Poetry By Heart Blog

Memorising and Performing Poetry in Film

11th June 2020

In this week’s blogpost, David Whitley explores representations of poetry recitation and performance in a range of popular films. Head over to the Learning Zone to find clips of poems being recited in films for pupils to explore at home or in school. How many others can they find and what are they doing there?

Morgan-Freeman-Invictus-M-010

Film and TV drama have long been vital sites in our culture offering a range of insights into the value memorised poems may hold still for us.  Among many examples from popular film drama you might recall: W.E.Henley’s poem ‘Invictus’ as the centrepiece of the film of the same name about Nelson Mandela’s attempt to unite post-apartheid South Africa; the recitation of W.H.Auden’s ‘Stop All the Clocks’ providing a scene of unforgettable emotional weight at the centre of Four Weddings and a Funeral; and apt quotations from poems at key moments providing dramatic focus in various episodes of the Inspector Morse series and its spin-offs.

The Morse example is perhaps particularly interesting, since the image of having extensive knowledge of memorised poetry to call upon is positioned ambivalently in the series. It is seen as a cultural marker of cleverness and elite education; but it is also a significant mental resource in problem solving, enabling connections between things that seem initially obscure. “Poetry recitation solves crimes” – it’s not something you’ll hear the Justice Secretary say very often! But the general principle the Morse films draw on – poetry developing capacity for lateral thinking – is nevertheless a sound one, with potential value in a wide variety of different contexts.

There is an important sub-category of films staging poetry recitation that engages with children and classrooms, too. And I think there are some valuable lessons we can draw from these films. Here are three examples that offer things we can usefully chew on. First the 1961 film, Splendor in the Grass, which features a young Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. The pair give a powerful and sensitive portrayal of high school students, whose doom-laden love affair results in Natalie Wood’s character, Deanie, suffering a prolonged mental breakdown. A film about vulnerability as well as resilience, set in a period when the economy enters a phase of economic recession – it has resonance for our own time.

There is a key classroom scene halfway through the film, when Deanie is emotionally distraught having been rejected by Bud. The teacher begins the lesson reciting a few lines from Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’. The first thing that strikes you about it is that this is a rather bad model of how to deliver a poetry lesson: the teacher recites the Wordsworth lines in a way that displays her own expertise, sighs wearily in expectation of very limited response from the class, and then – with no attempt to mediate or frame discussion – picks on Deanie, demanding that she explain ‘what the poet meant’ by these lines. Deanie – locked into the inner world of her own pain – is forced to read the lines herself from a book and then offer a faltering explanation for Wordsworth’s assertion that we may ‘find strength in what remains behind’ after our initial apprehension of ‘splendour’ at key moments in life have faded. Watch the classroom scene in the clip available on YouTube here.

What is most interesting here is not so much the emotional drama generated by an ill-judged pedagogy, though. Rather it is the film’s modelling of a process whereby the lines – even though forced upon Deanie at a moment when she cannot process them – find their way into her inner life and do end up – paradoxically – becoming a significant emotional resource for her. This should have been the teacher’s primary aim for the class in the first place, of course. The film finishes with Deanie reciting the lines which have now fully cleaved to her memory in a voice-over monologue, where they resonate deeply with her inner life and hard-won emotional balance. Watch the final scene in the clip available on YouTube here.

Splendor in the Grass shows how memorised lines of verse may give shape and focus to the deepest currents of our lives, even without our willing this to happen consciously. By contrast, Dead Poets’ Society focuses on a school culture – and the uncontrolled sub-culture this engenders – where poetry is memorised and performed in a more highly self-conscious,  even self-dramatizing, manner.  Robin Williams plays the charismatic teacher who puts poetry and self-expression at the heart of an otherwise repressive 1950s school’s curriculum – with ultimately tragic consequences. This is an inspirational, though also flawed, film in many ways.

Dead Poets Society

The flaws in Dead Poets’ Society seem to me to stem from the film’s promoting the performative value of poetry over its connection to the complexity of inner life. The boys – the protagonists are all boys from privileged backgrounds – are intoxicated by Robin Williams’ idea that poetry offers a path towards living a more authentic life. But they imbibe this notion in the group context of a secret society where the adolescent male prerogative of display takes over. The boys use poetry to show off to each other – and occasionally to the girls they persuade to join them – indulging a group fantasy that they are non-conformist rebels. Although the film does explore some of the adolescent narcissism and underlying vulnerability involved in this, the heroic status it gives to Robin Williams’ role means that it never really examines in depth what lies beneath the performative aspects of poetry. Many of us – perhaps particularly men – need the motivation of showing off, or emulating others, at times to acquire new knowledge and expand our ways of being. But the film doesn’t quite grasp how poetry’s real power to get inside us is a longer – and less flashy – process.

Perhaps the richest film to probe the many forms in which poetry may get inside us and make connections with many of the deepest, most difficult, and even troubling aspects of our lives is The History Boys. This is an adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play, first staged at the National Theatre. The focus of the drama is on the very different teaching styles used to coach a group of boys, from non-privileged backgrounds, at a Northern English grammar school who are trying to get places at Oxbridge. As a dramatic forum, opening up debate about the efficacy and value of competing pedagogies, it continues to have subtly probing resonance.

The History Boys

One of the teachers in The History Boys, Hector, exemplifies an idiosyncratic, highly unsystematic approach to developing the boys’ understanding that places the memorisation and recitation of poetry, especially, at the heart of his method and values. The scene in which he listens to his pupil Possner’s recitation of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Drummer Hodge’ could stand as a fitting counterpoint to the bad teaching modelled in Splendor in the Grass. Apart from the sensitivity, personal engagement and depth of understanding that are embodied so brilliantly here, what is striking about this scene is the way it moves so freely between what one might call objective kinds of knowledge  (details of language and historical context) and the poem’s providing a space in which difficult, personal feelings can be expressed in safe ways. Memorizing, performing and listening become interdependent, creative activities, within which aspects of identity that are complex and difficult can be brought out and shared, even in some way validated, without being fully disclosed.

But the poem itself is not left behind in this process, nor does it become simply a vehicle for self-assertion – or even self-promotion – as is sometimes the case in Dead Poets’ Society. Instead, because it resonates with personal elements in the two characters’ emotional struggles, the poem becomes more vivid in its own right, its details registered with full attentiveness. The poem – almost literally – comes alive in conjunction with the emotional lives of those who are engaging with it. David Fuller discriminates what is at stake here in a particularly insightful form when he observes that:

Reading should reveal the expressivity the poet has found in the language and built into its organization, not apply expressivity from outside. There may be a great deal of colour present [in a poem being performed], but it should be the colours of the poem’s words interacting with the colours of the reader’s personality.

