TO BE OR NOT - new poem about schools denying lower sets the chance to take English Literature

TO BE OR NOT

 

(for   Rajvi Glasbrook  Carolyn Hitt Marjorie Sheen  and Abbie Wightwick   and all the children being denied the chance to study english/welsh literature at gcse level)  

 

 "you think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read."

James Baldwin

 

not Duffy Shakespeare Taliesin or Angelou

because you, you see, are in set two

so those words are not for you

 

for we need to prepare you for the workplace situation

cvs  letters forms and basic comprehension

to make you ready

for zero hour contracts  minimum wage 

and strict regimentation

 

no time for Miller  Sassoon or Ishiguro

oh no those words are not for you

because you. boys and girls are in  set two

 

no room for character motivation, metaphor   or  Barrett Browning’s sonnets

why so astonished?

think of this as a mind colonic

just dot the i’s and fill in the gaps

know your place  know your class

you’ll be surprised how quickly each lesson passes

 

as expression only distracts

and we cannot afford any cracks

so learn by rote and memorize the facts

all we are concerned about is how you can make a profit

what is more important,  a dream.  or a full wallet?

 

even though ‘ english literature remains a statutory requirement in the curriculum’ *

don’t fill your heads with literary nonsense

what matters is the a-c grade performance

achieving  the bare minimum,

we are in the age of officialdom

not martyrdom,

 

and anyway,  ‘the welsh government has never placed a statutory requirement on schools to enter learners for specific qualifications’*

 

so it shall be literature for those who will pass it

and language for those who are dull

and in the  selection of the brightest

all  poetic  aspiration  is   culled

no chance to escape the margins

no colours but the teacher’s red pen

where the sun is merely a noun

and writing’s  just a means to an end

 

And what of love?

Of Walcott’s mirror

What of doves?

Of Niemoller’s horror?

 

And What of  the compass to this land

Of Hedd Wyn’s Gogledd

Clarke’s West

And Davies’ Bells of Rhymney

What of  the

Caneuon  fy nghwlad ?

How to be yourself

Beat bullies, accept others

and

navigate the world with truth and  empathy?

When you are trapped in classrooms outwardly benign

where the bookshelves 

gather  dust not spines

a place of  cv’s and full stops

and the  application forms   await the primark  sweatshops

 

and 

and i think of my own dear mother

reading bed time stories to me

and all the dead poets ‘ blood

 spilled  in their eloquent lonely  pleas

for

love imagination and humanity

as Lorca Sexton

Saro Wiwa  Plath  and Larkin

now circle in skies so lost

for they have no  place to alight on

as all literary dreams lay quashed

except for those  select few at the top

 

five

** the clock really is striking thirteen

four

and the pupils are asleep in what had once been the gymnasium

three

and april truly is the cruellest month

two

that was me.that is alex and my three droogs

we all learnt to love big brother 

 

and

one

 

 

i  now know why the caged bird sings,  sings   sings…. **

zero

 

 

because

no Duffy Shakespeare  Thomas Angelou  or Wilde

for you boys and girls

as  you are now  in set  five

we want you to exist and survive

not  question and thrive

 and those words 

 those worlds

will never

be yours

no matter how hard you try.

 

 

*extracts of  an official letter from the office of education minister kirsty williams am

 

** based on the first and last words of life changing books  and poems many pupils will now never  read

 

1984                   george orwell

the waste land        t s eliot

the handmaid’s          tale margaret atwood

caged bird          maya angelou 

clockwork orange         anthony burgess 

 

 

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literature is dead, long live the poets

Literature is dead, long live the poets

Strange things are happening in the land of the bards- of Aneirin.  Dylan Thomas,  Islwyn,  Hedd Wyn,   Idris Davies, R S Thomas and Gillian Clarke.

Pupils are being denied the right to study English  Literature.

From year 10 lower set pupils will only be allowed to take the GCSE English Language exam. No poems, plays, novels or stories. Cv’s , Comprehension, Persuasive writing andletters of complaint only.

