Poetry By Heart Blog

Words on your Wall

8th November 2017

Have you got a poem on your wall? Ana Sampson, poetry anthology editor, shares her words on the wall.

Strange Meetingv2

When I was fifteen, I had words on my wall. Between the pictures of Kurt Cobain, Withnail and Bagpuss I taped up my favourite poems: Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. (I would have felt it necessary to defend the inclusion of Dylan at the time, but a Nobel Prize for Literature is a good passport to the pantheon of poets in anyone’s book.) ‘Fern Hill’ is all beauty, a hymn of pleasure tinged with the delicious ache of a nostalgia I was too young to really understand. ‘Mr Tambourine Man’’s lines about dancing beneath the diamond sky chimed with all the yearning for hedonistic beach parties a landlocked British teenager could muster (a lot). But why Wilfred?

I studied the First World War in class, like generations of school children since that cataclysm. We traced the underlying causes – the webs of European alliances, the scramble for arms, the rallying drumbeat of nationalism – and the fate of Franz Ferdinand. We learnt about the battles, the tactics and the casualties. But it wasn’t until we began to read war poetry that the terrors endured by the men – boys, really, most of them – came alive for me.

The Great War encouraged thousands to put pen to paper, producing plays and novels as well as poetry. Ordinary people turned to writing to process their experiences, and a generation of ‘trench poets’ sprang up almost overnight. In 1916 a canny London publisher printed an anthology called Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men – with a portable lightweight edition for the boys at the Front – and a second volume followed in 1918. Rupert Brooke’s patriotic war poetry and tragic death – from a mosquito bite, rather than in action – set the tone and his 1914 and Other Poems became a runaway bestseller. The disenchanted work of poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Owen found few fans at the time.

After the Armistice in November 1918 most of the war poets stopped writing – nobody wanted to mention the war – and only Brooke continued to sell in any numbers, bringing comfort to a grieving nation. However, at the end of the 1920s controversial memoirs of life in the trenches including Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front began to appear. These books ate away at any remaining illusions about the conflict. The writers whose patriotism turned to horrified disgust in the face of that war’s horrors are the ones whose words touch us most deeply now.

‘Strange Meeting’ is a work of hallucinatory horror. The epic language – vain citadels, blood-clogged chariot wheels, the swiftness of the tigress – evokes the colossal scale of the tragedy. Owen forces the reader to contemplate the squandered value of every one of the millions of lives lost, on both sides. Owen met Sassoon while recovering from shell shock in Scotland – ‘Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were’. Both men longed to close the vast gap of understanding between the troops at the Front and those left behind in Blighty, and ‘Strange Meeting’ is part of that quest. It is an enormous poem, straining with emotion, but written with extraordinary control. The unsettling half-rhymes (swiftness/tigress) and pararhymes (hall/Hell; groined/groaned) are designed to disturb. The time was out of joint; easy rhyme and gentle rhythm would be a betrayal of Owen’s message. The poem is a howl – though it isn’t without beauty: ‘hunting wild’ was a phrase I liked so much, I remember doodling it on my exercise books.

I have edited five anthologies and, each time, I look for poetry that particularly moves me to include. The latest is called Best-Loved Poems, so I was on a mission to gather well-known, familiar verses that readers would remember their own first encounters with, rather than uncover more obscure gems. There are other poems by Owen that are perhaps better known – ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ among them – but this was the one that had spoken so clearly to me I never forgot it. The experience of a sheltered suburban schoolgirl was light years away from the troops mired in mud on the Western Front but, like all great poetry, it seemed to take me there. Poetry is personal. It has been a privilege and a joy to edit volumes of it, and I can heartily recommend compiling your own anthology of favourites – physically and, if you can, in memory.