To do this fully the reader has to live with a poem. Part of that ‘living with’ is to read the poem repeatedly, working it into one’s own voice, interiorizing a sense of its feelings and ideas. (David Fuller, The Life in the Sonnets, 2011, p.87)

What this scene dramatizes so effectively is the ‘colours’ of the poem’s words interacting with, not just the speaker and listener’s personalities, but also elements of their core identities that are shown as under extreme pressure at this point in the film’s narrative. But – as reflection on a particular form of pedagogy – the film also shows the value of ‘living with’ a poem through the repeated readings necessary to internalize, remember and then perform it to a sensitive, engaged audience.

Films and TV drama generally are also a rich resource reflecting – and reflecting on – the many ways in which we still value poetry in contemporary culture.

 

David Whitley is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. He led the 3-year Leverhulme Trust funded Poetry and Memory research project, an interdisciplinary enquiry into the value and experience of poetry in the memory, and examining the relationship between memorisation and understanding.  He has an interest in poetry that has deepened throughout his lifetime.

Share via

Unplugged: exploring a poem through drawing

4th June 2020

In this week’s blogpost, Julie Blake thinks about beginning to learn a poem by heart – by hand writing and hand drawing.

This week we had an email from a state school teacher who said this of Poetry By Heart, the competition and our team: “Beyond the sound pedagogy of the competition and the love of poetry which it aims to foster, there is a deeply caring, humane, committed and thoughtful group of people.” I was lost for words. Lots of teachers say nice things to us about the competition but the word “humane” took me right back to the very beginning of my career in education when I was clear that I wanted to walk in the path of the humanists, concerned with the whole child and their process of becoming creative, critical and capable of acting to make the world a better place. Years of teaching all exam classes knocked some of the stuffing out of my idealism, but fundamentally, it’s still where I’m at. In this blogpost, I’m thinking about how our newest resources, all about exploring a poem through drawing, might create a space for moments of learning that are also deeply caring, humane, committed and thoughtful.

Give it a go: poem posters

We’ve been creating poem-posters since the beginning of Poetry By Heart in 2013 because as former teachers we know the joy of something new and interesting for your classroom wall. Our first ones included a few lines from one of the poems on our poetry timeline, with a related image and some of the words redacted with the idea that this might intrigue students to look up the poem and figure out the blanks. In the end we decided this was merely annoying and in the next and all subsequent series we’ve used the whole poem. We send a pack of poem-posters out each year to schools and colleges taking part in the competition, to help generate interest among your colleagues and students, and we love seeing them up in corridors, libraries and classroom walls when we visit or when we see pictures of your competitions over on Twitter.

Lodorev2

Choosev2

Pinkv2

FREE Posters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our designers are fabulous and everyone on the Poetry By Heart team has a secret Poetry By Heart poem-poster favourite. But as we’ve thought about this more recently, we’ve realised that there have been gains and losses in the changes we’ve made. The posters have gradually become both more beautiful and more removed from the modest pedagogical ambition of those redactions. They are gorgeous artefacts, and we think they help to raise the profile of your competitions, but what, ultimately, can you do with them apart from attach them to a wall. So, while still sending those out to competing schools, we’ve also been experimenting with a more pedagogically-inflected style of poem-poster, hand-drawn and hand-written.

You might well have already seen our poem-poster for Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s uncanny little poem, ‘The Witch’. We’ve used it in flyers promoting the competition at various times this year and the young artist who created it, Ben Westley Clarke, has blogged about his creative process for us.

Witch BWC

Now we’ve added four more designs by Ben, for Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Frog’s Fate’, William Blake’s ‘London’ and John Clare’s ‘I Am’.  All five poem-posters are hand-drawn in pencil (later overlaid with ink) and they present the poem in the artist’s hand-written form. They’re in the Learning Zone for you to download and use with your students as you wish.

The question remains, though: what do you do with them? Stick them on the wall, by all means. We asked Ben to work only in black and white so that if you wanted to enlarge them on a basic school photocopier, you could. If you want to get them printed bigger for your classroom, let us know via info@poetrybyheart.org.uk. Post them on your digital platform, too, by all means. But they’re really designed as inspiration for students to have a go at creating a poem-poster themselves, needing nothing more elaborate than a pencil and a piece of paper.

This “unplugged” dimension to our poem-posters is important though it has become so in ways we didn’t predict. Who knew last summer when we started thinking about our poem-posters that we would all be engulfed by the outbreak of Covid-19? With such starkly differential access for students to computers and other devices at home now, our approach looks prescient, though of course it wasn’t.

What we actually had in mind was a number of different ideas that coalesce in interesting ways:

From memory research, the idea that when you hand write something, it stays longer in the memory than something typed on a keyboard. It’s something to do with the embodied act of handwriting, muscle memory and time by contrast with the speed and anonymity of machine writing.

From students telling us time and again that one of the their first steps after choosing a poem was to write it out by hand, sometimes doing so many times over in order to lodge the poem in mind. Sometimes they wrote out a few copies and posted them around the house so they could see them as they washed up or brushed their teeth.

From poetry and memory research, the idea that the parts of the brain that respond to a poem are the same parts of the brain that respond to a friend – hang out together long enough, doing something, and the poem-friendship deepens.

The idea that every text transformation – a poem’s written form into a designed poem-poster or an animation or a song – involves the same fundamental act of commitment, interpretation and appreciation as a poem recitation, and perhaps rather more personal investment, curiosity and enjoyment than a PEE paragraph in an exam preparation essay.

And we thought about Glyn Maxwell’s wonderful book, On Poetry, in which he invites us to consider the first line of a poem as a snapshot, a precise moment captured in which a speaker suddenly breaks the silence in order to say these very particular words. He says:

“The younger arts can help us. As film helps with stanza-break, let photography help with first lines. Imagine any first line as a photographic frame. How much of the frame is taken up by the face of the poet? Is his or her whole figure in the poem, is he or she farther away? Back to you, gesturing into the distance? Hovering spectrally above? Seated, standing, walking? Is the picture in colour? What does he or she think of you? Can you be seen at all? Is the poet present at all?” (Glyn Maxwell (2012), On Poetry. Oberon Books Ltd, London.)

Drawing a poem involves seeing a poem, exploring its meaning and values, its verbal texture and its shape. It involves thinking about how to make that tangible for someone else, in a visual form. This visual form that might be enough in its own right, an aesthetic response to an aesthetic object, or it might form the basis for explanation and discussion of a literary interpretation that is unique to the student and precious for that. And for us at Poetry By Heart, it’s a rich and meaningful way to begin to know a poem, slowly, as the basis of learning it by heart, slowly, and to create a unique, personal resource for continuing the process of learning it by heart, slowly. We’d love to feature some student poem-posters in the Learning Zone alongside Ben’s and to see them shared on Twitter in a virtual Poetry By Heart poem-poster exhibition! The first step is for students to explore the poems on the Poetry By Heart website and to find one they love and want to draw. So much lies in the choosing…

To finish, here are some more of Ben’s thoughts about illustrating poems.

