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Poetry Conference at the British Library - April 2009

Here’s a lecture I gave at the Poetry Conference at the British Library on April 20 2009. Please note I haven’t inserted all the texts of the poems I referred to in the lecture.

POEM: Hole in the Wall

Every artistic endeavour has a theory hovering around it. What I mean by this is that when human beings do things, we are not only capable of having ideas about what we’re doing, but that the very act of doing and the product of that doing springs from a world of talk, ideas and, yes, theory. There are several routes to unravelling this world: let’s take Shakespeare as an obvious example. Textual scholars are able to reveal from the intrinsic evidence of the texts themselves, the likely sources and secondary texts that Shakespeare was grappling with: the Bible, Ovid, Aristotle and so on. Meanwhile, a more historical approach looks at extrinsic evidence asking such questions as: What was in the school curriculum of Shakespeare’s time? What were the debates circulating the Court, the Church, Parliament and the Privy Council?

In more recent times, with developments in the kinds of criticism that draw on interviews with writers and what writers themselves say about joining movements in their manifestoes, it’s been possible to engage with this matter in yet another way. So, where a school of criticism of the past tried to unpick author intention from analysis of texts, (the so-called New Criticism of Brooks, Wilmsatt and Warren), there is now a body of material where critics can engage with the stated intentions of authors.

So any piece of literature, group of texts, a single author’s oeuvre and the like not only sits amongst the kinds of secondary texts and conversations that I described in relation to Shakespeare but it also sits amongst  the many statements b,y and conversations with fellow writers.  All of this context has an impact on when, how, why, where and what a writer writes. It’s as if a writer sits in a bath of ideas about texts.

Now we’re missing something here. Texts aren’t just produced in a world made up of texts. They are part of a real world going through its convulsions, struggles, moments of calm and the like. No matter how hard writers might try to keep that world out, the truth remains that they have to feed, clothe and house themselves and they experience a range of desires. The combination of all these needs and desires is that writers, along with everyone else, have to engage with whatever arrangements the society around them has for satisfying these needs and desires – you know -  flats to live in where you have to pay rents, breakfast to eat so somewhere to buy bread in, love and sex -  so monogamy or polygamy or whatever for that, having children - so families or care homes for that.  So, sticking with the bath of ideas, we also have to think of what heated the water, what kind of bath it was, or indeed who might or might not be there when  you get out the bath.

So to summarize, we have a complex web of intertexts surrounding a work and these interact with the complex real world.

So who’s going to look at all this?

Usually, there’s a division of labour here. The writer writes primary texts or ‘literature’ as it’s usually called. The critic writes secondary texts or ‘criticism’. But there are no lines of demarcation here. There is nothing to stop a writer being a critic. And, to go further along this line, though it might be thought to be narcissistic, there’s no law to stop a writer being the kind of critic who is concerned with analysing what’s inside their bath of ideas about texts and  their own material contexts.. That is, the ones surrounding their own work.

Let’s see what that looks like.

A lot, but not all, of my writing for children has been about where I lived, who I lived with, how I lived with them and then what happened when I went to school, who I played with and so on.

My brother is making a protest about wholemeal bread
Harrybo’s Grandad

These people are nearly all of a kind (or I have written about them in such a way) for them to appear familiar to enough people I meet or live near for me to have an audience. I and the people in the poems appear to be doing things that come within the range that might be called ‘typical’. But of course they were also of a specific time and place, social position, and the peoples were on their own real journeys through society.

I was brought up in a home environment where both my parents were on a journey transforming themselves. They came from immigrant families who had arrived very poor, in my father’s case almost destitute into the East End of London in very overcrowded difficult conditions. When I joined them, they had had two children, one had died, the other was four and my father had professionalized himself by becoming a teacher and very soon my mother was doing the same. We were living in North West London in a rented flat over a shop (not theirs)  in a place that had once been a village but was now embedded within a suburbia that followed the building of the Metropolitan Line.

