What is English? Should we be teaching knowledge, or should we be teaching skills? Why do we wonder whether English has a body of knowledge or not? If schools are to “give every child the knowledge they are entitled to as part of their cultural inheritance”, then there needs to be some agreement on what this knowledge should be; yet the subject of English, much like Maths or Geography or the Sciences, is hard to demarcate. And as with History, there is a deal of controversy over how to demarcate it; what to leave out is more problematic than what to include.
If there is more consensus over what must be included, what must definitely be taught in the five years to GCSE, it’d probably be something like: a Shakespeare Play, the Victorian Novel, the modern novel, the full stop, the paragraph and figurative language. To this relatively spare list we add things to our own taste. Perhaps a bit of Chaucer? Maybe the origin of story in Greek myths. Or the origins of the English language itself – a brave tale of Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and invading Normans. Well, all this is fascinating. The very opposite of dry. Unlike grammar. Or anapestic dimeter.
If I would make the case for the iamb, I’d be battling against the prejudice that this stuff is just dry. It’s like the algebra of English (though this for me is its great merit). Apart from learning about non-finite clauses, fronted adverbials and complex-compound sentences, there are few aspects of English that engender such disdain. English, and poetry especially, is about feelings, death, life, smoking opium, and love. We want Byronic heroes, not bean counters adding up dactyls and subtracting trochees. There may well be enjambment in that line of Keats, but this young man knew he was dying. He was dead before the year was out!
Yet poetic form is probably the most distinctive aspect of English as a subject. Poetic form is uniquely of our subject. An understanding of enjambment isn’t necessary for any other discipline. Indeed, it could be easily argued it is the least useful of any aspect of literacy that we teach: it would be with difficulty that the stress pattern of a line of words take up any space in a history, geography, science or even a French curriculum. But then, is it a necessary component for an English curriculum? For it can, so easily, be done without. It has been left to one side, mouldering away in a decrepit shed in the back garden, since forever.
It may seem, as it has to innumerable English teachers of the present and the past, that prosody or scansion (any awareness of stress patterns in poetry) is not strictly necessary for an appreciation of poetry. Exam boards shy away from making it a key criterion. Kids find it difficult. Many teachers prefer to ignore it, and balk at explaining it (even to themselves), and there is a consensus that what value is added by teaching it, is outweighed by its intrinsic difficulty, and the fact that most kids don’t get it anyway, even after five or six lessons thrown away on iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests and dactyls. What’s the point?
If a working knowledge of figurative language is necessary for particle physics or economics, an appreciation of the rhythm of a few words is not. What does a bit of dissonance amount to? If English is the facilitating subject of all facilitating subjects, what does a working knowledge of poetic form facilitate? That we teach literacy may well be more important than the fact we teach literature. A sophisticated knowledge of the language is the key enabler for all other studies. A thorough appreciation of figurative language is a case in point. But functional literacy seems far away in the distance when we’re scanning a Metaphysical poem.
But the text as text must come first: we are teaching literary texts, texts which have merit for their literariness. But this raises the question: in what does this merit consist? As well as the matters of how we are to judge merit, agree on it, and begin to put forward a working definition of such merit; there’s the baggage of hundreds of years of such judging: we have been bequeathed the ‘best that has been thought and said’. What’s so good about Wordsworth’s Prelude, which drips such arrogance for modern ears? Can we explain the merit of a Shakespeare sonnet (or even of one of his plays) without getting started on the vagaries of his iambic pentameter?
Another aspect of literature that is often taught in depth, and which can always be taught in more and more depth, is context. Historical (social, political, cultural and literary) context is often taught at the expense of teaching the text. Why? Because it is just so interesting. But why are we teaching context instead of teaching the text (which is fundamentally what poetic form is – the text, the text, the text)? Is it because teaching facts is far easier than teaching the skill that is poetry appreciation? It does feel easier to teach about William Blake’s peculiar life and beliefs – as it is ostensibly more interesting – than teaching what’s the big deal about the DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da, DUM-da of his trochaic tetrameter.
But we are getting further away from the text as text. Poetry is the place where skill and knowledge come together in English. If we must contend with the ‘best that has been thought and said’, then let’s contend with that part of English which is the deepest concentration of thinking and saying: the poem as poem. Nowhere is ‘How it is Said’ (or written, or read, or heard) more apposite than in a line of poetry. We read thousands of lines of prose in our everyday education; we devote 80-90% of our English Curriculum to prose; but we more often focus on what is said than how; the ‘how it is said’ so often plays a distant second fiddle to ‘what is said’ in prose fiction and non-fiction. This is not the case in poetry: it’s ‘how it is said’ first and foremost.
