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The Death of Poetry in Australian Classrooms

1 April 2010

In 1982 Neil Postman first noted that the concept of childhood was disappearing in his book, The Disappearance of Childhood. It's highly unlikely that we'll be saying anything new if we claim that poetry is disappearing from the classroom. And though it is, and has been doing so for decades, poetry itself survives. It's just going to other places. To the small press, to cafes, to cyberspace, even to public transport. Perhaps, if we want poetry to be heard and read in other places too, our society needs to bring it back to schools.

In too many Australian schools, poetry seems to be either optional in curriculum, ignored by teachers altogether, or misrepresented by a narrow field of focus. Perhaps worse than this, when poetry is presented in a classroom, it is often explored with a cold, analytical emphasis that does much to close off a reader's interaction.

For instance, poetry teaching practice seems too comfortable dissecting the poem as a dead thing, laying it out on a table and with a comprehensive list of analytical scalpels, having the students cut out the salient features, then go on to present obvious thematic responses weaned from the poem via biographical literary criticism. This is, at times, a stunningly closed form of interaction with a text that can, we'd argue, limit engagement with a poem to the simple task of ‘researching and matching' – where students link metaphors and imagery with biographical factoids from a poet's life. It is a checklist approach and sometimes this is where it ends, the poem is then discarded and another autopsied.

This kind of closed approach prevents a student from offering up their own responses, as observed by Roland Barthes in Death of the Author:

‘To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing'

Here, to ‘give an Author to a text' means to give that text a meaning which is significant only if it was the meaning the author meant for the text, where the ‘celebrity' or biography of the writer is more important than what they have written – which is not critical analysis. And critical thinking is one of the great wonders that poetry can enable.

It might seem instinctive to begin with a discussion of which texts or which writers are worthy of study. But there's a more pressing, obvious issue to deal with first, and it is vital when it comes to the classroom. So much of the joy and power in poetry isn't derived from who composed it or what era it came from. It is the manner in which it is presented, both to teachers by curriculum ‘guardians' and by teachers to students.

Ashley Capes: We've attempted to pool our experiences as students, teachers and poets, in the form of a double interview and I want to kick things off by asking you, Graham, the following question. Considering how far poetry has expanded in the digital world over the last few years, how far do you think classroom poetry needs to follow?

Graham Nunn: In my experience, the gap is wide and getting wider. A UK study conducted at the Open University, Cambridge and Reading in 2009, found that 58% of Primary School teachers could not name more than two poets and that 22% were unable to name any poets at all.

This is surely of great concern as I am almost certain that similar results would be recorded if this kind of study was to be carried out in Australian schools. While there are still passionate teachers out there, engaging students with a mix of classic and contemporary poetry, it appears the majority are shying away from it because they have no background in poetry or find it difficult themselves.

Responses I regularly hear when I ask teachers about the teaching of poetry in their classrooms include, ‘I don't get it,' ‘I am scared of teaching poetry,' and ‘I wouldn't know where to begin.' How can an English curriculum ignore poetry you may ask, well it seems that even some of our English Teachers Associations are in support of dropping poetry from the syllabus. Christopher Bantick's recent article in the ALR (Poets Must Go Back To School, March 3, 2010), stated that, ‘the English Teachers Association of NSW wants the teaching of English not to include poems, but be about other models of English such as personal growth.'

This lack of support from the very people who we expect to be championing poets and poetry, leaves me wondering about the fate of poetry in our schools. If poetry is not an integral part of the English syllabus, then it seems it will be largely ignored by teachers and as a result our students will be more likely to ignore poetry in favour of other literary works.

So how will poetry regain its appeal, how will it get both feet back in the school door? One school of thought is that the demise of poetry in schools is due partly to the quality of most contemporary verse. Bantick (Poets Must Go Back To School, March 3, 2010) uses a line from Liverpool poet Adrian Henri to illustrate his feelings about much contemporary verse, ‘Most people ignore poetry/ because/ most poetry ignores people.' He goes on to say that, ‘poetry has become a cottage industry of the indulgent.' As someone who has recently published and a reader of much contemporary verse, how do you respond to these thoughts Ashley?

