Two new articles on ‘The Uses of Poetry’

Having said several times recently that I haven’t done research in English Education/language/literacy for a while, I am reminded that, in fact, I have by the publication of two new journal articles on poetry. The articles arose out of the Arts and Humanities Research Council project I was CI on during my time at Brunel. Given how busy I was there, I don’t think that’s surprising. But it was interesting that, although I knew I had these two pieces coming out, I hadn’t connected them to English Education. Maybe here’s why.

In the article for the Journal of Aesthetic Education, ‘The Uses of Poetry: Renewing an Educational Understanding of a Language Art’, the brilliant philosopher Karen Simecek and I explore the various definitions of poetry or poetic modes of language use that have been dominant over the last thousand years or so in connection with formal education and human development. This paper also helped us elaborate a working definition of poetry that we could operationalize in our project. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we returned to the work of James Britton and some of the extraordinary work he was producing in the 1960s drawing on the philosophy of Langer and Rorty. Britton drew attention to the self-conscious ‘deviance’ (his word) of poetry in drawing attention to itself and its symbolic work.

For Changing English: Studies in Reading and Culture, Brunel’s Andrew Green, Karen and I replicated the experiment conducted by Jerome Bruner for Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. With a twist. In ‘Actual texts, possible meanings: The uses of poetry and the subjunctification of experience’, we compare the responses of a small sample of university students to hearing a poem, a literary short story and a newspaper report. We note, as Bruner did, the greater number of syntactic transformations the students made in their retellings of the short story compared to the news report. But we also noted a qualitative difference between their processing of the poem and the short story with the poem being more likely to produce expressions of contingency and complexity and even greater affordances of subjunctification than the short story. This was what we hoped to add to Bruner’s research.

These two papers are available to download from the Articles section of this website.

Both articles connect to my recent and current interests in the pedagogies of teacher education in that poetry presents a good example of a kind of knowledge that, in its true sense of being poetry (poetry as poetry), is deeply resistant to the commodification that is so prevalent in the GERM-infected education reform movement. Rather than teaching and learning how to deal with indeterminacy and uncertainty in meaning-making, reform tends to pin poetry down into the lowest-level things that can be easily ‘spotted’ and counted. So poetry is a good example of the kind of knowledge that has to be marginalized when short-term, easily-measurable gains in learning are prioritised. Poetry, as such a culturally significant mode of language use, presents considerable problems for reformist notions of teacher development and school improvement. As well as being deviant, it is highly disruptive.