Monday, 7 April 2008

Poetry teaching 1968

1868, 1878, 1888, 1898, 1908... 1938, 1948, 1958: poetry books for schools, an essential continuity of aims, styles and purposes: at the earlier end Palgrave's Golden Treasury, endless anthologies of Victorian and Georgian poetry (John Masefield, Walter de la Mare) plus Shakespeare lyrics, Herrick and the like, on coarse paper, with crammed typography, grubby; at the latter end Oxford Book of Verse for Juniors, Enjoying Poetry, The Poet's Window, The Albermarle Book of Modern Verse -- still a quite narrow range of English poems (some American), nothing in translation, unloved books that smelled of school.

Then 1968: Voices. Books 1-3, followed by Junior Voices 1-4. Product of the new Education division of Penguin Books, edited by Geoffrey Summerfield; Martin Lightfoot the Penguin person in charge; Richard Mabey - now known as a nature writer - also on the team. Three years to work this project up before it had to show a profit. Everyone in-house, no sub-contracting or outsourcing: graphics, design, photographers, picture research (these books had photographs and other pictures, lots of them).

These were books that kids read on the bus, stole. They had pictures, handsome printing, plenty of white space round the poems. The contents were in part traditional but most excitingly included lots of American poems, folk poetry from oral traditions, children's playground rhymes and jokes, older poetry in translation, Inuit poetry, Czech poetry newly translated.

BBC Radio 4 has just broadcast a programme about Voices -- get it (you have a week) from the BBC Radio website, Radio 4 > Listen Again > Voices at 40. Summerfield and Lightfoot died in the 1990s but we hear from Richard Mabey as well as Michael Rosen, Richard Andrews and teachers who used the books.

It's a good programme that catches well the impact these books had - which I well recall: give them out and that was your lesson: the kids were absorbed. Voices at 40 brings out the freedom to explore and innovate in the publishing of the time, the personalities and styles of the two leaders, the freedom teachers had to read a poem or two or several every lesson if they so wished, the climate among English teachers in NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English) that favoured the inclusion of children's own voices and an overall culture that valued liberation and expression - though as Richard Andrews points out this was no mere flower-power collection. (One of the major voices in the books is John Clare with his early 19th century protests against the cruelties of rural life). And in passing there's a reference to recent criticisms by Ofsted of the narrow diet and restricted scope of poetry teaching today.

Good to be reminded that a publishing industry and English teaching profession capable of producing and using a work like Voices existed within the memory of people like me who have only just retired.


brezhnev said...

Really interesting blog. Have just skimmed through the posts on progressive English teaching/learning in the fifties and sixties and will be back to read them more carefully.

In the meantime, don't suppose you know where i can get hold of a copy of the Radio 4 'Voices at 40' programme? I'm drafting a post for my blog about the anthology and the 6LP set issued by Argo Records in conjunction with Penguin Education.

Any leads much appreciated. Thanks.

Pete Medway said...

Dear Brezhnev

Thanks for your comment. It's good to know someone finds my stuff interesting.

I can suggest someone who probably has that recording, but not here on the blog. I don't know your email (it doesn't get passed to me) so if I you send me an email to I'll try to help.