Kate Clanchy's recent feature in The Guardian, titled The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group, was both inspiring and depressing.
The inspiring aspect was the way Clanchy described how she used poetry to help her disadvantaged pupils, demonstrating once more just how powerful verse can be as a positive influence on traumatised children. The depressing aspect was her point of comparison with a very different group that she had taught some years before:
"I had judged the Foyle and run the course back in 2006, and seven years on, the Foyle young poets group I had taught were scything through Oxbridge, publishing poetry pamphlets with Faber, writing for the national press, and all the time networking frantically. By mixing together this group of exceptionally talented youngsters – many of them privileged but a few definitely not – that course had forcefully changed most of their lives. I wanted some of that for our students: not just the poetry, but the sense of entitlement, and, yes, the networking too."
I have absolutely nothing against the Foyle Young Poets scheme, quite the opposite in fact, while I understand and share Clanchy's well-meaning argument. My concern is with the portrayal of that first group's achievements, with the implicit definition of success and the conception of poetry as a career that revolves around "networking frantically". Verse is a vocation, never a career.
For a few months now I’ve been under the spell of the 16th century French poet Louise Labé — or, rather, of Olivia McCannon’s versions of Labé in Modern Po...