AC: My first response is one of fear – it's disturbing to think of poetry being something that ignores people or readers. As writers, we're trying to communicate, and if contemporary poetry can no longer communicate with people, what the hell is it for, you know? And by communicate, I don't mean communicate in the simplistic, SMR Model of transmitting information. Through writing we can express an idea, an image, an emotion, and still be subtle, still challenge the reader in our delivery, without going over the top.

Without getting into a discussion about ‘writerly and readerly texts,' what I imagine Bantick is reacting to, when he notes that poetry can be an ‘industry of the indulgent,' is where contemporary verse is used to obstruct communication through indulgence in poetic devices, or indulgence in language that delights in and of itself, and of how well it becomes an example of language, rather than any communicative value it may have.

That is probably the chief requirement for me when I present poetry to a class. How well does this piece communicate?

And in regards to communication, I've recently been exposed to a current literacy study by Professor John Munro, in which he places significant emphasis on reading texts aloud. This helps students increase comprehension and improve their thinking about a text, but in regards to poetry and the common responses you've noted from teachers who will not go near it, how important is the oral nature of poetry? Because I think it can be overlooked – in the classroom poetry can be silenced by the printed page. What do you think the spoken poem can do to revitalise poetry?

GN: In recent times, the poetry reading has experienced somewhat of a revival and is now one of, if not the primary source for accessing poetry. I know that in Brisbane, there are very few bookstores that have any contemporary poetry stocked, so in many ways, readings are now filling that gap. Readings are being held in a diversity of places including pubs, cafes, libraries, art galleries, universities, antique stores & halls. I have even been invited to a reading in a fish & chip shop! Some readings attract healthy regular crowds of 50+ people, others are more intimate affairs, with only a handful of devotees, and then there are the larger festivals, such as the Queensland Poetry Festival which attract crowds in excess of 3000 during their 3-days of programming; but all, no matter the venue or crowd, aim to lift poetry from the page and return it to its oral roots.

To hear a poem Collins (Eleveld & Smith, The Spoken Word Revolution, Sourcebooks Inc. 2003) says, ‘is to experience its momentary escape from the prison cell of the page, where silence is enforced, to a freedom dependent only on the ability to open the mouth – the most democratic of instruments – and speak.' The poetry reading replaces the isolation of text, with the warmth of voice and the immediacy of the connection between listener and poet, giving the poem a reality that cannot be anchored to a page. This is a reality that is begging to be explored and would push teachers to move beyond the purely analytical model of examination that Ashley refers to earlier.

In many ways, poetry readings and more recently slams, have become the new frontier for poetry and there are a growing number of resources that teachers can access to bring the oral form into the classroom. Going Down Swinging, Poetry Speaks, The Spoken Word Revolution, The Academy of American Poets and Poetica to name but a few, all provide a rich resource of poetry in its oral form. And let's not forget the opportunities that bringing live poets into the classroom to present their work offers. It is this kind of engagement and connection with living writers that education needs to tap into. After all, if we are to expose students to quality poems written/composed with passion and insight and the cadence of language, we cannot afford to overlook the oral form. Which brings me to the question of form. Just how important do you see the teaching of poetic forms such as sonnets, ballads, ghazals and haiku?

AC: Very important. I think it's useful for any student, and any writer, to know what's out there, and what's come before us. And writing with the kind of restraint that such forms can bring, is an enriching practice. It seems contradictory, but working within a strict form can really force you to be creative. Imagine writing an entire novel without using the letter ‘e' once – the lengths you'd have to go in order to sustain narrative, or any sense of flow.

I think my verse writing improved significantly when I started writing haiku, senryu and renku – as haiku especially can be an extreme exercise in brevity and concision.