 The message it is giving off is that you are not intelligent enough to understand and more importantly, to enjoy poems and plays and novels- they are justfor the top set- which incidentally are only top to their being better at exams or having pushy parents- top set at 14? On what criteria?

 So why am I affronted by this? On two levels. First as a parentand  second as a writer who shares poetry daily in a variety of contexts.

James Baldwin said, "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read."

I read to all my  three sons when they were young- used to look forward to it after a busy day it would be a time to relax, a moment of silence and to unwind their tired minds and to let them create their own pictures in their bright starry minds. My middle son, Evan,  adored Harry Potter and when he went on to read for himself – we would go and get the book the day it was released he would rush to his room close the door and we would not see him for two days except for teeth cleaning, toilet and food breaks- He would, literally, devourevery word to the end-

No sets no course work noforced curriculum or starched teacher telling him to think a certain way or THAT is what the answer is. Just him, his imagination and his little piece of  happiness- I have no doubt it helped him develop tolerance to others, discover new worlds, took him into himself, escape out of the now,  form his own opinions and above all have fun with words. Not bad for £7.99! Further in an age of instant likes, retweets,shares and   the endless bombardment of our sensibilities from the internet, it taught stillness and the dying art of self discipline to follow through a task. As J. K. Rowling says herself;

‘Imagination is not only the unique human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experience we have never shared. ‘

Professor Topping , in a survey for Dundee University in 2017 found that reading ages of teensare slipping. He found after surveying 850000 students that a 16 yr old can have a reading age of a 12 or 13 yr old- shocking -  especially when you consider many Primary school age children have reading ages of 2 to 3 years above their  real age. Now, to me there is an easy answer- children need to readand be exposed more, to reading  and by amputatingEnglish Literature from the majority of young people surely this will continue to happen?

What is firing this new approach? Laziness, Grammar school mentality, league tables, modernity? One English teachertold me ‘children need to be educated for the workplace’ Bollocks. I want my children to dream, to explore to rage to question not fill out an application form for a call centre.

 

Rajvi Glasbrook Griffiths, Literacy Leader at Glan Usk School thinks ‘ The devaluation of GCSE English Literature in schools is a short-term-gain driven measure that ignores the inseparable connections between literature, language and society’. She reads  poetry and stories to her class daily, seeing huge benefits to her children. What happens next is out of her hands but she tries, she believes in the power of literature. 

So, what of the other side.  Let’s be clear about this. The other is saying ‘ We will not be offering your child the chance to study literature ‘

Why is this happening? What is the schools’ argument?

 

Some schools say that the Language syllabus puts so much pressure on their teaching that they can’t afford the time to teach Literature. Which doesn’t add up as

1/ The top sets will still be studying it

2/ The cross fertilization of Language and Literature is  paramount

It basically means only those that pass the tests will sit the tests thus enhancing the school’s banding status.

Then schools say it is a choice. My son did not have a choice.  Along with two thirds of his year group.No dialogue or discussion it wasEnglish Language only. Now when he sees his friends being ‘selected’ for this other side,  this ‘exotic’  elite  life doesn’t that stamp ‘failure’ upon his young impressionable mind? Which fundamentally is at odds with The Welsh Government’s deprivation gap strategy and the implementation of  Professor Donaldson’s ‘Successful Futures” report?

Thirdly, schools say they need to focus more on ‘pupils’ employability’ citing form filling, grammar, cv writing and  comprehension..

What a sad state of affairs if that is the sole aim of education- to churn out robots- for the workplace. Yes young people need to create a cv and spell but surely there is so much more to life and work? Further, studying literature should enhance a person’s life chances and indeed employability by offering objective opinions, developing empathy for others, crossing borders and  lets face it functional literacy should already be in place by age 13-

 

Someonewho fired my imagination was Aneurin Bevan used to hold rallies on the barren grassland between Ebbw Vale and Tredegar and used his oratory to inspire others. He used to recite Shakespeare whilst walking to overcome his debilitating stammer.

Why not have some fun with words and ideas why not criss cross the world in a page, put yourself in a bullied person’s shoes, why not feel what it is to be a refugee or black or white or  gay or  transgender or American? Surely these things make our young people better citizens, better, more informed,  workers.

