Poetry By Heart Blog

Poems Pictures and Prophecy

14th March 2016

Blake

(America a Prophecy 1793 Copy E Library of Congress electronic edition)

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up;
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry’d.
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst;
Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years;
Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge;
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.
Singing. The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.

Chris McCabe’s blog “Poetry Comics” prompted me to write something about William Blake’s prophetic book “America”, in particular, the verses on the illuminated page above.

I can’t remember when I first came upon the poetry of William Blake. It may have been as early as primary school with some of the lyrics from “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”. I seem to have a very early memory of ‘The Tyger and’ of ‘The Chimney Sweep’. Whenever it was, it was the beginning of a bit of an obsession with the man and his works. I’m not alone, of course. It seems that when people want to reference ideas of the “other”, the mystical, wild and strange they reach for Blake. The extraordinary deconstructed Western “Dead Man” being a relatively recent example.

I have chosen the text above because it is illustrative of a sort of shock and surprise concerning Blake that I myself experienced way back in the early years of the 1970s. I was studying at the University of Manchester and one of our lecturers advertised a talk on Blake incorporating colour slides from his prophetic books. This was a time before the ready availability of colour reproductions of Blake’s books. At that time I was familiar with just a few pieces of Blake’s art – the illuminated “Songs.” and student posters of “Glad Day”, “Urizen creating the World” but with few other examples. What I saw shocked me. The pictures were not at all like the pretty Georgian gothic pages of Songs of Innocence. True, there were again those neoclassical nude figures flying through the pages, but also there were monsters, aggression, violence and raw, often crude depictions – in fact, it was all somewhat like the pulp comic books of 1950s America. Flying, angry superheroes confronted deconstructed Biblical-looking patriarchs amid flames. There were dancing and swooning maidens, gesturing heroes but also darkness, pulsating brains and planetary globes of blood.

In the picture above we have a relatively tame example of one of Blake’s illuminated pages. Uncoloured versions make his etching techniques even more startlingly evident. Blake took great joy in his artistic methods and he directly linked his physical etching, engraving and printing techniques to intellectual perceptions about the nature of reality and God. I am quite sure that he was just as proud and aware of his stippling and hatching lines and marks in the clouds as Lichtenstein was of his enlarged “Ben-Day” dots in the 1960s. The actual artifice of etching is foregrounded and made evident. The blank paper itself is made into clouds and brightness. In the best of Blake’s work he handles the treatment of the words, images and coiling vegetation within the frame of the page as a unity. Here the page is dominated by a resurrected figure. His physique is brightly lit and stylised with “superman” muscles and a dramatically foreshortened pose. He sits on the road-kill flesh of his own dead body and looks up.

What’s it all about? These verses themselves are from the eighth plate of “America a Prophecy” printed in 1793. Although the poem centres on the colonists’ struggle against the tyranny of Britain, this poem contains very little at all about the real, historical events of the American War of Independence. Instead, some of the characters of the war, Washington, Franklin, Tom Paine, Gates, Hancock and Green and “Albion’s wrathful Prince” are involved in a narrative with Blake’s own mythological figures – Orc, Urizen, Oothoon and Rahab. Like an opera, or like a baroque ceiling painting, figures enact their passions against a background of wonders. Orc – a supernatural figure of violent and terrifying wrathful revolutionary fervour speaks the words on the page above.

What educational use does this excerpt have? It is one of the more quoted sections from Blake’s prophecies. I think that if students were presented only with the text and image above, without any context, the strength and meaning of the words and images would still be enough. Most would recognise the allusions to the Christian Resurrection. The rest of the words are a plain and simple evocation of freedom and the release from suffering – a universal human joy expressed here with simple economy:-

“Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:

Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air:”

…………..

“And let his wife and children return from the opressor’s scourge;

They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.”