Illustrating William Blake’s ‘London’

I was first introduced to this poem by my best friend, about 10 years ago, whilst he was studying for an English Literature degree and I was studying at the Slade School of Art. We lived together whilst we both worked a summer job at a Paella stall on Covent Garden Market. The poem grew and grew on me as I stayed in London – I ended up relating it, with perhaps too lucid a historical imagination, to my own contemporary experience of the sprawling City as a place of alienation, injustice and sorrow. I have been making images of London’s streets for several years and have often drawn from observation in areas like Hackney and Camden, or at events like the Notting Hill Carnival. I’m interested in the bustle of street life – people’s clothing, how things are revealed or obscured by gaps or blockages in one’s line of sight; and the strange clashes that one encounters between completely different types of people. I decided to do a street scene in this vein, using the costume of Blake’s era.

Illustrating Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Frog’s Fate':

I was instantly attracted to Christina Rossetti’s somewhat humble eye for detail in her poem ‘A Frog’s Fate’. I wanted to draw the sequence of events from the poem – the big frog, surrounded by nature, carefree; followed by him meeting his sudden fate at the hands of the horse-drawn wagon which comes careering down a country lane. The ‘Waggoner’ isn’t described in detail – I found his anonymity slightly sinister – I thought of him as a hooded ‘death’ figure, like a character from an Edward Burra watercolour. For some reason, the serious-humour aspect of the poem, as well as its urge to describe nature, also made me think of Japanese woodblock printing and artists such as Kuniyoshi and Kyosai. I wanted to draw in a crisp, clear way – apt to describe nature in detail, but also flexible enough to be spontaneous and inventive.

 

Julie Blake is the co-founder and Director of Poetry By Heart. As Dr Julie Blake she is also a researcher in children’s literature and a Digital Humanities Methods Fellow at Cambridge University. Her doctoral thesis asked and answered the question: What did the national curriculum do for poetry?

Share via

Finding a track in the verbal landscape

2nd October 2019

Track in a verbal landscape_edited2With the return of Poetry By Heart, bigger then ever before, we’re back on the blog to continue our discussion about poetry in all its myriad aspects. We’ll be talking about poetry, teaching and what’s going on in the world of poetry, but one of our main aims is to share thoughts and ideas for anyone interested in memorising and reciting poems.

We have some NEW blog team members for 2019-20. We’ll introduce them one at a time over the next few weeks. First up is David Whitley, Fellow of Homerton College Cambridge, formerly of the Faculty of Education, an expert on poetry and memory and a Poetry By Heart judge. To kick us off, here he is with a few questions and topics he’ll be exploring on the blog in coming months.

Starting with the whole terrain, what happens when you memorise and perform a poem? How does your relationship with the poem change during the process of learning it and trying out different ways of speaking it? Do you come to understand the poem in a different way to what would have happened if you’d just read, studied or analysed it? Is the poem in some sense ‘alive’ when taken into your self in this way? Does it ever seem to speak to you – or indeed speak you – rather than you speaking it? Does it forge new connections to other experiences you have had and get you to see these from a slightly different perspective? And when it comes to performing the poem for an audience of other people, what are we striving for in that act of giving voice to the words on a page from memory? What do we mean by a ‘good’ performance? And how may this differ from performing lines from a play, for instance?

The list could go on, of course, and we’ll be pursuing aspects of these questions in more depth in subsequent blogs. Another area that especially interests us is how the ‘voice’ of the poem – with all its distinctive cultural and historical resonances, and affiliations – merges with the voice of the speaker. Poems – like stories – have the ability to connect people across time and space, of course. But they also tend to retain something inherent to the culture, time, place and writer who composed them. When we choose a poem to memorise we are drawn towards something in it. It might be the sound quality rather than the sense, or something that seems to appeal in a quite arbitrary way, initially. But as we learn the poem, our relationship inevitably deepens as we take the specific textures of its language and form inside ourselves.

When we try to speak it from memory then, our individual voice has found a track of feeling and expression in the verbal landscape of the person who wrote the poem. In a sense, our individual voice is forging a particular kind of connection to a collective voice, whose rhythms and bearings the poem must draw on if it is to be successful. This is a difficult – sometimes subtle but potentially compelling territory to explore, then. In memorising a poem, how is an individual’s voice oriented towards the collective voice that the poem embodies?

You can read more about David’s research on poetry and memory here.

We welcome questions that you find intriguing and hope to provoke a range of responses and exchanges along the way. Join the conversation over on Twitter @poetrybyheart or email us a question via info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.

 

Share via

Where the magic happens.

12th April 2017

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

 

‘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.

 

Share via

Memorisation, Recitation and the Muslim Tradition

10th May 2015

 

A boys’ hifz class – north east London mosque. Photo: Bill Gent Used with permission.

Being involved in an organisation and a project like Poetry By Heart can be both an exciting and rewarding experience. For, watching the process through which young people commit passages of literature to memory, learn to live with it ‘inside’ themselves, and then stand up in performance in order to recite to others, stirs both head and heart.

 

But, there are other traditions of memorisation and recitation too, which are driven by their own histories, dynamics and expectations. Such a tradition is that of hifz committing the whole of the Qur’ān to memory – within the Muslim community.

The sound of the Muslim Qur’ān

‘The Qur’ān (Koran) is the sacred book of Muslims.’ Such a statement is indisputable … or is it? In one sense ‘yes’, but in another, ‘no’. In school RE pupils often learn to think of the Qur’ān as one example of the category ‘sacred books’. The resultant mental imagery is then obvious: a book consisting of pages of text of Arabic which is, of course, written from right to left. But, unstartling though this might seem, this does a great disservice to the place of the Qur’ān in the experience of Muslims across the ages. For, digging deeper into Islam reveals that the prime experience of the Qur’ān for Muslims is as sound. Indeed, fieldworkers in Islamic societies have observed, the sound of the Qur’ān is omnipresent in Muslim societies: it comes from the radios of taxicabs, from recordings played in open-fronted shops, from schools and mosque classrooms. Even the hallowed call to prayer (the adhan) might be heard from several minarets at once in the lead-up to prayer times. Yes, indeed, as one American scholar has put it, ‘The Qur’ān, to be the Qur’ān, has to be heard’.

But this aural quality of the Qur’ān is not just a consequence of its multi-layered use in Muslim society: it is part of its essential quality. To understand this means going back to the beginnings of the Islamic religion and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (570 – 632 CE). At the age of 40, Muslims believe, Muhammad had a life-changing experience in which the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) revealed to him the first words of the Qur’ān. Muhammad then committed these words to memory in order to recite them to other members of the first Muslim community in Makkah. Such revelations continued for the remaining 23 years of his life and it was during the month of Ramadan each year, it is said, that he rehearsed everything that he had already memorised. And, by the time of his death, many others within the early Muslim community had also memorised the revelations and recited them, often with great beauty and finesse, so that others could do likewise. This body of memorised and recited material constituted the Qur’ān, an Arabic word that means ‘recitation’. It was only later that the memorised material was gathered together to form a book, but this has always been secondary to the recited Qur’ān.

