January 26, 2022

The last copies of England, Poems from a School are piled up on my kitchen table along with heaps of all my other Picador books going back to 1996. Dozens of them — too many to store, but I felt I had to save them from pulping. England gives me a particular pang. It’s such an innocent-looking little paperback with its pretty gilt cover. The tasteful end flaps give you the names of the children included in the anthology — for me a register of beloved students — and the information that all of them are first and second-generation migrants to the UK. They tell you that they have all been paid and further profits are dedicated to charity. There are famous names and warm critiques on the back.

It was published only in 2018. It’s hard to believe that a little under four years later, its rights have been returned to me and its charities have repudiated it. It is not as if there is a real world scandal or complaint from a young poet here — the reverse is true. But the literary and theoretical charges against it are very serious. They predate by some time those against my memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, and are in many ways foundational to them.

Remarkably, in 2020, Professor Sandeep Parmar’s state-of-the-nation 2020 essay on poetry and race, “Still Not a British Subject” chose this book by children, rather than any of the hundreds of anthologies and collections of poetry by adults published in the preceding few years, as its ultimate and most damned item. She warned that this book may morally infect the reader, and that to appreciate it is “to be beguiled by the benevolence of whiteness” and even enslaved, as the book “requires an ever-replenishing source of aspirational learners — not just these children, but all poets who are perceived as ‘striving'”.

It’s a large charge for a slim volume, but literary criticism is an ambitious medium these days. Academic essays like Parmar’s are cited on social media accounts and pinned to profiles like manifestos. As our lives have shrunk over Covid, scrolling through the endless smorgasbord of quotes that is Twitter and analysing them become many people’s primary political activity. There’s been a shift in attitudes too: Parmar is surely right to say, as she does in her essay, that in the last few years many book-reading people have come to agree that our literary culture is actively malign, infected, as she puts it, with “a pervasive and unempathetic whiteness” .

Literary criticism has long taught us to trace and name moral systems in texts through the identification of tropes and story, but now it has discovered a more important job in rooting that malignancy out. Books such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility have further popularised the activity of linguistic rooting in living humans, and all of this lends political relevance and prestige back to the parent activity of literary criticism. It is not surprising now, to come across terms such as Parmar’s “lyric violence” and “lyric dread”, nor her idea that mere poems, can have (unspecified) “real, even dangerous, consequences”.

As it has become more relevant and exciting, literary criticism has also become more personal and shed some of its hefty academic conventions. Once, the word ‘trope’ indicated a system of language and imagery traceable through a whole, lengthy text — a semantic field or underlying narrative shape. Now the word has shrunk to mean a single metaphor or even word. Wide assertions may balance on very slender, tweet-sized proofs.

Thus Parmar diagnoses Carol Ann Duffy with “lyric dread” — an end-of-empire anxiety — and the fear of “the influx of foreign bodies of all kinds” on the evidence, not of her oeuvre or even a collection of poems, but of an image of oilseed rape in a single poem. The conventions around quotations have also changed: TS Eliot Prize-winning Hannah Sullivan’s enviably accomplished poetic oeuvre, for example, is said to hold a “obsessive superimposition of the past on the just-past-present” and a sinister “fantasy of an unchanging nation”, on the basis not of verse but of conflated extracts from an “essay” which transpires on closer inspection to be a short piece of journalism about a favourite park.

Overt argument or evident intention are often, in this new criticism, less important than the critic’s own linguistic detective work — bias, after all, is always unconscious. For my introduction to England Poems from a School, for example, Parmar is not to be fooled by the lengthy argument about multilingualism and the inheritance of poetries, nor sentences such as “it is impossible to overstate profound and multi-layered are the forces of cultural silencing; or how strong and subtle is the belief that poetry belongs only to the privileged”. She skips past them, in order to pluck out that single word “striving” — which I agree, makes me sound like the Daily Express when describing migrant families — and conjures me on its evidence as a memsahib, teaching English as “a linguistic and disciplinary tool of colonial domination”.

As for the poems, she declines to quote from them at all, because to do so will be to join in the “exoticising” “servitude” the works have been “pressed” into; but she assures us they are in any case without originality, merely expressing “a uniformity of suffering”, and with only “loss, belonging, otherness, migration, war and family” as subjects.

These were good enough for The Odyssey — but I’d still say Parmar didn’t quite capture their essence. The poems are often about dissonance, and duality, but they are also about language: a Russian proverb summons a freezing Soviet tram into a sitting room; on a computer screen, a poet assigns her Hungarian to “Never Show Again”. They are often joyous and they are also, all of them, dynamic, not passive, about living with the duality of a mixed identity, about changing, moving on, seizing the moment and their lives.