Delving a little deeper, we might ask students to consider the versification, the symbolism and simple personification – “the linen”… “the clay” … “the slave” … “The Sun has left his blackness”.. “the fair Moon rejoices”…. “Empire”….“the Lion”…. “the Wolf”… (notice that these don’t get crushed, defeated or slain, they simply “cease”.) We might ask what is a prophecy? Something about the future? Unargued assertion? (“…For everything that lives is holy” …..”All religions are One”) What is the syntax of prophecy? Whose “voice” speaks prophecy – is it the poet or some other? What form do prophetic statements take? Can anyone prophesy?

If the constraints of the syllabus and teaching objectives permit wouldn’t it be great to ask the students to pick a contemporary problem or issue and write their own short prophecy? Illustrate their own street comic verses or graphic novelette? Learn some of Blake’s lines and practise declaiming them? Experience the exaltation of expressing a prophetic vision! Does it have any meaning or value still in our troubled and postmodern age?

 

Phil TAbout the Author: Phil Tomlinson lives in Hastings on the South Coast. He is a retired, former teacher of English and Media Studies and Deputy Head of a secondary school. He now coaches French undergraduates in English language in preparation for examinations to enter the grandes écoles.

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Voices From The First World War

3rd March 2016

3.48pm Orgreave by  BsOu10Eo Creative Commons

3.48pm Orgreave by BsOu10Eo Creative Commons

On March 19th 2016 at Homerton College 41 young people will recite poems chosen from the Poetry By Heart World War One showcase. In the run up to this moving event we are delighted to publish an article by Connie Ruzich first seen on her Blog http://behindtheirlines.blogspot.com/  that features two of the poets in our anthology: Robert Graves and Charles Sorley.

On October 5th, 1915, twenty-year-old Charles Sorley wrote to his father describing his time in the trenches outside Loos: “…rain and dirt and damp cold. O for a bath!”  Sorley was known for his love of stormy weather: as a student at Marlborough College, he exulted in wet and windy runs across the trails of Marlborough Downs.   An excerpt from the last stanza of “Song of the Ungirt Runners,” a poem he wrote in early 1915, expresses that passion:

The rain is on our lips,

We do not run for prize.

But the storm the water whips

And the wave howls to the skies.

Eight days after writing to his father, on October 13, 1915, in one of the last attacks of the Battle of Loos, Sorley was shot in the head and died instantly.  In the chaos of the battle, his body was never recovered: he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial, along with 20,609 other British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave.  His poetry was published three months after his death in the slim volume Marlborough and Other Poems. 

In February 1916, Robert Graves, another soldier poet serving in France, wrote to his friend Edward Marsh that he had “just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorley” and that “It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age.”  In 1918 Graves’ published a volume of his own poems, Fairies and Fusiliers: it includes a poem that remembers Charles Sorley and celebrates a life of action.

Sorley’s Weather

WHEN outside the icy rain
  Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain
  Snugly under shelter?
Shall I make a gentle song         5
  Here in my firelit study,
When outside the winds blow strong
  And the lanes are muddy?
With old wine and drowsy meats
  Am I to fill my belly?         10
Shall I glutton here with Keats?
  Shall I drink with Shelley?
Tobacco’s pleasant, firelight’s good:
  Poetry makes both better.
Clay is wet and so is mud,         15
  Winter rains are wetter.
Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,
  For though the winds come frorely,
I’m away to the rain-blown hill
  And the ghost of Sorley.

 

(Robert Graves 1895 – 1985)

 

Tobacco, firelight, and poetry are pleasant and good, but “Sorley’s Weather” urges readers to put down their books and stride out into rough storms on rain-blown hills.  Experiencing the wildness of nature is far better than retreating to the fireside with the Romantics.  Even Percy Shelly’s meditations on nature (“The wilderness has a mysterious tongue/ Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild”) can be left behind on the window sill.  Sorley’s own poem “Rain,” written in 1912, tells readers where to find him:

 

When the rain is coming down,
And all Court is still and bare,
And the leaves fall wrinkled, brown,
Through the kindly winter air,
….
There is something in the rain
That would bid me to remain:
There is something in the wind
That would whisper, “Leave behind
All this land of time and rules,
Land of bells and early schools.

