Poetry will soon be lost for good

What bells that pass, for these now famous old hats?

Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ has been struck from the GCSE-mandated anthology, Conflict. No Owen, no Sassoon, no Brooke. Elsewhere, Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’ has also been excavated and walled up. One cannot help thinking that it is the children who have been stolen.

Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi denounced the decision of the OCR examination board as “cultural vandalism”. But the council remains impassive. He announces the 14 “poets of color” he has brought to replace the previous incumbents, presumably transparent (or simply washed out?). “Our anthology…will feature many poets who have never entered the GCSE curriculum before…Six are black women, one is of South Asian descent. Our new poets also include disabled and LGBTQ+ voices.

Don’t panic, however, the advice adds. No one is banned. No books are burned. These long-dead, over-privileged mediocrities are not undone. It’s true that Larkin himself is now best handled with gloves on – ideally chunky rubber gloves that project inward from the wall of a sealed glass chamber. And compared to this shiny new full-spectrum LGBTQ+ cohort, Wilfred O’s muted khaki G-ness seems to be considered moot. But you and your children have every right to read them in your spare time. If you wish it.

The goal, OCR patiently explains, is to get the team rolling, to put fresh blood on the bayonets. Please please! – not to degenerate into another front in the culture war.

That call always comes, it seems, from those who have just seized contested territory in this great ongoing game of our times. “Now calm down,” Vladimir Putin no doubt sighed in 2014. “There have been some superficial changes in the management structure of Crimea. But there is no “slippery slope”. No one is “busy”. The new agreements simply better reflect the changing demographic realities of the province. Let’s not let this turn into some kind of international and dangerously militarized version of a culture war.

And frankly, what’s the point? Confessing Colonel Blimp, indignantly swaggering, foiled before the official start of the war? Let it be. “Nothing significant changes, and anyway, if it does, such changes are inevitable – and good, in fact.” Anyway, it’s too late now.

And repeat.

Anyway, Owen and Co are obsolete, hopelessly. The Kali Yuga manifests less like Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death” — scenes familiar to poets of the Great War — and more like the suffocating warmth of inclusivity and fairness that oozes from a modern HR department. . An endless cycle of infantilization, knee hugs and comforting as our muscles atrophy and our bellies expand.

Future outrages are in the works, no doubt.

First, in the course of improving “access” to this venerable old tomb in Arundel, a few feet (and possibly an ear and nose) are chipped from the large stone sepulchre, and the medieval atmosphere somewhat compromised by the large high visibility signs warning you to “watch out” for the uneven surface underfoot. It’s the signs that bother me, but whatever – who could complain? Only people who want old people excluded, or who have accidents, surely?

Second, thousands of moldy old prayer and hymn books, with their fine print and greasy, disease-carrying covers, need to be thrown out and replaced with handy QR codes you can scan with your phone and then follow the lyrics. on your screen. The new digitized anthologies have lost some old favorites, admittedly, the Church says, with notions of Christian soldiers now seen as somewhat problematic, and rising floodwaters somewhat triggering those worried about the crisis. climatic. Not to mention mentions of the actual “cruci-fiction,” as it has been controversially renamed. But on the plus side, they now contain over a dozen new lyrics, reflecting our diverse young congregation rather than the confused, grumpy old retirees we’re still stuck with.

Third, the engagement with Shakespeare in the “original text” (i.e. an essentially foreign language) must be replaced by a series of modules removing its more obscure images and re-situating its main concerns and themes – viz. , sexism, racism and transphobia – in the modern world. Additionally, sensitively but firmly directed discussions of why Othello should be played by a black actor (albeit one or the other, sorry, any genre), but Macbeth is up for grabs…

Listen, I understand. We live in the ruins of a once great civilization and to point out the superiority of its literary production over our own is discouraging and most likely counterproductive. It’s no fun living in an ossuary. Poetry as it is taught has largely been a visit to a mass grave.

And 30 years ago, I would have passionately argued that Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” – “Inside museums / Infinity rises on trial / Voices echo, this is what salvation must look like after a while” – deserved a spot on the program alongside Browning. and Keats. A point of view to which the Nobel panel has of course since caught up.

So if the OCR discerned that…

‘What bells for those who die like cattle?
– Only the monstrous wrath of guns.
Only the quick rattle of stuttering guns
Can crackle their hasty prayers

…is less likely to set fire to the hearts and minds of young people than Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily in War”…

“When they bombed other people’s houses, we

but not enough, we opposed it but not


… so who am I to hesitate?

Plus, the old stuff isn’t just too white, it’s just too hard. How many adults, let alone teenagers, know what passing bells are? It was a thankless job teaching poetry to sleepy, nodding 14-year-olds while they still lived in a typographical world. In our post-literate, almost post-television metaverse, it must be like teaching Sumerian cuneiform.

But more precisely, why bother? To what end? Try to free their imagination from the classroom, to enter among Owen’s words? To descend under the props and the crude beams, the dripping beams and into the crowded darkness, the shelter and the trench, to really see these condemned youths? Hear them breathing, like heavy horses, as they stand by their ladders, trying to control their fear, waiting for the whistle to start the game? To feel their clammy sweat, their grateful last ration of tobacco, and their scratchy coarse uniforms, and to feel their connection to each other and to the Earth on which they stand, for now, and may soon sink for ok…why? It happened years ago. Why struggle with a challenge like that when there’s the verse equivalent of the fourth plinth to mess around with instead?

Larkin at least seems to have foreseen his fate. Considerably more ambivalent about our prospects for survival than the infinitely quoted last line suggests, “An Arundel Tomb” imagines the motionless procession of stone figures reclining through time, hand shaking, but not reaching out no longer the hand, rather losing the tension, the traction with those who come to watch.

This stanza in particular produces effects that many GCSE scholars will be most familiar with when looking at Doctor Who:

“They wouldn’t guess when
Their recumbent hover
The air would turn to silent damage,
Divert the old farmhouse;
When the eyes that follow one another begin
Watch, not read.

So yes, to repeat, I understand. It’s just that new stuff seems, to my tired old eyes, totally devoid of poetry. And when they took away the poetry we loved, we protested. But not enough. Not enough.

In a letter written in 1801 to a friend, Coleridge regretted the extinction of his poetic gifts. He did it in perhaps the most heartbreaking poetic language I have ever encountered:

“The poet is dead in me. My imagination…rests like cold snuff on the circular rim of a brass candlestick, without even a stench of tallow to remind you that it was once clothed and mitred in flame…I was once a volume of gold leaf, rising and riding on every whiff of fancy, but I’ve come down to weight and density, and now I’m sinking in quicksilver, yes, stay crouched and square on the earth, at the middle of the hurricane that makes the oaks and the straws join in a dance, 50 meters high in the element.’

I read this now as an epitaph for all of our disenchanted world. The poetic is madness, a demented chorus, now mistrusted, minimized and secure. A dimension is lost, erased, for good. And our quasi-instinct, almost true – what will survive of us is the egg.

Simon Evans is a dope columnist and humorist. He is currently on tour with his show, Devil’s work. You can buy tickets here.

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