I can't stand Visiting Hour by Norman MacCaig. Marking school work has killed it for me. Too many nostrils bobbing down too many corridors in too many MacCaiging essays.
However, Visiting Hour wasn’t dead when I was at school. It happened later, when I grew up and somehow turned into a teacher. I was appalled by the way schools in Scotland nurtured an obsession with certain texts. They taught the same poems, two or three of them, year in, year out. How could they bear it?
I think it’s because most school teachers don’t actually like poetry. But I don’t think this bizarre obsession with particular texts totally exterminates the Life of Po. Instead, it does something worse. It creates a disproportionate love for a particular piece, to the exclusion of all else. School leavers re-sitting exams in my evening class sometimes protest, ‘But I LOVE Visiting Hour. Please can I just write about it again?’ Arrgggh. I'm a teacher. Get me out of here.
Why do they love it? Perhaps because it’s the only poem they’ve ever studied and survived. The experience doesn’t seem to make them want to read any more poems, not even by Norman MacCaig.
I’ve just fished out the book we used for O level when I was at school in Cheshire forty-three years ago. It’s small and blue and the title is Ten Twentieth-century Poets, edited with notes by Maurice Wollman, first published in 1957. There’s a sticky label at the front: Wilmslow County Grammar School for Girls, and the book was once used, in turn, by Susan Heald (5B), Rosemary Green (4X), Lindsay Brown (4E) and Sheila Foster (6”). At the end of the year we were allowed to buy a copy if we wanted to, and I did.
The book contains poems by Auden, Betjeman, De la Mare, Eliot, Yeats, Andrew Young, Edward Thomas, Edwin Muir, Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost. We studied five of these – the last five in the list, the ones to whom I’ve given first names. I read some of the rest as well, including ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (a boy I had a crush on told me it was good).
I thought all poets were dead men. I was at an all-girls school studying poetry by all men.
They weren't all quite dead. Most were: Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy and Edwin Muir had been gone for ages. Frost was more recently defunct. I would have been astonished to know that Andrew Young was still alive. . . .
We didn’t obsess over one text. We read a clutch of poems by each of our five. We talked about some of them more than others, liked some of them more than others, and learned some of them off by heart, ready for the exams. We learned poems, and French irregular verbs, on the bus. I still have ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ (Frost), by heart, and sections of the other poems – Edward Thomas, for example, in Out in the Dark:
How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.
I don’t believe we analysed poems to death. Or if we did, I have no memory of it. Only the poems.
I probably do love them more than I should, like Herman’s Hermits and Elvis Presley’s ‘Wooden Heart’. They undoubtedly underpinned my sense of what poetry is, which is why, when I began to write myself, free verse wasn't my first choice.
I think our class teacher liked poems. I think the girls in my class quite liked poems too. But I don’t know that. Perhaps while I was sitting there liking these words and phrases, they were being slowly asphyxiated for other people in the same classroom. Susan Heald, Rosemary Green, Lindsay Brown, Sheila Foster – where are you? What have you got to say about this?
Special offer: If you’re reading this, and you’re still at school (which doesn’t seem likely, but it’s worth a try), I’ll send you some free poetry (which you may or may not like). It won’t include a copy of Visiting Hour. Just email your address to email@example.com