The other day, I – glibly, I admit, and probably leaning a little bit on educational capital – characterised Carol Ann Duffy’s poem for Orlando as ‘terrible’.
And I stand by that. Duffy can write gorgeous, brilliant poetry – I love the opening parts of Wenceslas, for example. I love the way its half-rhymes on ‘wherein’ and ‘Swan’ chime against the full rhymes on ‘river’ and ‘forever’, and ‘parboiled and oiled’. I love the way the syntax builds, from gently meandering phrases loaded with nouns, to a brisk procession of culinary verbs. I like the way the ‘sing a song of sixpence’ picture of a pie full of birds is juxtaposed with the arcane terminology of a medieval cookbook and with an echo of Dylan Thomas. And in pointing out that I like these things I am, I know, tacitly setting out my credentials to criticise, too.
I could say that Gay Love is, beneath its apparent hectoring simplicity, a sophisticated piece of unexpected tensions. I could say that the doggerel-like, jingling rhyme scheme that hammers through the poem reflects the very ubiquity of homosexuality that Duffy depicts, or that its distribution in internal rhymes and across lines of varying lengths reflects the irregularity of queerness, or the disruptive transgression of established form so beloved of undergraduates who’ve read too much Foucault. I could probably cobble together an argument that the depiction of the only three unambiguously gendered women in the poem – the writer, introduced anonymously, because god knows we’ve enough known and named women writers in English Lit), the ‘calm’ doctor (it’s ok: she’s only taking your pulse, we’ll leave the hard science to the Man Person) and the ‘actress’ (does anyone really use ‘actress’ any more) – is in fact an ironic exposé of internalised sexism. I take the point (made in response to my previous post) that it is only my own searing misogyny that interprets the un-marked gender of butcher, baker, candlestick maker and children as presumptively masculine. I could even claim with a straight face that ‘baling the gold hay’ is a well-known rural gay men’s euphemism for cottaging and that mockery of it would be to appropriate and erase the queer farming community.
But it would be a struggle. Because, truthfully, I think the rhyme scheme is leaden, that the syntax – unfortunately – works with beautiful mimetic effect only when describing the anxieties of the closeted politician, that the imagery is trite and reactionary, and that the last line isn’t particularly original or clever.
Jem Bloomfield, discussing the predictable backlash against that last line, argues that comments reveal ‘the woeful state of public discussion of poetry – lurches between “it has A Meaning” and “means whatever you feel like”.’ This, I think, is spot on. When I’ve mentioned disliking this poem over the last few days, a fair few people have immediately assured me that Duffy’s message is tolerance. That the poem ‘means’ good things. That when Duffy chose to celebrate an oh-so-British-middle-class set of establishment and salt-of-the-earth figures, she was just choosing ‘representative’ people. Or she didn’t really mean to imply that we should only tolerate homosexuality because doctors, farmers and scientists are useful to us. Or that to criticise the poem is ‘overthinking’ because the ‘message’ is positive. Technical details – the focus on the nitty-gritty of the poem – just get in the way of talking about the ‘meaning’.
I mention all of this, partly as a context for that original glib comment, but partly also because I think it illustrates a wider oddity about the way we look at language and literature. Recently, I have been – for my sins – thinking about the way English is taught. I have a fair amount of ongoing cynicism about the motivations behind the current government’s reforms of Humanities teaching, and I do think these reforms have a more-than-incidental relationship to wider issues.
I wasn’t one of the people who jumped up and down in fury when I learned that the new requirements for primary school children include a hefty amount of formal grammar teaching. On the face of it, this didn’t seem particularly awful to me. I could even see the case for teaching quite young children to identify things like modal verbs or subjunctive moods. Why not? Some of them, as my friend pointed out, referring to her daughter, might actually enjoy it. But what I did wonder about – as I trawled through reams of government guidelines talking earnestly about graphemes and phonemes and fronted adverbials – was how carefully this vocabulary set itself up as precise, pseudo-scientific in its Latin and Greek roots. It evokes, too, the formal grammar training I associate with a certain kind of education – the kind of education that taught grammar in English via Latin, and (longer ago) imposed Latin grammatical structures onto English. It is, in short, an educational programme that evokes the same kind of ‘Englishness’ Duffy depicts in her poem: class-bound, Establishment Culture Englishness.
But when we look at the literature side, there’s something peculiar going on. Children are allowed to read (and write) ‘narratives’ or even down-to-earth ‘stories’. They’re encouraged to talk about ‘events’ and ‘themes’. What, not a whisper about the distinction between fabula and syuzhet? Colour me shocked.
It would be cynical to suggest that the reason children aren’t taught heavy theoretical vocabulary to use for describing literature is that there’s no history of associating this kind of formal study with socially privileged Englishness, as there manifestly is with the study of grammar. It would be worse than cynical to observe that ‘grapheme’ and ‘phoneme’ sound pleasantly Classical, suggestive of the clinical precision of scientific terminology or the nostalgic memory of Upper VI A doing Latin prep for Oxbridge entrance. By contrast, even anglicised from фабула and сюжет, the vocab on the lit side speaks a little too plainly of its origins on the other side of the Iron Curtain and offers the worrying reminder that there is still a place called Europe out there somewhere, and its not all made of Classical ruins to put on postcards.
The simple terminology on the lit side is, unfortunately, not a sign of incongruous common sense breaking into the document. There’s nothing wrong with calling a story a story; there’s nothing wrong at all with some recommendations, for example the suggestion that children might think about what themes go into the making of a fairy tale, or how narratives could be told differently from different speakers’ perspectives.
But there isn’t very much of this. The guidelines stress the importance of teaching children to interpret literature as a way of talking about morality or identity: to think about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or to ‘identify with’ the emotions of characters. Listening to students – even students at university studying English literature – you could come to the conclusion that Chaucer and Shakespeare both set pen to paper for the sole purpose of providing readers in 2016 with a ‘relatable’ moral lesson, a kind of literary message in a bottle. Generally (because our focus is strongly on ‘identifying’ with characters in literary texts) this will be a message mysteriously in keeping with the mores of twenty-first-century British society. If we follow this line of thinking, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is providing something akin to documentary reportage of the Woman Question circa 1389, and the literary aspects of the text – its genre, its style, its rhetorical tropes, its prosody – are all somehow excluded from the experience. Technical details, once again, just get in the way.
It seems to me that this odd imbalance – the hyper-precise, rigorous approach to English language, and the impressionistic, moralising approach to English literature – sets up students particularly inadequately. I’ve been told that the precise teaching of grammar is something I should welcome, as a lit specialist, something that will produce students who can understand exactly how a poem is put together, and what it means. I’m not convinced. If we teach children that all literature must be ‘relatable’ without giving them the tools to identify why and how it communicates, we’re pushing them to accept writers’ world views uncritically, to discount the nuances and tensions and subtextual implications, and to believe the ‘right’ reading is a simple, moral lesson.