SHOULD primary school children be required to learn and recite poetry? That’s the idea mooted by education secretary Michael Gove back in June and discussed by writers and educators on last week’s National Poetry Day.
The proposal is part of outline plans to make English teaching “far more rigorous” and refocus on traditional core skills such as spelling and grammar.
Now that’s an idea guaranteed to get Oftsed inspectors grabbing their clipboards and sidling casually away through the fire door. Hundreds of pupils reciting the Owl and the Pussycat one by one, class after class, school after school until oblivion.
But while my instinct is to respond to any of the current government’s suggestions by burying my head in the herbaceous border, I have to go with Gove on this one.
Kids should be learning poetry. That’s because poetry is brilliant. Simple as that. Nothing to do with national curriculums, or box-ticking targets or having to find something (anything!) to suggest in an education plan.
Poetry is funny and silly and imaginative and thought-provoking and basically just great.
The best poems of all are those that you learn as a kid, full to bursting with be-hatted Quangle Wangles, mean-tempered little girls, gravy-nested sausages, befuddled caterpillars and frumious flaming-eyed Bandersnatches.
The ones which you can say by heart without being able to read, just as family stories are passed down generation to generation.
If reciting and listening to poetry encourages children to read then brilliant – but it shouldn’t just be about that. It’s a sharing experience, it lifts the spirits and limbers up the imagination – and you don’t have to know a thing about grammar or spelling to enjoy it.
I can still recite the poems I learned as a child, taught to me by Ogden Nash, Spike Milligan, Lewis Carroll and plenty of others via my parents. My mum and dad taught me to read too, but my very early literary conquests – “Here is Peter and here is Jane. Here is Pat the dog” – don’t shine as brightly in my memory.
As we grow into adults poetry seems to fade from our lives along with our pretend friends, 10p mixes, velcro trainers and an enthusiasm for high-pitched TV presenters.
It’s hard to find time to quote a few lines of Wordsworth at the sight of springtime daffodils when your toddler has just trodden in dog poo.
So when poetry does find a way into your life it’s even more special.
Last week, after a meeting in the Walker Art Gallery cafe I was invited upstairs to meet the Poetry Doctor, a white-coated character marking National Poetry Day by prescribing literary treats for visitors.
My treatment was Carol Ann Duffy’s work Tea. Three bastions of Middle England in one – poetry, the poet laureate and English Breakfast – now that’s the sort of tradition we could with more of.