve the persecution of poets, it does involve an attempt to control how poetry is read. Given that it is so narrow, and eliminates the child’s point of view from the permitted range of responses, there is a clear ideology being expressed: poetry serves the purpose of being a mine of ‘facts’, consequential action and a source of literary language that exists for its own reasons. The idea that poetry exists in order that we can open a particular kind of conversation that draws close attention to feelings, ideas, unfamiliar ways of looking at the world, suggestiveness, open-ended questioning and ludic approaches to language all disappear under this government onslaught.
Michael Rosen in conversation with Marina Boroditskaya, from I Wish… Modern Poetry in Translation 2015 Number 2, Edited by Sasha Dugdale.
To read the rest of the conversation, visit MPT here