Why not use Twelfh Night’sMalvolio to explore how class and birth can limit happiness and the ability to get what you want in life? Or  Chinau Achebe’scharacter Okonkwo  in Things Fall Apart to understand how people aren’t  always what they seem.

 Or thefaith doubting poems of R S Thomasas a springboard into religious beliefs? 

And in this post Brexit xenophobic becoming island (the spike in hate crimes illustrates this) we need tolerance, understanding of the other and empathy more than ever.

I have found that often students assume that people around the world live lives very similar to theirs. The more we can expose them to what life is like in other countries, the more empathetic they will be when they come across those differences in real life. So, Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid or Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah or  A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah or the poetry of Maya Angelou. Surely education should be about something other than employability?

Angelou’s ‘Caged Bird’ poem carries a chilling portent ;

 

‘But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   

so he opens his throat to sing.’

What about George Orwell, Walt Whitman, Jean Binta Breeze, Gillian Clarke or Jackie Kay – I could go on-

I take poetry to the neglected sectors of society – to prisons, refugee support groups, pupil referral units, homeless hostels, mental health units and nursing homes and I have not once failed to have been moved by the members writingand their willingness to engage with stories poems and plays. Go into a nursing home, readthe words ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’ and you ll be joined by a chorus of voices reciting those lines etched into their fragile memories. ReadInvictus by William Ernest Henley in a mental health secure unit and patients will report feeling a sense of possibility, that someone acknowledges their pain,  after hearing it.

There are many reports that flag up the alarming drop in boys’ reading in teen years. In my experience, boys love Wilfred Owen andSiegfried Sassoon- they connect on a very visceral level even after 100 years- and yet wham-  with this new holier than thou approach ‘sorry you’re not allowed to read these now- they’re just for the top set’ for boys who may not  be exposed to many literary sources that is tantamount to exclusion. I know that Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ were pivotal moments in my education andeven have  a line tattooed on my forearm to remember.

 Further, What about aspiration to be something, to dare to dream of being a writer actor poet? Poetry, plays and novels bring up important questions, but they don’t always offer concrete answers, and they help young people to understand that finding their way in the world is a process.  Arthur Miller said he hoped his plays made people ‘feel less alone’- what better reason togive every young person the chance to study literature from around the world?

Further, recently the NHS undertook a series of research trials through the Reading Agency to discover works of literature that cold help mental health. They started to recommend these as a prescription alongside traditional treatment. To alleviate symptoms of depression and to help those living with or caring for those with dementia.  Also, The Journal of Consciousness Studies revealed a study that reported a healthy and varied dose of poetry and prose straight to the brain provides a rigorous work out to both the left and right hemispheres.

If you want to be a championswimmer, maybe aiming for the Olympics… you have to swim every day. Length after length breath after breath you have to swim. Long and hard. Every day. Strengthen those shoulders, build thoselungs

The brain is a  muscle too- it needs exercise- It requires training and the power of reading literature is that it  works that muscle and much more. It aids to focusing concentration, building creative thoughts and prevents cognitive decline.

When all these points are  taken together it seems a travesty thatcertain young people, solely based on academic performance by the age of 14, are being denied the right to explore the great works of this world.  We need to focus on what we think education to be for……..

Churning out robots to sit on production lines  and answer phones

Or

Thoughtful, well read, questioning, worldly, empathetic citizens?

 

I believe it should be about teaching people HOW not WHAT to think and literature certainly does that-

 

What would Aneirin or Islwyn say I wonder?

 

Finally, Let us remember, the one famous person who recently said he doesn’t read books … Donald Trump. A spell from the Harry Potter books comes to mind…’Expelliarmus’ !

