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Poets like Heaney speak to us all

Seamus Heaney: too pale, too stale? Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

One of England’s main exam boards, OCR, has said it will remove the poetry of Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin from its curriculum this September, says Tomiwa Owolade in UnHerd. The justification is simple: “the syllabus needs to be more inclusive and exciting”, while Heaney and Larkin are “male and stale”. The poets, apparently, reflect a bygone era that doesn’t speak to increasingly diverse classrooms. In their place, OCR will now have a string of British-Somali, British-Guyanese and Ukrainian writers.

The idea that “black students resonate most with poetry written by black poets” is total nonsense. “Race is not the only thing that defines the life and experiences of a person; I used to think only avowed racists believed it does.” If OCR were swapping out Larkin and Heaney for black writers because of merit, fair enough. But these authors are being used to teach students about race even when their writing doesn’t always call for it – they’re being turned from artists into activists. With Heaney and Larkin, what matters is not their identities but their writing. “I love the firmness of Heaney’s lyricism and his scrupulous eye.” And just read Larkin considering death in Aubade: “The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere, / And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” That’s hardly a “male or stale sentiment”. More fool OCR.