On Poetry I: What is this thing we call a poem?

It was a typical day at university for Professor Stanley Fish. He had just finished teaching his linguistics class. Some of the names of linguists he had discussing with his students were still on the board when his next class started to arrive for their literature seminar. Fish decided to make one small change between classes. He drew a box round the assignment details and wrote p43 at the top.
The list now looked something like this:

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Fish’s next move was simple but significant. He told his literature students that there was a religious poem on the board, similar to the ones they had been studying the past few weeks, and he then invited them to interpret its meaning. The students duly obliged and it wasn’t long before they were offering all kinds of interpretations, from initial readings of the poem as a hieroglyph to highly convincing interpretations of the symbolism of the Hebrew names Jacob, Rosenbaum, and Levin.

What Stanley Fish had stumbled on, and what he found on every occasion he repeated the trick, was the reality of how readers tackle the act of interpretation. His little teaching sleight of hand had revealed that readers do not approach literary works as isolated individuals but rather as part of a community of readers. As he writes in Is There a Text in the Class?, ‘it is interpretive communities, rather than either the text or reader, that produce meanings.’

In essence, Fish’s literature students did what literature students do in a classroom situation: they interpret the text put in front of them by looking for allusions and patterns of meaning, regardless of whether they are even there. The more the students interpreted specific parts of the poem, the more they convinced themselves that they had built a coherent sense of its overall meaning. The only problem, of course, was that it was all nonsense. There was no poem and therefore no meaning!

At no point did any of Fish’s students question the validity of the text itself, or whether what they were interpreting was even a poem. Because they were working in the context of a literature class, in the presence of a professor of literature and confronted with what looked like a poem, they assumed it was a poem and without thinking they adopted the rules for interpreting obscure religious verse they had learned – rules they had clearly internalised from years of making inferences about literary texts.

Now, we could lament the way that a bunch of hitherto bright students could be so uncritical in their approach to reading. We could even despair at how cultural relativism has reached such a nadir that a simple list of linguists could be mistaken for a profound religious poem. I think, however, this misses the point. As Fish notes, this is ultimately how we approach reading all texts, literary or not – as a community. Even to interpret a list of linguists as a list requires a shared understanding of the concepts of seriality, hierarchy and subordination. This is the nature of interpreting meaning from text.

I think there are some lessons to draw from Fish’s work in relation to teaching and, more specifically, to curriculum design. The first is to recognise the responsibility we have in selecting the texts we teach. We should make sure that what students will be interpreting has substance, both in terms of its intrinsic value and its utility. Mark Roberts has written about the failure of poems like ‘Tissue’ to do either of these things well. I’ve never taught ‘Tissue’, but as long as I can remember there has always been quite a bit of guff like that in the GCSE anthology, most of it sadly of the contemporary variety.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against modern verse per se, and I am certainly not suggesting we should avoid all forms of contemporary literature. That said, I don’t think GCSE students should be wasting their time interpreting poems like ‘Tissue’. The funny thing is that most of the students I have taught seem to share a similar view. I always think classes will respond much better to poems like ‘Brendon Gallacher’, ‘Blessing’ and ‘Kid’ but actually when they write about ‘My Last Duchess’ or a Shakespeare sonnet they have much more to say and they say it with much greater conviction.

The second important lesson we can we learn from Stanley Fish’s work on interpretative communities relates to the order in which we teach students the poems that we select. I’m guessing that one of the main reasons that Fish’s students so readily interpreted a list of linguists as a religious poem was because they were used to seeing poems that looked like that, namely without a clear form or discernible structure – they understood the free verse style that characterises much of the poetry of the last century, and which has dominated the contents of many an anthology since.

Whilst Fish’s students may have mistakenly treated his list of names as a poem, they would have probably have understood why a poem that doesn’t rhyme or contain any clear poetic structure could be considered a poem. They would be familiar with poets who broke with formal conventions, like e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath and William Carlos Williams, and learnt the reasons for these literary developments. In short, they would have in mind some kind of literary chronology, which is perhaps something that we should bear in mind when we are designing the spread of a five-year curriculum.

Perhaps most importantly, I think Fish’s example highlights a need for us to consider how we approach teaching poetry, particularly in a clear and systematic way that builds upon the work of KS2 teachers. I wonder if one of the reasons why Fish’s students were misled by a mere list, is that they had never really been encouraged to take a step back whenever they approach a new text – to appreciate its overall beauty; to consider it at a conceptual or formal level before diving straight in to try and account for it and locate its meaning. Maybe whenever they were ever presented with a poem at school, they were immediately asked to interpret or provide some kind of emotional response.

This is all well and good, and I do this kind of thing regularly. This year, however, I have been teaching a year 7 class for the first time in ages, which has given me the opportunity to begin to think through how I might teach things like poetry a little differently, by which I mean to teach students a conceptual appreciation of poetry as well as an emotional and technical understanding. I want them to be able to infer meaning, but also to comment on different forms and how these might be linked to developments in artistic expression and philosophy. A more holistic approach to understanding.

