Poetry By Heart Blog

Introducing Poetry By Heart at Simon Langton G.S. for Boys

12th December 2014

Image courtesy of the Simon Langton School website

Poetry By Heart at the Langton

I have always loved reading poetry. Poets seem to have that knack of explaining things that we don’t know that we know. But when poetry is on the curriculum horizon there is a cacophony of sighs and complaints in my classes so the question was: how can I possibly get our boys interested in learning poetry?

 

I needed something to spur things on so I decided to film a montage of rap artists and teachers reading poetry; teachers who one would not expect to be interested in poetry. A physics and maths teacher very kindly obliged. And then I had a brainwave (well so I thought)! If only I could get our Director of Rugby to read a poem on my montage then maybe I could convince the boys that poetry was for all sorts of people not just bookworms like myself. I plucked up the courage to ask him and hoped that he wouldn’t think I was completely bonkers. How wrong could I have been? Nicky was so kind in giving his time and immediately said that he would recite a poem that his coach had read to him and his team during his time as a  Fijian international rugby player – ‘The Man In The Glass’ by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr.  Result! I played this montage to my year 10 class – they cheered when the rap artists and teachers came on but there was a deathly silence with mouths agape when Nicky read his poem. I felt that I had scored a try!

 

Simon Langton G.S. Director of Rugby Nicky Little reciting, ‘The Man in the Glass’ 1934 by Peter Dale Wimbrow Senior

 

Now they keep asking me if I will make another film with other teachers (planned for the New Year) and poetry lessons with  this class are just delightful and engaging. I’d like to think that the montage helped in many ways to neutralise an inbuilt fear of poetry. But, to be honest, it didn’t help me to get potential competitors queuing round the block!

I was so lucky to have such delightful sixth form students who volunteered through seeing the Poetry By Heart posters, strategically placed around the school.  Our competition preparation was very enjoyable. A local poet, Lynne Rees, conducted a ‘Making it Mine’ Masterclass where the competitors spent a relaxed morning discovering and exploring nuances in meanings in their chosen poems. I also gave one to one lunch-time coaching sessions leading up to the competition day. I really wanted the big day to strike a relaxed yet formal note. I think we managed that with cake and biscuits while the judges did their task. We had some wonderful recitations – particularly from our winner who really opened my eyes to a new understanding of Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ and our runner up who had us in stitches with ‘God, A Poem’ by James Fenton.  Now we’re really excited getting ready for the regional final to be held at the Gulbenkian theatre at the University of Kent on January 16th 2015.

I’ll be honest – I had never learnt a poem before and I was not convinced that learning one would help in my understanding. But attending the Poetry by Heart workshop in October at the British Library in London turned me into an avid convert and gave me a wonderful opportunity to develop my teaching of poetry. I decided to learn ‘The Dancers’ by Edith Sitwell. At every opportunity, in the shower, driving to work, weeding the garden, I would try to recite it. I can confidently say that my increased love for, and understanding of, this poem has been overwhelming through learning it. We have a new way forward now – I’m developing more masterclasses with Lynne across the three key stages to introduce all students to the magical world of learning poetry.

 

Liz was born in Newcastle under Lyme and read Human Biology at Loughborough University. She thoroughly enjoyed working for the next nineteen years in scientific and pharmaceutical research. Nevertheless, on being made redundant, she took the plunge and chose to have a change of career going back to her first love – literature. She read English literature at Kent University and completed a PhD researching early modern women writers. She now teaches English at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury , Kent.

 

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Introducing Poetry By Heart to the Primary Sector

2nd December 2014

She Sells Sea Shells by She_Who_Must 2007 Creative Commons

Last week saw Poetry By Heart Director, Julie Blake, taking Brighton University first year Primary Education undergraduates through their poetry performance paces!

 

Starting with some rhythm and rhyme, and not a few comic images, we kicked off by creating a register poem. I couldn’t remember the names but I could remember the cat-lovers and the girls whose names rhymed with frilly! A couple of tongue-twisters got us warmed up for reciting fast and slow, loud and low, after which we went for the full body workout with John Foster’s ‘The Dinosaur Rap’. Pity the class on the floor below… We needed a rest after that so we experimented with storyboarding as a method for really getting inside Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘From A Railway Carriage’ and had it memorised as a class (each person taking a couplet) within half an hour. I finished by putting my money where my mouth had been all afternoon, and recited Irene McLeod’s ‘The Lone Dog’.

But why? Poetry By Heart is for 14-18 year olds? Well, since we launched in 2012, learning poems by heart has been inscribed in the National Curriculum for primary education and we have had very many enquiries from primary teachers and advisors asking us if we can help. Always happy to share what we’ve learned and to collaborate with interested colleagues, we are now working on a primary resource pack. Well, to be honest, we’re not quite sure yet if it will be a primary resource pack, or a Key Stage 2-3 pack, and we welcome all opportunities for dialogue, trialling and piloting. Please get in touch if you’d like to join the conversation:  info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.

Meanwhile, during 2013-14 we were delighted to collaborate with Dr Josie Brady and her PGCE Primary students at Birmingham City University on an action research project. Dr Brady reports on their experience here:

The NATE Conference and the Poetry by Heart Primary Project: A highlight of an academic year.

A real highlight of the 2013-14 academic year for me was the Poetry by Heart Primary Project as helping PGCE Primary students to develop pedagogies for poetry as a verbal art in primary and early years classrooms was both a tremendous challenge and a great joy. The NATE conference in Bristol in July marked the culmination of this endeavour as a group of my PGCE students presented their ideas, experiences, reflections and findings to an audience of teachers, academics and consultants.

