Poetry By Heart Blog

Poetry By Heart and a View from Russia

20th February 2015

Mariano Mantel – Kremlin seen from the Patriarchal Bridge Creative Commons

Moscow State Institute of International Relations student, Nellie Olphert, offers some thoughts on the fate of poetry and memorisation in Russia.

 

‘…And with the human race anew

I am family through you.’

‘My Journey’ by Olga Adamova-Sliozberg (1902-1991)

 In Russian by heart  is naizust which roughly means “coming from the lips”. I would say that the etymology carries an implication of words emerging from the depths of one’s personality. And memorised verse does, figuratively speaking, become dissolved in one’s blood, ideally merging with its new “owner”.

The reproduction of such cultural phenomena halts when the social demand for them falls. When a society stops memorising poetry, the latter ceases to appear and exist in the way it used to and could. In Russia the vitality of rhyme, metre or vers libre never really faded, and even less so – the mnemonic culture. It is partly the result of the great tradition of the so-called Russian ‘literature-centrism’.

Formed only towards the close of the XVIII century, Russian secular poetry is relatively young (oral folk tradition is yet another story). Its Golden age was seen at the beginning of the XIX century. Back then poetry was at the heart of things; both a craze and a blessing, it led to verse memorisation piercing all spheres of life, public and private: from nursery rooms and finishing schools to grand saloons and ballrooms. It mirrored the entire palette of human emotions and currents of thought. That meant endless reading and creating, sharing in friendship albums, declamation amongst friends and in public, quoting and recognising quotations in everyday speech, since memorised poetry is also a socially significant recognition symbol: of likeness, unity, learning, etc. Poets were, in the words of Alexander Pushkin, the “rulers of minds”. Numerous forbidden (most commonly for political reasons) texts circulated on scraps of paper in pencil and were instantaneously memorised and spread onwards. Before the Decembrist uprising Pushkin’s unpublished verses continued to exist in the minds of just about every insurrectionist. The interest for poetry during the ensuing years resembles a sine wave up to the October revolution when a “flip” of the social strata occurred and an entire unique class of people was swept away – an irretrievable loss.

Young Pushkin taking his first exam before the great poet Derzhavin (1815)

The Bolsheviks at first proclaimed learning by heart a form of bourgeois oppression, but soon the “right” poems were selected, that is, those containing criticism of the tsarist absolute monarchy. Many of them were the very ones prohibited during the XIX century. Literature in the Soviet times was one of the most important subjects at school, present in the schedule from the first to the last year, and learning verse by heart was its part and parcel. Though phrases from popular films were an infinitely greater part of the vernacular, children throughout the country could be heard bantering with each other using crammed excerpts from verse and prose, and any girl that finished eight classes of a Soviet school could recite Tatiana’s letter (“Eugene Onegin”) from memory and not forget her lines after the first quatrain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=6_kyjggnwLU

Both the dominant and the dissident cultures used verse as a weapon in the battle for human minds. It is a double edged weapon, since truly great poetry is what Umberto Eco called an “open work”: an invitation to collaborate, to activate the potential of one’s cogitative faculties to the limit. Memorised poetry creates the “citadel of the mind” which, in my subjective opinion, happens to be its vocation and most genuine form of existence.

The penalty for the diffusion of forbidden texts became incomparably harsher than it was in the tsarist days. As a result, literature, and poetry in particular due to its inherent characteristics, became of an exceptional value – life was at stake. The story of Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem “Requiem” is very characteristic. (Her poem  In Memoriam, July 19, 1914 can be read in the Poetry By Heart First World War showcase – http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-july-19-1914/)  The first “drafts” of ‘Requiem’ were created as Akhmatova spent seventeen months, day after day, waiting in prison queues in Leningrad after her son was arrested by the secret police; one day a woman behind her whispered:  ‘Could one ever describe this?’ and Akhmatova answered, ‘I can.’ But she had to keep it locked in her head for around 25 years before she allowed herself to trust paper with it.

Kuzma_Petrov-Vodkin.Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (1922) Public Domain 

The mémoires of former GULAG inmates contain numerous testimonies of poetry’s significance for human survival – for the preservation of mental health and the private inner world, since the sole space of freedom that is undividedly one’s own lies in the mind. The mnemonic nature of poetry gives its “possessor” the sensation of freedom and at times even of independence from life’s vicissitudes. GULAG camps were in a sense the best poetry school – no-one would commit your verse to memory if they sensed a single false note. The first anthology of GULAG prisoners’ poetry was published in 2005.

Evgenia Ginzburg in her book ‘Journey into the Whirlwind’ describes the first meeting with her son – the future writer Vasily Aksyonov – since his arrest: ‘I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps. Like me, he too found in poetry a bulwark against the inhumanity of the real world. Poetry was for him a form of resistance. That night of our first talk together we had Blok and Pasternak and Akhmatova with us…Now I understand what a Mother is – you can recite your favourite verses to her, and if you stop she will go on from the line where you left of.’

