Poetry By Heart Blog

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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