Though this time is often depicted as rather static, in fact, there were serious changes going on - changes which my parents’ own lives mirrored. A whole layer of the urban working class had done just what my parents had done: leave the old traditional areas of what we now call the inner city, and started to live in areas around the city or even in new satellite towns and in so doing started to acquire non-manual skills.

A lot of what I have written and go on writing is about describing the world I found myself in and exploring odd fragments of what remained of the past they came from: their parents and the phrases and language they brought with them.

Matzo Brei

One other change we were all part of, and this is what I want to examine more closely was in the world of education, which itself is always interleaved and folded into the wider world. I didn’t know at the time, that my brother and I were part of what was in effect an experiment: the mass education of everyone beyond the age of thirteen in new types of schools: primary schools which now all ended their job at 11, now all, bar the private ones, under the umbrella of the state – even the religious ones.. Then – another interesting new idea – everyone went to a secondary school. There were different types – single sex, mixed, church, non-denominational, local authority run or run directly from government, and – most famous of all – some selective – grammar schools, and technical schools and the majority (yes a majority of some 80%) for children who had failed the selection exam at eleven.

All this required a great new positioning for people in this country. In families where no one had ever received an education beyond the age of thirteen, all children were now staying on in some kind of school till they were fifteen. Some from this kind of background were choosing to stay on till sixteen and some till eighteen and beyond to various kinds of college and university.

But this wasn’t some kind of smooth roll-out. It was riven with division, conflict, snobbery and tension. The last years of primary school, in my memory, were wracked with anxiety, horsetrading and fiddles. The curriculum was obsessed with getting the children up to the level required of the exam.

Trev the Tramp

The grammar school had parallel anxieties about status, form and hierarchy.

These were the places where I learned how to read, where I found my level and place in society, where I acquired the kinds of knowledge that society at that point thought was suitable for a boy who was going to pass and did pass the exam at 11.

Because this is part of the way the middle class of my era defined itself, many of these processes have been, what has been called ‘naturalised’. That’s to say, the processes I went through have acquired a sense of being ‘natural’, right, appropriate, usual, legitimate, normal, correct not just for then, but for all time. So, for example, there was something called geography. This was the study of places. It was separate from something called history. When years later people suggested that places are the way they are because of history, and history always takes place in a place, this threatened this sense of normality and legitimacy.

However, and this is the big ‘however’ – I lived in a very particular bath of ideas in this new experimental and changing world. The years of my parents’ teenage and young married life together had been infused with some major political events arising out of what were their own particular real-life situations. Not only was it a time of poverty for them, it was also a time when one of the solutions being offered to society was to imprison, exile or exterminate them. So, along with action against that poverty (through rent strikes and industrial strikes) they were participants in actions against those people locally, nationally and internationally who wanted to impose the new world order which would involve their extermination. At the time, they thought that the way to fight all this was to join the Communist Party and though they would leave it in 1957, when they were 38, when I was ten, this was the  formation and memory they brought with them into the suburbs, into our flat above the shop there and into their new profession – teaching.

Just to get a perspective on this, within ten years of them leaving the CP,  I had become a keen writer of poems which focused on who I was, where and how I lived, who I lived with, and where I and they had come from.

I can now see that writing poems wasn’t just a literary practice. It was an educational one too. Perhaps all of us who write for children sit in some relation or another to education. After all, schools are largely the place where children learn how to read. And by that I don’t mean simply it’s where they learn TO read. Schools are where children learn about what kind of behaviour reading is: are books things that you get questioned about? Or things you read to yourself? Are books things that sit on shelves that you never read, because you only read worksheets? Do you hear books read to you? Are you expected to just read silently to  yourself? Is it a private or a social behavioural act? And so on.

In my case, though, I can see clearly that it was an acutely educational practice. I’ll explain.