The chain of transmission

Thus we have the central place of memorisation and recitation within Islam, but more than this: we also have the start of a chain of transmission through which, from one Muslim generation to the next, not only the words that were revealed to Muhammad were passed on but also the sound of those words being recited. Moreover, in being memorised in Arabic (the Qur’ān is not the Qur’ān unless it is in the original language of revelation), it was embodied in the bodies and lives of the memorisers. Indeed, in the West African Muslim tradition, those who have memorised the whole Qur’ān are sometimes called ‘walking Qur’ans’.

To the present day, all Muslims will learn parts of the Qur’ān in Arabic; its recitation is both needed and vaunted in everyday Muslim life. During each of the five daily times of prayer (salat), for instance, pious Muslims recite passages from the Qur’ān out loud, particularly its opening words (al-Fatihah). There is no tradition of silent reading within the Muslim community: even when recited in private, the words will be sounded on the lips.

Within the historical Muslim community, there have always been those who have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to memorise the Qur’ān. Still to this day, such people might be encouraged to commit the whole of the Qur’ān to memory. And do remember: the Qur’ān, to be the Qur’ān, is in Arabic and the majority of Muslims worldwide are not native Arabic speakers. And remember, again, that this is not only a case of learning the ‘words’ but also of being able to recite them in a beautiful manner, according to tradition. As such, the fullness of the revelation which is the Qur’ān is believed to lie in both its words and the sounds of those words being recited. This has the consequence that, in order to learn the Qur’ān by heart, the learner must sit at the feet of a teacher who can correct mistakes and demonstrate to his/her pupils the appropriate sounding of the Arabic words.

The memorisation of the whole Arabic Qur’ān which consists of 30 larger sections (juz), themselves comprising 144 smaller chapters (surahs), is an extraordinary mnemonic achievement and those who achieve this have been likened to elite athletes. Such people are given the honorific title hafiz (male) or hafiza (female) but no-one knows how many huffaz (the plural term) there are in the word today, though Muslims often talk in terms of millions. Even so, it is certain that many British Muslim students who go to state or private school during the day will then also go on to mosque classes each weekday evening (and sometimes before school too) in order to complete hifz – the memorisation of the whole Qur’ān, a task that might take three or four years.

You can’t retire as a hafiz

On achieving hifz, there will be family and mosque celebrations for the Muslim boy or girl (or man or woman, for there is no age limit). But, in one sense, achieving hifz is not the end: it is also the beginning. For huffaz are then expected to retain their memorisation, so that it can be called to the front of memory at a moment’s notice, for the rest of their lives. Huffaz adopt different ways of keeping their Qur’anic memories alive – through a daily period of recitation at home, perhaps, or quietly reciting a passage of the Qur’ān on the way to and from work. But, if they find that they are struggling in this, then the month of Ramadan comes to their rescue for, during the whole of this month, additional late night prayers (tarawih) consist of the male congregation gathering together as, at the front of the often very large gathering, one or several huffaz in turn, recite a whole thirtieth section of the Qur’ān. And those who have also memorised that particular Qur’anic section are duty bound, if the reciter makes an error at a particular point, to interrupt and recite correctly so enabling the main reciter to correct himself and then continue on. In light of this, huffaz will make sure that they have rehearsed the passage for the particular day, working with another memoriser, perhaps, to identify where difficulties in wording and sounding might be met. Ramadan, then, is not only a month of fasting but is also a month of intense reading and revision.

Poetry by Heart and Qur’anic Memorisation

So, to begin where we started. There are many traditions of memorisation and recitation. In the same way as there is an annual Poetry by Heart competition leading to finals, there are also, throughout the Muslim world, Qur’anic recitation competitions. There are famous reciters, too, many of whom will be able to recite the Qur’ān in one of the several dialect forms (qira’at) in which it was passed down. The Internet has also come to play its part in each context: Poetry by Heart competitors can hear their chosen poems being read out loud by others in the same way that Muslims can hear, and be inspired by, famous Qur’anic reciters – many of them Egyptian – on CD or on YouTube. And, in each case, perhaps, the end-result is the stirring image of a human being, often young in years, who has dedicated immeasurable time and energy in order, with beauty and meaning, to recite to others. Indeed, as Andrew Motion says on the Poetry by Heart website, recitation – perhaps in all its many forms – creates both ‘an excitement and a dare’.

 

For further reading

Gent B (2011) ‘But You Can’t retire as a Hafiz: fieldwork within a British hifz class’, Muslim Education Quarterly, 24: 1 & 2, 55-63

Gent, B (2011) ‘The world of the British hifz class student: observations, findings & implications for education & further research’, British Journal of Religious Education, 33:1, 3-15

Gent, B (2015) ‘The Hidden Olympians: the role of huffaz in the English Muslim community’, Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life

Nelson, K (2005) The Art of Reciting the Qur’ān, New York: American University in Cairo Press

 

Dr Bill Gent is an Associate Fellow of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU) and editor of ‘Professional REflection within RE Today, the journal of the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE). billgent49@yahoo.co.uk

 

 

Share via

‘Fifty Poems’ at Lucy Cavendish College – University of Cambridge

11th April 2015

Lucy Cavendish College Library

In Michaelmas Term 2012, three second year English students decided to put together a compilation of poems by female writers to celebrate the literary achievements of women. Hannah Schühle-Lewis, Kassi Chalk and Charlotte Quinney were the three students and, after their final year exams, they were able to make their idea a reality, as part of the celebrations for Lucy Cavendish College’s 50thanniversary. The aim of this project: www.lucy-cav.cam.ac.uk/fiftypoems was to not only celebrate the poetic achievements of women, both in and outside the literary canon, but also to foreground the range of voices which constitute our College community. I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute to this fantastic project which, in many ways, reflects the ideals and purpose of the ‘Poetry by Heart’ scheme.

As the only Higher Education College for women over 21 in Europe, all the students at Lucy have vastly differing experiences.  The minimum age of 21 means that even the youngest must have some ‘life experience’ before coming to the College for their education. This is one of the greatest things about College life here – every person has a different story to tell. This is borne out by the readings of the various poems which are the speaker’s natural interpretation of the words, rather than a practiced, or artificial performance. Although several English students contributed, a literary background was not a requirement for involvement in the project – just an interest in poetry and a willingness to lend a voice to the words on the page. Whilst several of the poems were by familiar authors, such as Christina Rossetti or George Eliot, others were written by students, like Charlotte Quinney and Heather Hind, as well as Gill Saxon, who works in our College library.  By having a selection of both traditional and modern, ‘Fifty Poems’ performed a similar function to ‘Poetry by Heart’, in showing how poetry is a living, vibrant medium of expression, not just a page in a textbook.

