Set texts, poetry film, & William Blake

William Blake – engraving, 1793

Over the span of three children, and 15+ years of connection with schools, I have frequently despaired of the fundamental way in which English Language and Literature is taught here in the UK. The language component is best addressed by Michael Rosen in his poem The ‘Expected Level’ (according to the National Curriculum) (published in Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio, Smokestack Books, 2017). And I do blame the curriculum, rather than individual teachers.

As Michael shares the poem in full on his blog, I’m going to copy it here because it so well worth a read:

Writing at the Expected Level

Michael Rosen

If you can write and make sense
remember,  it’s not enough
If you can write and make people laugh
remember, it’s not enough
If you can write and make people cry
remember, it’s not enough
If you can write and make people desperate to know what happens next,
remember, it’s not enough
If you can write and make people feel good,
remember, it’s not enough
If you can write and make people think and wonder,
remember, it’s not enough
If you can write and make people want to be where you went,
remember, it’s not enough
If you can write and make people want to be some of the people
you’ve written about
remember, it’s not enough
If you can write and make people want to read more and more and more
remember, it’s not enough

if you can write something
that no one is particularly interested in,
no one is desperate to read more and more,
no one laughed or cried or wanted to be where you went
or wanted to know what happened next,
no one wondered about what you had written,
you included commas, semi-colons, colons,
expanded noun phrases, fronted adverbials, and
embedded relative clauses
over and over and over again
that’s enough.

I can say, without a doubt, that the curriculum here in England utterly stifled any interest and enthusiasm any of my three children had in writing. I firmly believe the interest and enjoyment has to come first in order to move forward, and to be fair – we did have a primary school head who did believe in this as a philosophy to get children to read. But she was an outlier, a marvellous maverick in leopard print who wasn’t going to let a National curriculum get in the way of children learning.

On the literature side, none of my children has built a positive relationship with literature either, and my biggest gripe is the restricted selection of texts that are studied, which certainly doesn’t help in finding one’s connection to it. Certainly at GCSE level (age 16) there are too few contemporary texts. In my view, and backed up by those far more informed than me, such as Mary Ann Sieghart and Professor Bernadine Evaristo, there is a sheer lack of diversity in the material studied.There is not much we can do about the restrictions of the curriculum itself, but as poetry filmmakers, I do think we can, at least, add poetry film as a way in to enjoying and interpreting the set texts that are studied across the world. Wouldn’t reaching just one student and enthusing them be brilliant, and more than one be amazing?

My son said to me ‘Mum, why don’t you make one of your films on the poems we do at school?’ – and now that is firmly on my to-do list. But it struck me that we could all have a go. I couldn’t do justice to all the texts anyway, and nor should I.

So with these thoughts in mind, I thought I’d have an explore. Maybe these needs have already been addressed? I chose London by William Blake to investigate as a sample. This is one of the set texts for GCSE English Literature in England within the theme of ‘Power & Conflict’. I searched on YouTube as this is the platform that teachers and students are most likely to search.nnThe top six results give three results by well known actors. We get the voice and still photograph of Ralph Richardson. Yawn…

A headshot film of Toby Jones…

And a moody film by Esquire magazine, featuring Idris Elba…

There’s a ‘dramatic’ reading, with archive still images (in a not very dramatic treatment)…

An extract from a Simon Schama BBC documentary The Romantic Revolution featuring Hip-Hop artist Testament…

And an illustrative approach by English teacher and illustrator, Robert Simpson…

I think the last two are the most appealing and engaging in terms of bringing me closer to Blake’s poem. But I think the poetry film community could create something infinitely more exciting and engaging than any of these.

The last film by Robert Simpson is actually part of a wider attempt to do what I’m suggesting. On his YouTube channel Comics & Lit he has a series of films and says:

“My aim is to deliver captivating and visually stunning revision materials specifically designed for literature students who are preparing for their literature exams. With my unique comic art style illustrations, I strive to breathe new life into a range of texts, making them come alive for a new generation of students. Currently, I’m hard at work crafting beautifully illustrated readings for the AQA Power and Conflict collection. Additionally, I’m producing insightful analysis videos that delve into the intricate themes and elements found within power and conflict poetry and Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet.”

It’s an ambitious start, in less than a year from the earliest videos as well, but I feel I’ve seen better films in animation/illustration as well as other modes of filmmaking, and so still think we can do more for students. Maybe a competition/festival would be a way to get people involved in making the best poetry films for schools across the world? Or why not just do one or two anyway?


  1. Reply
    Janet Lees 6 November, 2023

    A very interesting read, and such a good idea, poetry films for schools.

  2. Reply
    Jane Glennie 6 November, 2023

    Thanks Janet. Maybe you’ll do one at some point? :)

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