Author Dr Karen Lockney
The theme of this year’s UK National Poetry Day – 7th October 2021 – is Choice.
This blog post offers some ideas about actively choosing a creative range of work by Black and Brown poets, to reflect on practice going forward from National Poetry Day, and to offer some personal reflections surrounding this.
Some of the questions which I ask here include: why has poetry become one of the main areas pupils will encounter writing by Black and Brown authors? Does the focus of poetry selected run the danger of ‘othering’ if not part of a wider approach? Is there room for greater variety reflecting voices past and present which more accurately reflect the human experience? If so, where do teachers go to find out about a wider range of writers and poems? Let us begin.
Poetry is a particularly popular area of the English subject curriculum in secondary schools to explore the work of writers from different heritages. There are several possible reasons for this. One may be that poetry is such a fantastic art form in which to explore the theme of identity as poems provide space around the words where powerful thoughts can take shape. This is clearly why poetry is so well suited to the biggest subjects of all: love and death, for example. Its indefinable and sometimes elusive qualities can carry the weightiest topics and offer the deepest of emotional intensity in return.
There is also the practical reason that there was, for at least 20 years, a strong presence of poems about identity in different GCSE specifications, most consistently in the AQA poetry anthologies which included ‘Poems from Other Cultures and Traditions’ for many years, thereby covering that aspect of iterations of the English National Curriculum. The work of leading poetry educator Julie Blake charts this development (Blake, 2019). She outlines how the first English NC in 1990 stated that pupils should learn, ‘literature from different countries written in English’. The architect of that NC, Professor Brian Cox has stated in his published account of this time that his Working Group recommendations tried to, ‘balance the arguments for national unity with the need for a curriculum which respected the present cultural diversity of our society, (Cox, 1991, p.71). The 1995 revised NC referred to ‘texts from other cultures and traditions’. No Black or Brown poets were named in the lists of ‘major poets’ within a major focus on the ‘English literary heritage’. The 1999 revisions, brought in by New Labour, and their 2007 later revisions, now referred to ‘texts from different cultures and traditions’ and writers from other countries were now named, though still in the minority and very few not White. We can see that these inclusions and revisions, even if well intentioned by some invested in this process, had a two-fold effect: one to ‘other’ the writing of people not from Britain (literally to put the work in a box marked ‘other’ or ‘different’), and secondly to make the ‘English literary heritage’ predominantly White. Blake’s work goes on to show how in the 2007 NC Benjamin Zephaniah was included in the ‘different cultures and traditions’ category which speaks volumes saying he was born and raised in Britain and a significant aspect of his subject matter relates to (Black) British culture. The idea that Black and Brown people are part of British culture, not an adjunct to it or outside of it clearly was not yet fully embedded in practice.
When Michael Gove became Secretary of State for Education in the 2010 coalition government, he wasted no time in bringing in sweeping changes. For the first time since 1990, the requirement to teach literature from ‘different cultures and traditions’ disappeared, and there was an unashamed focus on ‘English heritage’ which perhaps we can see alongside the concurrent focus on ‘British values’ in education. Although I am questioning the ‘othering’ danger in the previous NCs, there is no evidence Gove wanted to subsume experience of varying heritages into ‘Britishness’ or literary study as a whole, rather that he wished to distance the curriculum from such writing. This is reflected in the ways the media reported on his changes, with the right-wing press celebrating the increase in ‘British writers’ although actually the lists of recommended authors previously seen did not feature and arguably this left the door open for teachers to interpret, ‘the English literary heritage’ in a more inclusive way, a mantle thankfully some are taking up to great effect.
Research does not suggest that inclusivity is now widespread however. A 2020 report from the education charity Teach First found that pupils could complete GCSEs and leave English secondary schools without studying a novel or play by a non-White author. In response, exam board AQA did point out some choices of fiction in their syllabus, and that the poetry selection do feature BAME (the term used in their statement) authors, and that they are reviewing their specifications.
These decades of government prescription and changing emphases undoubtedly put huge pressures on teachers to both meet statutory requirements, and to respond with their professional skills in a creative way to meet the needs of their pupils and to allow their love of their subject specialism to impact on their work. Since Black Lives Matter in particular, we know that many schools are looking for ways to decolonise their curricula as much as they can within the NC. The dominance of the notion of ‘other cultures’ and the foregrounding of poems which explore identity and heritage has embedded some superb work by fantastic writers in the culture of English teaching, and I believe this is to be celebrated for all the reasons I outline in this post. I also would argue, however, that there is room to further open up the English curriculum to increased diversity and to include a wider range of writers exploring a range of topics. There are new names to share with our students and also superb work being done to raise greater awareness of Black and Brown voices from the past.
