Scholastic Performances

Seamus Heaney and Tony Harrison (Back) at School

in Critical Survey
Author: Kai Merten 1
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  • 1 University of Munich kai.merten@uni-erfurt.de
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While literature may possibly be, as Derrida claims, ‘the institution which allows one to say everything’, school most certainly is not. As an institution, it is bound up with the political system of a society and inevitably subjected to educational policy. Literature, however, is taught at school, and, as some would claim, institutionalised and canonised thereby. School education, of course, is also a topic within autobiographical poetry that conjures up the days at school or university as part of a reconstructed growth of a poet’s mind. In an unprecendented opening of the school system, the post-war period following the Education Act in 1944 witnessed the introduction of scholarships for marginalised social groups in Britain and campaigns for institutions of higher education in the colonies. Many of the now well-established and internationally renowned poets in English went to school then. Perhaps surprisingly, their class-room poems are not so much about great opportunities and hard-won laurels as about the pressures on, and depressions of, those recently welcomed to a system that distributes social and cultural power. In concentrating on two well-known poems that were both published in the 1970s, Tony Harrison’s ‘Them & [uz]’ and Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Ministry of Fear’, I want to trace the entanglement of poetry and school education from the 1950s, the period reconstructed in the poems, until today. Although critical of the British educational system and its attitude to poetry, these poems are now taught at school. A consideration of the performative dimension of these poems will yield the criteria with which to describe their classroom career.

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