‘The Past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.’
I went to school in the 1980s, before the Foyle Young Poets’ Competition existed. I thought I would revisit the poetry landscape of my youth and see if anything has changed. What, in the years of Thatcher, The Miners’ Strike, Live Aid, was a young student’s experience of poetry like.
At school the curriculum was ‘Great Big Poets’: Keats, Yeats, Shakespeare. All Dead White Men to be in awe of. My poems at the time were sad imitations of Keats, very worthy, very awful. Out there in the world something was changing.
Being In 1983 John Cooper Clarke’s ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’ landed.
We passed the book (no internet of course) around. This would never be on the curriculum. I remember seeing Joolz perform ‘Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know’. A post punk goddess playing around with Byron! Our English teacher invited Nik Toczek in. We thought he was brilliant. He jumped on desks and ranted about real things.
Our teachers kept trying and in 1985 I found myself in a scout hut in Waddecar, Lancashire. I’m not sure what process got me there. A group of us had been selected to spend a week with a poet to develop our writing. That poet was Ian McMillan and we fell in love with him immediately. He was young, funny and very Yorkshire. A poet in a donkey jacket. He took us to the Lancaster Literature Festival to see Circus of Poets.
They took the mickey out of Keats!!!
In 1986 The Smiths released ‘Cemetery Gates’. Essential listening.
After Waddecar I felt a true connection to poetry. If I was allowed to be part of this group I could ‘do’ poetry. By the mid nineties I was an English Teacher. I was writing poetry and teaching it. I was teaching Keats, Shakespeare, Yeats. I was sent to a Poetry for Teachers week at Arvon’s Lumb Bank. And who should be running the course, the fabulous Ian McMillan. It was a brilliant week, and I’m still using the exercises we shared today.
Since then my poetry activity has exploded. I co-founded a poetry magazine, am a poetry editor, I’ve performed at The Poetry Café in London and in Berlin. I got a PhD in the Practice of Poetry and even had a few poems published along the way. All because I was given confidence and permission.
In 2012, I was sitting at a conference. The headline act, Ian McMillan, the Bard of Barnsley. He came over and chatted to me about Waddecar. One of the best moments of my life.
A very different landscape? You don’t have to pass round the books just share the websites and forums. And enter competitions. Connect with the poetry landscape and plant yourself in it.
30 years later I am still an English teacher. I get my students involved in poetry outside the classroom because inside the classroom I’m teaching, guess what, Keats.
Jane Bluett (Dr) is a poet, teacher and researcher. She has worked in Sixth Form Colleges for over 20 years. She is Poetry Editor for English in Education and represents schools on the Management Committee of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE). She is committed to the practice of poetry in Education for the benefit of all students and teachers.