My own route to Lucy in 2011 was via deferred entry; I received the offer when I was 19 because I would be 21 in October 2012 and so eligible for admission.  In the intervening time, I worked and travelled for six months. This experience dramatically influenced the person I am today.  After I graduate this year, I hope to develop a career in International Development, an interest which originated from my trip around South Africa. This will be a little different from reading the greatest works of English literature, but one of the fantastic things about my degree is that the vast range of texts I’ve read have become as much a part of me as any other experience – and I don’t necessarily need to carry them all with me on my future travels! As the ‘Fifty Poems’ Project demonstrates, writing is all about individuals experiencing and exploring universal emotions: love, anger, frustration, doubt, hope, joy. In the words of Marianne Moore: ‘if you demand on the one hand the raw material of poetry, and that which is on the other hand genuine, you are interested in poetry’. The vocalisation of poetry makes both this rawness and honesty of emotion accessible. Some of my closest friends declare a positive fear of Shakespeare – as do many GCSE students, no doubt – and, on the page, it does look rather formidable. But, if you watch any accomplished actor of our day on the stage, speaking the verse (from David Tennant to Judi Dench) the meaning becomes immediately apparent from their intonation and expression. Even the most inaccessible speech of Hamlet’s appears comprehensible as performers communicate their understanding of the character through the language on the page. Just as the actors on stage bring vitality to the poetry, so too do the ‘Fifty Poems’ Project and ‘Poetry by Heart’; they all show how the same poem takes on a different shade of meaning when vocalised by a new individual.

I was delighted to be invited to the final of ‘Poetry by Heart’ on the 21st March. Each of the finalists performed to an exceptionally high-standard – I did not envy the judges in trying to select a winner. It was great to hear some old favourites, like John Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’ and Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, but even with those familiar poems, it felt like I was experiencing them for the first time. The poems really gained an added dimension, denied them on the page, especially with the callousness and vindictive nature of the voice in the Browning. The wrapping of Porphyria’s hair around her neck became all the more powerful as the speaker maintained the same tone throughout, even when describing how passionately the victim loved her yet unknown murderer. Many of the finalists chose a poem which they’d previously selected from the 1914-1918 period and they were all incredibly moving. A favourite of mine was Rose Macaulay’s ‘Picnic’, which I had not known of before. www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/picnic/. The reciter created a perfect balance between the beauty of the Downs and the violence of the guns at the Front. Many audience members tweeted about the power of the voices, and the goose bumps and tears were felt by everyone. One tweet spoke about the performances being a fitting tribute to all those who had fallen. It was amazing how these young students brought to life with tremendous power those vivid and horrific poems, reminding us that those soldiers’ sacrifice will never be forgotten by each passing generation.

At the core of ‘Poetry by Heart’ and Lucy Cavendish’s ‘Fifty Poems’ Project  is a desire to demonstrate what is great about poetry – not only its orality, but the individual readings that it encourages. In its earliest traditions, poetry was intended to be spoken, so that those who were unable to read were still able to participate in the experience of listening and hearing the stories of the great heroes of the past. Hundreds of years on, these initiatives restore this original purpose in appealing to the ear to entice the reader in. I hope in our collection, you can find at least one poem that draws your attention. I hope too that you follow your ears and enjoy the journey through new, or old, favourites.

About the author: Elinor George is from Cardiff in Wales. 23 years old, she is a third year English student at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Before coming to University, she took two gap years, which included a self-funded 6 months of travel to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. As well as travelling, her hobbies also include going to the theatre and rowing. Elinor has rowed for her College’s first boat since her first year at Lucy. One of her favourite novelists is Jane Austen which is fortunate as her parents named her after Miss Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility.

 

Share via

Poetry By Heart and a View from Russia

20th February 2015

Mariano Mantel – Kremlin seen from the Patriarchal Bridge Creative Commons

Moscow State Institute of International Relations student, Nellie Olphert, offers some thoughts on the fate of poetry and memorisation in Russia.

 

‘…And with the human race anew

I am family through you.’

‘My Journey’ by Olga Adamova-Sliozberg (1902-1991)

 In Russian by heart  is naizust which roughly means “coming from the lips”. I would say that the etymology carries an implication of words emerging from the depths of one’s personality. And memorised verse does, figuratively speaking, become dissolved in one’s blood, ideally merging with its new “owner”.

The reproduction of such cultural phenomena halts when the social demand for them falls. When a society stops memorising poetry, the latter ceases to appear and exist in the way it used to and could. In Russia the vitality of rhyme, metre or vers libre never really faded, and even less so – the mnemonic culture. It is partly the result of the great tradition of the so-called Russian ‘literature-centrism’.

Formed only towards the close of the XVIII century, Russian secular poetry is relatively young (oral folk tradition is yet another story). Its Golden age was seen at the beginning of the XIX century. Back then poetry was at the heart of things; both a craze and a blessing, it led to verse memorisation piercing all spheres of life, public and private: from nursery rooms and finishing schools to grand saloons and ballrooms. It mirrored the entire palette of human emotions and currents of thought. That meant endless reading and creating, sharing in friendship albums, declamation amongst friends and in public, quoting and recognising quotations in everyday speech, since memorised poetry is also a socially significant recognition symbol: of likeness, unity, learning, etc. Poets were, in the words of Alexander Pushkin, the “rulers of minds”. Numerous forbidden (most commonly for political reasons) texts circulated on scraps of paper in pencil and were instantaneously memorised and spread onwards. Before the Decembrist uprising Pushkin’s unpublished verses continued to exist in the minds of just about every insurrectionist. The interest for poetry during the ensuing years resembles a sine wave up to the October revolution when a “flip” of the social strata occurred and an entire unique class of people was swept away – an irretrievable loss.

Young Pushkin taking his first exam before the great poet Derzhavin (1815)

The Bolsheviks at first proclaimed learning by heart a form of bourgeois oppression, but soon the “right” poems were selected, that is, those containing criticism of the tsarist absolute monarchy. Many of them were the very ones prohibited during the XIX century. Literature in the Soviet times was one of the most important subjects at school, present in the schedule from the first to the last year, and learning verse by heart was its part and parcel. Though phrases from popular films were an infinitely greater part of the vernacular, children throughout the country could be heard bantering with each other using crammed excerpts from verse and prose, and any girl that finished eight classes of a Soviet school could recite Tatiana’s letter (“Eugene Onegin”) from memory and not forget her lines after the first quatrain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=6_kyjggnwLU

Both the dominant and the dissident cultures used verse as a weapon in the battle for human minds. It is a double edged weapon, since truly great poetry is what Umberto Eco called an “open work”: an invitation to collaborate, to activate the potential of one’s cogitative faculties to the limit. Memorised poetry creates the “citadel of the mind” which, in my subjective opinion, happens to be its vocation and most genuine form of existence.

