On Poetry

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It perhaps says quite a lot about me that I only get around to talking about National Poetry Month on the last day of the month.  However, it does seem to have taken everyone else to the middle of the month to realise it too.  So maybe I’m only two weeks behind after all.

I don’t know about how it is for everyone else, I can only speak for myself, but poetry seems to have disappeared off the world radar these days.  Yeah, I know that there are national poets but it’s seems to be a title only, there’s few who can name the poet much less any of his works.  Gone are the days when farmsteaders were versed in the Bible, Shakespeare and Milton.

Poetry isn’t cool.  Is poetry not relevant anymore?  I don’t think we can argue that, modern poets seem to be tackling a diverse range of contemporary issues.  (I can only say that because I’ve bumped into a rainbow of words these last few weeks, mainly on blogs not through any erudite or cultural experience of my own).  Maybe it is because we now live in a modern world of soundbites, pithy at best but if not, then amusing on a basic level and preferably crude, garnered from films and celebrities.  Maybe we don’t have the same attention spans anymore.  A haiku might be more appropriate.  But too highbrow, too artful.

It comes down to attitude.  Poetry is for other people.  Who are those people?  Will we ever know?  Probably not, the mythical demographics of popular consciousness are vague, distant.  Poetry is not just seen as some elitist taste like opera and ballet.  (Apart from ballet classes for the female under eight, people from all classes and neighbourhoods with aspirations and a sense of de rigueur and duty send their precocious darlings off in worn shoes and badly stretched leotards.  Real ballet is as far apart from junior ballet classes as Pluto is from the Sun, still remaining an alien art form).  Poetry is fluffy and wet, poetry belongs to those of queer minds and dispositions, the uncool.

We did poetry at junior school before we learnt self-consciousness.  Acrostics mainly.  Hammered out sentences across the initials of a word, much like the début of a banana-fingered piano player.  I didn’t even realise until last week that you don’t have to keep the initials in order.  Maybe the Laws of Poetry can be broken.

In middle school, we progressed into laboured ABAB rhyming.  If you wanted to live dangerously you could always mix up the form but again poetry was all about Law.  It was ordered, twee and contrite.  We learnt poems.  The kind of poems that were guaranteed to put pre-adolescents off poetry for life.  For example, how can a cloud be lonely and how can it wander?  Do I really care about a field of daffodils?  I remember something about Adlestrop.  Which in my pun-creating mind sounds like a tantrum gone awry.  The only good thing that came from that experience and reading some book about a chalice being found was a lifelong passion for the rural abandoned that continues with me still and surfaces in my photography.  Early on in middle school we did our own versions of the Jolly Postman, much more my cup of tea.

And in senior school?  Poetry went the way of Creative Writing.  Nonexistent.  For GCSE, we did one creative piece.  I think it had to be a side of A4, a very short short story.  We did War Poetry, rushed through in perhaps less than half a term.  It wasn’t about the poetry either, it was all about themes and issues and culture and history.  But I met the famous War Poets of World War I, a love that I still carry with me.  I liked the work of Sassoon but preferred Owen.  The next closest we came to poetry was Shakespeare, enshrined as Law that all GCSE students must study at least one piece in their two years.  He wasn’t popular, he used weird words, a language more alien to teenagers than Arabic even thought it was purportedly their own.  I love Shakespeare but haven’t really returned to it since school apart from harvesting the occasional monologue or duologue for other studies.

That was my education in poetry.  Or at least my formal education.  There was poetry at home.  As a young child, I had volumes of nursery rhymes and spent hours poring over them before moving onto the Nonsense Rhymes and an Old Possum’s Book of Cats.  Oh and there was AA Milne.  My father loved Winnie the Pooh as much as Paddington.  In the old days before I was born and he was still commuting, he would read Winnie the Pooh on the London train between the bowler hats and the copies of the Times.

My mother on the other hand had once entertained dreams of a university scholarship and furnished me with a proper anthology, probably one of her own school prizes like my World Atlas and French dictionary too.  Her maiden name printed neatly on the inside.  This was poetry that meant that you were someone, this was poetry that was meant to be learnt.  I never got on with it.  The only poem that I truly loved was the Night Mail, it stays in my head still.  (Trying to find a link for the poem, I have discovered that it was originally written to accompany a film documentary and one commenter is right, it does sound a lot like modern rap in this version at least!)  It was the magical rhythm and the pictures it conjured.  That’s my kind of poetry.

Therefore I am not a cultured being.  I sometimes feel that I should make more of an effort, that for some reason I should be a cultured person.  The kind who remembers the big words and proper terms for everything, the kind who can string fancy words into any sentence, the kind who can quote poetry and literature more easily than I remember the day of the week.  But truthfully, I feel that it’s a little too much beyond me.  Maybe it’s an attitude thing.  To be all of those things would mean being posh, being highbrow, being a hundred and one things that I am most definitely not.  Besides which, my head would hurt.

I wrote poetry as a child but like my creative writing, I eventually realised that my talent did not amount to much, that I would go no further.  Maybe it was living with that aforementioned attitude.  Writing was always something I did in secret, some shameful weakness on my part.  Less socially acceptable then stuffing chocolate bars and biscuits behind closed doors.  And I had no framework and few points of comparison.  In the old-fashioned novels of my childhood, writers burnt with genius and dashed off great oeuvres in a few strokes of the pen.  However I have recently realised that apparently it’s not meant to be like that, writing is meant to be hard work, it is something that has to be crafted.  But I didn’t know at the time.  I got discouraged.  My pastimes not belonging in the modern world.

