Poetry By Heart Blog

Dizzy Raptures

21st November 2019

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This week we’re focusing on the new Romantic Poetry showcase we recently added to the website. We developed this because (a) what’s not to love, learn and recite and (b) we wanted to support GCSE and A Level students with a wider surround-sound to the poems they’re studying. Judith Palmer, Director of the Poetry Society, made a delicious selection of these poems and many more in association with friends and colleagues at the Romantic poets’ literary societies, trusts and houses. Over time, we’ll come back to Judith’s selection and adding more poems to the showcase.

So, for this week’s blogpost, we asked Mike Dixon to talk us through the pleasures and treasures of the new Romantic Poetry showcase. In addition to his role on the Poetry By heart senior project development team, Mike has single-handedly written almost all of the poem introductions and poet biographies on the website. He is also a BIG fan of the Romantics!

 

How times change! When I was teaching English in a sixth form college I was relentlessly teased by my departmental colleagues for decrying the absence of Wordsworth on Awarding Bodies’ specifications. Now the GCSE requirement for students to study “representative Romantic poetry” leaves me feeling “dizzy raptures” – as does the creation of a new Romantic Poetry showcase on the Poetry By Heart website.

I’d like to take you on a little journey through our new showcase and along the way make a few suggestions as to the serious fun to be had with the poets and poems we have included, and how they might inspire pupils to take part in one of the Poetry By Heart 2019-20 competitions.

Different poets, different lives

We have initially selected 23 poets and 59 poems. In a period we might think of as being dominated by “dead white males” we have chosen 12 male and 11 female poets. We are delighted to present poems by some of the most famous names in English Literature like Keats and Wordsworth but you will also find wonderful poems by less familiar names like Charlotte Smith and Phillis Wheatley. There is lots to explore in the strikingly different lives of the aristocratic, “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Lord Byron and Phillis Wheatley the former slave and the first African-American woman to publish a collection of poetry. Who will your pupils find most interesting? This might be a starting point for learning a pre-1914 poem for the Individual Recitation competition.

Rhythm, energy and musicality

We’ve invited choral/group recitation entries to the Poetry Celebration competition. We want to re-energise this mode of performing poems with all the imagination and creativity you and your pupils want to bring to it. We think some tremendous group recitations will emerge when using poems where the musicality, energy and rhythm of the verses stand out. For example in our collection students might work on Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib”, Blake’s “The Tyger”; Scott’s “Lochinvar”; Southey’s “Cataract of Lodore” and Hemens’ “Casabianca”. Give it a go and enter your best group performance for the Poetry Celebration competition, though each of these poems could also be learned by an individual too!

Dramatic transformations

Following on from last week’s blogpost by Anne Varty, in which she described creating a dramatic performance from an anthology selection of poems, you could work with a numbe rof the poems in the Romantic Poetry showcase in this way, or you could take one poem with a dramatic potential and workshop a performance. Great poems from the collection for this activity might be, Southey’s “The Complaint of the Poor”; the extracts from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge; Mary Robinson’s “The Haunted Beach” and Blake’s “Holy Thursday” and “The Chimney Sweeper”. The performance could be entered for the Poetry Celebration competition or this might be a way in to developing an individual recitation.

Love in a poem, loving a poem

The filters in the Romantic Poetry showcase mean pupils could start by picking a theme that appeals to them – click on the “find a poem” button and then pop open the filters. There are 22 to choose from! So, for example, use the filter menu to identify the dozen or so poems that are about different aspects of love. Compare and contrast exercises might pair Keats’ “When I Have Fears” with Clare’s “First Love” or Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving” with Burns’ “Ae Fond Kiss” for example. This might help pupils with unseen reading, perhaps starting with one of their GCSE anthology poems and comparing it with another. It might also help choose a poem for the individual recitation competition – nothing like a comparison for working out what you like more or less.

We hope you enjoy exploring the collection and we would love to hear how you have used our new Romantics showcase.

 

“Dizzy Raptures” is taken from “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth, an extract of which appears in the Romantic Poetry showcase.

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Emily’s Dream – lifting poetry off the page

15th November 2019

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We’re interested in all kinds of ways of lifting poetry off the page and into the breath, life and pulse of shared experiences of speaking and listening to poems. In this week’s blogpost, Professor Anne Varty talks about lifting poems of the First World War by women off the page with pupil performers at Cheney School in Oxford.  There is a longer article with photographs from the performance of this piece, the list of poems included in the performance and the performance script in the Autumn 2019 edition of NATE’s Teaching English if you want to give it a go yourself. You might also want to think about the idea of it as a way of working with a group of poems from an anthology – maybe even one of the Poetry By Heart timeline anthologies or the Poetry By Heart First World War poetry showcase! Something for your after school poetry club?