Presenting at the NATE conference Bristol July 2014

Looking at the above photo now, I still feel that rising swell of pride and I know students were overjoyed at the positive responses they received. Thank you NATE delegates and thank you Poetry by Heart for making the project possible and supporting us along the rocky way!

Before I sign off, I leave the last words to two of my students, Emily and Kate, who are of course, now fully qualified teachers enjoying and enduring the highs and lows of busy Autumn terms.

“Being part of a project that has collaborated with Poetry by Heart has been a fantastic experience. I had undertaken a very successful project on poetry memorisation in a primary school with thirty 7 and 8 year olds and needless to say I was apprehensive about the outcomes initially. However, I found that not only did the children gain a lot from the project but I did too. My enthusiasm and knowledge of poetry, and poetry from memory, has dramatically increased and having the opportunity to discuss the outcomes at the NATE conference is something that I will always treasure. The support from Poetry by Heart, Julie and Tim in particular, has been fantastic and this collaborative project, I feel, has been extremely successful. The thought of implementing poetry memorisation and recitation into primary schools is now such an exciting thought and I think I can say that speaking not only for myself but other PGCE graduates who were involved in the project too.” Emily

“Going to NATE and sharing, alongside fellow students, my learning journey with professionals was a fantastic experience. Just to be able to hear other people’s opinions on what we have done and where we could go from there was very interesting. It gave me fresh insights which were truly enlightening.”  Kate

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The 3 Rs: Rhythm Rhyme and Recitation

13th November 2014

Photo by Fay Lofty

I am in the extremely fortunate position of working with teenagers for a job and so initially when invited to contribute to the Poetry By Heart blog I thought I’d write a piece about teenagers and poetry.   Just recently, however, I have had conversations with three people at different points on the great spectrum of life and a common theme emerged in our conversations which took me to the heart of Poetry By Heart. I have had the delights of conversing about poetry with a pre-schooler, a teenager and an octogenarian and this is what I learned.

 

Let’s reverse the natural order of things and consider the octogenarian first.  Belinda read English Literature at Cambridge University during the Second World War and today, in what some people might foolishly consider her dotage, is the sharpest mind I know.  Her greatest solace is her mind’s ability to recall Seamus Heaney, Shakespeare, Frost and Donne when her body fails her and this, she argues, is the reason her brain is still fighting fit when other parts are less so. Not just lines but entire poems come back to her as easily as my mobile phone number comes back to me.  She uses this ability now to connect to people and to give them an insight or frame of reference for her world.  Reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 71 in its entirety with its ear-catching iambic pentameter and powerful half-rhyming couplet to end, gives her comfort and leaves her audience wanting another poem and in no doubt as to the state of her mind.

Going to the middle of the spectrum takes us to a delightful young man, spoken word poet and playwright, Tommy Sissons who has just finished his A Levels and is about to go to university.  Interested in what teenagers find engaging about poetry, I asked Tommy to tell me why he loves poetry and this was his reply:  ‘I came to love poetry almost purely through the form of it being spoken. I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry but I find personally that you can connect with verse so much more when it’s performed out loud. You can appreciate the rhythm of the words and the emotions behind the poem a lot more.  A lot of teenagers can see poetry as a dry, old-fashioned form of expression but they’ve only been taught the work of poets that have been dead for hundreds of years in vernacular that modern youth can’t always relate to. When they are presented with spoken word (in a modern form) it speaks to them. I know lots of people my age that have come to love poetry through spoken word.’  I found the genre of rap very hard to access and Tommy was the first person who managed to get me to understand and enjoy rap – which is, as he says, arguably the vernacular of teenagers and relies heavily on rhyme schemes, solid rhythms and being made audible. Poetry By Heart may be occupying a slightly different space in the performance of poetry but it recognises and celebrates the acoustic quality of poetry.

My final conversation was with a four year old and was about the delights of the Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson.  I asked this small person what her favourite poem was and she trotted forward with a mauled copy of Donaldson’s book.  We read it together (twice), both enjoying the familiar cadences of a much-loved and familiar work.  I noticed that while I was reading, her lips were moving and asked her how much of the book she could remember.  She could recall nearly all of it with a few prompts which were related to the rhyming pattern.  When I asked her what she loved about it and why she’d chosen it as her favourite, after some consideration she replied, ‘it’s like dancing, only with words.’ And maybe whether we’re eight, eighteen or eighty that’s what we are doing when we get up and recite a set of words in our head – we’re dancing with words.

About the author

Fay Lofty works full-time as a Widening Participation Officer at the University of Brighton on an outreach programme with young people.  She has a BA (Hons) in Literature from The Open University and is currently doing an MA in Education at the University of Sussex.  In any time considered ‘spare’ she reads and tries to write.  She also runs a bookclub in the very small rural Sussex village where she lives and encounters many other inspirational readers and writers.  She has two daughters.

 

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Fey Popoola’s Poetry By Heart Journey

31st October 2014

Fey Popoola (third from left, front row) at the Poetry By Heart 2014 National Finals held at the National Portrait Gallery. March 2014

Poetry By Heart 2014 National Finalist Fey Popoola reflects on taking poems to heart.

 

I never thought poetry recitation could be so much fun until I tried it…

 

When Kathleen, my English teacher at college last year, introduced me to the Poetry by Heart competition, I must admit that my motivation to join was more escapism than enthusiasm. It was my last year of college and I was feeling the pressure of A2 revision, university applications and impending adulthood. I needed something else to focus on – and poetry recitation seemed just academic enough to not make me feel guilty for cutting my revision time a little short. (Poetry is wider reading, right? Right??)