Modern poetry was, and in fact still is, something inaccessible, something entirely alien to the Laws of Poetry with which I grew up, I mean some of it doesn’t even rhyme!  My poems belonged to the sentimental tripe of antiquity, a genre which I didn’t even enjoy reading.  But there was nowhere else to go, nothing beyond.  I only know acrostics and ABAB.  I have a funny feeling that poetry is more than that but it would be like trying to force an introduction with some learnéd, highbrow culturalist at a gallery opening.  Little me doing that!  No chance.

So poetry remains for other people.

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Where is Literacy Going?

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Literacy is a fancy ‘posh’ word for reading, popularised as an essential skill by the term ‘the three Rs’.  The essential skills of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.  It was the Victorians who decided that every child needed these skills to survive in the modern civilised world.  Some would argue that we now live in an even more modern, an even more civilised world so what skills do we need now?  Are the three Rs essential?

I was musing about this because there’s been ongoing rumbles in the media that pen and paper exams are old fashioned and will swiftly be replaced by computerised versions.  Children nowadays apparently are no longer au fait with the most basic tools of education, the pen and paper.

Is this sensible?  Is this logical?  I don’t know.  There seems something sad about this outcome, as though the children of this age are becoming increasingly like robots, responding only to instructions on a printed screen.  Where is the creativity, the feel in a box of wires?  Or is it that creativity is changing medium too?

I guess that change is natural, however much I may buck against it in any context.  The computer came in during my days at school, slowly but surely.  One day we were looking up information in unwieldy volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica the next we were searching for articles from Encarta on CD-ROM.  Eventually we even had the internet.  I am never comfortable writing out large documents by hand, I prefer to do it in a word processing document because I can delete and move things around to my heart’s content.  I am more confident in this medium than if I try to draft out my illogical thought processes on paper.  Neither improves my ability to write scholastic essays however.

Originally in the early schools from the Victorian period on, the slate and chalk was king.  But why?  Cost and availability.  Education has changed, sometimes for the better.  Parrot fashion learning may have its uses but it has passed from popularity.  Should we have retained the slate and chalk when exercise books and pencils became more common?

Fashions and new inventions have all had an effect on education.  We started with pencil in our first years and still used fountain pens in senior school.  I remember when gel pens were new fangled and all the rage.  Teenagers embracing the kaleidoscope of colours, smells and glitter like preschoolers.  I remember teachers telling us not to use biros.  Now you have to use a biro in what may be the last few years of paper exams

The biggest logistical issues with paperless exams is the provision of a computer to every student.  How do you disable every single feature on a computer to stop them using their initiative and finding the answers elsewhere than their own brain?  It seems sometimes that even how we process information has changed.  Does using a computer enable more students to participate in exams or does it have its own medical limitations?

Exams were always a major logistical exercise, prepared with the gritty determination of generals going to war.  Acres of small wooden tables would appear from the depths of storage, chairs procured from every available corner.  Decisions about whether there was enough cassette players for audio exams.  (No, there wasn’t even tape players for each student so I can foresee limitations with this computer system already.)

There is also talk of abolishing books as we know them.  Again is this a natural progression?  We’ve all forsaken scrolls and codices in favour of the easier to use bound book.  Will our children, grandchildren no longer have brightly coloured book spines stacked along their shelves?  Will we be picking up an electronic tablet to share a bedtime story with them?  Is this progress or is there something unnatural, unfeeling about these gadgets?  And how will children learn to read?  One day will the printed word have disappeared from our lives?

Will education come to mean children, students sitting in front of banks of computers?  How will they interact with their teacher or the students around them?  Have we become the victims of another era of parrot fashion and rote but in an entirely new medium?  Will children still play in their early years classrooms?  Will group projects still continue as we know it or will they just communicate over networks?  Will the arts fall by the wayside?  Or will dramas be cast by avatars and viewed on a personal screen?  Or will art become graphics?  Only time will tell but I reckon it’s a sad day when we choose to tether a child to a screen six hours a day.

Personally, I love the feel of paper, I like the ridges and bumps my fountain pen makes on it.  I don’t even mind when I get covered in black ink. I am part of  a communally shared creative process that’s been by played out by thousands if not millions of other scribes across the millenia.  I am one of many thousands of inky fingered students that have struggled to express themselves.  Yet I choose to have an online blog.  Maybe I am embracing the change after all.

It does also make you think how our culture’s records will be preserved, will our documents disappear into the ephemeral or will the files be lost to successive updates of programs and file types?  Who knows.

Laws of the Universe

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I remember learning about several laws of the universe when I was at school, two of them in fact.  Maybe there are more but those are the two I know about and ‘learnt’.  (If you could place yourself in the shoes of any of my science teachers then you’d no doubt be impressed that I had at least managed to learn something in your lessons.)

There was gravity.  Everyone knows about gravity.  Gravity has a bad habit of presenting itself when you’re going to least appreciate it.  When you’re falling, for example.  We mainly see gravity as a negative because of the painful consequences when we try to circumvent it.  However gravity is a good thing because it stops things spinning off into outer space.

There’s another one too.  This people are possibly a little bit more aware of after such a nasty icy spell.  This is friction.  (Not to be confused with the library department where the stories are kept, that’s FICTION.  Friction is not fiction.  As anyone trying to walk on ice will tell you).  Friction is also apparently a good thing (a lack of  it means you will fall over and discover gravity) but I’m less sure of the details.

Two great laws of the universe.  However there is a third.  They don’t teach you this one at school but you gradually learn it as you go through life, recognising it when it rears its head.  Sometimes it makes you chuckle, sometimes you are bitterly resentful.  It is known by several names but I call it MURPHY’S LAW.  Have you met it?