Then I
set out to be a woman.
fearless of the natives
Down There
In their world
Not mine 

writes Rukiya Khatun in the title poem, England, imagining the country she will soon migrate to, and how, in a magnificent colonial reversal, she will possess it. The poets and the poems write themselves, and their Englishes, into this imagined England and its poetry. “I want a poem,” says Shukria Rezaei in the epigraph, figuring verse as an Eid pastry, “that leaves gleam on the fingertips”.

And Mukahang Limbu answers her from the end of the book:

“My words
have to have colour… shades of hummingbirds across hijabs
of Christian girls
in silver boots…”

Limbu is evoking the multicultural classroom from which, over a decade, all these poems grew — classrooms where I have spent most of my teaching life and my happiest hours. Exactly what I think I am doing there, and what multiculturalism itself might be, though, has never been easy to intellectually define. When I began teaching in the Eighties, I argued with a French friend about how it was we allowed hijabs, turbans and crucifixes in my North London comprehensive when her Parisian lycée would have banned the lot. Why were we so muddled, so unenlightened, she asked? What was this with the Hanukkah candles and Christmas trees, the Diwali party for Nelson Mandela?

My answers were always hesitant, because multiculturalism has always been a practice rather than a theory. Multiculturalism is the thing that happens in schools when young people from all over the world — overwhelmingly, in England in the past 20 years, recent migrants — turn up in your classroom. Multiculturalism is a messy, quotidian, humanist, creed. It was better if a child brought their whole self to school, I used to tell my French friend. You can’t make a division between faith and culture, not really; everyone can learn from each other, stumblingly. Solecisms and Easter eggs all round — what’s not to like?

A lot, it seems today. The new criticism has made the underlying dominance of white colonial Christianity in the lycée much easier to name — but that same light shines cruelly on the soggy body of English multiculturalism. Solecisms now seem dangerous; trust, presumptuous; Easter eggs a deadly gift. As Parmar sternly asserts, isn’t it true that this country “is not (nor has ever been) tolerant or kind towards non-white people”? Multiculturalism’s answers can never match such absolutist rhetoric. Multiculturalism can only say: we try to be kind; individuals are kind; there are kind schools. It can ask: what, please, is the alternative? It can say: look, this is a beautiful poem.

Professor Parmar was educated in California. The experience of sitting in a classroom where most students are not born in that country, and where there is no majority group, is a particularly 21st-century, English thing. I experience these classrooms as exceptionally kind and creative places where young people hear and listen to each other openly and deeply; make cross-racial and cross-cultural friendships that endure, and, far from being “dominated” by English, remake the language daily in thrilling ways. Poems grow there readily, and poems, also in my experience, do not grow from cruelty, but from confidence and affirmation.

And also from attention. The alchemy that made the poems of England so exceptional was one part multilingualism, one part experience, and one part attention. We created, through readings and self-publishing a culture in school where young people listened to each others poems often and willingly. To this, over time, was added the magical attention of Twitter: adults, often hundreds of them, often writers or teachers themselves, reading and praising the young people’s poems, giving back to them, making them feel heard and important. It was rocket fuel for the young people’s motivation to write and also to read widely in contemporary poetry — poets were people they knew.

No doubt this attention was sometimes, by the new critical standards, impure or patronising, but the overall process of being read and published did not seem to have “real, even dangerous consequences” or to “press” these young people into “servitude”, or “exoticise” them — indeed they have said specifically otherwise — but to inspire them and fill them with confidence. Several of them have gone to great things in writing and politics. They will not be derailed by the destruction of the book, but they are very much saddened by it.

In 2016, a young boy just arrived from Syria, Mohamed Assaf, tumbled into an Arabic poetry workshop I was running with Oxford University and wrote a short poem, apparently off the cuff. It took weeks to get it translated, then printed in a book I was making. It ran:

“The Word Ummi,
My beloved mother,
When I go to my house the pain of missing her
Arrives before me.”

This devastating poem ran first through our school, making Mohamed famous and giving him his own assembly. Then it went onto Twitter, speaking to American poets grappling with Donald Trump’s response to the migration crisis. Then it went into England, Poems from a School to be produced and distributed as beautifully as our publishing industry knew how.

No doubt some people involved were virtue signalling or pleased with their own virtue: overall, though, people were acting from their best impulses; not to promulgate the “benevolence of whiteness” but to frame and present a work of piercing humanity. Certainly, the multicultural consensus in publishing that allowed the production of England Poems helped diverse young people in their lives. The current moment, for all the high principles so sincerely stated, does not seem so productive.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Professor Palmer was privately educated.

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