Then, once we know it for what it is, an intense and jostling concentration of a hundred techniques, we need to take a step back and consider the point of poetry. What is the point? Yes, it’s hard to explain, or to understand, why anyone would do this seemingly pointless thing: spend hours and hours making a poem. Indeed, why would anyone read these poems? It’s comparatively easy to explain sculpture, naturalistic art, cathedrals and plays – they wear their worth on their sleeve. But poems? They’re not like stories – entertaining us as stories do (for the most part). And why do we value them so highly? To really get across just how odd (special) poetry is we need to make it clear how difficult it is to write a line of iambic-pentameter. And then why anyone would ever do this. How do we get across how delicate and beautiful a line of Shelly is, without exposing its working parts – iambs and broken iambs, caesura and enjambment, sight rhymes and clashing vowels?
If we are wondering such things as ‘What is English?’ If we are asking, again and again, should we be teaching knowledge or skills?’ If we are still wondering at whether English even has a body of knowledge; if we are still seeking agreement on what this knowledge should be, what these skills should be; if we want to side-step the controversy over what to leave out of our English curricula; then consider the most difficult, subtle, beautiful and English part of English: consider the iamb.
The Key Stage 3 Programme of Study appended here consists of three schemes of work in which the lessons are designed to both explain the rationale to teacher and student alike (so is necessarily a bit information heavy / fussy and may need some editing). Fifty-Four poems, in three separate anthologies, are covered in all, as well as a few limericks, haikus and song lyrics – but all the time the lessons’ activities are firmly grounded in the sound and rhythm of the poems – to explain how poems really work.
13 lessons for Year 7, 18 lessons for Year 8, and 18 lessons for Year 9 make sup only 12 or 13% of the Key Stage 3 Curriculum – though many of the lessons and schemes could easily take up more time. I myself have chopped up some of the lessons in two, and spent more time writing poetry to firm up skills taught in the analysis of poetry – though there are specific sonnet writing lessons in the Year 8 Sonnet Scheme of Work and nursery rhyme writing lessons in the Year 7 Scheme.
By the end of Key Stage 3 students should be ready to take on the poems in the GCSE anthology without excessive instruction, and to tackle unseen poems without undue stress. Do our Year 10 students approach poetry with confidence? Even with a skip in their step? Or do they think of it with dread?
- Lesson 1: can poems be arguments?
- Lesson 2: how do we create and sustain rhythm?
- Lesson 3: What are the conventions of a Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet?
- Lesson 4: get better at annotating sonnets
- Lesson 5: What’s a ‘thesis statement’?
- Lesson 6: How is the poet doing it? The poet’s ‘tool box’
- Lesson 7: Why is the poet doing it? What’s the poet getting out of this?
- Lesson 8: Mapping Sonnets: get better at visualising a sonnet
- Lesson 9: Embedding Quotations into the reader’s story of the sonnet
- Lesson 10: Embedding Quotations into the writer’s story of the sonnet
- Lesson 11: Embedding Quotations into the writer’s & reader’s story of the sonnet
- Lesson 12: Writing a Sonnet
- Lesson 13: 100 Questions to Ask a Sonnet
- Lesson 14: What’s the best way to date a sonnet?
- Lesson 15: Teach a Sonnet
- Lesson 16: Teach a Sonnet
- Lesson 17: The Best How & Why
- Lesson 18: From Thesis Statement to Essay
- Sonnet 75 by William Shakespeare
- Sonnet 80 by Francesco Petrarch
- Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare
- Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare
- Sonnet 19 by John Milton
- Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelly
- Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare
- William Shakespeare by Sonnet 34
- Sonnet 55 by William Shakespeare
- Bright Star by John Keats
- Love is Not All by Edna St Vincent Millay
- France by Douglas Dunn
- Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden
- Remember by Christina Rossetti
- I Find No Peace by Tom Wyatt
- Batter My Heart byJohn Donne
- The Rites for Cousin Vit by Gwendolyn Brooks
- Composed Upon Westminster Bridge byWilliam Wordsworth
- pity this busy monster, manunkind by e e cummings
- The Bright Field by RS Thomas
- 14 Variations on 14 Words byEdwin Morgan
- Written in the Churchyard at Middleton Sussex byCharlotte Smith
- Rag and Bone byNorman MacCaig
- Poem bySimon Armitage
- The Unreturning byWilfred Owen
- God’s Grandeur by Gerald Manley Hopkins