 

 

Patrick jones

Writer

Wales

2017-06-16

There shall be a rising

My response to Donald Trump and his executive orders -

 

SOUL TRANSPLANT

(RUH ZARA'A)

'These don't look like children to me- We should do dental testing to certify the age of refugees'

David Davies MP

 

MAY THE SYRIAN SOIL

BENEATH YOUR FINGERS

FUSE WITH THE WELSH EARTH

TO MELD INTO A NEW GARDEN

 

MAY YOU TAKE REFUGE IN TRYFAN'S CRAGS

AND WANDER WILD UP PEN Y FAN

MAY YOUR BREAD RISE

WITH THE BLOWN BEACH WINDS OF OGMORE AND

RHOSSILLI

 

MAY YOU BRING SUNSHINE TO OUR VINEYARDS

MAY THE TEIFI ELAN AND TAFF

BRING YOU HOME WHEN YOU ARE LOST

ON WINDING AFTERNOONS OF MIST

LET THE SLATE MOUNTAIN OF BLAENAU FESTINIOG

BUILD A ROOF TO PROTECT YOU

 FROM THE NIGHTMARES OF YOUR PAST

 

LET THE DEEP RESERVOIRS MOAT

YOUR FEARS

 

LET THE TONGUES OF BEVAN AND GLYNDWR

BE YOUR ADVOCATE AGAINST

THROATS OF FRENZY

 

LET CYNGHANEDD CHIME WITH ARABIC

TO FORGE OUR NEW LANGUAGE

MAY YOUR CHILDREN GROW LIKE THE

RINGS OF THE LANGERNYW YEW

SUTURED AND SECURED TO LAND

 

MAY YOU SPICE OUR LARDER WITH BAHARAT

FALAFEL AND FATTOUSH

AND LET US SHARE FOOD AT ARTHUR'S TABLE

AND

SEEK SHELTER IN CARREG CENNEN'S SECRET TUNNEL

AND AWAKE AS A POET

FROM THE SLOW SLUMBERS OF CADAIR IDRIS'

DAWN DRENCHED SLOPES

 

ANDLET THE SALTED ARC

OF CARDIGAN BAY

SOOTHE         THE SCARS OF YESTERDAY

 

ANDMAY YOU STAND UPON

THE ACHING ARCHES OF PUMLUNON

TO VIEW THIS TINY MASSIVE LAND

FROM WHERE

THE SEVERN, RHEIDOL AND WYE BIRTH THEIR JOURNEY

AND YOU TOO, CAN FLOW

 

MAY THE CRADLING ARMS OF THE CAMBRIANS

STRENGTHEN YOU

SNOWDON'S MIST SHAWL YOU

AND THE VALLEYS CWTCH YOU

AS 'NA THELYNBERSEINIOL FY NGWLAD'

(NOR SILENCED THE HARP OF MY COUNTRY)

BECAUSE

IT NOW HAS A NEWSTRING

FROM AN END TO

A JUST BEGUN

 

FOR

WE ARE ALL TRANSPLANTED

FROM SOMEWHERE

BROUGHT BY THE BREEZE

FROM SEA TO SHORE

SETTLED ON FALLOW GROUND

GRATEFUL FOR THE SUNLIGHT

WAITING FOR THE RAIN

 

AND WHEN THEY TRY TO BURY US

WE DIG DEEP

SPROUT ROOTS

CLING TO OUR PAST

ANDFROM THE LIVED PRESENT

INVENT OUR FUTURE

YOURS AND MINE

COME,

LET US CULTIVATE OAK AND OLIVE TREES

SIDE BY SIDE

 

FOR CHELSEA MANNING

Knowing the unknown

 (For chelsea manning)

“I will only admit evidence of the chilling effects of Bradley Manning's actions have had on US diplomacy if those effectswere observed directly after the information was made public'

Judge Denise Lind

 

To tell the truth about atrocity

To provoke debate about honesty

How can that aid the enemy

To ask questions of military intervention

To instigate a mass mobilization

These facts existed

What changed was the public perception

And lest we forget in the tourniquet of instapatriotism

The acts of bush/blair and their shock and awe

Enough to endanger us interests at home and abroad?