And in the classroom my students find that the form of haiku and senryu makes poetry more tangible from a writer's viewpoint. While they at times see ‘free verse' as daunting, haiku they do not. It has clear guidelines in topic, structure and even uses something so primal and universal that students of any age have real-life experience in them – the seasons. This from one of my past year 9 students

crippled foot

I remain ignorant

and love trampolines

In just one seventy minute lesson exploring the form, and three short lines, the student has written something that expresses frustration so clearly, and with humour and not a trace of artifice.

And it's always fun to break down the absolute conviction of some students who have been exposed to haiku earlier, and tell them that the 5-7-5 syllable count is actually no good in English language. And of course, Form's other great function is, simply, to be broken. But before students can break conventions they need to understand them in the first place, and I have found that they enjoy subverting rules once they understand them. I was reminded of this quote from Robert Graves:

I believe that every English poet should … master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them. (Lecture at Oxford as quoted in Time (15 December 1961)

It could easily be changed to every English writer, or better, every writer whatever language they use. From there, it's the best place for our students to leap into writing their own work, to step into innovation, and really engage with poetry.

So at last to the question, what kind of poetry and by whom? In Victoria for instance, the VCE English book list includes a range of texts from different eras and continents, but also provides for at least nine texts being ‘by or about Australians.' This is out of a total of thirty-six texts deemed appropriate for study – but from this thirty-six, only four are poetry, of which three are Australian authors. (Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Bruce Dawe) Some years ago, a collection of lyrics by Paul Kelly was on the VCE text list, which was an interesting step toward something contemporary.

I'd actually like to ask you, what you think Australian poetry can offer the classroom? When we study it as teachers, we have a massive history of forms, structures and traditions to draw on from the 'older' countries, but what is it about our literary heritage that is worth bringing into the classroom? Why, to use a modern pair, Dransfield instead of Ferlinghetti (and I do love the work of both writers)?

GN: The study of Australian poetry in schools is vital for a number of reasons. It provides an opportunity for students to engage with our nation's cultural identity and history, increases awareness of Australian writers and writing as a career path and will ensure that more Australian poetry texts remain in print.


Image: Classroom at De La Salle Dasmariñas, Philippines by James Sarmiento | CC BY 2.0

In many ways, Western Australia is leading the way, introducing the compulsory study of Australian literature in its senior school specialist literature course, but this is only a small step in the right direction. While I strongly believe the literature of other cultures needs to be adequately represented, any English syllabus that fails to provide a rich mix of classic and contemporary Australian poetry is selling our students short and contributing to the isolation of poetry in our educational system.

One only has to take a look at the NSW English Syllabus Years 7-10 to see that the suggested reading list is by no means balanced. Here we are offered The Surfer by Judith Wright, Beach Burial by Kenneth Slessor and Faces In The Street by Henry Lawson, a handful of Australian poetry anthologies (for example, Australian Imaginings, Jill Bryant, Cambridge University Press), three verse novels (by Steven Herrick and Margaret Wild) and one full length collection, My People by Oodgeroo. While I agree that all of these texts value add to the syllabus, and hold an important place in the Australian canon, it seems clear that Australian poetry is given a very narrow treatment.

When examining this list, it becomes apparent that the small presses which now publish the majority of Australian Poetry have been largely ignored. As Bantick states in the conclusion to his article 'Poets Must Go Back to School', ‘publishers and booksellers must insist that poems are part of any English education.' This is problematic, considering (nearly) all major Australian publishers have dropped poetry from their lists and that most small presses produce boutique print runs and have limited distribution. So just how do we overcome this ever-widening gap in the publishing market? And what role does the Education system play in creating an increased demand for Australian poetry?

AC: I do think that the digital world can fill part of the void. Though poets will probably never enjoy the kind of distribution that sees their books on shelves of dozens of stores in dozens of cities and dozens of countries, I think the new technology can enable a different kind of personalised distribution, that has a little more charm than an e-book or PDF (which is portable, and travels anywhere instantly). But if you're more of a romantic and want to actually be able to hold the object you purchased, then the potential of this machine is impressive.