 

For those mourning the dead and remembering the thousands of every day tragedies of the Western Front, it was windswept hills, mud, and winter rain that were best able to summon the ghosts of the men and boys who would never return.  At the start of the Battle of Loos, torrential rains flooded the trenches, and Graves’ poem calls to mind the conditions of the war, as well as the weather that Sorley loved so well in life.

J.R.R. Tolkien, writing about another rover and warrior, wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”  Not long after enlisting, Sorley wrote in a letter home, “Indeed I think that after the war all brave men will renounce their country and confess they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Powell, A Deep Cry).

Connie Ruzich About the AuthorDr. Connie Ruzich is a University Professor of English at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2014, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the ways in which the poetry of the First World War has been used to frame, commemorate, and discuss the war.  She has been teaching language and literature for twenty-two years, and her research examines how language use and practices shape identity.  In her spare time, she enjoys hiking in the woods, listening to obscure bands from the 1980s, and watching goat videos on YouTube. She writes a blog that shares and discusses poetry of World War I, focusing on the lost voices of the war: Behind Their Lines

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Uniting Pleasure With Truth

29th February 2016

'The Yellow Fairy (21st Century Version)' by Elaine flickr Creative Commons

‘The Yellow Fairy (21st Century Version)’ by Elaine flickr Creative Commons

Years ago when I was at school, memorising poetry was considered a bore and a chore; learners were generally indifferent, if not openly hostile, towards the activity. The reasons are obvious to me now; we had no choice in the matter, our teachers showed little enthusiasm for it, and as far as I can recall no one ever challenged our apathy with encouragement or celebration of its potential benefits.

 

As a result, if we thought about it at all, learning poetry seemed a pointless rote exercise. But even at the time I could not deny that once learnt, a poem was permanently lodged in the memory, just like ‘times tables’ we chanted daily. Like it or not, from childhood, I had co-ownership of some elegantly phrased language. Several decades on, I now realise that these ‘lodgers’ rewarded me generously for the trifling effort I made to acquire them; and they keep giving.

What benefits can this ongoing ‘companionship’ have for us? In the early 1960s, I was required to recite poems at local public speaking events. Despite worrying at the thought of being tested on an ability to regurgitate lines I scarcely understood and hardly heard as I uttered them, I found I could readily intone their musicality. Adults seemed impressed with the achievement too.  So, aged seven, I was really chuffed at being (momentarily) the centre of attention as I showcased regular metre and rhyme in poems such as Charlotte Druitt Cole’s The Yellow Fairy. (1) In those days, I enjoyed unsuppressed pleasure at reciting children’s verse under adult scrutiny; today, the feat of recalling it all so vividly, throughout an immense gap in time amazes me!

Discourse about the human condition, experienced through set texts, held my interest and ensured my studies in English Literature felt relevant at secondary school; throughout my teenage years, poetry’s power to express my unarticulated sensibilities – to speak, as it were for me – was empowering. Of course, pupils were still expected to memorise chunks of literature – ironically for the prosaic function of illustrating points in essays, rather than any deep, intrinsic purpose. But by this time I had also discovered and memorised poems that explored themes of love and loss –  new feelings which often seemed overwhelming and induced stunned silence in me. By learning verse by heart, I felt able to demonstrate greater expansiveness; at any moment, I could ‘piggyback’ on articulations that ‘said it’ better than I ever could. As Samuel Johnson observed, poetry offered ‘the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.’(2)

In addition to the more intense ownership of poetry learnt by heart, its durability is impressive. To carry an exceptionally well expressed thought with you through life’s journey is to retain something permanent in an irrepressibly transient world.  It represents something to cling on to in rough times and to celebrate in good; and poetry learned by heart is an extraordinarily ‘unadorned’ and ‘natural’ activity requiring absolutely no props, notes, costumes, stage, – no accoutrements whatsoever. Today, simple antidotes to the exhausting and dispiriting speed and complexity of modern life are popular; ‘mindfulness’ is sweeping the nation as the latest means of calming the mind and raising the spirits. But Learning and reciting poetry to oneself also has the power to soothe and console; and verse lends dignity to emotion. According to John Donne ‘He tames it that fetters it in verse’(3), and by acquiring it, we often understand it more completely and benefit from its abiding instruction and comfort.

