Howard Jacobson: Simon Armitage is wrong. Learning a poem by heart is a joy for life, not class warfare

The poet fears a plot to bourgeoisify children and get them to recite 'The Lady of Shalott'

Howard Jacobson
Friday 15 June 2012 19:59

The poetry we commit to memory when we are young stays with us as a solace and an inspiration – an emotional no less than an intellectual resource – long after we have forgotten the mere accidents of our lives. So there must be universal assent to Michael Gove's plans to reintroduce the learning of poetry into schools. Or so you'd think. But that's to reckon without the trahison des clercs. The clerc in this instance being the poet Simon Armitage.

"I'm nervous," he writes – though he sounds more sullen than nervous – "about returning to 'traditional values' in schools." What "concerns" him – though he sounds more huffy than concerned – is "labelling poetry as something solid, traditional and worthy, something belonging to the establishment". And now it's clear what he's sullen and huffy about: class.

"Traditional values" is a lazy concept all right, but it carries no necessary assumptions of hierarchy. In the days I went about mouthing phrases like "traditional values", I was thinking of the specificities of place and reverence, as like as not provincial, evoked by such writers as Thomas Hardy and D H Lawrence, a million miles from anything that is meant by "establishment".

We poetry readers are more likely to be yokels than toffs. But Armitage fears a plot to bourgeoisify our children and get them to recite "'The Lady of Shalott' in a feigned and foreign RP accent". Myself, I'd have them recite "The Lady of Shalott" in any accent rather than deprive them of knowing it at all. It's a most wonderful poem, not in the slightest traditional in any pejorative sense, its rhymes and rhythms powerful and ominously hypnotic, the peace of Camelot almost soporific until it's broken by Lancelot's riding in, as dazzling as a meteor – "The helmet and the helmet-feather/Burn'd like one burning flame together" – and as he rode, "his armour rung". Get those lines into your head and they are there for ever, a touchstone of the erotic no less, so no reason to worry about the poem setting solid in the minds of children. As for the agitation Lancelot's appearance sets up in the Lady – "She left the web, she left the loom,/She took three paces thro' the room" – it is in itself an education in distraction, in writing about distraction, in feeling one's way to another's distraction through the sympathetic magic of language.

Not an easy poem to recite in a feigned and foreign RP accent, I would have thought. And were it tried, the violence of the catastrophe would soon subvert it. But look here: Simon Armitage calls poetry "pertry". Whether his retention of this quaint Yorkshire usage is an affectation, I have no idea. I retain some odd northern pronunciations myself. But ours is not the only way to speak. And it is not in itself a guarantee of authenticity. There is no reason why a middle-class voice shouldn't render Tennyson as well as any other. And let's not get into what constitutes "foreign" in a culture that has enjoyed so many importations. Be careful, I say, who you call foreign and what you call feigned.

No doubt Simon Armitage was thinking that very thought when he "worried" – the bag of nerves he has become – that Gove might have "a master plan" to smuggle some idea of "Englishness" into this new curriculum. Though why that should be so terrible I don't know. We did "English" literature at school, and didn't as a consequence grow into nationalistic, flag-waving bigots who wanted no truck with literature from any other place. A number of us were Jewish. Englishness, as we struggled to understand it – and that meant wondering if there ever was or could be such a thing – neither menaced nor excluded us. And no one, I am pleased to say, thought we should be given Sholem Aleichem to read instead of Charlotte Brontë.

But here's the rub for Simon Armitage: he is after all, he announces, "on board" – which will come as a relief to Michael Gove – provided that "children are allowed to find the poems that fit their voices or appeal to their imaginations and their cultural inclinations". No, no, no, and no again. In that weasel sentence is to be found all that's gone wrong with education in our time, the very reason we have fathered a generation of the disinherited who can't call on the language of "The Lady of Shalott" or much else in the way of poetry when they need it. They don't, of course, know they need it. How could they? A good education creates the needs it satisfies, and so long as children are given only what they are "allowed to find" – which dodges the question of what happens if they find nothing – so long as they are taught only what "fits their voices" or appeals to their "cultural inclinations", whatever the hell those are (a Jewish inclination to Sholem Aleichem, maybe), they remain in blank ignorance of, not to say in blank indifference to, languages of feeling, of inestimable value to us, but assumed to be of no use or relevance to them.

The good teacher does not decide in advance which of his pupils "The Lady of Shalott" will be wasted on. He knows no more than they do whose hearts will leap when Lancelot rides ringing in. As for the belief that "a cultural inclination" should decide what you read and commit to memory and what you don't, it is the very opposite of education: it is social engineering, a wickedly self-defeating egalitarianism whose only consequence is deprivation.

Having set all his worries jangling – a very Lancelot of perturbations – Armitage pirouettes on himself, recalls learning "The Deserted Village" and then poses the very problem of emotional ignorance Gove's measures seek to address. So what have his demurrals been about? I will tell you, reader. Class war. As though that hasn't already stolen educations enough.

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