Poetry by Heart is a national poetry recitation competition for schools and colleges in England. It’s also a website for teaching and learning about poetry – by heart and out loud, and with plenty of choice for young people to explore poems and find the ones they love. It’s a resource for everyone in schools, in England, and everywhere else.
In the national Poetry By Heart competition young people aged from 7-18, in key stages 2, 3, 4 and 5 choose poems they love, learn them by heart and perform them in a school or college competition. There can be as few as three contestants and as many as the whole school.
With our support and free materials, teachers pick their school/college competition winner(s), make a simple video of their performances and upload them for judging. Every national competition entrant receives positive feedback from the judges and a certificate celebrating their achievement. The best will be invited to perform their poems in front of top UK poets at the British Library – and the new Poetry By Heart national champions will be crowned.
Poetry By Heart is simple to set up, it’s all free and schools and colleges have until 28th February 2021 to choose who will represent them in the national competition.
Schools and colleges can also take part by uploading videos of pupils performing poems for sharing on our website, if a non-competitive option is preferred.
Poetry By Heart has always been a partnership between poetry and education. It was founded in 2012 by poet Andrew Motion, UK Poet Laureate 1999-2009, and educator Julie Blake, and initially developed by The Full English with The Poetry Archive. This collaboration now been expanded to include The Poetry Society, the English Association, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, the National Association for the Teaching of English and Homerton College, University of Cambridge. Poetry By Heart is funded with the support of the Department for Education.
What poets say
It was the most electrifying performance of poetry from the past I have ever experienced, a very special day. Hearing the work of dead poets live and kicking was an absolute treat. The finalists inhabited their chosen poems so completely that a magical thing happened: the poems inhabited them. They spoke from the heart. Their enthusiasm, their delight in the language inspired everyone in that room. This was serious fun.
Patience Agbabi, Poetry By Heart competition judge
Taking a poem into your heart makes it part of you. Saying the poem aloud makes you part of its life in the world. This is a rich and nourishing relationship that can last a lifetime.
Jean Sprackland, Poetry By Heart competition judge
The student performances gave a new depth, a fresh angle to some of my favourite poems.
Daljit Nagra, Poetry By Heart competition judge
The poems we learn when we’re young stay with us for the rest of our lives. They become embedded in our thinking, and when we bring them to mind, or to our lips, they remind us who we are as people, and the things we believe in. They become personal and invaluable, and what’s more they are free gifts – there for the taking. We call it learning by heart, and I think such learning can only make our hearts bigger and stronger.
Simon Armitage, UK Poet Laureate 2019-
Learning a great poem by heart is a simple and sure way of expanding your universe. If you want to give young people tools and techniques to expand their brains, learning poems by heart is a great way to do this. There is, of course, another advantage – once you learn a poem by heart, it becomes yours. The rhythm and music of each line lifts off the page and into your body, the sense and emotion unlocks and opens up your world.
The oral tradition… demands not only the griot but the audience to complete the community: the noise and sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him. Hence we have the creation of a continuum where meaning truly resides.
A memorised poem is a great work of art that you own forever, a priceless piece of cultural capital. This competition is like an open invitation to students to go into an art gallery and leave with their favourite Van Gogh. I think the element of performance is brilliant. Not only will it give students a real understanding of the music of poetry, it will also do wonders for their self- confidence.
… the most important truth concerning the teaching of poetry is the value that attaches to a few poems intimately experienced and well remembered. If, at the end of each year spent in school, students have been marked by even one poem that is going to stay with them that would be a considerable achievement. Such a poem can come to feel like a pre-natal possession, a guarantee of inwardness and a link to origin. It can become the eye of a verbal needle through which the growing person can pass again and again until it is known by heart, and becomes a path between heart and mind, a path by which the individual can enter repeatedly, into the kingdom of rightness.
May I suggest that we must always be desirous of creating spaces in which people might meet themselves, and know themselves, and celebrate themselves, and are even able to say back to us: thank you for giving ourselves back to us… spaces that exist outside the actual words….?
To learn a poem by heart is to make a friend, one that will stay with you for the rest of your life. And like the best of friendships, a poem got by heart will comfort, cheer and sustain. This is what makes this terrific project so valuable – after the excitement of public performance, every child who takes part will carry their chosen poems with them into their future.
It isn’t possible to understand poetry, which is a musical skill, without hearing and internalising some of its tunes. Poetry By Heart is a practical way to encourage this in schools and I think it could remove some of the confusion (and anger) people feel when confronted with poetry. Poems, unlike prose, are memory-efficient. That doesn’t just mean they go easily into the memory and stay there. It means the memory goes easily into a poem and grows there, perhaps infinitely.