The Havering Sixth Form College competition was cosy; just four contestants at the back of our library, with a few snacks and some cake (tip to teachers: bring cake!). I could immediately sense, when we were reciting our poems, that there was an atmosphere of respect and togetherness in the room. The whole process of choosing two poems from the anthology, spending hours learning them by heart and then sharing them with friends is really a bonding experience – and this feeling only intensified as I progressed through the competition, right down to the final.

For the last few months I’ve been an ambassador for the Poetry by Heart competition, talking about my experiences at schools, contributing to PGCE workshops and conferences organised by  NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English) and NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education). Perhaps the most common question I’ve been asked about the competition is, “How do you do it? How do you memorise a poem?” My answer is always somewhere along the lines of: “It’s fun. When it’s fun, it isn’t hard.”

I think that’s the main difference between what we think of when we hear “poetry recitation” and what we see and experience during Poetry by Heart. Instead of being force-fed mass produced interpretations, we internalised these poems, forming our own personalised meanings. This was especially noticeable when we had people reciting the same poems in some rounds. They were the same words, but vastly different understandings of those words.  Each person reciting brought a new dimension to their poem.

I believe that when you learn a poem by heart, you access it at a level that is almost impossible to reach just by reading it on a page. Unlike in an exam setting, where you focus on the metaphors and enjambment and other techniques, you actually get to the heart of the poem and can explore its tone, pacing, rhythm and melody. These things can often get overlooked in the classroom.

One of the best things about Poetry by Heart is the atmosphere. There’s a sense of calm and friendliness in the air, from the school competitions all the way through to the finals; we all want each other to succeed. I think that’s because of the shared journey we have all taken with our poems. We are in the company of other people who love – or are starting to love— poetry, which shifts the mood from that which we sometimes experience in our school classes. It creates a safe place for us to geek out about literature, and provides accessible exposure to a variety of poets and poems, from Tichborne to Armitage.

My advice to anybody considering entering the competition: Go for it! You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. You’ll learn so much about yourself, how you learn and how much you can achieve. And to boot, nothing is cooler than reciting poetry at parties (I promise!).

 

Fey in full flow at the national Finals 2014

 

Best of luck and maybe see you around!

Fey Popoola (National Finalist 2014 and Poetry By Heart 2015 Ambassador)

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National Poetry Day and Poetry By Heart

17th October 2014

James reciting at the Poetry Podium in Bristol

National Poetry Day on October 2nd saw members of the Poetry By Heart team hit the road in search of some poetry inspired adventures. Poetry pilgrims Alison Powell, Kath Lee and Tom Boughen share some tales below.

 

Alison Powell (Regional Development Coordinator for the South West) organised an innovative “Poetry Podium” event in Bristol.

 The (Loud) Sound of Sense

How do you make a three-year-old, a distant relative of Andrew Marvell and a retired dancer from Bristol happy?  By giving them the chance to read poetry in public apparently.  To celebrate this year’s National Poetry Day the South West contingency of PBH came up with the Poetry Podium, a flash-mob-style, open-air event in which members of the public were encouraged to join us on College Green in Bristol and read their favourite poem out loud.  And by loud, I mean really loud.  As in, through a megaphone loud!

Robert Frost claimed that poetry has a ‘sound of sense’ and can ‘communicate through its sound even before we grasp its semantic meaning.’  The sound of poetry blasting across the city centre’s favourite picnicking spot brought smiles, laughter and, when Keith Walker read his eulogy to his wife and dance partner, a few poignant tears.  Tim Popple, director of music at Bristol Cathedral, delighted us with ‘Bermudas’, chosen because of his relation to poet Marvell.  And three-year-old Autumn sang to us that famous 19th century poem ‘The Star’ by Jane Taylor (aka ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’).

People came from all over town to take part and to listen in a true testament to the power of poetry spoken aloud.  (Alison Powell)

Autumn aged 3 reciting at the poetry podium in Bristol with a little help from MC Faye Dicker

 

Tom Boughen (Poetry By Heart Project Assistant) enjoyed the Foyle Young Poets awards and a poetry extravaganza at the Southbank Centre in London

On the last two National Poetry Days, I have found myself at a celebration in the heart of London, hobnobbing with a group of talented and passionate people. Last year we launched Poetry By Heart on National Poetry Day (within a week of me starting this job!) This year I travelled down to the Southbank Centre in London with Julie Blake the co-director of Poetry By Heart for the Foyle Young Poets awards and subsequent poetry readings. It was a celebration of both young and established poets, with classic and contemporary styles.

I won’t lie; the Foyle group of youngsters made me feel very old! The young poets had been selected from thousands of entries from around the world and the fifteen deserving winners read their work at the awards. I’ve got a decade on most of them and the level of maturity and sophistication in their poems surprised me. It’s given me a strong reminder that I should no longer be amazed by the talent of teenagers, especially after working with Poetry By Heart! We’re well aware that lots of our PBH students also have a talent for writing, and it would be great to see some familiar faces at the Foyle Young Poets awards in the future.

One of the best things about the day was the encouragement of children and teenagers to engage in poetry. Local schools were invited to listen to readings by John Hegley, Julia Donaldson (writer of the classic ‘The Gruffalo’), and some cool contemporary poets like Hollie McNish, Dizraeli, Ross Sutherland, Raymond Antrobus and Joelle Taylor. They understood their audience, and some of the children watching seemed young enough for this to be their first poetry reading. I’ve come to realise over the past year that one of the biggest challenges facing the world of poetry is convincing the public that it can speak for everybody and challenge conventional thought in the same way that people readily accept other forms of literature can do. Involving children in these kinds of events is an excellent way of conveying from a young age the fact that poetry is universal, whether communicated on the page or in spoken word. That’s National Poetry Day for you!