My parents were teachers but they were also theoreticians. In the period covered by the time I was thinking about whether I would write up till when I decided I would, my parents were deeply involved in these various kinds of work: my father had moved from teaching in a suburban grammar school where he was blacklisted and prevented from becoming a head of department to one of the new comprehensive schools, this one situated just off the Old Kent Road. From there, he moved to Borough Road Training College where he started teaching on a variety of courses for trainee teachers and then from there to becoming a lecturer at the Institute of Education. My mother meanwhile was teaching in a primary school in Croxley Green and began a life-changing course (a diploma in primary education) with the eminent and eminence grise, Christian Schiller, doyenne  of progressive education. She became a deputy head and then started to train teachers at Goldsmith’s College. However, during this time, they were also involved separately or together in presenting poetry programmes for BBC Schools Radio, helping first James Britton and then Geoffrey Summerfield in producing groundbreaking anthologies for schools: the Oxford Junior Poetry Collection with Britton and Voices and Junior Voices with Summerfield. My father had prepared many documents, papers, essays and talks on a variety of topics around the secondary English curriculum, including a policy document for that comprehensive school I mentioned.

Quote P.1 Walworth School Syllabus (HR)

“Whatever language the pupils possess, it is this which must be built on rather than driven underground. However narrow the experience of our pupils may be (and it is often wider than we think), it is this experience alone which has given their language meaning. The starting point for English work must be the ability to handle effectively their own experience. Oral work, written work and the discussion of literature must create an atmosphere in which the pupils become confident of the full acceptability of the material of their own experience. Only in this way can they advance to the next stage.”

Later, he was doing a Ph.D (done mostly at the kitchen table, we would claim) in which he critiqued a crude mechanistic system of classifying children’s sentences that had taken off in the USA. Then, together my mother and father wrote a book called ‘The Language of Primary Schoolchildren’ which was similarly discussed through teatimes, holidays and the like as it was being assembled and written. These are the opening words of Chapter 1.

Opening of Chapter 1 of Language of PSC

“Language is for living with. Children’s language emerges from the lives they lead and we cannot hope to make sense of it without understanding their lives.”

Why am I telling you this? I find this quite difficult to describe and explain, but I’ll try. My parents were of course my mother and father who mothered and fathered my brother and me in their own idiosyncratic ways and with all that baggage they brought with them from the East End into the suburbs. They were also educationists who mothered and fathered with their knowledge and ideas. Education is a very octopus-like. Its tentacles reach out into real life, up into theory, back into anecdotes about classrooms, about individual children, along with stories about colleagues, struggles with authorities, off into the resources that can be brought into the classroom. What I’m trying to say is that these kinds of conversations took place around my brother and me. Now, in my head, I can see my mother and father crawling along the floor, looking at Geoffrey Summerfield’s handwritten notes and copies of the poems he had found for ‘Voices’; going for a walk in a bit of suburban woodland with my mother while she gathered up what she called ‘bits’ (holly or beech masts) which she said she would take back to her class; my father reading out why he thought that this or that statement by this American professor talking about T-units was nonsense; my mother reading out poems that the children she taught had written; my father reading out a talk that my mother would type for him, the pair of them bashing out a bit of linguistic theory,  and so on. It was going on around us and as I happened to be a child who for whatever complicated reasons wanted to listen to this stuff, then it was in me as well.

So that’s the form of what was going on, but was actually being said? And this is where we get to the nitty-gritty. I think my parents left the Communist Party in order that their lives could accommodate the kinds of ideas that they were developing around the teaching of literature and language to school-age children. At the time, the CP’s education policy-makers had a very reductive idea about the education of working class children which followed a determinist model: so if the ruling class deprived the working class of its true deserts it also deprived it of language and culture. My parents were developing a counter-theory that if you wanted children to get hold of education (knowledge, skills, processes or whatever) you had to start with the languages and cultures of the children in front of you. The starting point for children – say - responding to a poem, shouldn’t have to be a prescribed language, but it should be from the language-base of the child itself. Here they are in the preamble to a long transcript of three children discussing ‘Old Florist’ by Theodore Roethke.

