Poetry Cleans Up After James Dyson's Criticism

A poetry row in the UK last month led to a victory for verse in the country's public schools when the UK's Department of Education awarded a half million pound grant (about $800,000) to the "Poetry by Heart" national recitation competition, organized by the excellent Poetry Archive.

The award came just weeks after Sir James Dyson (who was knighted for... inventing the bagless vacuum cleaner) caused a stir by opining that students should focus on important subjects like math and science, while criticizing those who "go off to study French lesbian poetry."

The comments spurred Conservative British Education Secretary Michael Gove to light into Dyson as though the knight (*snicker*) were calling for the advent of a soulless (and, one can only assume, bagless) steampunk dystopia. Among other barbs, Gove ripped Dyson's comments as "a display of prejudice," decrying his "casual dismissal of poetry as though it were a useless luxury and its study a self-indulgence."

Kudos to Mr. Gove, but that makes two UK facts that confuse this American: 1) You can get knighted for a sprucing up a vacuum cleaner; and 2) Conservative politicians defend lesbian poetry?

The result of all this hubbub? British teenagers will have more of an opportunity to get to know poetry. "Poetry by Heart" will encourage students to memorize and perform poems from a selection of great British verse, including Mathew Arnold's "Dover Beach," Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias," and the clown's song from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Sadly, none of the selections (unless Arnold had some serious secrets) were penned by French lesbians.

If Mr. Gove really wants to rub it in, he should consider adding a selection by Renée Vivien, a British lesbian poet who wrote in French. Here are the opening lines of her poem "The Touch" (translator unknown):

The trees have kept some lingering sun in their branches,
Veiled like a woman, evoking another time,
The twilight passes, weeping. My fingers climb
Trembling, provocative, the line of your haunches.

That'll get your cheerios up off the floor! You can avoid focusing on important subjects by reading more of Vivien's poetry here.

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