(Tom Boughen)

Winners of the Foyle Young Poets Award 2014. Photograph:copyright @ Hayley Madden – Courtesy of the Poetry Society http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/

 

Kath Lee (Poetry By Heart Project Coordinator) navigated the magnificent new Library of Birmingham for the launch of the Poetry By Heart anthology and a memorable evening in the company of poet Jackie Kay.

What better way to spend the evening of National Poetry Day than in the company of the wonderful Jackie Kay? Mike Dixon, (Poetry By Heart Regional Development Coordinator for the South East) and I accepted the kind invitation from our friends at Writing West Midlands to the opening event of this year’s Birmingham Literature Festival. It also marked the launch of the Poetry By Heart Anthology.

The best poetry readings are like the best first date; you get all the best stories, a few revelations and wittiest repartee. Jackie’s poems are also populated by a wide variety of voices, so by the end of the evening you’ve also been introduced to the family.  Jackie read mainly from her 2011 collection ‘Fiere’ and those poems are optimistic and cheery, even when addressing the complexities of families and her own less than ordinary personal history. She also read our PBH timeline and anthology choice, ‘Dusting the Phone’ which we loved, but she says she is mystified at its selection from all her work. We’re not sure we had the poets in mind when we suggested people ‘Argue with the Anthology’, but why not? Her Question and Answer session was a happy blend of thoughtful reflection on her writing process and fond recollections of her childhood, and giggling. All this, and her generous praise of the new anthology, meant that by the end of the evening we were completely smitten!  (Kath Lee)

Library of Birmingham: Photographer: Bruce Stokes https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode

 

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Is there a poem in your head?

3rd October 2014

The nationwide Poetry and Memory survey launched on 2nd October, UK National Poetry Day. The survey is part of the Cambridge University’s Poetry and Memory Project, which is investigating experiences of poetry learning, and examining the relationships between memorisation, recitation and understanding. David Whitley and Debbie Pullinger of the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University have been very interested in the work of Poetry By Heart and some of the research undertaken as part of their Cambridge Poetry Teaching Project appears in the Resources section of the Poetry By Heart website. Project Researcher Dr Debbie Pullinger tells us about this new and exciting Poetry and Memory Project.

 

Do you have a poem in your head? Then do come and tell us about it. It can be any poem, and any type of poem – we just ask that it isn’t a song lyric or a nursery rhyme.

There have been quite a few poetry polls over the years, mostly directed at finding the nation’s favourites. Our aim, however, is rather different. We want to discover what poems people know by heart – what poetry resides in our collective memory, at this moment, in October 2014. To the best of our knowledge, this is first time a survey of this kind and scope has been attempted.

As well as asking what the poem is and when you learned it, we’re also asking a couple of open-ended questions about what it means for you. The important thing here is that we’re emphatically not looking for GCSE English answers, or an analysis of what the poem is ‘supposed to be about’. Rather, we want to know about the personal significance of this particular poem. This might be to something do with the meaning, but it could also be to do with the sound. It may be that there’s one line which is particularly special. It may be that how you understand or feel about the poem has changed over the years.  It may be that you associate the poem with a particular occasion or period of your life. Or, it could be that the poem you know actually has very little meaning or significance for you at all – and we want to know about that, too.

Straight off, we expect to be able to announce what poems beat most strongly at the heart of the nation. It will be interesting, too, to see how they map on to those favourites lists. But aside from producing a headline top ten, there’s a great deal more that we’ll be able to do with this data.  We’ll be able to investigate, for example, the reasons why people now learn poetry, and the perceived value of doing so. We’re particularly interested in questions about the ‘use’ of learned poems – how they might act as an emotional resource, contribute to a sense of identity, assist in the development of an ear for language, engender a sense of community, play a role in memories of a personal or communal past. What does knowing a poem mean for someone, and indeed what different things does it mean for different people?

We’re really looking forward to seeing the responses to the survey and sharing the results. But, of course, its success as a piece of research hangs on getting a good response – which means we need lots of people to take part. So we really do need your help. You can do this in two ways.

Take part in the survey – if you have a poem in your head, please come and tell us about it. http://www.poetryandmemory.com/

 

Spread the word –  even if you don’t know a poem yourself, do pass the word on to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. I should also mention that it will be possible for print out a copy of the survey to give to anyone unable to access it online. They can then post it back to us using the Freepost address.

You can get spreading any way you fancy. Phone a friend. Find us on Facebook (The Poetry and Memory Project). Tweet on Twitter: @poetryandmemory #poetryandmemorysurvey.  Print a poster and display it on your favourite notice board.

Whatever you can do, we’ll be enormously grateful.

The survey runs from 2nd–31st October and is open to anyone in the UK aged 18 or over. For more about the survey and the Poetry and Memory Project: www.poetryandmemory.com

image of staff member

Debbie Pullinger is the project’s full-time researcher, based in the Faculty of Education, where she also teaches on the Children and Literature course. Her doctoral project, completed in 2013, was on orality and textuality in poetry written for children. Debbie worked in primary teaching, in educational publishing, and as a freelance writer before returning to academia in 2009.

 

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Publishing Poetry

19th September 2014

Tony Lacey, publisher of the new Poetry By Heart book, reflects on forty years at Penguin and the pleasures and challenges of publishing poetry. Tony also contributes his own choices to this Blog’s ‘Desert Island Poems’ series.

