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No rhyme or reason to poem panic

How did a 14-year-old's not-very-good poem about Hitler provoke handwringing about anti-Semitic teachers warping our kids' minds?

Shirley Dent

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Fourteen-year-old Gideon Taylor has got into more trouble than most British schoolboys his age. He sparked a moral panic that culminated with education secretary Ruth Kelly saying that her department was ‘appalled’ by any promotion of anti-Semitism and urging concerned parents to go through their school’s complaints procedure (1). What on earth did this 14-year-old do to elicit such a response?

The facts, such as they can be ascertained, are as follows: Taylor wrote a poem as part of a school project that, in his own words, ‘had to have a connection to the Holocaust’ (2). He chose to write the poem in the guise of Adolf Hitler, and the poem was subsequently published in the Forward Press poetry anthology Great Minds, a collection of writing by 11- to 18-year-olds.

What happened next, according to Forward Press, is that a parent, Steve Lee, contacted Simon Yaffe at the Jewish Telegraph about passages in the poem that he found offensive. The passages that have been quoted in national newspaper reports (Taylor’s parents have requested that copies of the poem are no longer circulated) include: ‘Jews are here, Jews are there, Jews are almost everywhere, filling up the darkest places, evil looks upon their faces’, and ‘Make them take many paces for being one of the worst races, on their way to a gas chamber, where they will sleep in their manger. I’ll be happy Jews have died’ (3).

Lawyer Anthony Julius says there is a ‘slightly creepy identification on the part of the poet with the voice of the poem’ (4). However, the line in the poem that says (depending on which reports you read) ‘I am Adolf Hitler’ or ‘Adolf Hitler is my name’ would seem to suggest that this was an attempt – however crass and clumsy and full of poor rhyming schemes – to create a dramatic voice in the guise of another (5).

Then, on 14 October 2005, the Jewish Telegraph ran a frontpage exclusive headlined ‘KILL JEWS SCHOOLBOOK: Poem glorifying Hitler incites racial hatred.’ Louise Ellman, Labour Party MP for Liverpool Riverside, called for the poem to be withdrawn and for Ruth Kelly to intervene, on the grounds that the poem might feed anti-Semitism, especially if read out of context.

The kerfuffle reached fever pitch when, in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Julie Burchill pointed out the ‘creepy’ anomaly that Taylor is the only contributor in the collection whose school and location are not recorded (according to Forward Press this is due to the fact that it was an independent contribution rather than one submitted by a school), and the even ‘creepier’ fact that Ruth Kelly – a member of the Catholic group Opus Dei ‘which astoundingly has an even more shameful history of anti-Semitism and Nazi-helping than the Church generally, not to mention whipping themselves for kicks’ – had failed to respond.

Burchill concluded by asking whether the poem might be used by teachers to stir up hate: ‘Can we trust the teaching profession not to have the usual quotient of anti-Semites among them? I don’t see why. What’s to stop them using a piece of writing like this as a starting point for peddling their own poisonous views?’ (6)

This story should concern us all – but not because of the bizarre claims that a schoolkid’s poem published in an anthology with a print run of 450 copies is going to fan the flames of racism.

Our concerns should start with the way that both poetry and the Holocaust are used and taught. Poetry is seen more and more as a medium of self-expression and emotional catharsis rather than a form of literature judged by universal standards. This self-satisfied and slip-shod approach to poetry can be seen in Forward Press’ attitude to the poetry it publishes. In a statement published in the wake of the Taylor affair, managing director Ian Walton proudly claimed that ‘Forward Press grew out of my hobby and, currently, we publish around 200,000 new poems a year’; he also said that he is ‘never a judge of what constitutes a “good” or a “bad” poem, this is subjective (in the UK Pam Ayres can sell-out the Poet Laureate)’.

This is a license to publish rubbish; indeed, young Taylor’s poem was not subtle or skilled enough for the subject matter at hand. As Shlomo from Tel Aviv rightly said in response to Julie Burchill’s piece: ‘Even though the quotes reveal that this is a poem of a child, not of a master, still I believe the author has a right to express himself in poetry. Poetry does not endanger society.’

A focus on self-expression and empathy also informs teaching about the Holocaust today. Nowhere in the many words written on Taylor’s poem has anybody questioned the original school project and the idea that students should get creative with the Holocaust. If there is one subject that calls for a sober, rational and historically informed approach in teaching, surely it is the Holocaust. But emotional empathy and creative self-expression have superseded rational understanding as things to strive for in the classroom. As long as, that is, it is the correct sort of creativity and emotional response.

What really irks in this sorry tale is the barely disguised fear from politicians and commentators that behind every fresh-faced teen lurks a mini-me Hitler just waiting for those bad emotions to be unleashed, the wrong creativity to take hold and – hey presto – there’s a Hitler youth on every street corner. Ruth Kelly should surely have ignored this ridiculous affair instead of stoking it by condemning the poem and its publishers. Julie Burchill took Kelly’s concerns about the poem provoking an outbreak of anti-Semitism to their ridiculously logical conclusion when she suggested that anti-Semitic teachers lurk in classrooms waiting for their chance to peddle racist ideologies. This whole incident suggests that some have a pretty low opinion of schoolchildren, and those who teach them.

The main reason not to recommend Taylor’s poem to a classroom of his peers is that it is a poor poem. The suggestion that it should not be read because it might incite racial hatred and anti-Semitism insults the intelligence of us all.

Shirley Dent is press officer for the Institute of Ideas, and organised the debate What is poetry for? at the Battle of Ideas last month.

(1) ‘Boy, 14, sorry for Hitler poem’, The Times, 11 November 2005

(2) ‘MPs call to withdraw Hitler poem’, BBC news online 9 November 2005

(3) ‘Calls for ‘Hitler poem’ to be cut from anthology’ Guardian Unlimited/PA 9 November 2005; ‘Row over schoolboy’s Hitler poem’, The Times 9 November 2005

(4) ‘Row over schoolboy’s Hitler poem’, The Times 9 November 2005

(5) ‘Calls for ‘Hitler poem’ to be cut from anthology’ Guardian Unlimited/PA 9 November 2005

(6) Straight Talk/Poisonous Poetry, Haaretz.com

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