Today poetry surrounds most of us from our very birth, here and there on different levels, so memorising at times is really recalling or putting lines together. That also has to do with Russian literature’s high level of intertextuality. And once it’s learnt it’s quite impossible to forget. Our greatest poets captured things most vital and stirring in ingenious ways; these thoughts and means of expressing them are profoundly Russian (or rather they actually shaped and formulated what Russian truly is and should be…) and at the same time universally existential.

 

A Ukrainian and a New Zealander by descent, Nellie Olphert was born in Moscow in 1994. She is currently studying international journalism and public relations at Moscow State Institute of International Relations and will be graduating later this year with a thesis on dissident media in the Soviet Union.

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Planning the Unplanned Lesson – Poetry by Heart in the Classroom

12th February 2015

Pietro Zanarini 2010 How to Mind Map – Creative Commons

Poetry By Heart Regional Development Coordinator for the North West, Karen Lockney and Head of English, Susie Cooke at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Penrith discuss the lesson that refused to be planned!

 

Walking into a classroom about to teach a lesson you know you could have spent longer planning, is obviously not the best thing to do with Year 10 last thing on a Friday. Yet this lesson was deliberately unplanned (beyond the most skeletal of outlines). It’s lack of potential to be planned was part of the lesson’s very concept – it offered risk and, like risks tend to do, it offered opportunity.

The aim was to use Poetry by Heart web resources to introduce pupils to poems that would be ‘unseen’ to them, but crucially ‘unseen’ to us as teachers also. We would look at poems that neither we nor the class were likely to have seen before, and try to read and respond to them together. ‘We’ll read poems with you’, we said, ‘but be warned, we might not be able to tell you exactly what they mean, we might not even be able to fully understand them yet ourselves’.  They didn’t look 100% convinced.

However our intention was to develop confidence in dealing with unseen poems as part of their exam preparation. Their views on such questions are probably not atypical: ‘We might not understand it’, ’What if we don’t find the correct meaning?’ There it is, the ultimate fear that a poem has a ‘correct meaning’ to be teased out, and even worse, teased out in the pressure of an exam room. The idea of the ‘unseen’ poem may pose a particular challenge as classes cannot be prepared in the same way as they are for named anthology poems, for instance.

We showed the class the Poetry by Heart online anthology. It has a fantastic feature called ‘random dip’ (clearly accessible in a yellow box on the home page). Press this and any one of  over 200 poems will appear. True, we know some of the poems on the timeline, but we agreed that we’d be honest about this and tell the pupils if we had a significant head start. In fact the first poem generated was ‘Blackout’ by Grace Nichols which neither of us knew.  The poem was read out and the pupils were simply asked to note down and discuss images which leapt out to them, which we then discussed together. The overall context did not present itself straightaway, but most of us immediately felt a powerful mood of danger, and we honed in on images and language which gave us that feeling.

All well and good so far, but we were keen to move on. This was all going to be light touch, emphasising the idea that encouraging confidence with poetry comes with frequent exposure that is sometimes very light touch indeed, ‘little and often’ poetry reading, vehemently denying the urge to analyse every poem to within an inch of its life. Easier said than done though, as we realised when we got ready to generate the next poem and one girl said, ‘But what does this Nichols one mean?’, pen in hand, ready to scribble our pearls of wisdom down. Our response seemed counter-intuitive: ‘We aren’t entirely sure yet, but we are interested in going back to it later’. It’s more difficult than we might think to tell a pupil directly that we aren’t going to tell them the answer because we don’t know it ourselves yet, but this was at the crux of what we hoped to illustrate.

We then used the timeline filter (click ‘filter timeline’ in the grey bar at the top of the anthology page). With a glee for the macabre the pupils chose  the ‘Nasty Ends’ category and then ‘How to Kill’ by Keith Douglas. We spent longer on this poem, asking each group to learn a 4 line stanza by heart, putting these together so we had a fairly informal class recital. They made light work of this, and it allowed us to ask them more about their own stanza, and what they noticed in those they heard from others. We talked about whether their increased intimacy with the poem had developed understanding. Some very powerful personal responses emerged about humanisation within the dehumanisation of war. Pupils tentatively offered readings and were asked to justify them. ‘But I’m just not sure if I’m right’, insisted one girl, and we encouraged her to see that could well be an A* type of comment to make, provided the justification was there, and it was. Some of us thought the weapon in the poem a grenade, others a rifle. Which was ‘the right answer’ ? We debated this, searched for clues, wondered how we’d feel in an exam offering our thoughts. A great feature of the anthology is that there are some fantastic notes under each poem, just enough to give pointers and direct further thought. Having decided it would be OK in the exam to suggest either possibility about the weapon, we looked together at the notes. Lo and behold, they suggest there isn’t clarity in the poem. The right answer was that there was no right answer. In terms of the lesson, this was a godsend; we couldn’t have planned it better if we had planned it.