 

Edited by Julie Blake, Mike Dixon, Jean Sprackland and Sir Andrew Motion. Published by Penguin. Publication date: October 2nd 2014

I’ve been at Penguin for forty years and published a huge range of books, from sports personality biographies and war memoirs to upmarket literary fiction. But one of the true highlights was publishing the second series of Penguin Modern Poets in the late 90s. I’d grown up, literally, with the first series, buying each volume as they came out through my teens and beyond: it was through these little volumes that I first read Gavin Ewart, John Fuller, Dannie Abse, and a host of others that became favourite poets of mine. It was also through Penguin Modern Poets that I came to know the Beats and the Mersey poets.

Twenty-five or so years later I was toying with the idea of a follow-up, second series, and slightly to my surprise my colleagues were encouraging: I’d always thought of poetry as a bit of a private passion, best left to those professionals in the field like Faber. We ended up publishing twelve volumes between 1995 and 1997, each volume containing the work of three poets as in the first series, and I think you can gauge the quality by the poets featured in the first and last books: James Fenton/Blake Morrison/Kit Wright and Helen Dunmore/Jo Shapcott/Matthew Sweeney. I’ve just done a quick count on the Poetry by Heart timeline, and I reckon that eighteen of the poets included there were in our series.

I wish I could pretend that the series was a huge commercial success in the way that the first had been. (A figure of one million copies is often quoted as the number of copies sold of the Mersey Poets volume alone, published in 1967 – I can’t prove it because Penguin’s sales figures on computer only go back to the mid70s. But give or take a few hundred thousand, it was clearly a phenomenal figure – those were the days!)  Why the second series didn’t take off in the same way is a question for social historians – it has something to do with cultural climate of the 1960s. But I’m pleased by the way the series has stood up to the test of history – looking at them recently to check a few texts for the Poetry by Heart anthology, it struck me again that they represented a terrific introduction to a new generation of poets.

The fact that we’ll be publishing Poetry by Heart in my last months at Penguin is hugely gratifying. Not just because it is poetry, but because it’s the best kind of poetry publishing, in the great Penguin tradition of publishing the best but to the widest possible audience. And my Desert Island eight from the anthology?

‘The Good Morrow’ and ‘Dover Beach’ – great poems that obviously don’t require any justification from me but I’ve chosen them because, encouraged by Poetry by Heart, I’ve learnt them both in the past few months. No mean feat in late middle age, I can tell you! I’ve known them all my adult life but to be able to recite them feels like a miracle.

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ – because it’s so weird, and never seems any less weird no matter how many times you read it. I know Browning said his interest was on the dangerous side of things, but even so – this is a shocker.

‘The God Abandons Antony’ – I feel uneasy with poetry in translation. Reading it often feels like looking through a slightly fuzzy window: you know there’s something good on the other side but you can’t quite get it in focus. But this does it for me. There may be extra-poetic things going on here, I admit: Cavafy’s life is enormously resonant for one thing, and also I really like Leonard Cohen’s beautiful reworking of the poem, which features in his Book of Longing collection, the most successful book of poems I’ve ever published. (Not quite Mersey Sound figures but getting on…)

‘Skunk Hour’ and ‘I don’t operate often’ – I love the American poets of the 50s and 60s, perhaps above all other twentieth-century poets. Fashion has turned against the men (Elizabeth Bishop has now supplanted them in public esteem) but I persist in revering Lowell and Berryman. There’s a kind of stately excitability about Lowell that I like, and as for Berryman – whole chunks of his Dream Songs have stuck in my head as firmly as any 60s pop lyrics.

‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’ – one of Housman’s exquisite lyrics. I know that ‘exquisite’ is a slippery word, and I’ve heard it said that Housman is top second-division rather than first, but I don’t think all poetry has to be grandiose or all-encompassing, and I think this poem can stand beside the best.

Finally, William Empson’s ‘Aubade’ – this seems to have everything a great poem should: wonderful singability, real intellectual interest, and something of a puzzle about it too so that it never fully gives itself up.

Tony’s Desert Island Choices:

1)      ‘The Good Morrow’ John Donne

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-good-morrow/

2)      ‘Dover Beach’ Matthew Arnold

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/dover-beach/

3)      ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ Robert Browning

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/porphyrias-lover/

4)      ‘The God Abandons Antony’ C. P. Cavafy

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-god-abandons-antony/

5)      ‘Skunk Hour’ Robert Lowell

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/skunk-hour/

6)      ‘Dream Song No 67: I don’t operate often’ John Berryman

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/i-dont-operate-often/

7)      ‘Tell me not here it needs not saying’ A.E. Housman

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/tell-me-not-here-it-needs-not-saying/

8)      ‘Aubade’ William Empson

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/aubade/

 

Tony Lacey went to a grammar school in south London, then read English at the University of Bristol. He joined Penguin straight from university, and apart from one year at Granada, he has been there ever since. He was  Publishing Director of Puffin in the early eighties, succeeding the legendary Kaye Webb, before he moved over to adult books to be the first Publishing Director of Penguin’s new hardcover list, Viking.His authors include Will  Self, Nick Hornby, Claire Tomalin, Matthew Parris and William Trevor, and he has published a number of poetry anthologies – most recently The Poetry of Birds (edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee) and The Poetry of  Sex (edited by Sophie Hannah). He plans to retire in 2015 and at last read Edward Gibbon, Robert Musil, etc etc.

