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No dilution of the medicine of cherries: the joys and challenges of teaching poetry at school

| March 23, 2020 | 0 Comments


In this article, I advocate a greater emphasis in the teaching of poetry on the literary elements that make for great poetry, rather than on an excessively issue-centred approach, concentrating on fashionable themes. Oscar Wilde’s deceptively light-hearted statement that ‘in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing’, should be taken more seriously.1

In his magnificent, fervent Defence of Poetry (1579/1580),2 Sir Philip Sidney uses the unforgettable metaphor of poetry as a ‘medicine of cherries’.3 He asserts that poetry tempers profundity with beauty, and renders philosophy not simply comprehensible, but palatable, through the use of pleasurable literary devices. However, the intellectually and emotionally satisfying pleasure of poetry is reduced – the sweet medicine is horribly diluted – if educationalists become too issue-centred in their approach to poetry. If we do not sufficiently illuminate the key elements that make the medium of poetry uniquely potent, we run the risk of producing students who think that poems are effective only when they express ‘politically correct’ views with which the students agree. We must not allow such a dangerous and reductive attitude to develop. After all, a protester who scrawls ‘War sucks!’ on a wall is expressing the same views as those of Wilfred Owen, but one could hardly claim that this graffito is as complex and moving as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’!4

Close reading

‘Close reading’ is often denigrated by academics, who carry on as if it were an easy, basic process. Yet how many teachers, let alone students, can truly distinguish the corn from the chaff, and state exactly why it is nourishing corn? That alwaysperceptive Marxist Catholic, Terry Eagleton, has gibed at the I.A. Richards/F.R. Leavis approach as ‘a superior kind of wine tasting’,5 but Eagleton seems to take it for granted that everyone can assess the most subtle and complex ‘vintages’. Most students are not in Eagleton’s position. What we must guard against in our schools is the claim that literary studies are happening when, actually, an altogether different process – life orientation sprinkled with quotations! – is taking place. It is vital to ensure that students are are capable of making the fine distinctions, so forcefully advocated by Matthew Arnold,6 but it is also important that they do not dismiss works simply because they are less great than other works. Shakespeare’s ‘My mistress’ eyes’7 is a sonnet deservedly loved by students, for it insists that a walking, breathing, imperfect, real woman is far superior to an idealised Petrarchan stereotype – a blend of roses, coral and golden ‘wires’. Shakespeare’s anti-blazon8 has, I believe, much greater literary merit than Thomas Campion’s ‘There is a garden in her face’.9 However, Campion’s blazon is still a fine work. Its tropes perfectly embody the ingenuity and, yes, the beauty of literary Petrarchanism,10 and it does conclude with a sharp reminder of reality. In the end, only the idealised beloved herself can decide when the ‘cherries’ are ripe!

‘Literary thinking relies upon literary memory’

In his superb Introduction to the Best Poems in the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, Harold Bloom11 usefully defines poetry as ‘essentially figurative language concentrated so that its form is both expressive and evocative’. Successful poetry exploits figuration that we recognise only when our awareness has increased. The real challenge is to ensure that there is enriching recognition on the part of the pupils: recognition that increases understanding of texts. ‘Literary thinking relies upon literary memory,’ Bloom brilliantly insists, and he also points out that constant allusiveness is the most difficult charactreristic of great poetry to teach students. Enriching recognition certainly plays its part in an analysis of Sipho Sepamla’s ‘Da Same, Da Same’.12 This poem demonstrates that unconventional, even ungrammatical, language can explore profound issues in, as Sepamla himself puts it, ‘a fresh and interesting way.’ The pounding of the human heart is captured in the repetition of ‘da same, da same’, and there is a wonderful use of polyphoton13 in a ‘big terrible terrible’, in which the mystery and the irrationality of bigotry are suggested by the use of ‘terrible’ as both an adjective and a noun. The poem’s reference to the thorn and the blood inevitably makes the reader think of Shylock’s anguished ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ from The Merchant of Venice.14 This allusion to the ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech extends Sepamla’s condemnation of prejudice and persecution, rendering them both horribly timeless and universal, rather than simply local.

‘We must not allow such a dangerous and reductive attitude to develop.’


One of the most vexed (and vexing!) issues about the teaching of poetry in schools is, of course, the question of metrical analysis: scansion. Alas, the days in which primary school pupils beat out the rhythm of ‘The Highwayman’15 or ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’16 are long over. So, today’s high school learners have no understanding of metrical analysis, except for some cursory knowledge about iambic pentameter, gleaned from their Shakespeare studies. Yet, surely, a complete understanding of another ‘prescribed-for-matric’ poem, Coleridge’s great and multifaceted ‘Kubla Khan’17 – an exploration of despotism and art, humanity and nature, the writer and their audience – requires the student at least to recognise the dramatic shift in rhythm and metre when the damsel with the dulcimer is introduced, and to explain why Coleridge uses such a shift. In a brilliant online observation, ‘The “Kubla Khan” crescendo’, Mark Forsyth18 – linguist, literary historian and wit – comments that Coleridge’s shift from tetrameters to trimeters and back emphasises ‘a hypothetical success, a subjunctive reality, and a metrical release’. Phew! One can hardly expect pupils to delve quite so deeply, but increased awareness of the way form serves content is essential when one deals with works as nuanced as ‘Kubla Khan’.

Passion and reason

I am not, of course, advocating that poetry lessons be stripped of debate, and should become chalk-and-talk (whiteboard-and-PowerPoint?) exercises in technical and stylistic analysis. Rather, I am suggesting that we English teachers should remember the ‘recollected in tranquility’ part of Wordsworth’s famous definition,19 and should not focus only on the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’.20 The greatness of poetry lies in his perfectly compressed union of emotion and artifice, of passion and reason. That union must be clarified and ‘sold’ to all our pupils!

Digby Ricci is head of the English department at Roedean School: South Africa. This article has been adapted from two presentations he gave: one at the English Academy of South Africa in Johannesburg, and the other at an Independent Examinations Board (IEB) conference.


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11. Bloom, H. (2004) The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost. New York City: Harper.

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20. See: Ibid.

Category: Autumn 2020

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