This was the first of regular, sporadic lessons with the ‘little and often’, ‘light touch, deep meaning’ approach, and they will of course complement other lessons where pupils spend much more time with poems, often in more structured contexts. But this sort of risky, ‘let’s see what we get’ lesson does, we feel, have its place to raise confidence with  poetry, to take it off its pedestal a bit, allowing the brilliance of lines, images, ideas within poems to shine briefly and randomly, and to allow fresh, personal response to emerge with increasing confidence.

From left to right: Karen Lockney, Andrew Forster, Poet and Literary Officer, Wordsworth Trust and Chair of Judges for the Cumbria Final; Susie Cooke and Nikhil Choudhury, Cumbrian Champion and Year 10 student at Susie’s school.

 

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Teesdale School and Poetry By Heart

1st February 2015

Chair of Judges author Anne Fine

Teesdale English teacher Cassie Flint reflects on the use of Poetry By Heart in the classroom.

 

Teesdale School had a great start to the competition with the delightful presence of award winning author Anne Fine as our chief judge. She had some really inspirational comments to make about our students and hopefully this will help them in the next round. We also had an international judge as a colleague was visiting from Pakistan, where the oral tradition remains remarkably strong and recitation of poetry  is, for many students, a daily experience.

Teesdale competitors and judges

Our school is partnered with a school in Abbottabad which is in the north west of Pakistan where I visit each year. Each day  begins with a recitation of a passage from the Qu’ran. As a result of being a judge on the competition, Rafia Naz, our partner from Pakistan is going to be running a Poetry by Heart competition in the school in Abbottabad. The national poet of Pakistan is Allama Iqbal and he is much loved, as we love Shakespeare. Here is one of his poems

 

 

The Age of Infancy

 

The earth and sky were unknown worlds to me

Only the expanse of mother’s bosom was a world to me

Every movement was a symbol of life’s pleasure to me

My own speech was like a meaningless word to me

During infancy’s pain if somebody made me cry

The noise of the door chain would comfort me

Oh! How I stared at the moon for long hours

Staring at its silent journey among broken clouds

I would ask repeatedly about its mountains and plains

And how surprised would I be at that prudent lie

My eye was devoted to seeing, my lip was prone to speak

My heart was no less than inquisitiveness personified

Recitation by girls at the school in Abbottabad

We had prepared for our Poetry by Heart competition by having an extra session of our weekly Poetry Club: in one of these we decided to do a Memory Workshop, chiefly to help our entrants to think about which ways would work best for them in the task of memorising poetry. The main technique we tried was the use of the ‘memory palace’ which  works both visually and by association – and it seemed to work for our students . Here are some useful sites if you are interested in finding out more. We took the verse we were trying to remember and found an image from the first line and made that image as ridiculous and as larger than life as we could, so for example, in Mary Robinson’s Female Fashions for 1799 ( from the Poetry by Heart Anthology) when the first line is

A form, as any taper, fine;

it would make me think of a form, the ones I had to leapfrog over as a primary school child, brown varnished wood and little rounded rubberised feet which cushioned it on the floor- this one would be very bendy and it would be standing on the path outside my front door.

Then, inside the front door there would be a very long thin taper, made of white wax and attached to its side was a massive parking ticket – with that black and yellow edging to it- telling me I had got a fine…..and so it goes on as you construct a whole building ( or palace) within which the strong visual images from this poem will be contained.

Usually in our Poetry Club we do something which we’ve named ‘Wild Writing’ where we devise different ways in which to write poetry both individually and collaboratively. We are a mixed group, though usually sixth form students and a few teachers. One of the early experiments we tried was to do this:

  • Select One from :
  • Playing with the idea
  • Experience
  • Concept
  • Narrative

and then having identified  a ‘way ‘ to write we then came up with a list of words. Our first ones were: element, bus, oak and yellow. We then wrote poems using these parameters.

We also tried our hand at writing song lyrics, writing two lines each, a villanelle and found inspiration from the poetry of the Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik ( whom we have recently discovered).

Here is one of our collaborative ones;

My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,

striding out along the midnight sidewalk:

I am painted in navy blue and the

thin strips of luminescence cast down by the moon.

The calm footfall is a son

only I hear.

Lately though we have been looking through the Poetry by Heart timeline and selecting ones to read and give our reactions to as we prepare for the next round of the Poetry by Heart Competition.

 

Memorising poetry

TED talk on memory

How to use a memory palace

 

Cassie Flint

I have been an English teacher for many, many years and throughout all the changes I have seen, the one constant in all my English teaching has been my love of poetry. I have written myself since I was a young girl and maybe, being the daughter of a novelist, in a way encouraged me. I grew up in St.Ives in Cornwall at a time when there were great artists there and I met them as my father’s friends. For that reason too the sea and the literature which asks the big questions in life appeal to me.  In my later years I have begun to travel and have been lucky enough to be part of a British Council Connecting Classrooms Project which takes me to Pakistan and to work in a school there each year. You might be interested in an article I published on my last visit: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/jan/07/schools-taliban-power-of-education

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