On 14 December 2018 the poetry of Scars Upon My Heart came to life in Cheney School, Oxford when a group of Year 8 students performed ‘Emily’s Dream’, a monologue which explores the poetry of this WW1 anthology.

‘Emily’s Dream’ took shape in the context of twin centenaries: the end of WW1 and the first General Election in which women could vote. At Cheney School it was workshopped and performed as part of their ‘Suffrage Day’ celebrations. It is published in the current issue of NATE Teaching English (Autumn 2019, Issue 21).

One of the poets in Scars Upon My Heart observes ‘nobody asked what the women thought’. This astonishing anthology tells us in detail – angry, grieving, energetic detail – exactly what women did think during World War 1. Taken together, the poems offer a powerful choric expression of what women endured during WW1, and what they contributed to it. We can hear their voices, in all their diversity, echoing across the century since the first Armistice Day, remembering too that poetry was one important way in which, in the era before suffrage, women could make their voices heard in public. So every one of these poems is a political act by which women asserted their right to speak, and be heard.

‘Emily’s Dream’ is spoken by the ghost of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died in 1913 after being struck by the King’s horse at Epsom. I imagined her as a ghost inhabiting the poems of Scars Upon My Heart, drawing out the way the poetry took her ambitions forward, brought women to public notice, made a case for their right to full citizenship.

So Emily got out her scissors and in a spirit of feverish irreverence (allowed even if you’re not a ghost), started snipping and stitching and sampling her way through the anthology. Inevitably, the first poem she turned to was by her fellow suffragette Cicely Hamilton, whose anthem ‘March of the Women’ she had sung tramping around the exercise yard of Holloway Prison with the other suffragist inmates. Hamilton’s Scars poem, ‘Non-Combatant’, is seething with angry irony about women’s exclusion from combat. She pictures herself as a useless ‘mouth’ which has to be fed; but through the poem her mouth acquires a voice and she can at least broadcast her objection to enforced idleness. Her deeds are words.

Noticeable, once all the different voices are brought together into a single monologue, is the way in which each line of poetry carries its own distinct rhythm. Emily has to modulate her speech to accommodate these different oral textures, tones and speeds. Perhaps the lines that stand out most are those from Jessie Pope’s ‘War Girls’. But this is a poem which draws attention to its own rhythm in a peculiar way: the pacey forward push of the iambics, and the gleeful rhymes, tell a story that runs counter to the ostensible message of the poem. The words might mean that ‘girls’ will give up their work when the ‘khaki soldier boys come marching back’, but the oral qualities of the poem rob this of all conviction. As a complete contrast with Jessie Pope’s dynamism, but sitting cheek by jowl with it in Emily’s monologue, is the meditative, inward pace of the rhetorical question, ‘who shall deliver us from the memory of these dead?’. This is taken from ‘A Memory’ by the pioneering pacifist poet Margaret Sackville. The rhythm of each poem is as different as the war politics of each poet, and the contrast really shows when they are side by side. Even so, what unites them is more powerful than what separates them: the poems move women into the public sphere and show that their feelings, views and work have value there.

If Emily wanted to get her scissors out again, there are places where the monologue could be extended. For example, the topic of what work women did during the war could be explored from the poems in the anthology, or some further details about grieving and memorialisation could readily be dovetailed into the existing piece. And Emily could listen rather than speak during those sections, if others wanted to speak up. So there’s plenty of exploring and experimenting still to be done.

Just as Scars Upon My Heart creates and represents a community of women, so ‘Emily’s Dream’ was devised to include the whole community, including the audience, in its performance. The monologue can be delivered without any action at all, allowing the drama to be carried entirely in the words; and just as the wonderful performers at Cheney School thought of sharing the role of Emily, so too lines of her monologue could also be distributed amongst the class or company. The main thing is to enjoy playing with the poetry, to climb inside it as Emily’s ghost did, and listen to what these women’s voices from the past are telling us.

Professor Anne Varty is Co- Director of TeacherHub>English, English Department, Royal Holloway University of London. 

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maggie and milly and molly and may – building courage and confidence

7th November 2019

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There are many different ways of getting started with Poetry By Heart but teachers’ top tip is always to give pupils some encounter with poetry recitation before asking them to give it a go. After all, if you’ve never seen or heard anyone reciting a poem before, how would you even know what “it” is?