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Words and Music by Nick Freeth

5th September 2014

 

‘Hanging Guitars’ by Zeetz Jones

 

Nick Freeth explores the relationship between poetry and music and discusses musical settings of some of the poems in the Poetry By Heart anthology.

 It’s taken me a long time to stop myself rushing through poetry too quickly. The magic is much more likely to emerge if I recite the lines, or hear them read to me – and these ‘real-time’ processes can’t be hurried. I also love listening to musical settings of some poems, though I know many people have well-founded reservations about this hybrid genre. Words have their own tones and rhythms, which inevitably get overlaid by a composer’s additions; and even the finest verses will be spoiled by dull melodies and accompaniments, or by singers with wobbly voice production and cloudy diction.

 But when poetry and music combine successfully, the outcome is marvellous. I vividly recall participating, as a 12-year-old, in a performance of a choral setting of ‘I sing of a maiden’ by Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989). I don’t think I’d have made much of its Middle English words if I’d encountered them in the classroom. But as my fellow choristers and I learned how to sing them, we gradually grasped their meaning, and were able to absorb their inherent sense of wonder. Berkeley’s hushed, mysterious setting complements them perfectly, and is all the better for being uncompromisingly twentieth-century, not ‘faux-medieval.’

Solo songs, where the singer takes on the poet’s voice, tend to produce a more intense effect than choral works. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote his setting of William Barnes’ ‘Linden Lea’ http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-orchad-in-linden-lea/  for soloist and piano in 1901, and created one of his loveliest tunes for its three stanzas. (Most performers use a standard English version of these, though the printed score also supplies the Dorset dialect words.) He sustains some of the syllables in a way that might have surprised Barnes, but the results sound entirely natural, and the music’s lingering over the words “…cloudless sunshine overhead” evokes, for me, an especially English kind of eternal, pastoral present.

In ‘Linden Lea’, Vaughan Williams employs a single, repeated melody; but when composers choose, instead, to ‘tailor’ their notes to every line of a poem, there’s greater scope to vary the mood, and illustrate the text more elaborately. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) excelled at this, as we can hear from his treatment of two items in the Poetry By Heart anthology: a fragment of Christopher Smart’s ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’ in Rejoice in the Lamb (1943); and T.S. Eliot’s ‘The journey of the Magi’ (Canticle IV, for three solo singers and piano, 1971). http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/for-i-will-consider-my-cat-jeoffry/  http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-journey-of-the-magi/  I have to admit that the canticle setting always leaves me cold, for all its ingenuity, perhaps because I find it hard to imagine Eliot’s Wise Men singing to us at all!

By contrast, music is already at the heart of the words in some of my favourite Britten songs. His early collaboration with W.H. Auden, On This Island (1937), opens with the triumphal flourishes of ‘Let the florid music praise!’, before a disquieting change of mood takes hold. ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’, from his Thomas Hardy cycle, Winter Words (1953), supplies music of almost cinematic clarity for the description of a boy with a violin, and the handcuffed convict who breaks into an ironic ditty (“This life so free is the thing for me!”) on the platform beside him. And in the same work, Britten conjures up a choir of angels “singing and playing the ancient stave” for ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’, the tale “the tenor man told when he had grown old.”

Whatever their brilliance and power, though, do we actually need song settings? Isn’t the poetry complete without them? The answer to the second question is, of course, “Yes”, and I think the items I’ve mentioned must be considered as works of art in their own right – incorporating and augmenting the poems without ever supplanting them. However, there’s one category of verse in Poetry By Heart to which slightly different rules apply: the two ballads, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ and ‘Lord Randall.’

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-wife-of-ushers-well/  http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/lord-randall/

These pieces have been passed down through the oral tradition as songs, and only make their full impact when heard with their associated melodies. Because several ‘variants’ of the words and music have been preserved, we have a number of versions of the ballads to choose from: the ones I’ve recommended (sung and played by Martin Carthy, one of the ‘greats’ of English folk) are excellent starting points. Enjoy!

Nick’s choices, with suggested recordings of their musical settings (all available on iTunes):

I sing of a maiden (Anon.)

Berkeley’s setting: Choir of Lincoln College, Oxford

Linden Lea (William Barnes)

Vaughan Williams’ setting: Bryn Terfel/Malcolm Martineau

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry (Christopher Smart)

Britten’s setting (from ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’): Michael Hartnett/George Malcolm/Benjamin Britten

The journey of the Magi (T.S. Eliot)

Britten’s setting (‘Canticle IV’): Derek Lee Ragin/Philip Langridge/Gerald Finlay/Steuart Bedford

 Other Britten songs:

Let the florid music praise (W.H. Auden): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

The Choirmaster’s Burial (Thomas Hardy): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

At the Railway Station, Upway (Thomas Hardy): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

Ballads:

The Wife of Usher’s Well (Anon.): Martin Carthy (from album ‘Signs of Life’)

Lord Randall (Anon.): Martin Carthy (from album ‘Because It’s There’)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Nick Freeth playing his own ten string cittern made for him by Glasgow luthier Jimmy Moon

Nick was born in London, has been actively involved in music since childhood, and is especially interested in classical and popular English song.

He read English at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, joined the BBC after graduating, and went on have a busy career in music radio production with the Corporation, as Jazz FM’s Senior Producer, and later as a freelance. His BBC commissions included a series for Radio 3 presented by opera singer Robert Tear, shows for Radio 2 and World Service hosted by Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, and a Radio 2 documentary on the British Library’s National Sound Archive. Since 1999, he has been a freelance author, writing extensively about music and American subjects; he also works as an editor and publisher.

