David RobertsProfessor David Roberts, Acting Executive Dean of the Faculty of Performance, Media and English at Birmingham City University, shares his views on Government’s new plans to improve the understanding of poetry in schools and how great possessing the magical intricacy of a poem can be.

Our heads are full of off-cuts, shards of language splintered from (or by) the culture we live in. They might be crumbs of song lyrics that come with ready-made rhythms like Don’t – You – Love – Me – Baby or I will survi-ive. They could belines from films: I’ll be back, or Make my day or You shall not pass. Advertisers, inevitably, make their own use of these verbal ear-worms. Simples.

Maybe we’re hard-wired to carry around a jumble of quotations in our heads. They pick us up when we’re down, or remind us that someone somewhere is more miserable; they cover awkward moments and show that we’re au fait with the world around us. They help us survi-ive. They’re part, too, of our natural creativity with language.


‘Creativity’ seems a strange way of describing what happens when we say, for the zillionth time, they think it’s all over, but the matching of a conventional formula to an unexpected situation is just what the natural creativity of language is. We all delight in this creativity in some way; we’re all on the way to being experts at it.

One reason why poetry has developed in almost all known societies, and before the dawn of writing, is that it takes to the highest and most pleasurable level this tendency of little seeds of language to blow into our brains and flower. In fact, poetry is that flower. Poetry takes the shards and starts to assemble them. It matches sounds with each other, creates rhythms in the head and for the heart, gives us thoughts and feelings that unfold slowly from line to line, peeling out until we possess the thing, the whole idea, in its entirety. It’s a beautiful thing to have poems in your head.

So, when I read about the government’s latest scheme to have children memorizing great poems, I gave up blowing raspberries at their education policy and took up cheering, at least for a minute or two. Let everyone possess the magical intricacy of a great poem. Let them feel it in their bones. Let them think about how it means something different depending on whether they’re bored on a train, feeling low because someone’s told them off, or celebrating some great achievement.

You want to know how it feels? Try this. In 1939, on the eve of WW2, the Irish poet Yeats died. Looking around, W.H. Auden saw reasons for despair:

In the nightmare of the dark

All the dogs of Europe bark,

And the living nations wait,

Each sequestered in its hate.

But this classic, four-beat, rhyming couplet format, ideally made for remembering, also gave him a stirring cry of hope: the hope that these flowers of language might, at least, release you into consolation:

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

Remember it: in the dark days and the sunny days, remember it.

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David Roberts

David Roberts

Faculty of Performance, Media and English at Birmingham City University
David Roberts

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