‘Poetry in school,’ said Simon Armitage this September, ‘is one of those few occasions when you can experience language for something other than information.’ He and others overturned Ofqual’s bid to push poetry off the core exam syllabus – an attempt to prioritise what is essential to learning English from what, in hard times, might not be. Writers face similar if less life-changing dilemmas, as they weigh what internal information a poem needs, to be clear, against how much makes it turgid. Information outside the text can shed light on a writer’s imaginative reach and engagement with the zeitgeist. But is it needed – and if so as an epigraph, a footnote or an appendix (discovered only when one has puzzled in vain)?
Penelope Shuttle’s poem ‘Footnotes’ makes us imagine contexts for 55 footnotes, and how they could possibly be linked. Eliot felt The Waste Land needed 52, but today, with search engines, what need one? Ekphrasis has burgeoned thanks to Google Image, but the best ekphrastic poems work independently. The alternative approach to background information is pre-emptive. ‘I don’t think the next poem / needs any introduction’ begins Billy Collins’ ‘The Introduction’: 31 lines about a poem we never hear.
Other protests against Ofqual made more of poetry’s playful and consolatory roles in times of crisis, as something young people need to ‘find’, ‘fall in love with’ and be ‘enchanted’ by, addressing issues otherwise ignored by the curriculum. All true – although perhaps, to Gradgrind’s descendants, making poetry sound less essential by the minute. Beyond school, however, there are too many occasions to spot the tools of poetry in the hands of political strategists: concrete nouns, dynamic verbs, emotive metaphors, the pulse of iamb and trochee, the lure of alliteration, rhyme and all the other ingredients of the English fruitcake, deployed to reify airy nothing, or worse.
This is why children need poetry: to understand what language alone can do. Tom Leonard’s ‘six a clock news’ spells out the subtext of received pronunciation: a fact of regional life. Language is itself a fact and poets work it hard, to communicate not information but intelligence: overt and covert, in and between the lines. To study a poem is to lay bare its linguistic cogs. To memorise one is to pocket a piece of verbal circuitry: a plug-in, if you like, for when facts swarm, thoughts overwhelm and our own words fail us.