Or numerous soldiers killing children and mothers

Raping women then lying for each other

The chilling effects of a bullet are more bullets more lies

The chilling effects of bombs are more bombs from more skies

The chilling effect war

Wasted lives,

The chilling effects of chelsea manning's actions

Were education

Illumination

Dissemination

Like wilfred owen, siegfried sassoon and tim o' brien

Before her

Bearing witness to savagery and

Dehumanisation

Like the suffragettes

the chartists

Freedom of information

And emancipation all she wanted

Yet chelsea manning

Lays imprisoned

By her acts of responsible humanity

A whistleblower only asks questions

to what is civil in our civilization

holds the mirror up to society

The only chilling effect isknowledge and

Knowledge has its own destiny

And that does not aid the enemy

in these dark times......

 

so many things to write about so many issues to attack so many thoughts to defend at the moment- it can be overwhelming - i have had to limit my time on twitter and the internet for i find myself gathering snippets of sadness tragedy injustice and feeling so powerless to do anything about it- yes i can sign a petition retweet comment and they all play their part but after a while i feel like a bonfire with more and more wood more and more tyres being piled upon me flaming to the sky- it is good to take time out and reflect- i am no politician- some may say no writer! but i can write and have seen so many beautiful things flow out of words and sharing words that each day i am lucky enough to be able still, to write and to share others' words - running myriad writing sessions in nursing homes, prisons, mental health units, schools, dementia support groups and banks (no that was just a joke) i have been humbled by being allowed into other people's worlds other people's minds- when, for example, i begin to read w h davies' 'leisure' and the whole room recites the first two lines in unison or when a quiet woman at a dementia support group hands me a poem written in shorthand- you could not write these moments and they rebuild my faith in humanity against the vile landscape of hate bombs and maledicta their tongues pour solace across the silence. this poem is my quiet reflection on all those moments over the last year i have sat in a boiling hot nursing home or sat upon the grass with young people living with mental health issues or been faced with 12 heavily tattooed men who 'hate poetry' who slowly tell their stories...yes i shall go on writing....yes i shall go on listening........

BRING IT BACK HOME
'If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?' ~Rumi

where there is bile
return to lullaby

when there are fists
hold fast to flowers

when they throw you chains
knit a shawl

if it rains tongues of nails
become a hammer

When they staple our mouths
strum guitars

when they ask for selfishness
stand in solidarity


when they scream for death
scatter sunflower seeds

if they bring starvation
make a soup from your memories

As they sell you perfection
make a crack

When they build walls
design doors

when they preach paradise
close the door
it is here, inside

as they bellow me me me
whisper goldenly
we we we



 

the aspirations of poverty

just a quick one about the new book published by red voices- these are urgent poems written in response to british and world events- things that have affected me- things that i needed to explore and get out of my system- right wing religion, identity, capitalism, greed, injustice, aspiration and protest as well as portraits of family, of those long gone and of hope. Camus talked of writing to bear witness - to capture the time we live in. this is all we can do sometimes.....

Guardian Article

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/may/20/gold-for-the-soul-my-play-about-dementia-choirs-with-music-by-the-manics

80th anniversary of Spanish Civil War

Honoured to be asked to perform at the launch of IB Cymru in Cardiff on april 10th 2016.It is a timely reminder of the sacrifice people made for those suffering in other countries. In an age where borders dominate our news we should take heed from the inspiring response of people  who went to to the aid of those living under oppression and fear of death. I shall be reading new poems and looking forward to hearing Hywel Francis speak and meeting like minded souls. Barocco Bar Cardiff at 4pm. 

