It’s a long time since I had any connection at all with GCSE English.* But I have been shocked by recent headlines in (for instance) the Times (23.vi.22): ‘GCSE removes Wilfred Owen and Larkin in diversity push’ and the response from the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, as reported in (again, for instance) the Sun (same day): ‘Slamming the clearout of white writers, Mr Zahawi fumed: “Larkin and Owen are two of our finest poets. Removing their work from the curriculum is cultural vandalism. Their work must be passed on to future generations.”’ Speaking for myself, I am not shocked by the idea that students for the next few years may not encounter ‘An Arundel Tomb’ or ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’: GCSE and A level Literature syllabuses used regularly to rotate texts and authors – and should still do so. What shocks me is the assumption that, unless a poem is prescribed by a syllabus, pupils will never encounter it.
No syllabus can include everything, nor is it the job of an exam board to focus only on ‘our finest poets’. It has always been part of English teaching to go beyond the syllabus, to teach students of any age how to explore, enjoy and value literature in English for its own sake – especially, I would add, recent literature. Teaching literature is anyway not about teaching what to read, but how to read. And this is a lifetime’s study.
What the Times described as a ‘diversity push’, Michael Deacon in the Telegraph (25.vi.22) has not scrupled to call ‘a woke outrage’, as if the crime of culling Larkin and Owen has been compounded by replacing them with internationally recognised writers such as the Ukrainian-American poet, Ilya Kaminsky and the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. Pace Deacon, these are not ‘extremely minor’ writers who have been ‘chosen purely for the sake of “inclusivity”’.
There is nothing new, and should be nothing shocking, about mixing familiar and less familiar poets in poetry anthologies. Philip Larkin’s own Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973) included many poets whose names have not entered the canon, and as Peter Porter wisely said, reviewing Larkin’s anthology for TLS: ‘Just about every name omitted, and even more each name included, will seem to the brokers of our heritage a shameful selling-short or a ridiculous marking-up’.1 More than this, however, one of the jobs of an anthology is to help readers (including journalists) understand that literature is an ongoing conversation between writers and readers across cultures, ages and languages.
Thirty years ago, Cambridge University Press published an anthology aimed at encouraging GCSE and A level students in the UK to read ‘canonical’ British poetry from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath plus poetry by younger and less established writers. These poems were designed to be read alongside poetry written in English by poets from America to New Zealand and from Africa, India and South-east Asia. Actually, the anthology was primarily aimed at students world-wide who, studying English Literature for exams such as IGCSE, could compare the work of their own poets writing in English with that of specifically British poets.
At a time when poetry books for schools tended to have rousing titles such as Touched With Fire, this anthology was entitled The Calling of Kindred.2 There were 95 poets represented, of whom more than one third were not British-born writers. Larkin was included, but not Wilfred Owen. Isaac Rosenberg, however, was; so were two Second World War poets: Keith Douglas and John Pudney. There was even one poem from a recent conflict: Anthony Conran’s magnificent ‘Elegy for the Welsh Dead, in the Falkland Islands, 1982’.
Many poets were represented by more than one poem each but only Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy had three. The poems were grouped in five sections, but not by country, theme or date. Students were encouraged to make their own connections between poems, though some suggestions were included in the notes on each poet at the end of the book.
Putting together an anthology can be tricky. I learned the hard way: The Calling of Kindred was my first attempt, and the first – though happily not the last – of my books for C.U.P. It has sat quietly all these years on my shelves, still bringing in a diminishing (but gratefully received) annual royalty; I had not opened it for ages, until this row about GCSE poetry and diversity broke out. Comparing my book now with the controversial OCR anthology, I’m confident that on diversity and inclusivity mine scores the more highly. Woke was I, avant la lettre? Back in 1993, nobody batted an eyelid.
Poetry anthologies tend not to get reviewed, but mine was. The poet John Mole, writing in the Times Educational Supplement, kindly described the book as ‘Like all the best anthologies, a personal choice without fear or favour’. He was generous, too, when he added:
Although The Calling of Kindred is strong on the established canon, what makes it exceptional is the skill with which the editor mixes these with his own discoveries, many of which are by young writers who are not British-born. A real sense of the English-speaking community is established, and the anthology’s title (taken from a poem by the Welsh poet Ruth Bidgood) suggests both intimacy and long-distance communication.3
In the book’s Introduction I wrote that ‘Kindred spirits are those with whom we feel we have much in common. Poetry is written, spoken and read in English all round the world, and poets and readers are a diverse but also a closely-knit family.’4 After fifty years of teaching, talking, and writing about writers, I believe more strongly than ever in the idea of ‘the community of literature’ and of helping readers of any age to feel they can belong to this community.
© Adrian Barlow
*To be clear: I taught O level, GCSE and A level English Literature from 1973-1997; I was closely involved in GCSE, A level and international curriculum and syllabus development from 1985- 2005. I was OCR Staff Chair of English and Classical Subjects 2000-2005.
1. Peter Porter: ‘A Quiet Revolution’ (Times Literary Supplement, 13.iv.1973)
2. Adrian Barlow: The Calling of Kindred: Poems from the English-speaking world (Cambridge 1993: Cambridge University Press)
3. John Mole: ‘Speaking for themselves’ – review of The Calling of Kindred (Times Educational Supplement, 14.x.1994)
4. The Calling of Kindred, Introduction, p.6
I have written before about Wilfred Owen, in ‘John Stallworthy and Wilfred Owen’s Ghost’ (1914) and about Philip Larkin in ‘Re-reading Julian Barnes (ii): on poetry and ‘the poet’ (1912).