Reading brings so many rewards. It can parachute us into other lives, and whisk us off to exotic – or even imaginary – places. It can arouse powerful emotions and readers develop empathy through experiencing, second-hand, what the writer has endured or enjoyed. Poetry, with its inventive use of language, feels even more intimate than prose. Committing poems to heart helps us to absorb this nourishment even more fully, as we add the poet’s words to our mental furniture. In a world in which there is still so much war, ‘Strange Meeting’ is as essential to the canon as it was a hundred years ago. I no longer have a copy pinned to my wall . . . because I carry it in my memory.

Ana Sampson has edited five anthologies of poetry including I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. . . and Other Poems you Half-Remember from School – the number three poetry bestseller of 2009 – and Poems to Learn by Heart. Her latest, Best-Loved Poems: A Treasury of Verse, has just been published by Michael O’Mara Books. Ana works as a freelance publicist and copywriter. She is delighted that her eldest daughter is now old enough to quote sections of ‘The Lobster Quadrille’, and that the youngest already shrieks when a verse in Room on the Broom gets skipped. She tweets as @Anabooks.

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POETRY BY HEART NATIONAL CHAMPION 2017

8th June 2017

Indigo Douglas aged 17 from Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham is the new Poetry By Heart champion for 2017.

Congratulations to Indigo Douglas, Poetry By Heart Champion 2017, British Library, London. Photo credit: Sam Strickland - samstrickland.com

Reciting two poems in front of a highly appreciative, spell bound audience at the British Library in London, Indigo triumphed at the end of a search for a champion that began four months ago with hundreds of students taking part in school competitions up and down the country.

In presenting her with a specially designed trophy the Chair of the judging panel Jean Sprackland praised not only Indigo’s superb recitations but the performances of all 41 county finalists who gathered at the British Library conference centre.

Indigo who is studying the International Baccalaureate at Christ’s Hospital School said, ‘I’m so surprised and exhilarated to have won this fantastic competition. It’s been an unforgettable weekend and the support all the students have given each other has been wonderful.’

Indigo who became the Sussex champion in March also won her regional final before competing with eight other finalists on Sunday afternoon. Indigo recited, ‘An Epistle to Miss Blount’ by Alexander Pope and ‘Your Attention Please’ by Peter Porter.

Second place was awarded to Beth Molyneux from Urmston Grammar School, the Manchester champion and third place went to Isabella Redmayne from the King Edward VIth School who is the Northumberland champion.

Participants recited in front of a distinguished panel of judges from the world of poetry including Jean Sprackland, Daljit Nagra, Patience Agbabi, Glyn Maxwell, Tim Dee and Cambridge academic David Whitley. The poet Jacob Sam-La Rose hosted the event throughout the weekend. On Saturday evening after a splendid winners’ dinner at The Friends House near the British Library the poets read for the students and their teachers in a remarkable event that saw each poet take to the stage for five minutes.

“Poetry Please” from BBC Radio 4 recorded the finals weekend for a special “Poetry Please” episode to be broadcast on Sunday May 14th.

Congratulations to all of our finalists participating in the Poetry By Heart Championships 2017, British Library, London. Photo credit: Sam Strickland - samstrickland.com

Previous Poetry By Heart national champions and finalists returned to help with the smooth running of the weekend in a testament to the lasting power of participation in the competition.

Before the national final the audience enjoyed contributions from three special guests. Louisa Tait from Seaford College in West Sussex, the winner of the new Shakespeare sonnet competition for adults, recited sonnet 57 and Eléonore Fontaine the winner of Poetry By Heart France from the Institut Notre Dame also recited. Finally the actor Freddie Fox talked about the importance of learning poetry by heart in his life and recited Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

At the end of a highly successful event Co-founder and Director of Poetry By Heart, Julie Blake said:

‘Five years ago, poetry recitation in schools was commonly seen as a nostalgic practice harking back to the nineteenth century, although some teachers and many poets always knew differently. Following the fifth Poetry By Heart competition and finals weekend it is back, with all the new life, vigour and creativity that young people from every county and major city in England are bringing to it. Poetry By Heart is now established in the school calendar with over a thousand secondary schools signed up to take part. Every year, young people from all school types and all social backgrounds are choosing poems that speak to them and taking them into their hearts. Poetry By Heart sets them on a journey for a lifelong enjoyment of poetry, read, shared and spoken aloud. Time will tell how this will shape our collective cultural life’.

