Interview with Simon Jones

English & Media

As part of Itchen Radio's 'Literati' show, they interviewed English Literature and Creative Writing teacher, Simon Jones. They spoke about the subject of poetry, how young people engage with it and what it has to offer in modern life. 

Interviewer: So I’m here with Simon Jones, who teaches English and Creative Writing here at Itchen College. Thank you so much for taking part in this interview.

Simon Jones: No problem.

Interviewer: So as you know we have our poetry day very recently and for me, and for many other people, it was an eye-opener because it makes you realise about how poetry and the English language as a whole has had a huge part in the college and the culture. So, I guess the first thing I’d ask is, do you think poetry is still appreciated and enjoyed enough by young people and if so, why do you think the popularity has decreased?

SJ: I think it is, in its own way. I mean, my response to that would be, really, define ‘poetry’, because I know when I teach young people nowadays, I see a lot of people who appreciate what is traditionally known as poetry, perhaps things they have been introduced to at GCSE level, for example, Wilfred Owen and the war poets, perhaps poems that deal with contemporary world changing events, like Simon Armitage’s ‘Out of the Blue’, his 9/11 poem. That’s obviously a very, very important, sort of cultural milestone in its own way and poetic responses to [events like] that people engage with because it’s something that everyone’s got an opinion on. But, really, I think we need to look outside the traditional definitions of poetry and look at other types of language which young people appreciate. I mean, I know from teaching both Creative Writing and Literature, there are a lot of young people who are really into hip-hop and grime and other sort of language-focused forms of music, and to me, that is poetry. It sounds a bit crass, it sounds a bit clichéd, but certainly to me things like hip-hop and grime are modern poetry and when you see young people interacting with and becoming lyricists, when they’ve grown up watching their favourite MCs on YouTube, then perhaps we should be a little more open minded in what we define as poetry.

I: So you don’t think the increase in modern music and pop culture is necessarily a negative to poetry, it’s more –

SJ: It depends, honestly. With pop songs, if the lyrics are absolutely crass and appalling obviously, but conversely, like I said some lyrics not just inside the hip-hop genre really, you hear all sorts of modern music that’s got interesting usage of metaphors and similes and poetic techniques so no, I don’t necessarily think it’s a negative at all, in fact, I think it can almost be a gateway, an entry point for people who are into, or eventually will become into, poetry.

I: So how would you encourage more people to get into reading poetry, if you were to try and do that?

SJ: I think, just to go back to my earlier point, that poetry is often written in response to world changing events or personal, emotional events and perhaps we’ve all got an opinion on certain political events, we’ve got a certain opinion on events which have happened, and poems like Armitage’s ‘Out of the Blue’ and Carol Ann Duffy’s that she wrote for the commemoration of the recent royal weddings and things like the Olympics, Wilfred Owen’s World War One poetry. This morning I’ve done a bit of work on one of the older poems, ‘Convergence of the Twain’ by Thomas Hardy, which was done as a response to the Titanic. We can perhaps reflect on our own emotional responses, then look at them again through the filter of someone else’s thoughts, through the filter of poetry, and maybe that’s a way we can engage with poetry and think ‘well, I think this about this subject, what does poet X think about this, what does author X think about it, what do they have to say about the matter? Can it reflect and change my opinions? How do they deal with it, basically? I think, certainly in terms of understanding the technical side of poetry, understanding the use of metaphor and simile and personification and various line structures etc, in terms of young people’s engagement with music like hip-hop and grime is the best way to do this. Some of the better rappers and MCs, they use those [techniques] on an incredibly complex level.

I: Do you have any favourite poems or poets?

SJ: I will admit, and this is probably a really bad thing for an English teacher to admit, but I hated poetry when I was at school. I really hated it, couldn’t stand it. And I had a kind of epiphany moment in my early twenties when I read a poem by a poet called Allen Ginsberg, who sadly died in the early 2000s, and it was a poem called ‘Howl’. The poem was written in the 1950s, very famously the subject of censorship. It was quite extreme in its content, and really, ‘Howl’, as the title might suggest, is a shriek of political discontent, for want of a better phrase. It is the sound of the post-war generation of people who were not happy and wanted to let us know about it. So as someone who grew up listening to various forms of music, punk etc and had been attracted to that kind of rebellious streak, I think it’s really interesting to see that manifested in poetry from twenty or thirty years prior to anything like that.

I: Thank you. So how do you think, as well as the college in terms of the English classes and the Creative Writing classes, how do you think the LRC contributes to young people reading and what do you think it has to offer that young people might not be aware of at the college?

SJ: I think it’s got a really good selection of books and you should get in there and read them. Simple as that.

I: And what do you think is the broader importance of reading to the younger generation and people in general of any age, what do you think reading can offer people?

SJ: It can offer pleasure, escapism; completely contrasting that, it can offer a way of dealing and facing reality. It can offer a way of broadening your vocabulary, it can offer engagement, it can offer a whole world really. That’s an incredibly clichéd thing and naff thing to say but there is a whole world out there in reading and you just need to get out there and explore it.

I: Thank you so much, you’ve been brilliant.