By: Julie Blake, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Researchers in education tell me about their poems. I only have to mention that my research is in poetry education and before you know it I’m being asked about publication and performance, and what I think of rap. I go to conferences and there’s an education researcher freestyling about their topic. I open an education thesis in the library and there’s a poem half way through its reflexive workout. Surrounded by research poems, unsure what to make of them, I figured I’d better investigate.
So, what exactly are research poems?
There’s not a straightforward definition of the research poem, as different researchers draw on poetry’s possibilities to achieve different ends. But if we look at some examples from different social science fields, we can begin to see something of the range.
‘Imagining good research‘ by Maggie Laidlaw
In this poem, the researcher-speaker reflects on the power dynamics of conventional research interviews, and imagines an alternative interview mode, one that is collaborative, open and negotiated. The poem opens a meaningful space in which the researcher can consider the nature of her methods. In choosing a poetic form, the writer finds a mode of expression suited to making these values more memorable than an account in prose might manage.
‘Analysing qualitative interviews using I-poems’ by Deirdre Corby, Laurence Taggart and Wendy Cousins
This is just an abstract but it explains how the authors extracted every I-statement (‘I’ plus its verb and particularly resonant key words) from a set of interview transcripts and set them out on separate lines as a kind of list poem. We can’t see the poem from the abstract but we can see that poetic techniques are used as a tool for data analysis, for selecting and visualising salient elements in a way that demands a closer kind of attention from the reader.
‘Ghetto Teachers’ Apology’ by Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor
This poem is used illustratively in an academic encyclopedia entry about poetry in qualitative research. It is an address by a teacher to a notional former student apologising for the failure of education to prepare “sweet Wilmarie” for the hardship of her socially unjust life. Perhaps Wilmarie is representative of the researcher’s interview subjects and the poem functions as a way of expressing empathy and emotion in a way that conventional social science research writing allows little space for. Perhaps the poem represents a way of creating something more beautiful and more lasting than the social and political ugliness of the situation being researched and the brutal transience of the lives of its subjects.
“Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” – Audre Lorde
This small selection of examples demonstrates a variety of ways of using poetic forms in research: to reflect on research methods, to visualise and analyse data, and to express empathy for subjects’ lives. Research poetry is not limited to these purposes: other examples include the creation of ‘found poems’ to explore tensions in texts relevant to the research, biographical poems to explore the research journey, and poems that interrogate language issues entailed in the research. Whatever the focus, writing in a poetic form can create a space for a greater degree of irony, humour, anger, ambiguity, and uncertainty than conventional academic writing modes.
And what do social science researchers who write research poems think they are good for?
The statements that follow here are all drawn from the articles referenced below. Large claims tend to be made on a small evidence base, but that’s neither to dismiss it as a practice nor to suggest we should start measuring the impact of research poetry on a Geiger counter. Rather, more research needs to be done.
Researchers say research poems:
- help to present information in a manner that might be more accessible to research subjects and their communities
- provide a mode in which the researcher can act upon their data and draw out significances that might otherwise remain hidden
- provide the reader with a new way of seeing
- convey empathy for the lives of the people being spoken about
- create a more engaging and passionate form of social science, one that communicates intellectual and emotional understandings
- say what might otherwise be unsayable
- allow for multiple perspectives and ambiguity
- accept the imagination and the unconscious as vital forces in research
“Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution and the raising of consciousness.” – Alice Walker
Is it all just too good to be true?
This is a long list of plus-points from three articles. What this list doesn’t attend to is quality. Are these poems any good as poems? This is the issue that Jane Piirto covers in the excellent article also referenced below. Piirto asks this fundamental question: “Why is it not necessary for those who write poetry in qualitative research to have a familiarity with poetry, to have studied poetry?” In her work with graduate students, she only allows poetry (and other art forms) to be a major component of the dissertation if the student has at least a Minor in that discipline, or if they take 20 hours of related classes. The outcome of this: “Then the art itself and its ways of knowing are respected.”
For dissertations where poetry will be the major mode of its articulation of knowledge, this seems fair enough to me, but most of us aren’t looking to undertake that kind of task. We’re not setting out to become poets but to find ways of exploring dimensions of our research that draw on the very great expressive power of poetry and challenge the limitations of conventional social science writing. It’s a different kind of work.