British Folk Ballads are an excellent resource for teaching literary concepts to children. Simple language, strong regular rhythms, repeated four line abcb rhyme scheme and incremental repetition (in which a phrase recurs with minor differences as the story progresses) are all wonderfully effective devices to enable a listener to quickly commit verse to memory – as of course was the intention in the oral tradition of which ballads occupy a major part; they are also a useful template for creative writing, with narratives that are often full of tension, drama, mystery, comedy.  The listener/reader is often immediately plunged into a mysterious and dramatic situation, without narrator comment as in the opening of The Unquiet Grave:

Cold blows the wind to my true love

And gently drops the rain

I only had but one true love

And in green wood she lies slain. (4)

 

Ballad narrators usually do not speak in the first person (unless speaking as a character in the story), and often do not comment on their reactions to the emotional content of the ballad. So there is plenty of scope for the speaker and listener to play an active role in performance and interpretation.

My enthusiasm for poetry learnt by heart owes much to the traditional ballad form and I sincerely hope that in over three decades of teaching, I have persuaded at least a few learners that there is much more to memorizing verse than the purpose of passing examinations.

Much more could be said in on this topic but for me the simple pleasure of learning and sharing what Coleridge described as ‘the best words in the best order’ (5) is a form of art – one that it is accessible to us all.

(1)

The Yellow fairy

by Charlotte Druitt Cole

There lived in a laburnum tree
A little fairy fellow,
He wore a feather in his cap,
And he was dressed in yellow.

He sang a song the whole day long
So merry and so clever,
But when I climbed to peep at him,
He flew away for ever.

(2) Samuel Johnson Lives of the Poets 1791

(3) John Donne The Triple Fool (Songs and Sonnets)

(4) “The Unquiet Grave” is an English Ballad in which a young man mourns his dead love too hard and prevents her from obtaining peace. It is thought to date from 1400 and was collected in 1868 by Francis James Child, as Child Ballad number 78

(5) Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria

 

Andy About the author: Andy Revell was born in the small town of Cuckfield to which he returned after an extended sojourn of twenty years living and working in Birmingham (where he was awarded his first Degree in Education), Wolverhampton, Southampton and the New Forest. In addition to teaching, he has had stints working as a postman, factory worker, auctioneer’s assistant, hospital porter, theatre technician and auxiliary nurse.

Andy has taught a variety of subjects at a range of levels including: PGCE, English Language, Literature, Communication Studies, Media Studies, Film Studies, Drama, Integrated Science and Sports Studies having worked full time in seven different establishments over a period of 37 years.

He has 4 children and 4 grandchildren – and is immensely proud of them all!

His hobbies include Local History, Sports, Film, Theatre, Music and perhaps not surprisingly he enjoys reading poetry!

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A View From The Judge

14th February 2016

Surrey competitors anxiously await the Judges’ decision

 

Poetry By Heart is indebted to over a hundred people who make up the judging panels in our county competitions. Novelists, poets, academics, media professionals and members of local communities have the often demanding task of deciding who will be the county champion. In this Blog we hear from Greg Freeman one of the judges in the Surrey competition. This article was first published on the Write Out Loud website on February 11th 2016. www.writeoutloud.net/public/index.php

 

‘Taking the poem inside you’

 

Throughout England secondary school pupils aged 14-18 are standing up to recite in public two poems that they have learned by heart. The regional and county contests for Poetry By Heart, an organisation set up by the former poet laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, are taking place, to find finallists to battle it out next month in Cambridge. I was at the Surrey heat on Wednesday night, as a member of the judging panel, and to hear Mike Dixon, one of Poetry By Heart’s regional coordinators, say that the scheme had been launched four years ago at the National Portrait Gallery. “We weren’t 100% sure that it was going to work. This is not a new idea – it’s a very, very old idea … so there were worries that some people might think it was backward-looking.”