… [a] poem is just a little machine for remembering itself… Whatever other function a rhyme, a metre, an image, a rhetorical trope, a brilliant qualifier or stanza-break might perform, half of it is simply mnemonic. A poem makes a fetish of its memorability. It does this, because the one unique thing about our art is that it can carried in your head in its original state, intact and perfect. We merely recall a string quartet or a film or a painting, actually, at a neurological level we’re only remembering a memory of it; but our memory of the poem is the poem.
What teachers say
A poetry buzz
“The competition and all the fantastic supporting resources have generated a poetry buzz across and beyond the school. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it has changed the lives of the young people who have taken part, offering them the opportunity not simply to engage with poetry but to own it, inhabit it, and share it.”
“Some students sign up who say they don’t even like poetry! They want to compete because it is a challenge. Learning a poem by heart appeals to lots of different types of students and often to those we least expect.”
“It’s egalitarian – in our school it is rarely the top set who win and the confidence and pleasure it gives the lower ability students is undoubted.”
An essence of who and what we are
“Poetry explores the essence of who and what we are. Young people spend much of their time trying to understand themselves through technology which can be destructive in the way that it distances them from that essence.”
An opportunity to perform in public
“Opportunities such as those offered by Poetry By Heart are increasingly rare. If we are to produce articulate young people who have the confidence to stand in front of large groups and present, to lead business and industry confidently we have a responsibility to prepare them and support them for public scenarios.”
“I ran the Poetry By Heart competition at two schools and it absolutely galvanised interest, broke through gender boundaries and gave an incredible range of pupils, from macho Rugby players to painfully shy pupils the chance to be rewarded for taking risks.”
A living encounter
“It has massively increased our awareness and enjoyment of poetry: it brings poetry ‘alive’, off the page and into people’s hearts.”
“I teach students with special needs and it gives them a huge boost when they can remember a whole poem by heart AND perform it. On top of the impact on self-confidence, it supports cognition and learning.”
A navigation aid
“In an age of growing anxiety, stress and mental health concerns, poetry, especially that which has been learned and internalised, can play a vital role in equipping students to navigate the choppy waters of adolescence.”
A lasting impact
“It gave our students the opportunity to engage with poetry in a different way. They genuinely loved it. Students did assemblies, poetry readings and brought in poems that they loved as part of the preparation. This had a lasting impact.”
In Poetry By Heart 2020-21 children and young people aged 7-18, in key stages 2, 3, 4 and 5 choose poems they love, learn them by heart and perform them in school or college. There are 3 ways of taking part in Poetry By Heart.
The CLASSIC competition is open to individual students in key stages 2 ,3, 4 and 5. They choose 2 poems from the Poetry By Heart website, one published before 1914 and one published in or after 1914. They compete in a school/college competition with at least 3 competitors in each key stage. Schools/colleges may then put forward their key stage winner(s) for the national competition. We judge the performances at county and regional levels and select 10 national finalists in each key stage to invite to the national finalists event at the British Library in Spring 2021 (subject to Covid-19 contingencies). There we will crown a national champion in each key stage. In 2021, one national finalist from key stage 4 or 5 will be chosen to represent England in a special student performance showcase at the hugely prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize awards ceremony in Toronto in June 2021, with all costs for one pupil and one teacher or other chaperone provided.
CLASSIC competition rules and details are here. Deadline: 28th February 2021.
The CELEBRATION competition is also open to students in key stages 2, 3, 4 and 5. It’s for individuals, small groups (2-5 students) and large groups (6+ students) who choose 1 poem to learn from the Poetry By Heart website – any poet, any time period. They perform it by heart in front of others in school/college. Schools/colleges may then put forward one entry per category for the national Celebration competition. We select the 10 best entries nationally and invite these students to come and perform in a special Celebration showcase at the national finalists event at the British Library in Spring 2021 (subject to Covid-19 contingencies).
CELEBRATION competition rules and details are here. Deadline: 28th February 2021.
The new web SHOWCASE is for students in any key stage. If a Classic competition or a Celebration event really doesn’t suit what you’re doing in your setting, or you simply can’t choose who to enter, or the timing doesn’t work, or if your students want to recite their own poems or poems that are not on the Poetry By Heart website – then you can still join in our celebration of poetry out loud and by heart with a Showcase upload. Each school/college can submit up to 9 video performances – any poem, any style, any age, any number of participants and we’ll feature as many as we can in the Performance Gallery on the Poetry By Heart website during the summer term.
Deadline: 31st March 2021.
Contact Poetry By Heart
If you’re a teacher, librarian or other member of staff in a school or college in England, we’ve got lots more information about the competition for you, and the best way to start a conversation is to register here.
For all other questions, you can contact us by email, phone or post on the contact details below.
Poetry by Heart, 13 Orchard Street, Bristol BS1 5EH
0117 905 5338