2017 saw the introduction of a new Shakespeare Sonnet competition allowing any pupil in a school to record a recitation of one of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets.  Sam Mount from Springwood High School, Kings Lynn emerged as the national champion for the sonnet competition and he will be invited to recite at the Poetry By Heart 2018 national finals. Springwood High School was enjoying a double success after the weekend as the school also provided Poetry By Heart with its 2017 Norfolk winner and national finalist Abigail Peters. The Directors of Poetry By Heart will be visiting Springwood High School next week to present Sam with prizes and the school Library with a magnificent facsimile Shakespeare folio.

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Poetry By Heart – the search for our 2018 champion will be announced in June at NATE Conference in Nottingham 23rd-24th June 2017. Follow us on Twitter or email info@poetrybyheart.org.uk

 

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Where the magic happens.

12th April 2017

Alison Powell talks to actor, director and magician, Peter Clifford, about Shakespeare, magic and memory

Peter Clifford

‘You like stuff to do with Shakespeare and memory,’ a friend of mine said, recently. ‘You should see this magician, Peter Clifford. He’s memorized the entire works of Shakespeare.’

‘The entire works?’

‘Yep.’

‘37 plays? 154 sonnets? 5 long narrative poems? Word for word?’

‘Yes, seriously. He gets audience members to pick random pages from The Complete Works and he can recite lines from any of them. He’s amazing.’

We all know that a magician never reveals his secrets, but as Poetry By Heart launched its special Shakespeare Sonnet Competition this year, inviting students and staff to memorise individual sonnets, it seemed only right to ask advice from a man who appears to have memorized them all. So in the interests of research, I went along to one of Peter Clifford’s magic shows.

Early in the evening, Peter performed a memory feat in which he listed the titles of Shakespeare’s plays and narrative poems in chronological order, starting with Henry VI (Parts 2, 3 and 1) and ending with Two Noble Kinsmen. Impressive, I thought, but not quite The Complete Works. Using the method of loci (a memory strategy devised in Ancient Greece where images are mentally stored in an imagined building – see the NAWE article ‘The Old Man in the Attic’), plus a bit of focus and practise, I reckoned I could manage that myself.

But then things got a little more complicated. Peter invited an audience member to the stage and handed her a battered copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

‘Pick a page between 15 and 700,’ he said, explaining that this eliminated the introductory notes and index pages. ‘Tell me the page number and I’ll tell you the first word on that page.’

This was the spectacle my friend had raved about. Page numbers were turned to at random. Without fail, Peter recalled the first word on each and every one. Now this was impressive. And definitely not something I was about to try at home.

Then he took things even further. Peter asked the page-picker to choose the first or second column on any given page and decide if they wanted the first or last word.

‘Page 240, first column, first word.’

‘Married.’

‘Page 471, second column, last word.’

‘Mouse.’

‘Page 654, first column, last word.’

‘Weapon.’

After several increasingly rapid-fire demonstrations of this memory stunt, the entire audience was at the jaw-dropped-open-in-amazement point.

But still, there was more.

It turned out that, not only could Peter recall individual words from any page and column, but, as he went on to demonstrate in a final flourish of memorizing brilliance, he could also recite complete lines from every page. It appeared that my friend was right. Here was a man who had actually memorized The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Later I met Peter at a café and was immediately struck by his genuine enthusiasm and passion for all things connected with memory, performance and, in particular, Shakespeare. As well as being a magician, he is also a highly respected actor, director and writer, and has performed in numerous productions with the BBC, the Sheffield Crucible Theatre and the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory Company, amongst others.

When I asked whether he had in fact memorized The Complete Works of Shakespeare he smiled and explained that ‘this effect involves five different memory systems’, including a pegging system – using numbers to mentally hook images; a linking system – making connections between a series of images; and the method of loci, or memory palace. He also uses a mnemonic system in which he changes numbers into images and links these to things he wants to remember. ‘This is a very old system for memorizing that has been used in different ways. We are visual creatures. We remember images better than words.’

