Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Close reading

I'm sitting nervously here because my daughter's GCSE English Literature exam is just about to finish and I'm waiting for her thumbs up/thumbs down text. We spent last night going over the poems in her anthology, and I was surprised at just how good it was to read the texts closely with her. Surprised because I had maybe arrogantly (OK, extremely arrogantly) assumed that the life of the poem would have been taught out of her and her classmates by the time she reached the exam. Not so. She was as excited by the language and the meaning of the poems as if she was reading them the first time, maybe more as she saw more and more in each line. In his fantastic T S Lecture in 2005, the poet George Szirtes says:
The task of poetry is to tell the best truth it can about whatever it happens to be dealing with. After that it must trust the reader, and assume that the reader is deeper, stranger and wiser than the poet knows.
George also describes what seems to be happening with Rachael, which is that, rather than looking for points to be scored for each technique spotted, she was letting the poem take over. He says:
There is a process I have often noticed in my teaching: that the understanding of poetry is not, as Paterson thinks, structured like an apprenticeship. There is, rather, a particular point at which the nature of poetry is understood for the first time. That first step on to the ice involves understanding both the point of the ice and something of ice's nature. It is in fact the realization of something we have known all along. We have always known what lies beneath: we are always feeling the ice under our feet.
It was really exciting, and whatever the result of the exam, all credit to her English teacher for that. I was envious of how she 'got it' so much earlier than I ever did.

Mind you, she did come through first thing this morning to say 'I've been reading and thinking about the poems on my own'. Then she hit her head with her hand and said: 'No, I haven't. I must have been dreaming I have.' So maybe it was all just a dream, and English teachers are still beating out the rhythms on the back of pupils' heads with wooden rulers as they did at my convent school, and pupils are still growing up with an absolute terror of getting poetry 'wrong', just as I did.

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