Britain's poets gain new status on campus

Jane Draycott's lecture on poetry is marked by laughter and good humor. In a study room at Oxford Brookes University (formerly Oxford Polytechnic), the class - mostly female students - listens with deep interest as she discusses the work of Arthur Rimbaud, the precocious boy-poet of French symbolism.

As she distributes handouts and asks about work in progress, Ms. Draycott enjoins her students to "feel" and "smell" poetry. "Creative writing is a journey of discovery," she says. The very act of writing poetry, she explains to her rapt students, uncovers new meaning.

An award-winning poet, Ms Draycott is part of the growing movement of creative writers working in British academia and spreading the gospel of poetry outside the familiar landscape of English departments and arts faculties.

From botanical gardens to bus companies to college campuses, having a poet-in-residence is now the in thing to do. So much so, that some in the media and the academic world are now calling poetry the new rock 'n' roll.

Young and old, the students attending these classes come from a variety of backgrounds and different walks of life.

"One thing I've learned is that poetry as a language has a much faster route to the brain," says Alison, an artist and a student in Ms Draycott's class. "It is also international because it's shorter. People are more likely to read it than long, wordy texts. Poetry is economical and rhythmical."

Poetry is now so popular that British universities face a supply-and-demand dilemma. So many students want to sign up for poetry classes that there are not enough professional poets to teach them.

Administrators believe the appointment of a resident poet to work in local schools, libraries, and the media helps to publicize both the arts in general and more particularly the value of an arts-based education to students who might not otherwise have thought of it.

"We particularly wanted [a poet] with a thorough knowledge of issues concerning ethnic minority school children and their approach to the arts and education," says a spokeswoman for the University of Central England in Birmingham (UCE) - an institution with a large percentage of local black and Asian students. "We also wanted someone who could do a limited amount of teaching and extracurricular work with our own students."

But the outlook for poetry has not always been so rosy in British education. Not that long ago, higher education in general - and particularly the newer colleges - were more apt to focus on practical subjects like technology, engineering, and business studies. Subjects like poetry and creative writing were seen as frivolous and unnecessary.

Then came the push by the government to get more students from minority and working-class backgrounds into higher education. With the increase in the numbers of ethnic minority students, the poetry studied in universities expanded to include a broader selection, meeting a demand from a diverse student body that the literature they study come closer to reflecting their own experiences and backgrounds.

"Poetry and creative writing are booming now because there is a market for it among students," says Ms. Draycott, whose tenure at Oxford Brookes University is being sponsored by the Royal Literary Fund. "And because there is a democratization of the arts. In the sense that over the last 15 years, people have been encouraged to appreciate expressive arts in articulating the idea of the whole section of the society."

But if poetry as a mode of self-expression open to all is an appealing idea to some, there are others in British academia who are scornful. As more and more British universities join the bandwagon of institutions offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees in poetry, they point out that such proliferation will not necessarily breed quality creative writers. Instead, they warn, it may lead to an "Americanization" of British literature.

They may have a point. Much of the current thinking about creative writing stems from the United States. For instance, the University of Iowa in Iowa City offers a renowned writing program with a worldwide reputation. Many institutions in Britain are modeling their programs around what is found in America.

Eva Salzman, an American and acclaimed poet who now lives in Britain and has residencies at several British universities, agrees that popularization of poetry may ultimately demean the discipline, but dismisses fears of American poetry taking over.

"Popularization of poetry is introducing the idea that everyone can do it and this is leading to disrespect for it," she says. "It's very easy to take the stand that American literature is taking over at the expense of British literature. Nationalism can confuse what literature should be about. But I think attitude will change with increased collaborations between British and American poetry publishers."

However, despite renewed interests in the art, many poets working in academia complain that administrators are still undervaluing them. One writer compared the presence of a poet in a university literature department to that of a pig at a bacon festival.

"Creative writing departments are very small and therefore poetic work is not really valued in academia," says Paula Hughes, a poet and an academic at the University of Northumbria in northern England. "I've had two book launches in the last four years and only one colleague and her boyfriend came. I sometimes feel that universities are embarrassed about having a poet around."

For too long, poets and artists have been regarded as social misfits who must not be trusted, especially by the elite establishment, says Roshan Doug, a resident poet at UCE and a fellow of the Royal Society of Art. Senior management in universities, he suggests, pays lip service to a literary culture by occasionally appointing resident poets.

"It could be argued that poetry and higher education have as much in common as quantum physics has with bird-watching or stamp-collecting," he says. But, he adds, "If universities are to uphold their image of institutions that push back the borders of the real and imaginary worlds, then more and more of them will need to utilize the skills and inputs of resident poets to make the study of literature and the literary recording of human experience enjoyable pursuits worthy of the time and effort they impose."

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