Sunday, 3 October 2021

Diet poetry and the problems with the poetry anthology

 I enjoy teaching poetry but I do find the idea of an anthology of fifteen poems for GCSE such an overwhelming prospect for students. I have been around long enough to seen how the various poetry anthologies are used. Rather than have students engage with poetry and exploring how language is used, we end up, largely, having poetry translation and memorisation of random facts in the hope they can be strung together.

The obsession becomes about ‘knowing the poem’. What ever ‘knowing the poem’ means? Single poems are studied over several lessons until the teacher feels the students know the poem, which usually means the teacher has informed student about everything in the poem. We aren’t happy unless the student has an highlight annotated copy of the poem in their book and twenty spurious facts about the poem, like Duffy has an aversion to the colour red, in their brains.

The cognitive load of the anthology is massive and it is a worrying aspect for us as practitioner. For novels and plays, you have narrative framework which holds knowledge together or at least structures it in some way. Fifteen poems loosely linked together by a theme lacks this structure and this natural cohesion that plays and novels naturally have. Then, let’s look at the poems themselves. Densely packed texts with a multitude of ideas, messages, themes and techniques. The richness of poetry for some is the cognitive overload for others.

When you marks essays based on the anthologies, you get a clear divide. Those that can remember everything a teacher said about a poem. Those that can form their own opinion on the poems. Those that just repeat parts of the text. Sadly, even after spending weeks looking at the poems, some students are not able to form their own opinions. Part of the beauty of poetry is that anybody should be able to offer an opinion on a poem, spot some interesting things about the poem and offer some reasons about why they think a poet wrote it. Poetry should be the one thing students should be able to do easily without understanding  Shakespeare’s language or without knowing the plot of a 350 paged Victorian novel.  The way the anthologies are taught I’d argue add to the cognitive load of students. We are adding to the load rather than supporting and helping with the load. We have a large number of our students who are overburdened with poetry that when it comes to assessment that freeze-up and write waffle.

We need to look at the process of how we teach these poems. We need to be aware of the cognitive load related to the learning the poems. Students think they need to know everything about the poems. That in itself if problematic but it is something we need hit head on. We need to aim for confidence about a poem and not complete knowledge of the poem. Now, don’t you go thinking this is  knowledge rant; it isn’t. But, I feel that the relationship between knowledge and confidence needs exploring. Knowledge does give you confidence, but confidence in poetry can come from very little knowledge and from the personal knowledge of the student. Ideally, we want confident and knowledgeable students, but at the moment we do have students who lack confidence because the knowledge is overwhelming. They need the knowledge is a way that helps them build their confidence. We need to address the extraneous load so that students get more confident.

So, where is this going? Well, we, like others, had a problem with lockdowns and students isolating. We had studied several of the poems during lockdown, but when it came to revisiting them the students struggled to recall or discuss the poems they had previously studied with confidence. Therefore, we needed to revisit the poems in a way that ensured knowledge retention and confidence, so I did something a bit controversial. For this, I know I am going to visited by the ghosts of Blake, Plath and Tennyson begging me to change my ways. Bah, humbug! I presented a diet version of the poems in the anthology. This is how we started ‘War Photographer’.


In his darkroom he is finally alone

With spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.


Home again

To ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,

To fields which don’t explode beneath the feet

Of running children in a nightmare heat.


He remembers the cries

Of this man’s wife, how he sought approval

Without words to do what someone must


From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where

He earns his living and they do not care. 


Students copied the diet version in their books and then together we explored the meaning behind the poem. Students spotted patterns in the language and together we explored their ideas about the poem and the poet’s message. The great thing was that students felt they knew the poem and they readily offered ideas about the meaning of lines and phrases. All annotated on their handwritten copy of the poem. The beauty of writing is down was that spotted things in the writing which are largely hidden from sight unless you write things down. Word order. Structure.

But, you’ve taken some of the best bits of the poem out? Yes. I had. On purpose. The problem often with poetry – and the beauty of it – is that you have lots of images that add to the overall mood and tone, but detract from the overall meaning. We get it, because we are attuned to dealing with a collection of images, yet students don’t. They overload the student. Why is it a Mass in a dark room? The concept of the darkroom isn’t clear in the student’s head when another image is thrown into the mix. That’s why a lot of poetry teaching is working through the poem line by line. Decluttering.

We hadn’t even read the whole poem yet students had a confident grasp of what the poem was about, the choices made relating to language and structure and some understanding of the poet’s message. Confidently, they could talk about the poem. We did this repeatedly with five of the other poems and their confidence increased. They had a grounded understanding of the poem which was a mixture of exploration and discussion, rather than us go line by line through the poem.

Then, when we looked at the poem, we were able to look at how other components worked.

The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.


This next bit became incredibly fruitful in terms of discussion. We were able to look at what this sentence added to the meaning of the poem. What was the effect now of comparing it to a church and a Mass? How did the mood change? Why at this point? We did this repeatedly with the poem. Seeing how each element missing from the diet version slots in. Building their knowledge when they were confident to start with at the beginning.

All too often we look at the whole and zoom in on a word or a line, but this changed things for us. We were looking at the cohesion between parts of the poem. How things fitted together? Exploring the reasons and the ideas. Bringing new elements to the poem helped increase their knowledge of the poem, but with a real sense of confidence. We could even throw Yygotsky in there and say that I was working on the concrete and building up to the abstract elements.

Confidence in talking about poetry is something we need to actively work on. Yes, there’s a lot of poems to get through and so little time, but if we can get students more confident about talking about a poem in their first lesson with the poem, then that will only add to their confidence when they write about the poems later down the line. All it too was a little unburdening of the cognitive load when faced with the poem for the first time.

Thanks for reading,


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