Poetry By Heart Blog

International Dylan Thomas Day

12th May 2015

Dylan Thomas – Writing Shed Laugharne. Image Courtesy of Heather Cowper www.heatheronhertravels

A very popular choice this year in the post 1914 section of the Poetry By Heart anthology was Dylan Thomas’ 1934 poem, ‘The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower’ http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-force-that-through-the-green-fuse-drives-the-flower/ Our evaluation of the 2015 competition suggests that this poem was comfortably in the top quartile of poems selected for recitation. As we approach the first ever international Dylan Thomas Day, poet Martin Daws offers some thoughts on the enduring popularity of Thomas’ verse. Martin writes:

 

Few modern poets are so widely known as Thomas, or so widely liked and even fewer are so pleasurable to read out loud.

Let’s look at the fourth line of Thomas’ verse play, ‘Under Milk Wood’ in which he speaks of the wood limping down to the:

‘sloeblack, slow, black, crow black, fishingboatbobbing sea’

What a line to memorise and read out loud! It’s a nursery wall of word plays, repetitions, alliterations, internal rhymes, surprise punctuation book-ending unexpected word mergers that combine to create a rising, effervescent music that swells like the sea it describes. This is one fun line of poetery. I can imagine him smiling when he read back over it, rolling it round his mouth, savouring it, like a vintner, taking a craftsman’s pleasure as he sculpted it in to the baritones of his famously resonant reciting voice.

This is spoken word poetry at its best combining the intimate eye of the writer with the lyrical ear of the musician: the two become one in the mouth of the poet or the actor. Many people will know Richard Burton’s famous performance of ‘Under Milk Wood’. You can hear the opening section here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2a6zCR-ycs

Together the poetry and voice combine in a euphonic South Walian symphony of slow drawn warmth inducing a dream like lucidity. This is where word meaning and word sound intersect to make more than their respective parts. This is where poetry comes to life for me; where I find my feeling in it.

A little personal theory with a touch of poetic licence: words are abstract, right?  The word ‘chair’ isn’t a chair – it’s an abstract representation that we understand means a chair. When we hear the word ‘chair’ we perceive it as both an abstract but also a sound and the sound carries its own set of meanings – is it loud, quiet, gentle, angry? Okay, chair is a very neutral word and it’s hard to imagine a ‘chair like’ sound but compare that to the potential in a word like ‘slow’.

The part of Dylan Thomas’ poetry that I respond to best is his exceptional ability to create a fusion of word sounds and their meanings which at its best creates new, holistic word meaning infused with musical feeling; that’s where the poetry is.

About the author:

Performance poet Martin Daws was appointed Young People’s Laureate for Wales in April 2013. Currently very active in this role, Martin works across Wales to engage and inspire young people to empower themselves through their creativity. As Young People’s Laureate Martin also represents Wales internationally; creating partnerships and sharing skills with other socially engaged poetry organisations and practitioners around the world.

For more information about Martin visit: http://www.martindaws.com/

 

 

 

Blog editor Mike Dixon from Poetry By Heart adds:

Literature Wales have provided with us with further information about International Dylan Thomas day and the range of exciting events taking place in May including activities aimed at young people..

All over the UK, online, and from New York, Brussels, New Zealand and Italy people will be celebrating the magic of Thomas’ poetry through a series of walks, talks, readings and exhibitions.

Cerys Matthews MBE, Welsh singer, songwriter, author and broadcaster says: “I’ve enjoyed celebrating Burns Night over the years and often wanted to celebrate Dylan Thomas in the same way – at last there is a date in the diary for Dylan Day. Why not raise a glass to this little great man every year on 14 May and enjoy the chance to savour the brilliance of his work by reading out excerpts and throwing a party, wherever you are!”

How to get involved in the celebrations?

If you are aged between 7 and 25 years old you can submit up to four lines of poetry (in English or Welsh) inspired by the theme ‘our community’ to Dylan’s Great Poem – an international appeal to create a new 100 line–bilingual poem inspired by Thomas’ words.  To submit visit www.developingdylan100.co.uk. The new poem will be revealed on 19th May, and performed live at the Hay Festival.

