The Power of Poetry: helping teenagers to grow up better
I had an epiphany yesterday. We were practising comparing and analysing a couple of poems, as you do at this time of year with your year 11s, when one of the brightest boys (on paper) in my class complained for the umpteenth time that “This is stupid! It can’t be right! It’s just words. I bet if you spoke to these poets they wouldn’t have ever thought this stuff when they were writing the poem.”
I went and sat with him and instigated a discussion on the complexities and nuances of language and of texts as cultural artefacts that can be dealt with separately from the author. We discussed the hidden depths of meaning that language has and how language is a vehicle of knowledge, culture and history. He pointed out that the kettle I use is just a kettle because it’s a kettle, so we talked about how the word kettle has origins going back to the industrial revolution and beyond, and that all the historical and cultural connotations are bound up in the word. Well, this really annoyed him because he began to realise that, in reality, words aren’t “just words”.
The student in question is an A* student in maths and science, and we began talking about how things either are or aren’t in these subjects and that invariably there is a right or wrong answer. So we discussed further the possibility that without language we couldn’t know anything about the world, and that the extent of our knowledge is bound by the extent of our vocabulary and that new words have to be invented for new ideas, concepts or discoveries, even in science and maths. This really got him thinking, and he finally decided that he just found poetry hard because he doesn’t like ambiguity. Clearly, this very bright young man’s brain has developed in such a way that it thrives on certainty and proof.
I began thinking a bit more about this. The main problem, to my mind, is that throughout key stage three, this student has studied poetry for three half terms (historically there’s been one poetry unit a year every half term where I work). This means that 46 weeks of the year in years 7-9 he’s not read any poetry worthy of the word.
Then, in year 10, he’s studied a few poems for his controlled assessment that he’s had to compare with a Shakespeare play. This has really emphasised in his mind how much he hates the stuff.
Next, in year 11, he has to study poetry to develop the skills needed to answer the unseen poetry question in the exam. Again, he knows that he has to do this to pass his exam, has already decided on and embedded the notion that he’s rubbish at it, and therefore sees this stuff as out to get him.
But then the problem is compounded, you see. All this is happening in parallel to him dealing with his adolescence and growth into young adulthood. This is a time when we are desperately trying to find out who we are and how our identity fits into the social world around us. We crave certainty and clear black and white answers. We don’t want ambiguity and confusion and ambivalence as this stops us from knowing who we are. And so, when sporadically exposed to poetry, it only adds to the confusion and difficulty of growing up. Not only are we fumbling around trying to understand individual and group identities, but we’re also expected to interpret pieces of text with no real correct interpretation. This has got to be the best way to upset somebody who is worried about their own uncertainties.
So what is the answer? Students should study poetry because it is the epitome of linguistic and cultural achievement, and they have to study it because they’re going to be examined on it. Therefore the answer is obvious. STUDY LOADS OF POETRY ALL THE TIME.
If our students are given a steady diet of poetry almost every week of their teenage lives, it will help them to come to terms with the fact that the world is a place with multiple layers of meaning that can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. It will allow them to deal with issues that they can relate to from a safe distance. They may realise that it’s ok to be a little unsure of exactly who they are. And less importantly, when they go into the exam, they will be confident in understanding and interpreting poems and in articulating their ideas about them.