00:00 Saturday 12 June 2010  Written by Archon

Old Leaving Cert poetry anthology to be re-issued

GROUCHO Marx once revealed that his favourite poem was the one that starts 'Thirty days hath September'. Why? Because it actually told him something! Now, with the re-publication of 'Soundings' - the Leaving Cert poetry anthology that thousands of pupils studied between 1969 and 2000 - it seems 'school' poetry is remembered with affection because it also 'said' something.

The good news is that Gill and Macmillan recently announced they're set to re-issue the famous poetry textbook in response to public demand; and with a second-hand copy costing as much as eighty euros the moral is that rhyme pays!

Publisher Michael Gill said the fact that 'Soundings' is still remembered 30 years later is a testament to its impact on generations of students. He was stunned by the popular reaction to the announcement of its re-publication.

Originally intended in the late 1960s as an interim anthology until the Department of Education made up its mind as to what poems were to be permanently on the Leaving Cert syllabus, the 'Soundings' collection of poems remained in place until the late 1990s when a new syllabus was introduced.

The book deeply influenced students who are now in middle age. They learned that poetry was not stuff that doesn't quite reach the margin of a page, and that good poetry was not written by fatheaded, navel contemplating geeks. Nor did poetry consist of something akin to Charlie Brown's response to Snoopy who asked the comic strip hero how did one know what poems to like. Charlie Brown answered: "somebody tells you".


Augustine Martin who edited 'Soundings' never dared tell his young readers what to like. There was sufficient choice in his anthology to ensure that the adolescent found something that deeply touched his or her sensibilities.

The appeal of the book was enhanced by the brilliant questions or 'explorations' that followed every poem. Hence, its enduring success.

There was no 'dumbing down' in Martin's book. The big guys were in it and, what's more, their poems constituted a glorious introduction to the canon of English and Anglo-Irish poetry: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Vaughan, Marvell, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Dickinson, Hopkins, Eliot, Yeats, Clarke, Kavanagh and Kinsella.

Martin described his anthology as having only great poems by great poets - something that is at variance with the current Leaving Cert syllabus with its fragmented historical sequence and jargonising poetasters.

For instance, on this year's Higher Level syllabus, Kavanagh is in there with Keats, Eliot with Eavan Boland (winner of the Jacob's Award), while Yeats is stuffed alongside Michael Longley, Adrienne Rich and Derek Walcott. Now, while Kavanagh, Keats, Eliot and Yeats fit easily within the panoply of great poets, can the same be said about the others? (Who, for instance, are Adrienne Rich and Derek Walcott?)

Moreover, it's not that Shakespeare, Milton, or Hopkins proved to be too 'difficult' or 'boring' for the teenager of the'seventies, 'eighties and 'nineties. On the contrary; the fact that 'Soundings' is to be reprinted for the general public indicates that the students of yesteryear got something valuable from their study of the masters and that, in adulthood, they now want to relive that experience.


On the other hand, the current Leaving Cert syllabus with its concentration on 'modern' poets, may well lead to the disappearance of the 'broadly educated' pupil - kids who are familiar with the classic wordsmiths, with the language they used, the time they lived in, and with having some notion of the way the instruments of language convey meaning.

Ironically, the State Examinations Commission has pointed to serious grade inflation in the Leaving Cert results and that, in English, the number of students gaining the highest grades (A1, A2 and B1) has almost doubled at higher level since 1992. The disclosure raises interesting questions about academic standards.

Has the contemporary Leaving Cert English course reached the point where the hawking of easy emotions, hackneyed imagery and pedestrian concepts is what matters most and not, say, the big themes like the exploration of evil in Milton's 'Paradise Lost'?

Perhaps the gurus (generally from UCC) who now choose the poets for the Leaving Cert should bear in mind Oscar Wilde's withering definition of bad poetry: all bad poetry, he said, 'springs from genuine feeling.'

It was a point acknowledged by the late and great editor of this newspaper, Liam O'Regan, who used tell the story of a colleague harassed by a bad poet and who demanded that his scribblings be published. The editor finally responded to some drivel that was entitled "Why do I live?" He sent the author a rejection slip that carried the comment 'Because you sent your poem by post'!

Gill and Macmillan are on to a winner.


How does one find protection from the barrage of Americanisms that Dail politicos, such as Biffo, Mickey Martin and Mary Coughlan, love to use. Monstrosities like Sustainability, Deliverables, Core Competencies, Going forward, Optionality, The Big Picture, Lightning rod parameters, Paradigms (especially if 'shifting'), Synergistic, Incentivizing, Parking lot issues, Outside the box and, the most abhorrent of all, the vile 'Touching base'.

Then there's the phrase 'I'm good' as opposed to 'I'm very well, thank you'; the use of autopsy for post-mortem and 'driver's license' instead of 'driving licence', pharmacist for chemist, and the deeply repugnant 'Hi guys', in the case of the 'guys' being of either sex.

As Cervantes said, 'take care to express yourself in a plain, easy manner, in well-chosen, significant and decent terms; study to explain your thoughts, and set them in the truest light, labouring as much as possible, not to leave them dark nor intricate, but clear and intelligible.'

Well said. However, the problem is that only one in a thousand politicos knows the difference between good English and bad. Their difficulty is that they cannot say what they mean. Worse still, they have nothing to say. As a result, they entangle themselves in American-style verbiage that defies classification or comprehension.

Not so with Fergie, the Duchess of York. As a true Brit and lover of the Queen's English, she knows how to cut to the chase, go forward, push the envelope, present the big picture, raise the bar, and think outside the box. In fact, she has the ability to dazzle the listener with a grasp of English that would have gobsmacked Chaucer or Brendan Behan.

On a recent American TV talkshow, she admitted she was broke and gave an analysis of her impoverished situation that will rank with anything Shakespeare said. 'I absolutely have not a pot to piss in,' she complained!

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