Get involved on Twitter by taking a photo of yourself reading Dylan in unusual places using the hashtag #DylanSelfie

Take part in one of the many events, walks, readings taking place, including:

‘Take away poems’ by Martin Daws, Young People’s Laureate of Wales, from the Dylan Thomas Writing Shed outside the St David’s Centre in Cardiff on 14 May

The first public display of Dylan Thomas’ notebook at Swansea University.  Bought by the University in 2014 for £104,500

An opportunity to listen to recordings of Dylan’s work from the audio archive of 92Y in New York – the 2014 reading of Under Milk Wood starring Michael Sheen and Kate Burton, and an excerpt from the 1953 premiere, with Thomas himself in the cast. www.92y.org/dylanday

Oxford ‘Walk on the Welsh Side’

Literary Pub Tour in Fitzrovia, London

‘A Dylan Odyssey’ – a collection of Thomas-inspired literary tours will be published by Graffeg.

To find out more about all the events taking place visit www.literaturewales.org.uk/dylan-day/

International Dylan Thomas Day is organised by Literature Wales and funded by the Welsh Government

Share via

Memorisation, Recitation and the Muslim Tradition

10th May 2015

 

A boys’ hifz class – north east London mosque. Photo: Bill Gent Used with permission.

Being involved in an organisation and a project like Poetry By Heart can be both an exciting and rewarding experience. For, watching the process through which young people commit passages of literature to memory, learn to live with it ‘inside’ themselves, and then stand up in performance in order to recite to others, stirs both head and heart.

 

But, there are other traditions of memorisation and recitation too, which are driven by their own histories, dynamics and expectations. Such a tradition is that of hifz committing the whole of the Qur’ān to memory – within the Muslim community.

The sound of the Muslim Qur’ān

‘The Qur’ān (Koran) is the sacred book of Muslims.’ Such a statement is indisputable … or is it? In one sense ‘yes’, but in another, ‘no’. In school RE pupils often learn to think of the Qur’ān as one example of the category ‘sacred books’. The resultant mental imagery is then obvious: a book consisting of pages of text of Arabic which is, of course, written from right to left. But, unstartling though this might seem, this does a great disservice to the place of the Qur’ān in the experience of Muslims across the ages. For, digging deeper into Islam reveals that the prime experience of the Qur’ān for Muslims is as sound. Indeed, fieldworkers in Islamic societies have observed, the sound of the Qur’ān is omnipresent in Muslim societies: it comes from the radios of taxicabs, from recordings played in open-fronted shops, from schools and mosque classrooms. Even the hallowed call to prayer (the adhan) might be heard from several minarets at once in the lead-up to prayer times. Yes, indeed, as one American scholar has put it, ‘The Qur’ān, to be the Qur’ān, has to be heard’.

But this aural quality of the Qur’ān is not just a consequence of its multi-layered use in Muslim society: it is part of its essential quality. To understand this means going back to the beginnings of the Islamic religion and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (570 – 632 CE). At the age of 40, Muslims believe, Muhammad had a life-changing experience in which the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) revealed to him the first words of the Qur’ān. Muhammad then committed these words to memory in order to recite them to other members of the first Muslim community in Makkah. Such revelations continued for the remaining 23 years of his life and it was during the month of Ramadan each year, it is said, that he rehearsed everything that he had already memorised. And, by the time of his death, many others within the early Muslim community had also memorised the revelations and recited them, often with great beauty and finesse, so that others could do likewise. This body of memorised and recited material constituted the Qur’ān, an Arabic word that means ‘recitation’. It was only later that the memorised material was gathered together to form a book, but this has always been secondary to the recited Qur’ān.

The chain of transmission

Thus we have the central place of memorisation and recitation within Islam, but more than this: we also have the start of a chain of transmission through which, from one Muslim generation to the next, not only the words that were revealed to Muhammad were passed on but also the sound of those words being recited. Moreover, in being memorised in Arabic (the Qur’ān is not the Qur’ān unless it is in the original language of revelation), it was embodied in the bodies and lives of the memorisers. Indeed, in the West African Muslim tradition, those who have memorised the whole Qur’ān are sometimes called ‘walking Qur’ans’.

To the present day, all Muslims will learn parts of the Qur’ān in Arabic; its recitation is both needed and vaunted in everyday Muslim life. During each of the five daily times of prayer (salat), for instance, pious Muslims recite passages from the Qur’ān out loud, particularly its opening words (al-Fatihah). There is no tradition of silent reading within the Muslim community: even when recited in private, the words will be sounded on the lips.