So how we might we accept the challenge to write research poems better?
I accept Piirto’s challenge, though, to make our research poems the best they can be, so that they do the work we want them to do as powerfully as possible. I am excited by the possibility her challenge suggests of developing a programme of poetry reading and writing workshops for education researchers. In the FERSA workshop that gave rise to this blogpost we went on to explore two examples of poems by professional poets that I thought might provide a useful starting point. The two poems are linked to here.
‘One Tourniquet’ by Andrew Motion
This is an example of a poet creating a poem from an interview transcript, here one of a set of interviews Andrew Motion did with soldiers returning from combat duty in Afghanistan. You can read more about Andrew’s method and purposes in this BBC news report . He notes here that the interviews were substantial, so although the poem uses verbatim material it is also a matter of an aesthetic process of selection and shaping. We might explore and experiment with ways of doing that. Andrew also discusses his love of the poems by First World War soldier-poet Wilfred Owen, who wrote in an intensely visceral and emotional style. The contrast between that style and Andrew’s decision to represent verbatim the very ‘unpoetic’ language of this later soldier might help us to experiment with ways of varying our style to best suit different topics and perspectives.
An excerpt from Citizen by Claudia Rankine (NB: if you click on the red arrow on the Poetry Foundation’s poem page, you can hear Claudia Rankine reading this excerpt)
This as an example of a poet writing about the pernicious impact of daily acts of racist aggression in a supple and invigorating prose-poem form. You can read a very interesting part of an extended interview with Claudia Rankine in this edition of the Paris Review . In this, she talks about her poetry as a form of public engagement, an invitation to debate the wrongs of contemporary American society. Poetry as public engagement: imagine a Faculty of Education poetry showcase at a future Festival of Ideas! If we think about this idea further, we might want to make a connection between her purpose and her poetic form – accessible, unintimidating to less confident readers of poetry, and yet at the same time brilliantly crafted and intensely ‘poetic’. This is hugely skilled but there are techniques we could learn in order to work towards such a powerful mode of expression. And, as we discussed in the workshop, finding forms that are not entailed in the political dynamics of a Eurocentric and Anglophone history of poetry will be meaningful work for education researcher-poets too.
“Let’s detox our cluttered academic brain. That’s what the poet does. People call it daydreaming, detoxing our minds and taking care of that clutter. It’s being able to let in call letters from the poetry universe.” – Juan Felipe Herrera
I’m interested in a poetry-writing practice for education research that has bridges over to the world of poetry in ways that help to strengthen and enrich that practice. It’s not about becoming a poet (unless that’s an additional life goal), but about meeting poems on some common ground of theme or method or style or performance, and exploring what makes that expression so powerful. I wonder what the 20-hour programme that does that would look like.
Cahnmann-Taylor, M. (2012). “Poetry in Qualitative Research” in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, 638-640. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412963909
Corby, Deirdre, Taggart, Laurence and Cousins, Wendy (2014) Analysing qualitative interviews using I-poems. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 27 (4). p. 293.
Laidlaw, M. Imagining Good Research blogpost accessed February 2018 at http://www.sociology.ed.ac.uk/people/research_students2/maggie_laidlaw/poetry_imagining_good_research
Piirto, J. (2002). The question of quality and qualifications: Writing inferior poems as qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 15(4), 431–445. http://doi.org/10.1080/09518390210145507
Julie Blake is a final year part time PhD student at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. Her thesis will examine the nature of the poetry specified for study by some 15 million people in England since its mandatory inscription in the National Curriculum in 1988. This uses digital quantitative methods related to which she is receiving mentoring through the Cambridge Digital Humanities Network. She is a member of the Faculty’s Poetry Beyond Borders research scoping project. Outside the Faculty she is Director of Poetry By Heart, a national schools recitation competition which she founded with the poet Andrew Motion. In previous lives she has been Education Director of the Poetry Archive, the premier online home of recordings of poets reading their own work, a lecturer and mentor on PGCE English programmes, and a long-term teacher of English to students aged 16-19. She is the author of The Full English, a handbook of English teaching methods that has sold enough copies since 2006 to have had her described as “the Jamie Oliver of English teaching”. You can e-mail Julie on firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter (@felthamgirl).