before i leave journal

after 2 and a half years of research and writing the first performance of my play 'before i leave' is edging closer- it has been a while since  i've got new work out- i forgot what it is like to have people on your side- collaborators theatre creatives designers producers and friends- i feel real again- it is a strange thing to create a play in isolation- typing away staring at that flickering screen dreading  switching it on in case the ideas refuse to flow- i would call it pain filled- but yet somehow beautiful- to tap away at the keys making choices that can affect the whole structure- nearly 30 years ago i came across a quote that would change my life- arthur miller said he wrote his plays to make 'people feel less alone'-  outwardly simple yet probably the most profound statement on art i have ever read- because yes isn't that why we gravitate towards a certain band a painter that obscure poet or that long forgotten novelist? to. feel . less . alone - to try to connect with something tangible in a world that strips away feeling? i know i did and still do. i know that in 1988 i threw myself into tennessee williams allen ginsberg  jack kerouac albert camus sylvia plath and arthur miller - i gorged on their words their ideas their dreams- i had always thought writing was for the rich the ultra educated those having a career break- i did not know if it was legitimate for me to write let alone be heard- their words unleashed my own and for that i am eternally grateful- formal education was a waste of time- no sparks just blankets smothering creativity- my peers bored me - rugby fighting and piss ups- never really floated my boat and it was a lonely battle to raise myself up from their musclebound grip and walk the cleaner air of poetry and nature- so why am i regressing this isn't a history lesson?- it is sometimes helpful to retrace those furious steps of youth to find out why you picked up that pen WHY you would take a notebook up a mountain why you would listen to conversations on the last bus from cardiff to the valleys- i certainly didn't want to make money i definitely didn't know how to be famous- i just knew that words were my way out and my way in that i could truly be myself on that blank notebook page i knew there were stories to tell i knew my place my postcode my accent my world was not being represented in the media and i knew what it was like to 'be alone'- so here i am having  written a play  inspired by cwm taf choir  in merthyr tydfil a town full of protest of struggle and of song- i also knew that the members of this choir were fading that their stories needed to be told- i knew, that it was time to make 'people feel less alone'- - the journey continues.............

here is my new site – great work by paul thomas to create it. so many things to write about and express and will be using this to discuss issues and try out new work.

exciting times ahead with a new play with national theatre wales, a book of poetry published by the red poets press and a brand new spoken word cd as black triangle which is my new sonic project with julian gardner.

as ever i am out working in the community involved in some fantastic life affirming projects with such organisations as The Alzheimer's Society, Literature Wales, Age Cymru and Head4Arts.

We need words more than ever before. here live mine –

THE HEALING HOUSE

"the public interest is taken care of by the private interest of wanting to make money"

John Redwood 1994

 

"we have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders"

Aneurin Bevan, 1945

 

bring your children to the nursery

with their disease and sickness,

this is the place where I hope to cure all illness

at the point of need, this is an emergency

 

come now, our tomorrow

rest yourself

as i halt fear and heal bone marrow,

and, from an early death

i promise emancipation,

with my doctors, nurses

and vaccinations

 

let in the mothers

the pool is ready for another,

carer of the next generation,

sleep, prepare for this new birth,

I offer you protection,

as you grow the roots of our new earth

 

welcome, people from other nations,

with troubled faces from distant places,

i have room for you, my new patients,

i have no borders to caring,

pain has no dialect, this language is for sharing

let love be found in translation

 

sit, eat from my pantry,

become healthy

as you, you are my ultimate test,

bring me your tortured tongues

so you may speak again

from far off battlefields show your scarred flesh

so i can stem the blood and heal your pain.

 

to you, the wiser, the elderly, the old,

do not be afraid, do not huddle in the cold,

my door is open,

come in, come in,

it is warm, trust us,

and i shall lance the boils of poverty's injustice,

and drain the infection,

as in my house these rooms

offer cure by prevention,

 

and so to the sick, to the dying, those crippled with

disease

stay, in my garden,

breath,

lay, beneath the trees

i shall provide peace and serenity

to strengthen the health of vulnerablity

no matter what age, sex, class, race or country,

 

my windows pour penicillin

my library, the words of the masters,

Simpson, Pasteur and Fleming

not market forces or ignorant capitalists

 

so be careful how you treat your house, our home

never neglect or leave alone

keep clean,  add extensions

but never damage the bricks or remove my foundations

 

from the wasteland of squalor, disease and

dereliction,

I am the safe place

the healing home

injecting cells with reconstruction,

the everlasting bandage

to deliver all from illnessed bondage

I am the suture

to stitch the wounds of the past

but i am the scalpel

to carve the future

to make this dream last

to make this dream last.

 

"the verb is more important than the noun"

Aneurin Bevan