I know that my parents had to learn famous poems by heart at school in the 1920s and 1930s. But Dixon said: “There is a big difference, we think, between learning by rote, and learning by heart – really taking that poem inside you.” Many performance poets up and down the country would second that, of course.

Our chair of judges, novelist and poet Adrienne Dines, who was also a judge last year, agreed. She would be looking for deliveries that were not too dramatic, she said. “I want to see them owning the poem – just letting the poem do the talking.”

Pupils from seven schools took part in the Surrey contest at Woking library. All are required to recite two poems – one pre-1914, and another post-1914 – from an online anthology that you can find here. There is also a selection of first world war poems to choose from as well.

The teenagers delivered poems that included Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, an extract from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’, and others by modern poets including James Fenton, Imtiaz Dharker and Jacob Polley. Wednesday night’s winner, Maya Ahuja-Hofheiz, from Caterham school, recited George Meredith’s ‘Lucifer in Starlight’ (1883) in the first half, and Vicki Feaver’s ‘Judith’ (1994) in the second. The runner-up was William Davies, from Charterhouse school, and Adrienne Dines, in her judges’ comments, also commended the performance of Bobby Hedgeland, from Sunnydown school, whose joy and excitement at being on the stage was wonderful to see. There were very few fluffed lines, and the overall standard was extremely high. Mike Dixon paid tribute to the “passion, support and determination” of teachers who had organised recitation contests in their schools: “I’d like to thank all the teachers in this room today for engaging in this process.”

Wednesday night at Woking library was enhanced by background music in between the performances that was provided by a trio from nearby Winston Churchill school – Adam Grainger (piano), Ben Moore (violin), and Philip Norman (cello).

The national finals of Poetry By Heart will take place at Homerton College, Cambridge, on 18-19 March.

Greg anthology 2

About the Author:  Greg Freeman is a former newspaper sub-editor, who is now news editor for the poetry website Write Out Loud. Last year he published his debut poetry pamphlet collection Trainspotters (Indigo Dreams). In that collection is a long poem –a sestina – called ‘Learning By Heart’, which tells how the poet’s father used a phrase, “that inward eye”, from a poem he had learned by heart at school … Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ – to help him cope with the trauma of being a prisoner of war, working on the ‘Death Railway’ in the far east. You can read the full poem here

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Tom Boughen Has Left The Building…

7th February 2016

Photo by Joe Dunckley www.flickr.com/photos/steinsky/214473113 Creative Commons

Clifton Bridge Photo by Joe Dunckley www.flickr.com/photos/steinsky/214473113 Creative Commons

There have been some tearful farewells in the PBH Office just recently as we have had to say goodbye to Tom Boughen who has been a highly regarded member of our team specialising in administration and marketing. Tom will be moving to London and working for the British Council. Happily he is returning briefly to us at the finals in March. You might have thought we would just let him enjoy watching the finals this year but we’re making him work too! Below you can read some lovely reflections from Tom on his three years with PBH.

I’ve recently accepted a new job in London and will be leaving Poetry By Heart. I’d like to share my thoughts on this competition, having been part of it for nearly three years and directly involved in the highs and lows and laughs and searing frustrations which accompany the life of any arts organisation.

Hopefully I can neatly sidestep any self-indulgence because I feel as if this project has been a success not simply because we’ve worked hard on it, but because teachers, librarians and students wanted it to be. I’ve enjoyed being the voice of the email inbox, the Twitter account, the newsletter and speaking directly to just about everyone who wanted to speak to us.