This is obviously hard. It is so tempting to introduce a poem and start to elicit ideas about its meaning, but this might be putting the cart before the horse, particularly with poems where the structural and/or formal features are absolutely central to understanding what the poem is trying to achieve. I wonder that whilst many of us are reviewing our KS3 assessments, we should recognise that here we have a unique opportunity to influence the workings of literary interpretation from within that interpretative community. There are enough of us and we have sufficient time to significantly improve they way we teach our students to read and approach poetry, or indeed any text for that matter.

Who knows, if we got things right from the off, by the time they were in year 11, our students might even be able to understand the difference between a metaphor and a simile.



very much



It’s what you know that counts: the importance of strong subject knowledge


A lot has been written about the relative merits of a knowledge-based curriculum over one that focuses more on developing transferable skills and competences. More recently, a lot more has been written about the falseness of this dichotomy and the need for a curriculum that takes account of both these ideologies, seeing the one complementing the other.

This blog is not about that. Rather, it’s about what I see as a bit of an elephant in the room within this debate, namely how either of these approaches to curriculum design is ultimately dependent on the strength of teacher subject knowledge for its successful enactment. It does not really matter what set of core values underpin a programme of study if a significant proportion of those delivering it do not have a requisite grasp of its content.

For a number of reasons I have become increasingly of the opinion that the more teachers know about what they were teaching, as well as, of course, how they are teaching it, then the better placed the majority of them will be to teach more effective lessons and push their pupils more. If we view knowledge and skills as important and interrelated aspects of pupils’ learning experience, then the teachers providing those experiences should approach their own development in the same way. I am certainly not trying to suggest that good subject knowledge alone is a sufficient condition for great teaching, but perhaps it is a necessary one.

Much of my views on this topic are informed by my own experiences. I like to think I know a bit about how language works and about the world of literature. Yet I am continually surprised and invigorated by how much there is still to know. For example, I thought I knew quite a bit about poetry until I read Glyn Maxwell’s wonderful book ‘On Poetry’. His brilliant insights have really helped me understand for the first time the significance of the white bits on a page – the spaces at the end of lines and between stanzas that communicate as much as the black bits, the writing.  As a result I now feel able to teach line breaks and stanza breaks with real purpose. Likewise, one simple explanation in ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ made me see something about participles I had previously never seen  – that they participate with the main verb in a sentence. Since then I have been so much clearer in my discussions around tense in the classroom. In both cases, what I have learnt for myself about my subject has enabled me to teach my pupils more effectively.


In English there can be an extraordinary demand on the level of understanding a teacher needs to have in order to be effective. Someone who teaches across the key stages will often need to know about a significant number of set texts, along with their social, historical and cultural contexts, and their accompanying criteria and methods of assessments.  More often than not, as specifications change and decisions are made in light of experience, these texts change, making it necessary for teachers to learn lots of new things each year, particularly if they are first or second year teachers or they move schools. And this is just for the literature side of things!

I often think that to some English must appear an easy subject to teach. Surely any competent and literate teacher can engage a class with a few stories or get a bunch of pupils to spot obvious features in a text and then replicate them for themselves. But this is not really what English teaching is for or what I think it should be. I see quality English teaching as being about knowing exactly where pupils are in their language development, about helping children learn how words work, and how these small structures connect to bigger structures and how those bigger structures contain ideas, values and judgments about important things. For me, English teaching is about inspiring pupils to love and understand great works of literature and be able to respond to the needs of the learners as they unfold in a lesson, such as answering awkward questions like ‘is the Cat in the Hat a poem?’, or ‘why is the dialogue between Miranda and Prospero so boring’, or ‘is this –ing word a noun or a verb?’

From my experience of observing quite a few lessons in several different schools, a surprising number of English teachers lack confidence in aspects of their core knowledge and understanding, particularly in relation to grammar and punctuation. This vulnerability tends to find its expression in one of two main ways: avoidance, or worse, hiding behind a barrier of resources, which often consist of unrealistic, decontextualized activities. Often I think that if the teacher had had a deeper understanding of what they were teaching, their explanations would be so much better, their modelling that much clearer and the feedback that much more telling. I sometimes wonder whether detailed schemes of work and overly long Powerpoint presentations with all the information already laid out has had a negative effect on teachers – creating the impression that they really know about something and encouraging them to use sites like Wikipedia to offer pat information.

Of course, this lack of knowledge is not really the fault of the teachers. Time is always at a premium. Furthermore, as many others have already pointed out, the majority of English teachers are literature graduates, from courses where detailed engagement with the more technical aspects of language take a back seat to analysis and interpretation. Many of these teachers – whose knowledge about English is rooted more in language deconstruction rather than creation  – are also part of a generation of teachers who did not receive a thorough grounding in grammar and punctuation in their own education. These doubly-disadvantaged teachers (like me) are now expected to teach young people knowledge and understanding that they either do not possess themselves, or if they do, that they are not always confident enough to use as and when the need arises.


Despite these challenges, I genuinely believe the raising standards of achievement is as much dependent on teachers seeking to continually improve their own subject knowledge, as it is about increasing their understanding of how pupils learn. The wholeness of teachers’ development is as important as the curriculum itself, whatever its particular leaning.

If the consensus agrees that knowledge and skills complement each other where pupils’ learning is concerned, then surely it follows that this same symbiotic relationship should apply to the teachers who teach them.