Poetry By Heart Blog

Clive James on the power of poetry to lodge in our memories

13th February 2020

Poetry Notebook graphic crop
In this blogpost, David Whitley shares with us his reading of Clive James’s fascinating and insightful Poetry Notebook, and what the late great broadcaster and poet had to tell us about poetry memorization and performance.

Reading the late Clive James’s Poetry Notebook recently reminded me of how fascinated he was by the memorization and performance of poetry. Much of what he has to say on this topic resonates really interestingly with the practices that Poetry By Heart has sought to reinvigorate. James develops a characteristically clear, thoughtful and provocative stance on the significance of poetry’s power to lodge in our memories, as well as on how poetry should be performed. Sharing some of his thoughts may stimulate further discussion and debate amongst Poetry By Heart users.

Like many poets, Clive James sees memorability not just as an ancillary feature, but something essential to poetry as an art form. Indeed, reading through Poetry Notebook you realise that he is invoking memorability consistently as a prime quality in judging the value of a poem. A poem that is not memorable – at least in parts – is not worthy to survive, according to James. He quotes with approval Robert Frost’s apparently humble ambition (though actually more demanding than higher sounding alternatives) of ‘lodging a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of’. Seamus Heaney made this a touchstone for effective poetry teaching, indeed, when he wrote that ‘[W]hat matters most in the end is the value that attaches to a few poems intimately experienced and well remembered. If at the end of each year spent in school, students have been marked by even one poem that is going to stay with them, that will be a considerable achievement.’ (In ‘Bags of Enlightenment‘, in The Guardian)

Although a good poem can’t exist without at least some memorable lines, it may not be easy to memorise as a whole, however. James cites Frost’s sonnet ‘The Silken Tent’ as being a brilliant poem that is particularly difficult to learn by heart. He also reflects critically on the relationship between memorable lines and – long! – unmemorable sections in Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’. Interestingly, the renowned American critic and strong advocate of memorising poetry, Helen Vendler, has suggested that the sections of a poem that are particularly difficult to remember accurately often provide clues to its deeper, or more subtle, meanings. This is perhaps a good reason to encourage learners not only to persevere in memorising a poem accurately, but also to think carefully about the distinctive effect of the parts of a poem that are phrased in ways that are awkward and hard to commit to memory.

James is equally engaged and categorical when discussing how poems should be performed. Although his tastes in poetry are broad, he sets great store by a poem’s form and structure, which he considers essential to its capacity to engage us deeply. A good recitation is one that has responded intelligently and sensitively to the structure, as well as the sense, of the poem. In his ‘Poetry Archive Tour’, for instance (available on the Archive’s website and well worth visiting), James praises Philip Larkin’s recitation of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ for knowing ‘how to observe…line endings’ – ‘unlike almost all professional actors’, he adds, rather acerbically. ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is composed in regular, rhymed stanzas, of course. But in free, or ‘open’ verse, line endings are likely to be the only formal device structuring the poem. Line endings’ cues as to how a poem should move when spoken – particularly where subtle pauses might cut across the more natural rhythms of prose speech – thus take on all the more importance here.

James does not advocate an artificially ‘poetic’ voice for recitation, however. His ideal is the ‘unaffected naturalness’ he attributes to James Fenton’s performance of his poem ‘Jerusalem’. But James sees this naturalness as just one side of what he calls a ‘precious double gift’; its counterpart is the speaker’s finding a way to retain ‘all the rigorous construction of [the] verse forms’, without seeming strained. This is clearly a considerable challenge to do well, particularly as there is always also a danger of trying to dramatize, or big up, the emotion too much. Clive James’s ideal reader will never make ‘the mistake of trying to put extra emotion into lines that already had, packed within them, all the emotion they could take.’ Often it will be the quiet performance, allowing the poem to speak rather than drawing too much attention to itself, that will be the most impressive. This apparently self-effacing approach doesn’t mean the performer can’t still own the poem, however – quite the reverse, paradoxically. A quiet performance may still render the poem highly personal and distinctive.

Click here to read Seamus Heaney’s article ‘Bags of Enlightenment’ in The Guardian

Click here to listen to Clive James’s guided tour of The Poetry Archive

 

David Whitley is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. He led the ‘Poetry and Memory’ research project with Debbie Pullinger. He has an interest in poetry that has deepened throughout his lifetime

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Illustrating ‘The Witch': artist Ben Westley Clarke explains how he went about it

3rd February 2020

Witch BWC

In this blogpost, artist Ben Westley Clarke explains how he went about illustrating Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s poem for Poetry By Heart. This is designed to accompany Mike Dixon’s resource for creative explorations of a poem which can be found in the Poetry By Heart Teaching Zone.

The first, and perhaps the most important thing I did, when I began work on illustrating ‘The Witch’, was to write the poem down in my own rough, barely legible handwriting. This gave me a feel for the length of its lines and stanzas, as well as its structure and rhythms – I knew that nothing else would give me as much insight into how the poem was made. It helped me to give equal attention to words or phrases that I might normally skip over. The more I read the poem, the more the initial idea I had in my head of a stereotypical witch, with a pointed hat and a broomstick, dissolved. It gave way to a more shadowy, mutating, ambiguous character. I noted the persistent parallels between this old, ragged woman and the memory of her more nubile, less browbeaten self.

 

Small-ish pencil drawings formed the basis of my preparatory work. I continued to be drawn to the references to the old woman’s youth throughout the poem, as well as, towards the end of the poem, the mention of the figure who greets her to ‘lift her over the threshold’. The word ‘threshold’ is ambiguous – it could be a physical threshold (the woman coming in from the cold) or it could be the threshold between life and death. I conceived of this helpful figure as mirroring the old woman – perhaps she is a younger version of her. Are both characters facets of the writer’s personality? I was also drawn to the regular description of the hostile weather environment, which conjured images of snow, blowing leaves and bare, twisted trees.

 

I remembered drawing old bodies in life drawing classes – I had noted their androgyny and sometimes exaggerated features. Their crumpling, sagging skin reveals, more than younger bodies do, the skeletal structure underneath. The ‘carrying over the threshold’ reminded me of so many themes in religious painting – especially the Pieta – the Virgin Mary carrying the dead Christ. In particular, I thought of Van Der Weyden’s ‘The Descent From The Cross’, a painting I had drawn from at the Prado Museum in Madrid, in which a group of mourning figures supports Christ’s body as it falls.

 

I made a large number of loose sketches, all based on my memory of bodies. I also drew from a handful of photographs of old faces. I formatted the drawings so that there would be one for each stanza of the poem. I then went about drawing up a final design, over which ink was added. My illustration feels to me like one potential visualization of many, but I’ve tried to ensure that it is lucid and that it transports the viewer.


About Ben Westley Clarke
Ben Westley Clarke (b. Ipswich, 1990) studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art and later at the Royal Drawing School. Ben lived in London for 10 years before moving to Madrid in 2018, after he received the Richard Ford Award to study at the Prado Museum. Ben is primarily a painter who works from both observation and memory. He is interested in empathetic depictions of human figures in Art History, from Velásquez to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Drawing is the lifeblood of his work. He has been involved in a number of educational projects over recent years, including the execution of a mural commission for a primary school in the Community of Madrid, and the direction of Family Art Workshops at the Royal Academy of Arts. Ben is also a curator and tattooist.

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