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Will the real Helen Mackay please step forward?

17th August 2014

Library of Congress Reading Room

 

 

 

 

Poetry By Heart team member Tom Boughen reflects on the curious case of two Helen Mackays.


If you were part of Poetry By Heart 2013-14, you would know about the brand new First World War poetry showcase, introduced to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the war and containing 50 poets from the UK, France, Poland, Germany and America. One poet we picked for inclusion was Helen Mackay, a Scottish nurse who assisted in the war.

The poem we attributed to her: ‘Train’, tells the story of a father saying goodbye to his children before being sent to fight at the front. It is a poignant poem and it was an emotive experience for everyone in the room to see it performed twice at our national finals.

Imagine our surprise when an email landed in our inbox from the good people at the Scottish Poetry Library, asking about this obscure Scottish poet who seemed to have hidden her poetic soul very effectively, instead working as a highly-respected doctor in London for nearly her whole life. I did a bit of digging around to find that, in one of those odd quirks of well-intentioned research, we’d followed some misleading internet sources and attributed ‘Train’ to the wrong Helen Mackay!

The Scottish Helen Mackay, whom we erroneously believed had written ‘Train’, was born in 1891 in Inverness and made groundbreaking research into dietary deficiency. She died in 1965 and by all accounts lived an extremely accomplished life as a paediatrician and as the first woman to be admitted to the Royal College of Physicians, but had never written a verse!

After this tip off from the Scottish Poetry Library and some rooting around we came across an American, a Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay. As with the Scottish Helen Mackay, her background was in medicine. She had worked as a nurse during the First World War. But a Google search turned up nothing. Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay, the American poet, was far more obscure than Helen Mackay the Scottish paediatrician.

We needed help in our search, and the Library of Congress, at http://www.loc.gov/, turned out to be our new best friends. The Library has a section on their website where you can ‘Ask a Librarian’, an incredibly useful free resource in which you can – you may have guessed – ask a librarian a question relating to anything the Library of Congress might contain in its vast, hallowed halls and golden bookshelves. Search Google Images for the place; it’s an impressive structure as you can see from the image above.

After enquiring about the poet Helen Mackay, we received a reply a week later. This reply was stocked with information – archived copies of her collections of poetry, a New York Times obituary and Mackay’s entry in Lines of Fire, an illuminating book compiling biographies of female writers in the First World War. Through this information, we found out that Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay, writer of ‘Train’ which is found in her collection London, One November, published in 1916 was indeed American, born in 1876. She worked in a Parisian hospital for the length of the war and was a confirmed Francophile, writing narrative sketches of French life and even writing in French herself. The New York Times obituary confirms her fluency in French (and Italian), and names her as a ‘prominent American resident of France’ and especially Paris, where she lived for fifty years. It seems that she must have taken root there after the war and remained until her death in 1961. She was the widow of Archibald Mackay, a member of a New York family with property interests, and seemingly continued her social work in the Second World War.

The American poet Helen Mackay, like many poets on our timeline, lived an exciting, eventful life worthy of a novel or poem of its own. And in common with many of those writers on our timeline, her life was steeped in literature borne out of social conscience.  It’s been fascinating to find out who she really was; thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library and the Library of Congress for helping us along the way.

 

 

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Summer Student Challenge

2nd July 2014

As the end of another summer term and another academic year approaches we know that English Departments are  always thinking of ways in which students can be encouraged to widen their reading over the holiday period. So, here are 6 ideas that make use of the Poetry By Heart website, inviting students to explore the online anthology of 200+ poems and preparing them, we hope, for enthusiastic participation in the 2015 competition.

 

Poetry By Heart – 6 Summer Holiday Activities for Students

1)   Listen to a poem
Yes, really.  Just listen to a poem.  Go to the Poetry By Heart website and click on ‘A selection from the finals’.  Sit back and enjoy the eight videos of last year’s competition finalists reciting poems.

2)   Listen to some more poems!
Explore www.poetryarchive.org and find a remarkable archive of poets reading their poems and also contemporary poets reading classic poems.

3)   Read a poem
Go to the Poetry By Heart website www.poetrybyheart.org.uk and read a poem. There are over 200 poems on the website from the year 1000 to 2014.  Go to the Anthology section and then either:

– use the Random Activity ‘Lucky Dip’ button or
– scroll through and pick a poet you like the look of or
– select the filter option from the top right and choose one of the topics you like the sound of or
– type a random word into the search box in the top right and see what comes up.

4)   Bring a poem to life
Choose a second poem and make it into a work of art.  You could:

– make a collage based on the poem
– transform the poem into a short comic strip or graphic novel or one act play
– make a short film, inspired by the poem.

5)   Write a poem
Write a poem in the style and/or form of one of the poems in the anthology. For example, there are 17 sonnets in the anthology. You can find them by simply typing ‘sonnets’ in the ‘search this site’ box on the homepage. Write your own sonnet and when you are happy with it see if you can learn the 14 lines by heart.

6)   Memorise a poem
This is a challenge but might be easier than you think.  Choose a poem from the Poetry By Heart Anthology and learn it off by heart.  Use the ‘Poetry recitation – developing a strategy’ document from the ‘Resources and Downloads’ section of the website for some top memory techniques.  Entertain your family and friends by reciting your poem and challenge them to learn one too!

If you enjoy these activities get involved in a Poetry By Heart competition at the very start of next term at your school/college and be in with the chance to win a weekend in London!  You will need to learn two poems from the Anthology in order to compete – one from before and one from after 1914 and you will need to be aged between 14 and 18.  Check out those videos of last year’s winners for inspiration and remember that judges will be looking not for the best actor but the reciter who can really share an understanding and heart felt appreciation of their chosen poems with an audience.