The penalty for the diffusion of forbidden texts became incomparably harsher than it was in the tsarist days. As a result, literature, and poetry in particular due to its inherent characteristics, became of an exceptional value – life was at stake. The story of Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem “Requiem” is very characteristic. (Her poem  In Memoriam, July 19, 1914 can be read in the Poetry By Heart First World War showcase – http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-july-19-1914/)  The first “drafts” of ‘Requiem’ were created as Akhmatova spent seventeen months, day after day, waiting in prison queues in Leningrad after her son was arrested by the secret police; one day a woman behind her whispered:  ‘Could one ever describe this?’ and Akhmatova answered, ‘I can.’ But she had to keep it locked in her head for around 25 years before she allowed herself to trust paper with it.

Kuzma_Petrov-Vodkin.Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (1922) Public Domain 

The mémoires of former GULAG inmates contain numerous testimonies of poetry’s significance for human survival – for the preservation of mental health and the private inner world, since the sole space of freedom that is undividedly one’s own lies in the mind. The mnemonic nature of poetry gives its “possessor” the sensation of freedom and at times even of independence from life’s vicissitudes. GULAG camps were in a sense the best poetry school – no-one would commit your verse to memory if they sensed a single false note. The first anthology of GULAG prisoners’ poetry was published in 2005.

Evgenia Ginzburg in her book ‘Journey into the Whirlwind’ describes the first meeting with her son – the future writer Vasily Aksyonov – since his arrest: ‘I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps. Like me, he too found in poetry a bulwark against the inhumanity of the real world. Poetry was for him a form of resistance. That night of our first talk together we had Blok and Pasternak and Akhmatova with us…Now I understand what a Mother is – you can recite your favourite verses to her, and if you stop she will go on from the line where you left of.’

Today poetry surrounds most of us from our very birth, here and there on different levels, so memorising at times is really recalling or putting lines together. That also has to do with Russian literature’s high level of intertextuality. And once it’s learnt it’s quite impossible to forget. Our greatest poets captured things most vital and stirring in ingenious ways; these thoughts and means of expressing them are profoundly Russian (or rather they actually shaped and formulated what Russian truly is and should be…) and at the same time universally existential.

 

A Ukrainian and a New Zealander by descent, Nellie Olphert was born in Moscow in 1994. She is currently studying international journalism and public relations at Moscow State Institute of International Relations and will be graduating later this year with a thesis on dissident media in the Soviet Union.

Share via

Teesdale School and Poetry By Heart

1st February 2015

Chair of Judges author Anne Fine

Teesdale English teacher Cassie Flint reflects on the use of Poetry By Heart in the classroom.

 

Teesdale School had a great start to the competition with the delightful presence of award winning author Anne Fine as our chief judge. She had some really inspirational comments to make about our students and hopefully this will help them in the next round. We also had an international judge as a colleague was visiting from Pakistan, where the oral tradition remains remarkably strong and recitation of poetry  is, for many students, a daily experience.

Teesdale competitors and judges

Our school is partnered with a school in Abbottabad which is in the north west of Pakistan where I visit each year. Each day  begins with a recitation of a passage from the Qu’ran. As a result of being a judge on the competition, Rafia Naz, our partner from Pakistan is going to be running a Poetry by Heart competition in the school in Abbottabad. The national poet of Pakistan is Allama Iqbal and he is much loved, as we love Shakespeare. Here is one of his poems

 

 

The Age of Infancy

 

The earth and sky were unknown worlds to me

Only the expanse of mother’s bosom was a world to me

Every movement was a symbol of life’s pleasure to me

My own speech was like a meaningless word to me

During infancy’s pain if somebody made me cry

The noise of the door chain would comfort me

Oh! How I stared at the moon for long hours

Staring at its silent journey among broken clouds

I would ask repeatedly about its mountains and plains

And how surprised would I be at that prudent lie

My eye was devoted to seeing, my lip was prone to speak

My heart was no less than inquisitiveness personified

Recitation by girls at the school in Abbottabad

We had prepared for our Poetry by Heart competition by having an extra session of our weekly Poetry Club: in one of these we decided to do a Memory Workshop, chiefly to help our entrants to think about which ways would work best for them in the task of memorising poetry. The main technique we tried was the use of the ‘memory palace’ which  works both visually and by association – and it seemed to work for our students . Here are some useful sites if you are interested in finding out more. We took the verse we were trying to remember and found an image from the first line and made that image as ridiculous and as larger than life as we could, so for example, in Mary Robinson’s Female Fashions for 1799 ( from the Poetry by Heart Anthology) when the first line is

A form, as any taper, fine;

it would make me think of a form, the ones I had to leapfrog over as a primary school child, brown varnished wood and little rounded rubberised feet which cushioned it on the floor- this one would be very bendy and it would be standing on the path outside my front door.

Then, inside the front door there would be a very long thin taper, made of white wax and attached to its side was a massive parking ticket – with that black and yellow edging to it- telling me I had got a fine…..and so it goes on as you construct a whole building ( or palace) within which the strong visual images from this poem will be contained.

Usually in our Poetry Club we do something which we’ve named ‘Wild Writing’ where we devise different ways in which to write poetry both individually and collaboratively. We are a mixed group, though usually sixth form students and a few teachers. One of the early experiments we tried was to do this:

  • Select One from :
  • Playing with the idea
  • Experience
  • Concept
  • Narrative

and then having identified  a ‘way ‘ to write we then came up with a list of words. Our first ones were: element, bus, oak and yellow. We then wrote poems using these parameters.

We also tried our hand at writing song lyrics, writing two lines each, a villanelle and found inspiration from the poetry of the Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik ( whom we have recently discovered).

Here is one of our collaborative ones;

My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,

striding out along the midnight sidewalk:

I am painted in navy blue and the

thin strips of luminescence cast down by the moon.

The calm footfall is a son

only I hear.

Lately though we have been looking through the Poetry by Heart timeline and selecting ones to read and give our reactions to as we prepare for the next round of the Poetry by Heart Competition.

 

Memorising poetry

TED talk on memory

How to use a memory palace

 

Cassie Flint

I have been an English teacher for many, many years and throughout all the changes I have seen, the one constant in all my English teaching has been my love of poetry. I have written myself since I was a young girl and maybe, being the daughter of a novelist, in a way encouraged me. I grew up in St.Ives in Cornwall at a time when there were great artists there and I met them as my father’s friends. For that reason too the sea and the literature which asks the big questions in life appeal to me.  In my later years I have begun to travel and have been lucky enough to be part of a British Council Connecting Classrooms Project which takes me to Pakistan and to work in a school there each year. You might be interested in an article I published on my last visit: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/jan/07/schools-taliban-power-of-education

Share via

Why Poetry?