Print on demand technology is certainly not without its issues (for one, initial costs are significant – though a single book (up to around 800 pages) may be printed for around 1 cent per page) but imagine being able to buy a book deemed ‘out of print' or the work of an obscure small press Italian poet from your local library or school? If such Espresso book machines could be installed in schools, access to a wider range of texts may well make an amazing difference to poetry. And for writers it is another way to ‘stay in print' and have worldwide exposure without distribution costs of shipping and storage.

With or without POD technology, the education system could support small press more, because as Graham notes earlier, that's where the vast majority of contemporary poetry is being published. Educational organisations could also encourage libraries and curriculum authorities to include a wider selection of poetry, drawn from the places it's being published most. Instead, it seems the lists of major publishers are used for the greater part, and thus a smaller selection of contemporary poetry is available before the authorities make their selections.

And why not ask the students what they're interested in? If it's lyrics, or spoken word from slams or festivals, then why not study an audio collection of spoken word? And if students don't know what they like yet, because they haven't seen enough poetry, then once again, it's time to widen the palette in the classroom. Give students a chance to see what's out there.

GN: I totally agree Ashley. As teachers, we need to be immersing our students in the poetry community to broaden their poetic palette. This might include trips to festivals, inviting poets to schools and hosting readings where students perform their work for the school community. With the digital explosion, this is now possible at a virtual level for the majority of school communities. I have been involved in a number of online workshops with schools in regional Queensland using secure online forums such as The Learning Place and video conferencing tools. While it doesn't replace the intimacy of the face to face experience, the technology boom has certainly made it possible to interact on a deeper level with students in our regional areas. And while talking of broadening the poetic palette, it seems reasonable that we look at expanding on the current reading lists in schools. Some works that I feel are worthy of study in our schools include:

Smoke Encrypted Whispers by Samuel Wagan Watson (UQP, 2004)

Dha'gun Jabree Djan Mitti by Lionel Fogarty (Salt, 2008)

I'm Not Racist, But … by Anita Heiss (Salt, 2007)

Red Roses by Ania Walwicz (UQP, 1992)

War is not the Season for Figs by Lidija Cvetkovic (UQP, 2004)

Immigrant Chronicle by Peter Skrzynecki (UQP, 2002)

The Fall by Jordie Albiston (White Crane Press, 2003)

The Monkey's Mask by Dorothy Porter (Picador, 1994)

The Golden Bird by Robert Adamson (Black Inc., 2008)

Sweeping the Light Back Into the Mirror, Nathan Shepherdson (UQP, 2006)

Amongst the Graffiti by Janice Bostok (Post Pressed, 2002)

The Second Australian Haiku Anthology (Paper Wasp, 2006)

The Complete Lyrics, 1978 – 2006 by Nick Cave (Penguin, 2007)

If the World Belonged to Dogs by Michelle A. Taylor (UQP, 2007)

Doodledum Dancing by Meredith Costain and Pamela Allen (Penguin, 2006)

Black Inc. and UQP's annual Best Australian Poetry anthologies; and

Going Down Swinging

As with any list, it must be a living thing. This is where the greatest problem lies with the current reading lists as they appear to have been left to stagnate for many years. For any list to remain relevant, it must be reviewed every three years. In doing so, we are able to consider recent releases and examine the effectiveness of the texts currently on the list.

I would also like to add that this list is in addition to the current reading list and is obviously Australian-centric with a focus on years 7 – 12. The inclusion of poets such as Judith Wright, Kenneth Slessor, Henry Lawson and Oodgeroo Noonuccal is of great importance and I would want them on any reading list. Greater attention also needs to be paid to listing works for students in the Primary years.

