13th November 2014
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.