19th January 2015

Chew Valley Participants at their Poetry By Heart competition.

Deputy Headteacher Chris Hildrew reflects on the importance of poetry in his personal and professional life and his commitment to his ‘Poetry Promise’.

 

This year, I have made a Poetry Promise. My promise is to mark each month of the year with a favourite poem, shared online, with an explanation of why that particular poem is so special to me. The aim of the Poetry Promise is to raise the profile of Poetry by Heart and, by extension, share the love of poetry itself. How could I say no? I was knee deep in favourite poems on New Year’s Eve, trying to find that one I wanted for August!

Reflecting on my choices, I took stock of my relationship with poetry. Poetry has always moved me, really ever since I can remember. But it was at secondary school that it took hold of me, truly possessed me. I wrote tortured teenage verse in my diary, tried in vain to write a sestina that worked, and sat back in awe as my A-level Literature course took me on a tour through time from Chaucer to Heaney. It was the work of Sylvia Plath that was, and remains, my all-time favourite. Reading her work left me feeling like the hanging man in her poem of that name: “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.” I sizzled in the electricity of her verse.

As a teacher, I’ve always looked forward to teaching poetry. There’s something magical about unlocking it, about seeing it click into place in a student’s mind. Poetry never fails to provide those lightbulb moments. But what is it about poetry that makes it so distinct?

One of my favourite lessons that I planned as an NQT, and still use today, is an introductory lesson for A Level literature. In it, I present a series of texts: some prose, some poetry. Some of them are presented as written, others disguised: poems laid out like prose, prose laid out like poetry. I challenge the students to see through the disguises, with the aim of answering the question: what makes a poem a poem? The answers don’t really matter; the discussion is always mind-bending.

From years of teaching that lesson, I think I feel comfortable with the answer “a poem is a poem if we say it’s a poem.” Because the act of saying “this is a poem” lifts the language “above a common bound”, and gives it muscle. Words in poems have extra heft, like they’re loaded with lead shot; but they are nimble, their associations skipping across the page like spiders on a web.

When the occasion demands it, only a poem will do. Wedding, funerals, falling in love, the pain of goodbye…at these moments, dribbling prose won’t cut it. Only the poem can do the emotional heavy lifting required by these landmark events. That’s why the poet laureate is still such a key role, as Carol Ann Duffy has been admirably proving since 2009, in capturing landmarks in our national life. I still think “Translating the British” did a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of London 2012.

Chew Valley Poetry By Heart participant.

As a teacher in a school it’s my job and my pleasure to open up the spinning world of poetry for young people, not so they can pass exams and memorise the difference between a trochaic and an iambic rhythm, but so they can sit back with their eyes shut as they try to touch the edges of the emotions they have just experienced in the words of another. When I saw our students in our Poetry by Heart final this year, I almost forgot to breathe as they animated, inhabited, lived their recitations. The head judge was moved to tears. I will never forget it.

That is why poetry.

Chris Hildrew with his Poetry Promise

 

 

 

Chris Hildrew is Deputy Headteacher of Chew Valley School near Bristol. Follow @chrishildrew and read Chris’s blog at chrishildrew.wordpress.com

Share via

Introducing Poetry By Heart at Simon Langton G.S. for Boys

12th December 2014

Image courtesy of the Simon Langton School website

Poetry By Heart at the Langton

I have always loved reading poetry. Poets seem to have that knack of explaining things that we don’t know that we know. But when poetry is on the curriculum horizon there is a cacophony of sighs and complaints in my classes so the question was: how can I possibly get our boys interested in learning poetry?

 

I needed something to spur things on so I decided to film a montage of rap artists and teachers reading poetry; teachers who one would not expect to be interested in poetry. A physics and maths teacher very kindly obliged. And then I had a brainwave (well so I thought)! If only I could get our Director of Rugby to read a poem on my montage then maybe I could convince the boys that poetry was for all sorts of people not just bookworms like myself. I plucked up the courage to ask him and hoped that he wouldn’t think I was completely bonkers. How wrong could I have been? Nicky was so kind in giving his time and immediately said that he would recite a poem that his coach had read to him and his team during his time as a  Fijian international rugby player – ‘The Man In The Glass’ by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr.  Result! I played this montage to my year 10 class – they cheered when the rap artists and teachers came on but there was a deathly silence with mouths agape when Nicky read his poem. I felt that I had scored a try!

 

Simon Langton G.S. Director of Rugby Nicky Little reciting, ‘The Man in the Glass’ 1934 by Peter Dale Wimbrow Senior

 

Now they keep asking me if I will make another film with other teachers (planned for the New Year) and poetry lessons with  this class are just delightful and engaging. I’d like to think that the montage helped in many ways to neutralise an inbuilt fear of poetry. But, to be honest, it didn’t help me to get potential competitors queuing round the block!

I was so lucky to have such delightful sixth form students who volunteered through seeing the Poetry By Heart posters, strategically placed around the school.  Our competition preparation was very enjoyable. A local poet, Lynne Rees, conducted a ‘Making it Mine’ Masterclass where the competitors spent a relaxed morning discovering and exploring nuances in meanings in their chosen poems. I also gave one to one lunch-time coaching sessions leading up to the competition day. I really wanted the big day to strike a relaxed yet formal note. I think we managed that with cake and biscuits while the judges did their task. We had some wonderful recitations – particularly from our winner who really opened my eyes to a new understanding of Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ and our runner up who had us in stitches with ‘God, A Poem’ by James Fenton.  Now we’re really excited getting ready for the regional final to be held at the Gulbenkian theatre at the University of Kent on January 16th 2015.

I’ll be honest – I had never learnt a poem before and I was not convinced that learning one would help in my understanding. But attending the Poetry by Heart workshop in October at the British Library in London turned me into an avid convert and gave me a wonderful opportunity to develop my teaching of poetry. I decided to learn ‘The Dancers’ by Edith Sitwell. At every opportunity, in the shower, driving to work, weeding the garden, I would try to recite it. I can confidently say that my increased love for, and understanding of, this poem has been overwhelming through learning it. We have a new way forward now – I’m developing more masterclasses with Lynne across the three key stages to introduce all students to the magical world of learning poetry.

 

Liz was born in Newcastle under Lyme and read Human Biology at Loughborough University. She thoroughly enjoyed working for the next nineteen years in scientific and pharmaceutical research. Nevertheless, on being made redundant, she took the plunge and chose to have a change of career going back to her first love – literature. She read English literature at Kent University and completed a PhD researching early modern women writers. She now teaches English at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury , Kent.

