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No books, no barriers: The finalists of this year’s Poetry By Heart competition. Its ambassadors say memory and understanding go together (photo: Poetry By Heart/Sam Strickland)

Remember Mnemosyne? It seems today’s poets have forgotten the mother of the muses, Memory herself. In a bizarre spectacle, more than 100 poets joined writers and academics in March to sign an e-petition against the Department of Education’s fiendish plot to have children remember poems for their English Literature GCSE. Such poets included Gillian Clarke (the National Poet of Wales), Moniza Alvi and Jane Weir, whose poem “Poppies” even features on the syllabus. Why the high dudgeon? Have these poets never heard of Arthur Rimbaud, forced to memorise page after page of Latin verse by his mother? Or James Joyce, whose Jesuit education lay behind his gargantuan powers of recall? Or Sylvia Plath, who learnt a poem a day at breakfast?

As reported in the Sunday Times, Andrea Brady, Professor of Poetry at Queen Mary University of London, commented that the Department of Education’s approach is “based on a fantasy of the good old days, when students sat up straight and memorised Kipling. The skills that we value at university—the ability to read carefully, to discern the characteristics of a poem through inventive close reading—are not ones which would be tested by this exam.” Her carping reference to Kipling is as crass as it comes—proof that she hasn’t read him very closely or creatively. Unfortunately, “inventive close reading” is honoured far more in the breach than the observance. Instead, English students are too often browbeaten by critical theory and penalised if they fail to repeat its dogmas of deconstruction, new historicism and semiotics ad infinitum.

Considering the uproar, the exact wording of the e-petition is disarmingly mild. In response to the requirement for students from 2017 “to remember” 15 to 18 poems in order to “closely analyse” them, it asks that the government consult with the English teaching community “as to whether this is the fairest and most meaningful way of assessing students’ understanding and appreciation of poetry”. Its creator, Mary Meredith, a Lincolnshire schoolteacher, followed the e-petition with an open letter to Glenys Stacey, the Chief Regulator at Ofqual, to express her concern that a “closed book examination is not the most valid way of assessing poetry appreciation”. She complained that even learners “with the critical sensitivity to fully understand the impact of a half rhyme, an extra metric foot, a line break, a full stop, a comma—most of them will not have the opportunity to demonstrate this sensitivity in an exam which emphasises memory over forensic engagement with text.”

This strikes me as odd. How else could you appreciate, say, the impact of a half rhyme, without saying it, hearing it, feeling it and being able to bring it to mind? Isn’t that part of knowing why it’s there? In “Strange Meeting”, Wilfred Owen’s battering chain of “escaped”, “scooped”, “groined” and “groaned” has little impact on the page, in the deathly silence of the exam hall. Meredith asks for one simple change: “an open book anthology paper”. Pupils will perform better when they “have in front of them the object for close analysis—rather than just a memory of that object”. This object for “forensic engagement” and “close analysis” carries a rather clinical feel: a nightingale carefully asphyxiated within a Victorian bell-jar.

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June 28th, 2015
3:06 PM
There was a fine winner of Poetry by heart competition. One Emily Dunstan who read quite brilliantly. But...if a person should like to hear that reading ... they can't . There's no way to find a link to hear her reading. How maddening. Her reading was marvelous and I yearn to hear it again and imagine many other would too. Can you post a sound file?

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