Thursday, September 04, 2008

Perilous poetry?

A piece in today's Guardian caught my eye because it was about teaching English. In fact, it was about the perceived possible effects of teaching a specific poem which might, so the argument goes, lead to knife crime in a culture where such crime is on the increase. You can read the poem, Education for Leisure, here (scroll to the foot of the page). You will see that it might also lead to an increase in crime against goldfish, and you may or may not care for the poem.

But that's not the point. The point is that a piece of literature by a respected writer is to be banned because of its subject, because someone complained and someone else took fright and knee-jerked. That's how it seems to me anyway. And if we apply the same strictures, we'd better not teach Shakespeare at all - the article refers to Romeo and Juliet, but you might think Macbeth a tad free with the daggers. And what about old Larkin? His poem The Old Fools could be seen as offensive to the very old, and as for that magnificent Aubade ... fear of death, worrying preoccupation with dying and being dead: not the sort of thing we want our young to think about at all. No, no - never mind the wonderful imagery, the masterful form - it's the possible damage to young minds we are about.

Literature gives the opportunity to bring the forbidden out into the open, to discuss it, to think about psychology and morality and choices and fears in a safe environment where you're actually seeming to do something else. If I were still teaching, I'd be copying that poem even now and teaching it tomorrow - and I'd tell my pupils why. And I'd remember that parents' evening long ago when a blustering father complained because I was encouraging his child to read Joan Lingard's Across the Barricades (about the Troubles in Northern Ireland). I don't know what he feared, but by today's standards he'd be seeing his boy in the IRA.

Dangerous stuff, literature.

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