So the answer is, yes and no.

But, interestingly, these mnemonic tools that Peter has so thoroughly mastered are not strategies he uses when actually performing Shakespeare.

‘When I learn pieces as an actor, and poems in fact, I’ll always go for what’s beneath the words. What are the images? What are the emotions? What am I trying to communicate? If you can work that out, that gives you a core feeling and you’re much more likely to remember that than just random shapes – words. Don’t try to remember just the words.’

He says that when it comes to learning a poem by heart, understanding the meaning of the work is vital. ‘It’s an intellectual process of spending time with the poem and understanding it. I’ll look at the verse structure, the rhythm, assonance, alliteration – all those things that the poet will have used.’ He also says it’s important to ‘discover what your own personal, individual emotional connection to the poem is. That’s the story you tell.’

Almost simultaneous to this understanding comes a process of making a physical connection with the words. He suggests whispering the lines ’so you get the sounds of the consonants. Then take the vowels out for a while.’ Next he might ‘take the consonants out and just speak the vowels, to get the emotional sound – the emotion seems to come through the vowels more than the consonants.’

The way to learn a poem by heart Peter suggests, is not through memory palaces or any of the strategies that he might use in his magic shows, but through ‘practice, practice, practice. Do it over and over again. Once you know what you’re trying to communicate, the words will be there and you won’t have to think about them.’

He argues that the memorizing process happens naturally when you spend focused time with a poem. ‘If you put in the time to work on the poem first, to find out what’s happening, then you find that you’re already learning it.’ He reaches a moment ‘when you’re not thinking about the words on the page. You’re embodying the words as though you’re talking to someone. You have this emotion you want to share and you use the poem to communicate that.’

Ultimately, though, he says there is no short cut to learning a poem by heart. ‘The real key is ‘workman-like graft! Learn your lines, learn your lines, learn your lines.’

It seems the real trick to poetry and recitation is less to do with mnemonics and more to do with getting to know the words intimately, discovering the emotional truth beneath the lines and finding a way to deliver them that is truly your own.

And, as we know from the best Poetry By Heart performances, that’s where the real magic happens.

 

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Learning a sonnet? It’s (like) a piece of cake

7th March 2017

Alison Powell explains the similarities between cake eating and sonnet memorization to students.

You’ve probably heard your teachers going on about how wonderful the bard is. ‘William Shakespeare was a genius,’ they might say. ‘Look. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Isn’t he amazing?’

And you might be thinking, ‘Big deal. Ed Sheeran has written at least 38 songs we know about, plus a heap he’s written for other people and he probably has a few more up his sleeve. What’s all the fuss?’

The trouble with this type of thinking is that it assumes a deep knowledge of something without proper experience of it. It’s a bit like saying you know what this cake tastes like, just by looking at the picture:

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Cake: Looks chocolate-y and good, but you can’t know how delicious it really is without taking a bite.

Perhaps you’re now thinking, ‘Yes, but I have read Shakespeare, actually. We did Romeo and Juliet/Macbeth/Othello in school last term.’

That’s great. But although reading a play in the classroom does give you a bit more of a flavour, it can be more like looking at a recipe and saying you’ve eaten the cake.

Amazing Chocolate Cake

  • 4 eggs
  • 175g self raising flour
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 175 g butter …

Again, you’re getting an idea of the cake, but you’re not getting the full experience of tasting it. You can think of a play as a recipe for actors. Until it’s brought to life on stage, it’s a bit flavourless and two-dimensional. You’ve come closer to understanding Shakespeare, but still haven’t had a proper bite.

There is, of course, only way to truly know how lovely the cake actually is. I can talk to you about it for hours. I can describe the fluffy light sponge that melts on your tongue and the gorgeously not-too-sweet cream that oozes from its centre. Until you’ve had a proper mouthful of it, though, you’re never going to appreciate the full-taste experience.