 

Share via

The 3 Rs: Rhythm Rhyme and Recitation

13th November 2014

Photo by Fay Lofty

I am in the extremely fortunate position of working with teenagers for a job and so initially when invited to contribute to the Poetry By Heart blog I thought I’d write a piece about teenagers and poetry.   Just recently, however, I have had conversations with three people at different points on the great spectrum of life and a common theme emerged in our conversations which took me to the heart of Poetry By Heart. I have had the delights of conversing about poetry with a pre-schooler, a teenager and an octogenarian and this is what I learned.

 

Let’s reverse the natural order of things and consider the octogenarian first.  Belinda read English Literature at Cambridge University during the Second World War and today, in what some people might foolishly consider her dotage, is the sharpest mind I know.  Her greatest solace is her mind’s ability to recall Seamus Heaney, Shakespeare, Frost and Donne when her body fails her and this, she argues, is the reason her brain is still fighting fit when other parts are less so. Not just lines but entire poems come back to her as easily as my mobile phone number comes back to me.  She uses this ability now to connect to people and to give them an insight or frame of reference for her world.  Reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 71 in its entirety with its ear-catching iambic pentameter and powerful half-rhyming couplet to end, gives her comfort and leaves her audience wanting another poem and in no doubt as to the state of her mind.

Going to the middle of the spectrum takes us to a delightful young man, spoken word poet and playwright, Tommy Sissons who has just finished his A Levels and is about to go to university.  Interested in what teenagers find engaging about poetry, I asked Tommy to tell me why he loves poetry and this was his reply:  ‘I came to love poetry almost purely through the form of it being spoken. I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry but I find personally that you can connect with verse so much more when it’s performed out loud. You can appreciate the rhythm of the words and the emotions behind the poem a lot more.  A lot of teenagers can see poetry as a dry, old-fashioned form of expression but they’ve only been taught the work of poets that have been dead for hundreds of years in vernacular that modern youth can’t always relate to. When they are presented with spoken word (in a modern form) it speaks to them. I know lots of people my age that have come to love poetry through spoken word.’  I found the genre of rap very hard to access and Tommy was the first person who managed to get me to understand and enjoy rap – which is, as he says, arguably the vernacular of teenagers and relies heavily on rhyme schemes, solid rhythms and being made audible. Poetry By Heart may be occupying a slightly different space in the performance of poetry but it recognises and celebrates the acoustic quality of poetry.

My final conversation was with a four year old and was about the delights of the Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson.  I asked this small person what her favourite poem was and she trotted forward with a mauled copy of Donaldson’s book.  We read it together (twice), both enjoying the familiar cadences of a much-loved and familiar work.  I noticed that while I was reading, her lips were moving and asked her how much of the book she could remember.  She could recall nearly all of it with a few prompts which were related to the rhyming pattern.  When I asked her what she loved about it and why she’d chosen it as her favourite, after some consideration she replied, ‘it’s like dancing, only with words.’ And maybe whether we’re eight, eighteen or eighty that’s what we are doing when we get up and recite a set of words in our head – we’re dancing with words.

About the author

Fay Lofty works full-time as a Widening Participation Officer at the University of Brighton on an outreach programme with young people.  She has a BA (Hons) in Literature from The Open University and is currently doing an MA in Education at the University of Sussex.  In any time considered ‘spare’ she reads and tries to write.  She also runs a bookclub in the very small rural Sussex village where she lives and encounters many other inspirational readers and writers.  She has two daughters.

 

Share via

Is there a poem in your head?

3rd October 2014

The nationwide Poetry and Memory survey launched on 2nd October, UK National Poetry Day. The survey is part of the Cambridge University’s Poetry and Memory Project, which is investigating experiences of poetry learning, and examining the relationships between memorisation, recitation and understanding. David Whitley and Debbie Pullinger of the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University have been very interested in the work of Poetry By Heart and some of the research undertaken as part of their Cambridge Poetry Teaching Project appears in the Resources section of the Poetry By Heart website. Project Researcher Dr Debbie Pullinger tells us about this new and exciting Poetry and Memory Project.

 

Do you have a poem in your head? Then do come and tell us about it. It can be any poem, and any type of poem – we just ask that it isn’t a song lyric or a nursery rhyme.

There have been quite a few poetry polls over the years, mostly directed at finding the nation’s favourites. Our aim, however, is rather different. We want to discover what poems people know by heart – what poetry resides in our collective memory, at this moment, in October 2014. To the best of our knowledge, this is first time a survey of this kind and scope has been attempted.

As well as asking what the poem is and when you learned it, we’re also asking a couple of open-ended questions about what it means for you. The important thing here is that we’re emphatically not looking for GCSE English answers, or an analysis of what the poem is ‘supposed to be about’. Rather, we want to know about the personal significance of this particular poem. This might be to something do with the meaning, but it could also be to do with the sound. It may be that there’s one line which is particularly special. It may be that how you understand or feel about the poem has changed over the years.  It may be that you associate the poem with a particular occasion or period of your life. Or, it could be that the poem you know actually has very little meaning or significance for you at all – and we want to know about that, too.

Straight off, we expect to be able to announce what poems beat most strongly at the heart of the nation. It will be interesting, too, to see how they map on to those favourites lists. But aside from producing a headline top ten, there’s a great deal more that we’ll be able to do with this data.  We’ll be able to investigate, for example, the reasons why people now learn poetry, and the perceived value of doing so. We’re particularly interested in questions about the ‘use’ of learned poems – how they might act as an emotional resource, contribute to a sense of identity, assist in the development of an ear for language, engender a sense of community, play a role in memories of a personal or communal past. What does knowing a poem mean for someone, and indeed what different things does it mean for different people?

We’re really looking forward to seeing the responses to the survey and sharing the results. But, of course, its success as a piece of research hangs on getting a good response – which means we need lots of people to take part. So we really do need your help. You can do this in two ways.

Take part in the survey – if you have a poem in your head, please come and tell us about it. http://www.poetryandmemory.com/

 

Spread the word –  even if you don’t know a poem yourself, do pass the word on to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. I should also mention that it will be possible for print out a copy of the survey to give to anyone unable to access it online. They can then post it back to us using the Freepost address.

You can get spreading any way you fancy. Phone a friend. Find us on Facebook (The Poetry and Memory Project). Tweet on Twitter: @poetryandmemory #poetryandmemorysurvey.  Print a poster and display it on your favourite notice board.

Whatever you can do, we’ll be enormously grateful.

The survey runs from 2nd–31st October and is open to anyone in the UK aged 18 or over. For more about the survey and the Poetry and Memory Project: www.poetryandmemory.com

image of staff member

Debbie Pullinger is the project’s full-time researcher, based in the Faculty of Education, where she also teaches on the Children and Literature course. Her doctoral project, completed in 2013, was on orality and textuality in poetry written for children. Debbie worked in primary teaching, in educational publishing, and as a freelance writer before returning to academia in 2009.

 

Share via