University sidelines sonnets as ‘products of white western culture’

Shakespeare once wrote that nothing would overcome the “powerful rhyme” of his sonnets, but the writing may be on the wall for the poetic form.

Sonnets have been branded “products of white western culture” and sidelined on a creative writing course, university documents reveal.

Writing the traditional form employed by poets from Petrarch to Auden formed part of an assessment for the University of Salford’s creative writing course, but “pre-established literary forms” were reviewed as part of a shakeup to “decolonize the curriculum”.

Sonnets have been sidelined as part of this “decolonizing” work, according to internal documents which branded the verse form a product of “white western culture”.

Students of poetry no longer have to write traditional forms as part of their assessment, according to a slideshow illustrating best practice in decolonizing courses at Salford, which was shared with staff.

The slideshow showing “inspiration from colleagues” states that course leaders have “simplified the assessment offering choice to write thematically rather than to fit into pre-established literary forms previously used in the module which tend to the products of white western culture”

‘Decolonizing the curriculum’

Examples of such traditional forms given in the slideshow include sonnets and “sestinas” – a complex verse form used by figures like the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sindey.

The changes to the second year creative writing module – titled Writing Poetry in the Twenty-first Century – were cited as examples of best practice as Salford continues a program of “decolonizing the curriculum”.

University documents state that this decolonizing – a term used to describe refocusing curricula away from historically dominant Western material and viewpoints – is taking place as part of work to make Salford “more diverse and inclusive place” for students.

Messages from university leadership state in relation to this push for inclusivity that the “award gap that exists for our BAME students is not acceptable”, and offers “decolonizing the curriculum” as a measure to address disparities in attainment.

Internal training materials shared with staff make the case that decolonized and “inclusive curricula” better “reflect and cater for a diverse society”, and result in “better outcomes for all students on the programme, than those that are structured along more traditional lines” .

Advice to staff on how best to “produce graduates that are socially and ethically aware, with a high degree of cultural competence”, suggests that traditional courses can be improved by offering “a choice of assessment methods” so graduates can be tested “in a way that suits them”, and by using materials “that are accessible, and familiar to all students”.

‘Patronising’

This approach to students across Salford departments has been branded “patronising” by author and historian Dr Zareeer Masani, who said sonnets being swept into efforts to decolonise the curriculum was “outrageous”.

He said: “Poetic forms vary widely across the world, but good poetry is universal. It’s content, not form, that counts.

“It is hugely patronizing to assume non-White students would be put off by Western poetic forms. Will we sideline Shakespeare next as white drama? Even the English language?”

The leader of the creative writing course at Salford, Dr Scott Thurston, said the Writing Poetry in the Twenty-first Century module was “often updated to take account of new trends and developments in contemporary writing”.

He added that students would still be taught about traditional forms in their first year, and would have required exercises in writing them on the Writing Poetry module while being given opportunities to “experiment creatively with their own forms”.

The sonnet emerged in medieval Italy and was taken up by poets like Petrach before it made its way to England, where it was used extensively by writers like Shakespeare and John Donne.

The Shakespearean form is usually made up of sixteen lines, with three sets of alternatively rhymed quatrains, followed by a couplet. It was often used to express romantic themes.

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