Quotes p.104 Language of PSC or p. 174 Language of PSC

“We can hear their talk developing and absorbing the poem as they surround it with their experience of language and of life and their readiness to project outwards from it into their own imaginings in order to penetrate inwards to its meaning for them. Collaboration is it, but at the same time they demonstrate how active a process reading has to be for the individual reader; every story and poem has to be placed in the reader’s world, made part of his patterning of life; every story and poem must be actively worked upon so that its design can be added to a larger design.” [reference in the notes here to the unwritten study of comprehending  comphrension and James Britton’s work Language and Learning.(1970)

Part of this approach, also involved the championing of particular kinds of literature – a literature that embraced and enjoyed the everyday, that worked with and not against contemporary vernaculars. I should insist here that this wasn’t a matter of excluding other kinds, but was meant to spread the net wider than was traditionally the case. My mother for example was very fond of WB Yeats who doesn’t fit this pattern of writing at all, and yet she was always on the hunt for poems about objects around the house to slip into her radio programmes. She sometimes enlisted my help in trying to find poems for her in her collection of anthologies: ‘Come Hither’, ‘Iron, Honey, Gold’ and so on. This was one of the most direct triggers for me to start writing. I wrote a poem for my mother’s schools radio programme. It’s not hard to see that this is both filial (and all that that involves) and theoretical. I wrote something that fitted a particular educational philosophy that was being developed that valued children’s own experiences as part of education and not as something to be left at the school door.

(Nails and scissors)

It was written to my mother, to the theory, to the practice of schools radio broadcasting, to the practice of making books out of poems and giving them to children in classrooms so that they might write poems themselves.

This was a theory that was developing the idea that children could be writing readers and reading writers and I was writing to it.

My first book of poems appeared in 1974. I was 28, my parents were 55. My mother was now at Trent Park running the kind of diploma course that Christian Schiller had run. My father was at the Institute of Education, and, (as I seem to remember) falling with a mix of delight and cynicism on poststructuralist theories of narratology, reader-response, interpretation and language. He and his colleagues were beginning to teach a Diploma in Education at the Institute of Education.

As anyone who writes a children’s book knows, there follows the immediate possibility that you will be taken into a place called ‘Children’s Literature’: a network of libraries, schools, colleges, book clubs, book shops and magazines. You are embraced and then pushed in front of the audience.

For some writers and illustrators this is not a happy experience. For me, it was at first curious, a bit embarrassing, a bit awkward, but very soon became the most important thing I found that I could have done. I had written the poems in what I’ll call a mix of cool or warm contexts. The cool context was the passing of books between adults. Reading poems to yourself. The warm contexts were the broadcasts and readings on disc and tape that my parents played to us in our front room: Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas, Poets reading their own poems on the BBC Radio’s Third Programme, actors reading the poems my mother had chosen for her schools radio broadcasts. There were hot moments for literature – this I thought was theatre, Shakespeare, Pinter, my acting class at Questors theatre, Osborne, Wesker, Shaw, Arden, Brecht, sketches in revues at university, the two plays I had written myself. With my first poetry book in my hand, standing in front of a class of children or a whole school of children, my first inclination was to go  warm: to read the poems as if it was a schools radio broadcast. Thanks to a teacher at Princess Frederika School in Kensal Rise, one Sean McErlaine, I was shown that poetry for children could be hot. You can perform poems. Suddenly, a world that had been building up behind the dam, burst out: the mix of the theories about working with everyday experience, the kinds of performance methods I had learnt at Questors or for that matter watching my parents tell stories about their day at work, the theories about writing readers and reading writers, all came together in this act of performance.

But where was I at this moment? Was I in that northwest London primary school in 1955? Was I even with the offspring of children who had been to that kind of school? Not very often. Mostly, I found myself in and amongst the children who had themselves arrived in this country in their own short lifetimes, or they were the children of arrivants.