So how do you eat the works of Shakespeare?

The most effective way, I’d argue, is to perform a play or a poem by learning the words by heart. Shakespeare’s sonnets are just fourteen lines in length, so they’re a great place to start.

To learn a sonnet, you’ll have to spend some time with it, pinning it up on the walls of your interior world so that when you speak it aloud you have the chance to taste the words without looking at them on paper.

In the process of memorizing the lines you’ll come to understand how they roll together, to know the rhythm and the underlying metre. You’ll get to know the words and start to notice their layers of meaning. You’ll begin to feel the way the poem turns around line eight and appreciate the satisfaction of the final rhyming couplet.

The words might even start to feel like they’re your own.

This is a totally different experience to reading the words on the page. And, like eating cake, it’s not something anyone else can do for you. You have to try it yourself.

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Why is it worth it?

Without having a good mouthful of the actual cake, you’ll never know about the secret ingredients the chef has added to surprise you. Without learning a sonnet by heart and speaking it aloud, you’ll never get to know its truth.

So come and find out what the fuss is all about. Take a big bite of Shakespeare.

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The Ear Is The Best Reader

24th February 2017

As Robert Frost once said, ‘the ear is the best reader’ and it is on this philosophy that The Poetry Archive was founded.

After meeting in a recording studio, Sir Andrew Motion (UK Poet Laureate 1999 – 2009) and the recording producer Richard Carrington, agreed how enjoyable and illuminating it is to hear poets reading their work and how regrettable it was that in the twentieth century many important poets had not been properly recorded. Major poets such as Hardy, Housman, Lawrence had never been recorded at all, and now that opportunity was lost forever.

Launched in 2005, the Poetry Archive now offers a free resource of national and international significance which has at its heart a belief in the profound insights that come from hearing poets’ own readings of their work.

From www.poetryarchive.org you can access and listen to the world’s premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their own work. The Archive exists to make poetry accessible, relevant and enjoyable to as wide audience as possible so alongside freely accessible recordings and a wealth of background information and materials, the Poetry Archive continues to develop new ways to provide teachers with the support they need. We have a range of exciting plans in the pipeline for 2017 and if you would like to get involved, or benefit from special offers and priority news on projects and developments, or simply hear our latest news, please subscribe to our teachers newsletter here.

We want you to love exploring our Poets and collections and we will continue to develop resources with teachers’ needs in mind:

MyArchive: The MyArchive feature of our website allows you to create your own account and bookmark collections and recordings that you would like to quickly and easily return to later, creating bespoke lessons and streaming collections as and when you are ready. There is no limit to the number of collections you can create, or how long you can keep them – they will be saved and ready as you need them.

Classroom Collections: If you don’t need to keep your own collections ready using MyArchive, you can use one of our tailor made Classroom Collections, which have been curated with teaching in mind. Go to the Teach section of our website and you will find collections such as Gothic Poetry, WW1 Poetry and Caribbean Poetry alongside suggested Lesson Plans and Glossary terms.

Download Audio: Our collections are free where we are able to negotiate those rights with our Poets and publishers, but if you wanted to take poems further you can use our Download Store to purchase individual poems and load them onto other devices to play anytime. We have created specific GCSE teaching focused albums, such as, ‘Poems from the AQA GCSE Anthology’, ‘Poems from the Edexcel GCSE Anthology’ and ‘Power and Conflict (Poems from GCSE Anthologies)’ to support your activities.

We are delighted to continue to support Poetry By Heart and we hope you enjoy exploring our collections.

We look forward to sharing our future plans with you.

Tracey Guiry
Director
The Poetry Archive

Between 2013 and 2016 Poetry By Heart was the principal educational initiative of The Poetry Archive, developed with The Full English and supported by the Department of Education. It was co-founded by Andrew Motion (Co-Director of The Poetry Archive) and Julie Blake ) Co-Director of The Full English and Education Director of The Poetry Archive) in February 2012.

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