In selecting the above books, I have given precedence to single author collections as I feel that this is an area that has been overlooked on all of the current reading lists. I have also tried to include a mix of contemporary Indigenous voices (Wagan Watson, Fogarty and Heiss), voices that represent our multicultural story (Skryznecki, Walwicz and Cvetkovic), contemporary male and female voices (Adamson, Shepherdson, Porter, Albiston, Best Australian Poetry and Going Down Swinging), Australian haiku (Bostok & Second Australian Haiku Anthology), song lyrics (Cave), oral poetry/spoken word (Going Down Swinging), verse novels (Porter), long poems (Shepherdson), prose/experimental poems (Walwicz and Going Down Swinging) and works specifically for younger students (Taylor and Costain). I have also tried to include works from small presses (White Crane Press, paper wasp, Post Pressed) alongside more established presses with national distribution (UQP, Salt, Penguin, Picador).

This list is not comprehensive in any way shape or form. Lists by nature are exclusive, hence the need for regular review. It is quite simply, the tip of the iceberg… a starting point to engage people in deeper discussion about the need to embed poetry in the curriculum of every state and territory. Ashley's list has taken a more global approach, looking at movements and I feel this sits very nicely alongside my more prescriptive list of Australian works.

AC: Despite my list being quite generalised and failing to include many actual texts as suggestions, I'm in agreement with Graham's concerns that any such list ought to be a ‘living list' and open to constant review. Works with ‘timeless themes' beloved by literature boards are not lone works – all kinds of poets write on universal and important themes, along with new themes and new issues that cannot be addressed by writers at the peak of their power more than 200 or even only fifty years ago.

So I'm going to cop out a bit and offer up a structure of study set around a series of movements or significant groups. By itself the history of poetry is important, but more so when it comes to understanding current poets. In this way, I'd set myself up to cover a range of traditional and modern poets and forms, but also be in a position to explore the social and cooperative side to poetry.

I'd also be offering some level of critique or discussion on the movements at the same time, exposing students to multiple viewpoints. For truly classical works like the Iliad, I might use it for a discussion of poetry in the oral form. Keeping a significant part of the focus on language uses that have much in common with current speech patterns, allows students a better chance to get into the poetry, and save them the trouble of having to become ‘translators' of older language forms while they read.

Here's my idea of a linear order of study for a few movements which bear significance to where poetry is now:

(I) The Romantics

What I find so useful about the study of the Romantics, is their complete faith in themselves and their own experience of the world, which comes through in their poetry and critical work. Aside from their astounding grasp of meter and sometimes overwrought but beautiful imagery, poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth and Shelley are also fantastic to use when challenging classic ideas of what an author actually does. The Romantics are especially known for propagating popular myths about writing (divine inspiration, God-given etc) and purposefully clouding their influences and the editing process, such as Coleridge's claim that 'Kubla Khan' sprang forth, complete, from his pen, after a dream. It's much more likely that he did, like most writers, take the piece through several drafts before publication.

(II) The Modernists

From this time I'd probably gather together work from Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Gertrude Stein and e.e cummings for examples of modernist poetry, but focus a little more on cummings and William Carlos Williams. cummings for his willingness to break form and take risks, but especially Williams, whose efforts to link poetry with modern or casual speaking rhythms and patterns is integral for the development of contemporary English language poetry. This focus on what Williams called ‘the local' gives students a chance to contrast with other modernists' themes, where use of classical literature references is common. (I've also recently discovered the work of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai who was among the first to work in colloquial Hebrew in a similar manner and would add his translations to this study.)

(III) The Beats

No Beats without Williams, perhaps, and so once again I'd direct students to innovators and risk takers. An especially interesting group, not just because of the schools within the movement (New York, Black Mountain & San Francisco etc) but also the manner in which the Beats were as traditional as they were modern. For all their experimentation, they were quite similar to the Romantics in some ways, the work still being very much about the poet's experience of the world (compare this to the Language Poets) and a tendency to conceal the drafting process (though not to the same level of the Romantics) with the Kerouac ethos ‘the first thought is best thought' and use of stream-of-consciousness writings.

