Many years ago, I was bouncing along quite happily in the middle of a poetry presentation at a primary school, when I noticed with some consternation that the teacher who had booked me, and who was sitting in the audience, was not smiling
My consternation turned to dread when she stood up with stern countenance and left the room, returning a short time later with a man I (correctly) assumed to be the principal. A black cloud hovered above them both as they sat stolidly together through the remainder of my show.
In spite of all this, I felt I did a good job. I could see the kids were happy, too. Nevertheless, I could see these two were clearly not.
I decided to be proactive, and approached them both shortly after the show. “Is there anything wrong?” I asked, with trepidation.
“But you didn’t teach them anything!” came the angry reply.
I was speechless.
I was confident I had entertained – perhaps even inspired – for a good half hour, probably longer. I had very possibly also introduced many to a new art form, and demonstrated the power of performance poetry and rhyming verse. Isn’t that lesson enough? What did they want from me? A technical dissertation on the various forms that rhyming verse can take – iambic pentameter, etc.? A discussion on rhyming patterns? The place of rhyming verse in Australia’s cultural history and geography? Some thoughts on the bush poetry revival? An attempt to unearth the international antecedents of the writing of Paterson, Lawson, et al? All of this I could have attempted, and more…if I had felt it was appropriate, but I didn’t. Indeed, I have always taken the view that primary school is not the time to ‘teach’ poetry to children. I was ‘taught’ poetry at that age, and it is a miracle that my love of poetry survived the process.
So far as the actual ‘writing’ of rhyming verse is concerned, it is really beyond primary school children. I know that from experience, and from discussion with other poets. Sure, children can find rhyming words, but the whole process of metre (the really hard part), of making lines scan, is – with perhaps the occasional brilliant exception – quite beyond them.
These days, if I am asked to perform poetry in a primary school, or conduct a workshop, I spend a fair bit of time trying to talk myself out of the gig by explaining all the things I do NOT do. Even then, trouble can ensue.
“Oh, but I thought you would still do such and such.” (Somebody wasn’t listening…)
So, what does it mean, exactly, to teach poetry? I have always felt my shows are highly educational. I should add that I also always begin them with some discussion of poets and poetry.
To my mind, there is plenty of time in secondary school for a more formal, analytical approach to poetry – if, indeed, it must happen at all.
Sadly, though, not everybody agrees.
What do you think?
© Stephen Whiteside 12.08.2014