In this blog I’ll be laying out a tried and tested activity for a whole class encounter to build courage and confidence in a safe and supportive, fun and collective way. You need a single lesson. We’ve used this activity with a feisty class of year 10s, a little group of primary school children in a hospital education unit, and with 46 Dutch teachers! Every time, the energy was fantastic, we had fun and by the end the very different participants were well on the way to having a poem by heart!

Here goes…

The sounds, patterns and rhythms of names

I start by warming up voices, experimenting with the sounds, patterns and rhythms of words, activating the memory cells and breaking the ice about performance. This is done with a little fun activity around names.

I tell the class the members of my team are Julie, Tim, Lily, Tom and Mike. I make it easier to remember this list by using patterns of sound and rhythm to make it enjoyable to the ear and pleasing to say, like this: “Tim, Tom, Mike/Julie and Lily”, and as I say this aloud I exaggerate the short sharp bursts of Tim, Tom, Mike, the long oo of Julie and the ly-ly of Julie and Lily. The class gets the idea and I ask them, in groups of 4 or 5, to come up with their own line, then they rehearse it, ready to perform.

I start. I say “My team is Tim, Tom, Mike,/Julie and Lily”. The next group has to say “That was Tim, Tom, Mike,/Julie and Lily and we are………” and they fill the blank with their line. The next group has to start with the previous group’s line and then give their own. And so on. We’re five minutes in and already everyone has remembered a bit of wordplay and they have recited it from memory. Not bad! Applause!

‘maggie and milly and molly and may’

I’ve loved e.e. cummings’s poem ‘maggie and milly and molly and may’ since I first encountered it in an English lesson aged about 12 or 13. This activity works well with this poem because it’s short, it’s in couplets with one key image each, and though its rhythm is markedly varied in places there is a sing-song quality to parts of it too. But feel free to adapt this for any poem you like!

I get the poem up on the screen. It’s here on the 11+ anthology timeline. Pupils could have a paper copy of it too.

Joining in

I tell pupils I’m going to read it aloud 3 times and I invite them to join in when they’re ready. I start and I keep going, whatever my hesitations or stumbles, moving along briskly and adding a few actions to start ‘fixing’ the images. At the relevant moments, I hold an imaginary shell to my ear; I wave my five fingers languidly; I do a bit of walking sideways (though I don’t blow bubbles); and I hold a stone that grows from small to large. The pupils I’ve done this with have always joined in, and surprisingly quickly!

What do you remember?

After the third time I stop, take the poem off the big screen and ask pupils to turn over their paper. I ask them what they remember. A word? A phrase or an image? A line or a couplet? I’ve always been surprised by how much, as a class, they can recall after only a few minutes. Celebrate that!

Call and response

Then I challenge them to do it without the poem. Oh how they laugh – and then cry!  Of course I’m joking – that’s a big step, so we break it down. I read line 1 and they repeat it; I read line 2 and they repeat it; then we see if we can do that couplet together. We work through all 6 couplets like this and then celebrate – we did it without the poem text! (Or at least they did – teacher’s prerogative is allowed to prevail in the interests of motivational success!)

Visualising the poem

Then we go a step further. I show them the structure of the poem using a slide deck of 6 pictures. First there is a picture of a beach, and this goes with the list of 4 girls’ names. Then it’s maggie’s solo stanza and there’s a picture of a shell. Then it’s milly and the starfish, molly and the ‘horrible thing’ (a crab), may and the smooth round stone, and finally it’s finding ourselves in the sea. Then we give the poem a go, me reading/reciting and them using the picture prompts to join in as much as they can. Together we do it!

Learning our lines

Then we’re ready for the final step – performance. Again, we break it down – I allocate lines to be learned by small groups. 6 groups might each learn a couplet each, or 5 groups a couplet each plus everyone learning the last one, or 4 groups learning a couplet each and everyone learning the first and last couplets. They learn their lines and if I have time I get them to rehearse a little so they synch their timing, rhythm and emphasis. Then we’re ready to go.

Class performance

If I’m racing towards the end of the lesson I simply count them in and off we go, each group reciting their part in turn; if I have a little more time we might do that and then run through the whole poem all together, or vice versa. Whatever, we finish with a big round of applause and lots of cheery celebration of their achievement.

Next steps in Poetry By Heart

Maybe from this starting point some of your pupils will go off and master this poem ready to take part in a school competition; maybe you’ll work it up some more with the whole class to enter the choral recitation competition; or maybe learning this much will help to inspire some of them to choose a different poem. Whatever happens, they will have had an experience of learning a poem by heart and performing it. And it will have been fun!

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