But the Beats were also instrumental in a return to poetry's spoken form. Music played a massive part in this, and Beat writers, in taking poetry back to its oral roots also built a sense of community through interaction with each other and artists (think City Lights and Ferlinghetti's victory in an obscenity trial, after publishing Ginsberg's ‘Howl'.) With the wealth of material and writers available, I'd simply add that Gregory Corso's ‘Marriage' is a particularly useful poem for a class to explore, both for its surrealist imagery, casual language and radical (for the time) thematic concerns. (Actually, from the Beats I'd probably do a quick side trip to the Imagist movement and also spend some time on Haiku, as it was a significant influence on the Beats.)

(IV) Contemporary Poetry/Digital Boom?

And finally to Contemporary Poetry, though that word ‘contemporary' really only works for a few years at a time. Perhaps something like the ‘digital boom' or ‘revolution' is a better term for the time period. Here, students not only have the chance to explore a wealth of current poetry and poets (from anywhere in the world) they can also explore the publishing industry – dating back to when the major publishers once treated poets as valuable, to now where small press and indie publishers dominate the poetry market (and more power to them). Because digital technology has allowed for many, many more people to start presses, more writers to produce ‘print quality' work themselves and also, of course, opened up much of the world through the online environment.

That is probably worth an entire semester itself! There's so much going on and there are so many amazing poets who are producing work without support of a major publishing house, a support that was enjoyed for many, many years by entire generations of poets, and now people can more or less, ‘go it alone.'

Between us we may have put together a bleak(ish) picture – and no apologies for doing so. What we might apologise for is offering few solutions. But it seems that the face of poetry in schools at the moment is a greying face, offering few thrills of discovery. But awareness is half the fight. If we want poetry to flourish in the world outside, let's give it the same care and attention where it is needed – in the classroom. How many times have you heard someone say: ‘I don't get poetry, never did at school either' or ‘I don't like poetry. We had this teacher at school and he/she totally sucked the life out of it by…' or a variation thereof.

Technologically, there are so many new avenues for poetry to conquer and the expansion of small press allows for a previously unseen variety. It's an exciting time to be writing, reading and teaching poetry, but basically, only insomuch as we make it so. The gauntlet probably went down about the time the publishing industry (and music industry for that matter) was finally completely hijacked by owners who were also businessmen, rather than owners who were also writers, editors or lovers of the work. And that slap stings, but so what? Resistance isn't half as much fun without it.


Ashley Capes has taught in a range of regional Victorian Secondary schools across years 7-12, hosted professional development for teaching Creative Writing and introductory courses to the Australian poetry market. He is currently researching the reading habits of students who are considered ‘digital natives.' His poetry and haiku has appeared in a range of Australian print and online journals, and even on public transport as part of the Moving Galleries Melbourne exhibition. His poem ‘Small Town' was recently commended in the Rosemary Dobson Poetry Prize and he once co-edited small press print magazine Egg(Poetry) and currently moderates online interactive renku site Issa's Snail. Ashley's first poetry collection, pollen and the storm, was released with the assistance of Small Change Press in 2008 and his second, Stepping Over Seasons, by IP in 2009.

Graham Nunn has worked in the field of education for 19 years. He has taught in Primary Schools, worked as a Teaching Principal in a number of small schools and currently works as an Advisory Visiting Teacher, Behaviour Management. He is one of the founding members of Brisbane's longest running poetry event, SpeedPoets, QLD editor for Blue Dog – Australian Poetry Journal, Secretary for the Australian Haiku Society, one half of the Small Change Press team and publisher of new series, Brisbane New Voices. His work has been published widely in Australia and overseas. He has published four collections and has a fifth, Ocean Hearted, due for release in mid-2010. He has also released a spoken word CD, The Stillest Hour, with local musician, Sheish Money. He blogs fiercely at Another Lost Shark.

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