Poetry is dead – and here’s who should inherit
Imagine walking into an archaeology or history lecture and being handed a stone tablet. It’s a bit different from the usual daily routine, but tablets were once hugely important ways of writing things down, so it’s not exactly surprising that you’re studying an ancient artefact in these subjects. But then you read the tablet, and see that the writing is actually a very modern lesson summary. And then the lecturer declares that all handouts for the rest of the course will be in tablet form, because stone tablets were once very important. This would, of course, be absolutely bizarre.
But it’s essentially what it’s like to study modern poetry in school or university. Poetry really was very important in the past. For millennia, poetry was basically the only literary form. If you were an ancient Greek, there were no novels for poetry to compete with. If you lived in 19th century England, you did have novelists, but poets like Wordsworth and Lord Byron were still bigger celebrities. Compare and contrast with today, where the most famous poets are people like Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy, people whose names are probably forgotten on a regular basis by cousins at Christmas reunions. If you’ve heard of them, it’s because they were on your syllabus for A-level and GCSE English. Yet an anthology of these modern poets can take up to a third of the course, which is absurd considering the lack of popular interest in modern poetry, a genre which envies the commercial success of Ukrainian cookbooks and Lib-Dem party manifestos.
Naturally, sales figures aren’t the only thing that matter in deciding which books are on the curriculum; if they were, 50 Shades of Grey and biographies of Wayne Rooney would be required reading, and that isn’t a whole lot better than Carol Anne Duffy. Anyway, say poetry’s defenders, poetry isn’t actually any less popular nowadays – it has just adapted. Modern music is still poetry. But if modern music is really the successor to poetry, why aren’t we studying respected modern music artists, like Bob Dylan or Kendrick Lamar? Sure, there’ll always be that one edgy teacher or lecturer who decides to spice up the course by analysing Drake for an hour on a Friday evening, but these gimmicks won’t lead to real change. Dylan being awarded a Nobel Prize should give him enough respectability to be added to school curriculums, but this is unlikely to happen, simply because Dylan isn’t a literature professor.
This is the real issue; a sort of old-boys network of English literature academics who write poetry in their spare time and exclusively teach the work of their friends and colleagues. Simon Armitage is a literature professor. So is Duffy, and Geoffrey Hill. Seamus Heaney was too. This is quite rare for English, as very few successful modern novelists or playwrights are academics by trade. But poets can’t convince people to actually pay money for their writing, so instead they have to live off teaching positions.
All of this leaves one glaring question: is there an alternative? Poetry’s defenders will say that it is indispensable, that it teaches valuable analytical skills, that it is one part of the holy trinity of literature – poetry, prose, and plays. Well, I could say that Liverpool has great weather, but that would be a lie too. Poetry is very replaceable; analytical skills would be better taught by studying real-life texts, like adverts or speeches; and literature covers a lot more than those 3 genres. Movie screenplays, for example. Song lyrics, as already mentioned, are also literature.
Personally, I feel that we should reform English at GCSE and A-level so that it’s a combined English and Media course, where film, TV, radio, magazines and other new broadcast forms studied alongside Renaissance poetry and Shakespeare. This would have the dual benefits of reducing the stigma Media currently faces as a relatively new subject, and of making English students less likely to throw themselves out of a window to avoid another Seamus Heaney poem.
Two forms of media desperately deserve more recognition at school. Journalism is the first, and doesn’t need much explaining: it impacts us daily, has a very different format to plays or novels, and many English students aspire to work in it.
The second is a bit more unusual – video games. We’ve moved on from the glory days of arcade gaming where an Italian plumber called Mario rescuing a princess was the best writing around; modern console game series like Final Fantasy or The Last of Us have HD cutscenes barely distinguishable from movies, and teams of scriptwriters devoted to realistic dialogue. Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of legendary British author Terry Pratchett, is now a respected video game writer, and these days, that doesn’t automatically mean that she’s a worse writer. Most exciting, however, are the narrative possibilities offered by the interactive nature of games. Over the last 15 years, video game stories have been revolutionised by titles like Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, games where a character’s choices throughout the game impact the story. In these games, the quests you take, the people you choose to talk with, and the characters you fight all influence your character’s development and the ultimate outcome of the story. So far, these possibilities have received too little mainstream attention, which makes it all the more important that young lovers of literature are exposed to the potential of this medium.
So, film, TV, songs, games, magazines and newspapers, radio and adverts. There’s not enough time in the week to do all of these justice, which makes it all the more galling that time can still be made for the side projects of English professors. Poetry would still be taught, of course, because we can’t ignore thousands of years of great literature just because things are different now. And it might even still be possible to teach the occasional modern poet who experiences success without being propped up by college reading lists, like Rupi Kaur. But at some point, administrators and teachers need to step back and acknowledge modern poetry for what it really is: a very old, very worn stone tablet.