Michael Rosen posted a link on Twitter about how exams ruin poetry. I can attest to this. Both the men in my life claim to hate poetry and yet….one of them has a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘IF’ on his office door and the other wrote a poem about how much he hated poetry – it had passion, conviction, direction and form. Oh yes, he understood the form. Form, is actually quite maths-ey don’t you know. He poured out his anger, he wrote a powerful poem. This person that hates poetry.
So why do they think they hate it so much?
I think Michael has it: because exams tell you there is a right way and a wrong way to read poetry.
This is a lie.
I believe poetry is a collaboration between the reader and the poet.
I believe it changes in the reader’s hands.
So how can you be wrong about a poem, if you’re one half of the equation that created it?
Here’s one of the questions Michael flagged up on the exam paper:
What would be another good title for Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘Where Go the Boats’?
a. Home Time
b. Sandy Banks
c. River Journey
d. Valleys and Hills.
The correct answer isn’t c. River Journey, as the exam paper would have you believe. The correct answer isn’t even there.
The correct answer is:
x. It could be any of them, or none.
For me, a. Home Time is a good answer because that’s what I think about when I read the poem: the end of the day, retiring home and dreaming of adventure. For someone else, it might be b. Sandy Banks, because they think of the safety of the bank and being anchored there when their boat sets off on an adventure – a different title throws a different light on the poem. What an amazing thought that is. What a terrible thing to pretend there’s only one way to read it. You can’t contain poetry like this , it’s not limited to one definition.
Here’s something I wrote for the Funeverse: Lucinda Belinda and Harriet Hog.
It’s really silly. On the face of it, it’s about two girls wandering off into the woods without paying proper attention to where they are going. To me, it’s also about the dangers of talking to people on the internet when you don’t really know who they are. Nowhere does it say that. Which is quite possibly a mistake on my part. I write poetry, i didn’t say I was any good at it. But hey, it’s a poem. It can be about whatever you need it to be about.
It can be just about Bog Crocodiles.
You can’t be wrong. We’re making this stuff up together.
I can’t say it enough:
You can’t get poems wrong.
You can’t. Your understanding is as valid as anyone else’s.
Sadly, this can lead to you failing your exams.
I think that is a rotten disgrace.