AT this point, I see that another mechanism came into play. In biology, showbiz and focus groups it’s called ‘feedback’. The problem with the word is that it doesn’t indicate just how complicated it is. If you write something and perform it, or work with it in a classroom, you discover all sorts of things about the poem, about the child, about yourself. Then, it’s not necessarily a matter of consciously calling this feedback, it’s there in your consciousness anyway. Next time you write anything approximating to that field or structure of writing, you cannot escape the sensation and feel and understandings that you experienced on that occasion you read the poem. In one sense, you now write with that sensibility added in to everything else you are. Then, in turn you take the next piece of writing out into performance in front of an audience and, in turn that goes through the same process. You and the writing are changing all the while, often in ways that you’re hardly aware of yourself. An inflection, a phrasing, a topic you’ve chosen to write about.

Poem: Rhythm of life

But something else was going on. Education has always been of particular interest to politicians. Throughout the whole period I’ve been publishing books, education has been a battleground for competing ideas If people wanted me in the midst of their classrooms and schools, then coming from the kind of background I came from, I could hardly stay aloof from these debates. Or put another way, these debates would themselves be part of what and how I write.

The Project

I think we have reached a key moment for literature in schools. At present, it’s no exaggeration to say that for children between the school years of year 4and year 9 inclusive, books are an optional extra. It’s literacy without literature. Literature can be reduced to an extract on a worksheet where the questions asked are about facts, chronology and logic. When poems are put in front of children, teachers are required to ask children (it’s been modelled in the government’s own magazine, Teacher), what form the poem is. I got an email the other day from a girl who asked me what form my poems ‘Something Drastic’ and ‘Conversation’ are. I wrote back saying that neither of these forms have a name. The first is a short rhyming poem with a repeated refrain or chorus, and the second is a dialogue or what we would call in the theatre, a ‘sketch’. She said thank you very much, but she had some maths homework too, was I any good at long division?

The education theory that has taken over the teaching of literature is logical positivism. That’s to say, it is the notion that every process can be reduced to its component facts, chronology and logic. This is a lie. When we engage with reading or writing, we become involved in patterns of feeling. Our feelings about people, scenes and outcomes ebb and flow and change as the drama unfolds. This is how we grapple with the ethics inside ourselves and which we perceive as immanent in what we read. We do it with our feelings. Feelings and ethics. This is the stuff of reading and writing. The tyranny of the last fifteen years has been to exile this, stick it outside the classroom. And part and parcel of this has been the rise of hundreds of different kinds of selection processes, inside classrooms, inside schools, between schools: the regime of the SATs, the smiley faces chart, the quick and slow tables, and the non-selective school that select. Children who come from homes with no books, may well never encounter whole books as part of their education. In so doing, they are discriminated against, because it’s through the reading of whole books that we most pleasurably and most easily access complex and abstract ideas. Only the other night while reading a Greek myth with my eight year old we discussed what the word ‘pity’ meant.

Under this polity, poetry has become a bit of elastoplast that is slotted into the curriculum after tests, at the end of term as part of a ludicrous process of working through poetic forms. Once again, logical positivism wins out over humanism. You can name poetic forms because this is markable, testable knowledge, but you can’t mark what people feel. Anthologies have been produced that fit this particular bill – spot the poetic forms…, so that the idea of engaging with a poet (we’re the people who write the stuff) has in many places been squeezed out. Teachers have to fight the pressure of SATs and Ofsted to develop humanistic approaches to literature.

The other day I wrote this:

The Car

But I also wrote this:

The Bell

The Two Poems.

Once there were two poems.
One day they went to school.
The first poem went into class
and the teacher had been given some questions to ask: 
ask the children what kind of poem it is?
Ask the children why it is an effective poem?
Ask the children to underline the adjectives in the poem.
Ask the children what kind of green is pea-green?
Ask the children to tell you where was the ring before it was bought.

The second poem went into class
but this teacher had left the list at home.
The poem sat down and one child said,
‘You remind me of when my auntie died.’
Another child said,
‘I like the way you say things
over and over again in a sing-song sort of a way.’
Another child said, ‘I’m going to write a poem
about being in  a crowd of people.’
And another child said,
‘I’m going to find some more poems like you.’
Soon the room was full of poems.

That night,
when the poems got home,
the first poem said,
‘Today I had a strange day.’
The second poem said,
‘Today I made lots of friends.’





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