This is Poetry By Heart’s fourth year. The first year, so I’m told, succeeded on a wing and a prayer. I joined in the second year when everything was a little bit smoother, the budget was a bit bigger and Julie Blake, our great leader, could mould the competition into something that had the potential to really reach people. It’s not our place to say it has, but I like to think so anyway (so much for lack of self-indulgence!).

My defining memory of the second year is catching trains and visiting county contests. I was train-hopping across the country in the bleak midwinter, staring at drowned fields from a fly-encrusted window and staying in identical Travelodges. It was often very cold and very dark except for the evenings where I could step into warm libraries and arts centres and theatres and watch young people making the most of their talent and their voice. The 2014 national final is my defining PBH memory because it felt like the culmination of something big. I realised that this was an exciting place to be and it was actually making some difference to even just a few hundred teenagers who felt strengthened by being able to move an audience with words alone. Matilda Neill was the winner that year and I’ve never heard such silence in a room filled with so many people as I did during her recitation of In Memoriam by the poetic giant Michael Longley.

I was train-hopping far less in Poetry By Heart’s third year thanks to our wonderful regional development team. It’s very rare you ever meet a group of people who are so creative-minded and friendly, and yet simultaneously so practical and resourceful that they can put together a competition like this. The national finals moved to their present location at Homerton College and became infused with a great sense of support and camaraderie fuelled by everyone who works there.

Speaking freely, this competition gets an amount of flak from some quarters. Is it worthless? Is it teaching poetry the ‘wrong way’? I speak only for myself, not on behalf of the competition, not on behalf of my employer. I’ve got an absurd sentimentality for the project and I’m ridiculously biased but I think it’s a bloody fantastic thing at its best. I’ve seen so many students become invigorated with a palpable sense of confidence right there on stage as they successfully reel off a Keats or a Zephaniah. I’ve watched video footage of an interview in which a student from a West Midlands state comprehensive declared, totally unprompted, “this has made me think I could go to university! I could actually do that!” as if he had surprised himself with the realisation. Is it teaching poetry the ‘wrong way’? I personally reject the idea when I’ve seen so much passion from so many young people who are approaching the form for the first time, and are taking the voices of great poets and moulding them in their own style. These words mean something to them.

Incidentally I’ve picked up two poems by heart myself. One is ‘Ozymandias’ (Shelley), the other is the hymn of every disillusioned teenager: ‘This Be The Verse’ (Larkin). If nothing else, it’s an exceptional icebreaker.

Now I’m winding down and I feel like I’m talking more than an Oscar winner. I’m going to self-consciously mumble my thanks to Julie Blake, Kath Lee and Tim Shortis for giving me a shot after a job interview on a grey September afternoon in 2013. Thousands of History university graduates were let loose from university during that month into a frightening world of dwindling employment opportunities. They sat in job interviews, wearing badly-fitted suits and tremulously making a case for themselves. I was a lucky one.

TOMAbout the Author: Tom Boughen was born in Hull and now lives in Bristol, having worked in administration and marketing for Poetry By Heart for three years, and will begin working at The British Council in London in early February. He has a History MA from the University of Bristol, and wrote his thesis about Indian soldiers in the First World War. During his downtime over the summer he likes to go globetrotting, his 2015 jaunt taking him to the USA, Mexico and Cuba. In his spare time in Bristol, he likes to read, write and watch deliberately obscure films.

 

 

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Something to set down. The Journey of the Magi

24th January 2016

Adoration of the Magi. Detail from casket made in Limoges currently housed in the Museum of Scotland. Photo courtesy of Lawrence OP Creative Commons

As many of us recently took down Christmas decorations and cards (the PBH team keeps coming across stray bits of tinsel amongst the office files) we may have noticed how often we saw images of the three wise men. In this guest blog Jorj Kowszun takes a closer look at the legend of these mysterious men through a consideration of one of our anthology poems.

