The endurance of poetry

In January 2011 I was in the audience at the Colston Hall in the centre of Bristol for Poetry Live, an event that was put on in order to help GCSE students from all of the local schools gain a greater understanding of the subject matter we were studying for section B of our upcoming exam, which was on English literature and Poems from Different Cultures.

Attendance wasn’t compulsory, but I didn’t think twice, and not merely because it meant a day away from normal lessons.And there were many of us in the audience in front of that famous old stage, and we had a great time, helping ourselves to excessive amounts of Haribo sweets and chatting in between performances.

The master of ceremonies gave a couple of sessions of his own, while introducing five of the UK’s leading poetry figures – Gillian Clarke, Simon Armitage, Imtiaz Dharker, John Agard, and the poet laureate herself Carol Ann Duffy.

I found them all very engaging, and it was good to put a face and a personality to the works we had studied in our anthologies. Agard in particular left a lasting impression on the audience with his charisma and effervescence, but all of them had their own unique delivery and read their poems with different mannerisms; from different perspectives.

Although gaining more knowledge ahead of my GCSE exams was the biggest priority on the day, as somebody who has a fascination with this field of literature, I was eager to pick up a few tips from each of them and learn how and where they get their inspiration. But regrettably I doubt that too many others in the audience left feeling something similar.

As far as I know, too few young people – particularly as you go further down the social ladder – take poetry beyond their school studies and the topic becomes something rather confined to academia. For example, I doubt very much that all that many people in the UK know that Carol Ann Duffy is the poet laureate, such is the lack of mainstream attention she receives.

It is all very well learning the necessary works and the techniques poets use such as alliterations, assonance and those ever reliable metaphors, but surely doing so needs to have some kind of future benefit. Once the time for studying these poems come to an end, they are often forgotten about forever and not reserved the sort of appreciation that they are probably due.

In fairness, the same also applies to the works of William Shakespeare and that of classic authors such as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Secondary school aged children cannot identify with them, and as a result they don’t gain any long standing appreciation. ‘Highbrow’ knowledge and interests aren’t valued as much as they used to be.

Only a select few take up poetry, as outside of an educational environment it neither promoted nor encouraged with any great gusto. The role of the poet laureate is a very prestigious one, but this day and age it is hardly recognised or understood, which for me is a shame. It is a very versatile form of art and one that is very pleasing when everything marries together perfectly, but unfortunately its profile has lowered and it doesn’t carry the same weight as other forms of media.

Poetry can be just a hobby or a pastime, as it is for me – and even then I don’t do very much of it. I devote a lot of my time to much more popular and ordinary activities that the average working class 20-year-old would do, but a liking for language remains ever-present and I really hope that it is something that many of my peers (at least secretly) share and put into practice – not just in the occasional humerous Facebook post.

The Art of Prescriptivism

Throughout my school years I was a reasonable student – naturally bright and full of knowledge, but not what you might call academically gifted. With no degree to speak of, the result I can look back on with the greatest sense of pride is my A-Level in English Language, achieved at the end of what was personally a tumultuous 2012-13 school year.

As part of that course we covered the rather broad area of language change, and how English has developed over the centuries into what it is today. In doing so we had to consider contextual factors such as technological advances and changes in social attitudes among other things.

Another key area of study was to become familiar with relevant research and theory on the subject, while at the centre of everything there were two groups of people who basically provided the definition of attitudes towards language change. The first of them are the descriptivists, who believe that language naturally evolves and remains prosperous for it. On the other side of the court are the prescriptivists, who feel that a language is sacred, should be governed by rules, and should not be tampered with in order conform to modern trends and social issues.

For that reason, a lot of our time was spent looking at worksheets littered with social media threads and examples of text messages, which were inevitably full of abbreviations and emoticons.

As teenagers ourselves we were able to appreciate these modern features, but saw no shortage of opposing views, while other bones of contention included the removal of hyphens from some words and the growing use of so-called ‘Americanisms’ in the English language. The latter led to some outspoken comments among my classmates, and is a surprisingly regular target for vitriol at my house.

Many of the texts we studied were written by a famous public figure in the shape of John Humphrys, presenter of Mastermind and BBC Radio Four’s Today programme. He has written books on the subject of language change and certainly does not hold back in airing his views, subtitling his 2004 work Lost For Words as ‘The mangling and manipulation of the English language’.

In one of his newspaper columns he accuses modern society and the advent of technology such as instant messaging and social media of contributing to the ‘pillaging of our punctuation’ and ‘the raping of our vocabulary’.

The use of the word ‘raping’ in this comparatively frivolous context aside, Humphrys makes a compelling case for a perceived laziness and lax attitude among society and even lexicographers, even going so far as to make a grovelling appeal to the Oxford English Dictionary not to give in to radical evolution.

I agreed with some – not all – of his sentiments, and certainly used them to my advantage in order to successfully complete my final piece of coursework, which was to write a 1,000 word piece in the style of a newspaper article. I chose to write a prescriptive piece as I felt it suited my writing style best, and so for this reason I found this assignment a fairly comfortable task and received good marks.

The key thing for me was not to sound too much like Humphrys et al, producing an original article while conveying a similar message. I pulled no punches, describing social media users as ‘vandals’, accusing them of showing ‘total disregard the rules’ and of ‘a lack of respect’. All tongue in cheek of course, for the purpose of gaining a qualification!

My personal favourite passage is this: ‘Before methods of electronic communication arrived, the needless, merciless shortening of words was very rare. That was because everything had to be written manually so others could understand it (sounds extremely tough, doesn’t it?) and none of those all too common acronyms (such as LOL) existed.’

As a passionate writer, it was a very fun piece to write and one where I could express my creative freedom by using powerful adjectives. Prescriptivism is an area which provides all manner of opportunity. Whether you believe their argument or not, those who defend what they feel to be the established rules are worth listening to, especially if you like a good debate. Prescriptivism is indeed an art.