Within the historical Muslim community, there have always been those who have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to memorise the Qur’ān. Still to this day, such people might be encouraged to commit the whole of the Qur’ān to memory. And do remember: the Qur’ān, to be the Qur’ān, is in Arabic and the majority of Muslims worldwide are not native Arabic speakers. And remember, again, that this is not only a case of learning the ‘words’ but also of being able to recite them in a beautiful manner, according to tradition. As such, the fullness of the revelation which is the Qur’ān is believed to lie in both its words and the sounds of those words being recited. This has the consequence that, in order to learn the Qur’ān by heart, the learner must sit at the feet of a teacher who can correct mistakes and demonstrate to his/her pupils the appropriate sounding of the Arabic words.

The memorisation of the whole Arabic Qur’ān which consists of 30 larger sections (juz), themselves comprising 144 smaller chapters (surahs), is an extraordinary mnemonic achievement and those who achieve this have been likened to elite athletes. Such people are given the honorific title hafiz (male) or hafiza (female) but no-one knows how many huffaz (the plural term) there are in the word today, though Muslims often talk in terms of millions. Even so, it is certain that many British Muslim students who go to state or private school during the day will then also go on to mosque classes each weekday evening (and sometimes before school too) in order to complete hifz – the memorisation of the whole Qur’ān, a task that might take three or four years.

You can’t retire as a hafiz

On achieving hifz, there will be family and mosque celebrations for the Muslim boy or girl (or man or woman, for there is no age limit). But, in one sense, achieving hifz is not the end: it is also the beginning. For huffaz are then expected to retain their memorisation, so that it can be called to the front of memory at a moment’s notice, for the rest of their lives. Huffaz adopt different ways of keeping their Qur’anic memories alive – through a daily period of recitation at home, perhaps, or quietly reciting a passage of the Qur’ān on the way to and from work. But, if they find that they are struggling in this, then the month of Ramadan comes to their rescue for, during the whole of this month, additional late night prayers (tarawih) consist of the male congregation gathering together as, at the front of the often very large gathering, one or several huffaz in turn, recite a whole thirtieth section of the Qur’ān. And those who have also memorised that particular Qur’anic section are duty bound, if the reciter makes an error at a particular point, to interrupt and recite correctly so enabling the main reciter to correct himself and then continue on. In light of this, huffaz will make sure that they have rehearsed the passage for the particular day, working with another memoriser, perhaps, to identify where difficulties in wording and sounding might be met. Ramadan, then, is not only a month of fasting but is also a month of intense reading and revision.

Poetry by Heart and Qur’anic Memorisation

So, to begin where we started. There are many traditions of memorisation and recitation. In the same way as there is an annual Poetry by Heart competition leading to finals, there are also, throughout the Muslim world, Qur’anic recitation competitions. There are famous reciters, too, many of whom will be able to recite the Qur’ān in one of the several dialect forms (qira’at) in which it was passed down. The Internet has also come to play its part in each context: Poetry by Heart competitors can hear their chosen poems being read out loud by others in the same way that Muslims can hear, and be inspired by, famous Qur’anic reciters – many of them Egyptian – on CD or on YouTube. And, in each case, perhaps, the end-result is the stirring image of a human being, often young in years, who has dedicated immeasurable time and energy in order, with beauty and meaning, to recite to others. Indeed, as Andrew Motion says on the Poetry by Heart website, recitation – perhaps in all its many forms – creates both ‘an excitement and a dare’.

 

For further reading

Gent B (2011) ‘But You Can’t retire as a Hafiz: fieldwork within a British hifz class’, Muslim Education Quarterly, 24: 1 & 2, 55-63

Gent, B (2011) ‘The world of the British hifz class student: observations, findings & implications for education & further research’, British Journal of Religious Education, 33:1, 3-15

Gent, B (2015) ‘The Hidden Olympians: the role of huffaz in the English Muslim community’, Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life

Nelson, K (2005) The Art of Reciting the Qur’ān, New York: American University in Cairo Press

 

Dr Bill Gent is an Associate Fellow of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU) and editor of ‘Professional REflection within RE Today, the journal of the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE). billgent49@yahoo.co.uk

 

 

Share via