A useful question for teachers to ask when looking at how pupils will encounter not only work by Black and Brown authors but also work about race, culture and identity (regardless of the author’s heritage) is to consider how these topics are featured (if at all) in the work pupils will read and study. In other words, it is not just the presence of Black and Brown authors and/or characters which it is necessary to consider, but the framing of those encounters. That pupils may encounter stories and poems about battles characters face regarding their identity, heritage or colour of their skin is one thing, and might be priceless in itself, but is that all pupils are coming across? Do pupils only meet Black or Brown characters/authors who are dealing with issues to do with identity?
There are some superb poems about identity, about immigrant experience, about dual nationality and identity, about proud cultures living alongside other proud cultures, poems in dialect, poems about being Black and Brown in modern Britain, poems about key historical moments which resonate down the years. Although I think poetry is one of the very best vehicles to explore these issues, it is also important that the only work pupils encounter by Black and Brown writers does not focus solely on these issues, otherwise it could paradoxically run the danger contributing, if not part of a richer diet, to the very sense of othering the original work may seek to counter.
In 2020 a report commissioned by the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool highlighted a lack of diversity in poetry. There have been signs of improvement and the number of Black and minority ethnic (these are the terms used in the report) reviewers writing for national publications has more than doubled 2017-19. However, in the 10 year period of the report (2009-19), the London Review of Books (LRB), one of the key literary publications in the UK, did not publish a single review of a non-White poetry book, despite poets of major international status winning key poetry awards. The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) fared better, but still only 1.3% of its total number of poems published were by non-White poets (again these are the terms used in the report). There are signs of positive change with many publishers actively seeking diversity in their lists, with mentoring support offered by some festivals and publishers, but for UK schools this change will perhaps take time to filter through.
We know that many schools are seeking to diversify the literature they teach, and Anti Racist Cumbria has recently promoted the work of publishers such as Penguin who have offered diverse lists for schools. It has been fantastic to see some of Cumbrian schools lead the way in this area. Penguin’s list is growing, and it would be fantastic to see more poetry added to the fiction and non-fiction currently featured.
Poetry is an area of the English curriculum where teachers can feel empowered to bring more diverse work into their classroom. Alongside superb poems about culture, identity and belonging, pupils can be introduced to work by writers from diverse heritages about anything under the sun – about sandwiches or sunsets, about boyfriends or girlfriends, about parents or pet hamsters, about cricket or make up. Teachers need the publishing industry to catch up with the fact 34.4% of pupils in British schools are from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds (Penguin Lit in Colour research, 2020) to offer a richer diet of writers who reflect modern Britain and the modern world, as well as voices from the past which offer inclusive perspectives.
Many educational organisations are working hard to diversify their resources and raise awareness of a wider range of writers. Here are some resources that parents, carers, teachers and pupils may find useful to help make a choice, which is after all the theme of this year’s National Poetry Day, which is informed, exciting and more accurately reflective of the world in which we live and have always lived.
The National Poetry Day website https://nationalpoetryday.co.uk/celebrate-national-poetry-day/ has an interesting and diverse selection of poems, and some resources for lesson plans.
Poetry by Heart is expanding its online anthologies to include a richer selection – see their Black Poets Matter blog post to find out more about this and explore their link to the work of Black and Brown writers who feature on their site
CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) similarly has photos of poets on which you can click to explore their work, and their selection is wide and diverse https://clpe.org.uk/poetry/poets
An interesting recent article where Black British poets talk about ‘trailblazers’ who inspired them https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/28/black-british-poets-black-lives-matter-linton-kwesi-johnson-grace-nichols-raymond-antrobus-kayo-chingonyi-malika-booker-vanessa-kisuule
The Poetry Archive (a brilliant online resource of recordings of poets reading their work) has a good selection of poems for National Poetry Day and also a curated selection of ‘world poetry’ which has very diverse voices https://poetryarchive.org/collections/national-poetry-day-2021/
The Poetry Book Society produced a response to BLM and posted a blog about reading inspiration https://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/blogs/news/black-lives-matter-reading-inspiration
The Poetry Foundation, a US organisation has this blog post about poems of protest, resistance and empowerment, again in response to BLM and with a very wide range of links to poets and their work https://www.poetryfoundation.org/collections/101581/poems-of-protest-resistance-and-empowerment
Material referred to in this post
Blake, Julie (2019) What did the national curriculum do for poetry? Pattern, prescription and contestation in the poetry selected for GCSE English literature 1988-2018. PhD thesis University of Cambridge
Cox, Brian (1991) Cox on Cox: English Curriculum for the 1990s London: Hodder Arnold
Penguin Books Lit in Colour: supporting inclusive reading in schools https://www.penguin.co.uk/campaigns/lit-in-colour.html
Teach First (2020) Increasing Racial Diversity in the Literature We Teach report available at https://www.teachfirst.org.uk/reports/missing-pages
Image credit: Poetry by Heart (www.poetrybyheart.org.uk) from their blog post https://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/blog/black-poets-matter/