 

The three wise men – the Magi, or often the three kings – are an iconic image of Christmas. They are a very common Christmas card theme and often used in Christmas advertising to alert us to the season: usually they are riding camels, often very stylised, occasionally setting gifts down before the baby Jesus.

All there is about these characters is a short passage in Matthew’s gospel Chapter 2: 1-12 that tells us very little – not even how many of them there were. Yet a whole mythology has built up around them. This includes names, ethnicities and countries of origin. If you visit Cologne Cathedral you will even be shown a golden reliquary that is supposed to contain their bones!

The building of the mythology around the Magi is an expression of a natural desire to give flesh to these enigmatic characters. T.S. Eliot approached their story in his poem “The Journey of the Magi” by exploring that journey from the “inside”. You can hear Eliot reading his poem here on the Poetry Archive website: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi

It is a grittier focus on the hardship of the journey. The uncertainty about their purpose in making the journey. The disturbing effect it had on them and on their lives afterwards – leaving them feeling dissatisfied, out of place, longing for something else.  Maybe even wishing they hadn’t done it.

My wife and I are Strictly Come Dancing fans and the pundits on the show talk regularly about the “Strictly journey” which is a very good description. People join the show and some of them stay only a short time and their journey ends abruptly in disappointment. Others find hidden depths of talent in themselves and stay to the very end. Others still find themselves taken out of the journey earlier than is fair because of the fickleness of the voting public and others stay far too long for similar reasons.

It is for all of them an extraordinary journey, taking them outside their normal pattern of life and inviting them to develop new skills, to manage new relationships, to do something totally different.

The Magi – whoever they were – chose to go on this journey. Their friends and family probably thought they were mad, or at least taking part in a wild goose-chase. But they were following a star – this expression has come in to our language now to mean following a dream or an ambition. They believed the journey was worthwhile and would bring them nearer to something special in this world.

Eliot’s poem gives us a reality check. A stern corrective that says it’s not all running about and having fun. Times will be hard. Often you will question the value of your journey and at the end you will have become a different person and will no longer fit comfortably into your original familiar box.

That’s something to set down perhaps.

JorjAbout the AuthorJorj Kowszun is currently in charge of Mathematics at the University of Brighton. He entered the academic world only a few years ago at a relatively late stage in his life. Before that he ran a successful consultancy business for many years, mostly helping managers in education with improving their strategy and finances. He started his business when he was made redundant from the job of deputy principal following a merger of colleges – while dispiriting at the time, it opened up a whole new range of opportunities! Much of Jorj’s working life has involved the education of 16-19-year-olds.

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The Patterns of Poetry

4th January 2016

Pencil Pattern: John Bugg Photography Creative Commons

Pencil Pattern: John Bugg Photography Creative Commons

There is a pleasure in poetic pains / Which only poets know.

– William Cowper

Mr Cowper got it right. Poetry does appear to involve a lot of pain: for evidence, teachers only have to listen to the collective cry of agony issuing from their classes whenever “poetry” is revealed as the subject for the day. And then, there’s the pain that inspires a lot of it, the pain it often expresses, and last but not least, the pain of having to memorise it. Ouch!

So, what if we wanted to share the pleasure that “only poets know”? One way to help children enjoy that unique tingle is to show them how they can turn the secret keys of the poem, and see how it works. With this knowledge, they need never feel bamboozled by a bard again. Instead, they will feel emboldened and empowered whenever they encounter “some words in a group where the lines don’t reach the other side of the paper”. This, by the way, is my favourite definition of poetry, provided by a Year 7 pupil in my first year of teaching many years ago.

The secret keys of the poem are its patterns. Reading a poem for patterns is only one way to read it, and yes, there will be finer nuances that may not come to light with this reading technique. But, the benefits are great. Patterns are clues to meaning and intention. Patterns highlight the important bits. Patterns give us a way to talk about poetry. And patterns help us learn it too.