Full details of the competition can be found at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk or by emailing the Poetry By Heart team info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.  You can also follow us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/poetrybyheartcompetition and Twitter @poetrybyheart or give us a call on 0117 9055338.

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Poetry By Heart Off To Flying Start

1st July 2014

Poetry By Heart team member Mike Dixon reports on the launch of Poetry By Heart 2015 at the NATE conference in Bristol – June 27th to June 29th 2014.

The magnificent Palm Court within the Bristol Marriott Royal hotel was the setting for the launch of Poetry By Heart 2015 on the second day of a superbly organised and stimulating NATE conference in Bristol.

To have an opportunity to talk about the aims of Poetry By Heart with colleagues from so many different parts of the English teaching sector was invaluable and to be able to enjoy entertaining and thought provoking talks by the likes of Michael Rosen, Anthony Wilson and Christopher Edge, to name but three, was a delightful bonus.

The Poetry By Heart team had hoped for a good audience, cunningly staging the launch immediately after a mesmerising reading by poet and Poetry By Heart judge Patience Agbabi of extracts from her new, Chaucer inspired book, “Telling Tales”. And in a belt and braces approach to attracting a sizeable audience we also tempted delegates with the offer of a glass of refreshing, pre-dinner wine. Even so by the 6.30pm start time of the launch we were still overwhelmed to see more than 150 delegates had gathered to hear more about the competition and to enjoy some recitations. Inspirational co-founders and co-directors of Poetry By Heart, Julie Blake and Sir Andrew Motion talked about the ethos behind the project and the way in which more and more schools and colleges of all kinds are embracing the competition. Sir Andrew recited a Hardy poem for the audience and read one of his own hauntingly beautiful recent poems, ‘The Fish in Australia’ which can be seen in the Poetry By Heart online anthology.

Patience Agbabi spoke about her experiences as a judge over the last couple of years and how impressed s

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Desert Island Poems

27th June 2014

Julie Blake chooses the eight poems she would take with her to a desert island from the Poetry By Heart anthology.

My “Desert Island Poems” challenge had all the usual problems of narrowing the choice to just eight, though at least I only had 206 poems to choose from and I already knew some so well that they would have been wasted choices. Instead, I’ve chosen poems because I love them but don’t have them by heart, and in my long months of solitude I’ll change that.

My first two poems will remind me of family. My grandmother can probably still recite ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’, the first line of Felicia Hemans’ ‘Casabianca’. Catherine Robson’s history, ‘Heartbeats: everyday life and the memorized poem’, has helped me understand why my grandmother would always break off at this point and mutter darkly about all poetry being rubbish. I should like to be able to finish the poem for her. Meanwhile, my grandfather left Scotland at a young age to find his fortune in London; only when he went back at the age of 72 to marry his second wife did he start celebrating Burns night but he died soon after and I’ll never know whether he had a poem. I’ll take ‘Ae fond kiss’ with me and make sure I do. Though the BBC’s recording of Alec Salmond reciting ‘A man’s a man for a’that’ is so gorgeous I may need that as my luxury.

The Scottish connection continues though it’s less about roots and much more about sound: Louis MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’. I’m a sucker for strongly metrical rhyming poetry – always have been, always will be, and I’m not going to apologise for it now! And it’s funny…

I didn’t know the next two poems at all before Poetry By Heart. Poets Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland selected the anthology and I guided them in avoiding curriculum clunkers and making sure the timeline was balanced. Charlotte Smith’s ‘On being cautioned…’ duly entered as a must-have sonnet. Its setting is Beachy Head, a place I know well having taught for ten years next door to the hospital to which the suicides are helicoptered. The poem will remind me of the pleasures of teaching – and the madness of walking on headlands. Meredith’s poem simply took my breath away with its super-saturated darkness.

My sixth poem has a different kind of darkness. I taught ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ many times and, being a bigger fan of Margaret Atwood’s poetry than her fiction, always started with her poem ‘Notes towards a poem that can never be written’, dedicated to Carolyn Forché. Forché’s poems can be unremitting in their gaze on the horror of our times, and ‘The Colonel’ is especially so. Jennifer O’Sullivan’s performance of it at the 2014 finals is one I’m sure I’ll never forget.

My final two poems will remind me of Poetry By Heart as they are written by two of our poet-judges. I adore tricky forms and Patience Agbabi’s ‘Josephine Baker Finds Herself’ makes me grin with delight at its technical accomplishment, the second half of the poem a delicious mirroring of the first. And, oh, those Brixton nights…

I can hardly believe how much Poetry By Heart has achieved three years after Andrew Motion and I first talked about it: it’s been immensely hard work by a committed team but also such intense pleasure in hearing young people share the poems they’ve loved and learned. My final choice is Andrew’s new poem ‘The fish in Australia’.  I’ve heard him read it twice and now always hear the cadences of his voice in it. I might learn this one silently and keep it that way.

So if you get the call from the Kirsty Young of the poetry world, which eight poems would you take to keep you company on your sun-kissed desert island?

Julie’s choices

Casabianca (Felicia Hemans)
Ae fond kiss (Robert Burns)
Bagpipe music (Louis MacNeice)
On being cautioned… (Charlotte Smith)
Lucifer in starlight (George Meredith)
The colonel (Carolyn Forché)
Josephine Baker finds herself (Patience Agbabi)
The fish in Australia (Andrew Motion)

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