If I had a pound for every time someone asked me, ‘what are you going to do with an English degree?’, I wouldn’t need my English degree. Excuse the cliché, but this is important; it suggests people are becoming increasingly sceptical of the traditional literature degree, and I’m inclined to believe that this is at least partly due to the fact that it’s just not seen as that relevant to today’s job market. Why analyse dusty books from centuries gone by, when you can be on the cutting edge of medical research, or preparing yourself to earn big bucks in the legal or financial sector?
Poems of the Decade
The new Poems of the Decade anthology, which will be a set text for the Edexcel A Level syllabus, seems to go some way to bridging this gap between English Literature as a subject, and our ever-changing contemporary society. The anthology is swapping classics like Keats’s odes for post-2000 poetry, in an attempt to engage more students with the subject and show that it can be just as dynamic as its academic counterparts. With Tim Turnbull’s “Ode to a Grayson Perry Urn” moving between themes of gang culture, sexually transmitted diseases and deprived estates, I’m in no doubt that Poems of the Decade is trying to rebrand the subject by showing how literature is not just books on a shelf, but an important participant in some of the most important debates of our time.
Gang culture, sexually transmitted diseases and deprived estates
Of course, this decision is a controversial one. Classics are classics for a reason, and it seems that part of the subject’s unique appeal is the ability to connect with a theme, voice, or character, in a text that was created perhaps hundreds of years previously, and identity with it, developing an understanding that crosses cultural and historical boundaries. The most persistent themes in literature (love, death, loss, sex, family, tragedy…the list goes on…), are of course ‘timeless’ in that they can be experienced by anyone in any society or time period. Perhaps then, there’s an argument to be made that English Literature as a subject does not need to move with the times in the way that other disciplines do. In any case, should contemporary English Literature really be studied and appreciated without giving equal attention to its predecessors, without whose work we wouldn’t have the rich literary culture we do today?
Engaging a contemporary audience
Nevertheless, I firmly believe these changes to A Level set texts are a step in the direction that English Literature, as an academic discipline, should be taking. Canonical literature will always have a place in the subject, and Poems of the Decade is not suggesting otherwise; it’s simply bringing something new to the A Level syllabus, keeping it fresh and dynamic. English Literature works best when the student is actively engaged and thinking about their text- the reader, ultimately, should be as important as the writer, and it would be reductive to see English Literature as a subject of analysing others’ work at the expense of independent thinking. Generally, it seems more likely that texts would genuinely interest students if they talked about things that affect the them, things relevant and important to their own lives, and that they care about. Social class at the time of Austen, for example, bears little resemblance to the social makeup of today’s society. The “crap estates” of Turnbull’s poem, on the other hand, seems much more likely to strike a chord with contemporary readers.
Equally, practicalities of the subject need to be considered. The language of older texts, such as Keats’s poetry or Shakespeare’s plays, can be frustrating, impair the reading experience and prevent readers from getting to the meanings at the core of the text. Contemporary alternatives in modern English make the subject much more accessible and will ensure students aren’t put off before they’ve even got to understanding a text.
A changing reputation for English Literature?
Finally, writing as a current undergraduate of English, I’m aware of how important it is that the subject shows itself to be relevant and up to date, maximising the opportunities for English graduates in employment. University English departments are already going to great lengths to do this, emphasising the transferable skills such as analytical and creative thinking developed in the discipline. But Poems of the Decade, by introducing poems which address current social and political concerns, could certainly help improve the reputation of the subject, producing students who are as well versed in current affairs as in Keats.