Let me give an example. Here are the first two stanzas of a poem I often use with children around 9 – 11. It’s by Charles Causley:

Timothy Winters comes to school

With eyes as wide as a football-pool,

Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

 

His belly is white, his neck is dark,

And his hair is an exclamation-mark.

His clothes are enough to scare a crow

And through his britches the blue winds blow.

The choice of poem is not coincidental. The child in “Timothy Winters” appears to be around the same age as them. Many children of that age are exploring the world wars and evacuation. They might be reading Michelle Magorian’s classic “Goodnight Mister Tom” or even John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”. They may know or be a child suffering neglect. They have a context for the poem and its subject.

Whatever poem is chosen, it must be displayed so that everyone can see it, and so that annotations can be added “live” during what follows. An A3 version centred on a flip-chart page or a copy of the text on an interactive whiteboard is ideal. I only ever reveal this part of the poem (there are another six stanzas) at first, because focus is important to reading for patterns. Modelling is the next step. To model reading takes confidence. You have to articulate and make explicit a usually subconscious and invisible process. But it’s worth it, to show learners what it looks and sounds like when a reader is making meaning from a text. Lots of children don’t know that this is a process, or something that can be learned.

My modelling begins something like this:

“I’m going to read this poem out loud, in a particular way, looking for ANYTHING that might be a pattern. I’ll have to keep going back and re-reading because I won’t spot every pattern at first. Timothy Winters comes to school. No, nothing striking me as a pattern yet. Back to the start. Timothy Winters comes to school / With eyes as wide as a football-pool… hmm, I think I noticed several ‘s’ sounds there. Let me highlight those. Oh, and there’s that ‘oo’ in pool, school and foot. That might be a significant pattern so let me underline all those. Let’s keep going. With eyes as wide as a football-pool / Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters. Well, here’s a pattern of body parts now – I’ll circle eyes, ears and teeth. I’m thinking that can’t be a coincidence. Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters / A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters. Wow, here’s a group of words that all make me think of war or violence – bombs, splinters and blitz…

And so on. In a couple of minutes, the stanzas will be scrawled all over with arrows, notes and highlights. The children will be beginning to put up their hands to say “you’ve missed ‘as’ in the second line – there are two of them” or “there’s a pattern of colours, too”. All potential patterns will be identified, including that wonderful alliteration on the letter ‘b’ in the final line of the second stanza. Later in the lesson, we’ll all pronounce that line with emphasis on the plosive sounds and realise that it makes our lips do a “blowy out” movement, a bit like the cold winds in the poem.

Quickly, I give out copies of the whole poem, and ask the children to carry on with the pattern-spotting technique. Of course, they will usually notice a lot more connections than most adult first-time readers. And then begins the discussion of why these patterns might be important. We’ll be asking questions like “Why might the poet want to use a whole group of words that make us think about war?” or “Is it important that the poem rhymes like this?” They are great questions, and they begin the next stages of the reading process – speculation, inference, analysis and interpretation.

Some poets might take umbrage at their art being pawed over like this, but I have never found a better way to show children how poetry works. And the great thing is, that while they are reading and annotating, they are learning the poem. For a start, they are re-reading and, as any teacher knows, it is almost impossible to get children to re-read anything with purpose, so that is a huge bonus! They are drawing their own attention to its special bits. They are working out how different parts link together. They are finding joy in the repetition and the sounds. They are, without realising it, committing large parts of it to memory, and they are definitely “taking pleasure in poetic pains”.

 

Jane BransonAbout the Author: Jane Branson is an independent learning consultant in East Sussex. She worked for fourteen years in English departments in schools, before spending nine years as a member of the county council’s standards and learning team. She’s been a classroom teacher, an Advanced Skills Teacher, a head of department and a teacher-training tutor. A qualified Philosophy for Children trainer, Jane also writes regularly for Oxford University Press. She’s currently taking a creative writing class, has been the Chair of Governors at a local school for 6 years, and became a parish councillor earlier this year. You can visit her website at http://jbl.strikingly.com/ .

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