Poetry By Heart Blog

Poetry By Heart – The Movie

19th November 2015

Hear From The Students from Poetry By Heart on Vimeo.

Here at Poetry By Heart Towers, it can occasionally be forgotten in the midst of various and deadly administrative and marketing tasks that come flying our way that it is only the workers at the coal face who make the competition possible. The teachers. The librarians. The parents. The students.

 

We spend a lot of our time talking to the teachers, the librarians and the parents…but naturally we don’t hear as much as we would like from the students until the county rounds.

And of course it is only at the national finals weekend, the frenzied and exhilarating three days in March, that we really spend any time getting to hear their story of how they approached the challenge, how they learned their poems, what drives them to do so and fundamentally what they have gained from Poetry By Heart. They are all of them without exception, a pleasure to speak to. Talented, bright, and like every teenager, with a genuine desire for their voice to be heard somehow.

Until the latter stages of the competition, from our office (third-floor of a converted townhouse in Bristol; the view from my window is a rainy street and constantly honking seagulls, if you were wondering) it’s difficult to imagine the student experience because we have nothing except names on a page of who has won this, or recited that. There isn’t much beyond anecdotal evidence.

So at the national finals at Homerton College, Cambridge, in March earlier this year, we were determined to do something about this. The video above this blog post contains the result. We worked with the great team at Dialogics (http://www.dialogics.com/) who have the peculiar skill of being able to appear in five places at once and whenever you need them. They have filmed recitations at three consecutive national finals and were briefed this year to interview as many students as possible, totally unscripted, all from different schools and different backgrounds to showcase the Poetry By Heart experience. Peter Osborn, long-time supporter of the project, was asking the questions and we left Cambridge with a good two hours of footage.

This, of course, left us with a lot of tricky decisions about what to cut out. And apologies if any students are watching who gave us a really great soundbite which didn’t make the cut. We assure you that we could have made five similar films from the footage we had! After two weeks of making choices, agonising over those choices and then editing, a video emerged.

So, all that I have left to say is please watch it! And please share it with everyone you possibly can who may be interested. Spread the word on social media. Put it in newsletters. Show it in classrooms. Show it in assemblies. Send it out into the world!

 

TOMAbout the Author:

Tom Boughen was born in Hull and now lives in Bristol, having worked in administration and marketing for Poetry By Heart for three years. He has a History MA from the University of Bristol, and wrote his thesis about Indian soldiers in the First World War. During his downtime over the summer he likes to go globetrotting, his 2015 jaunt taking him to the USA, Mexico and Cuba. In his spare time in Bristol, he likes to read, write, watch deliberately obscure films and is currently completing an open online course from the University of Alberta about dinosaurs.

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Poetry Comics

24th June 2015

 

Image courtesy of paulktunis.com

Poet Chris McCabe reflects on the popularity of poetry comics and the debt they might owe to William Blake.

 

William Blake appears in The Poetry by Heart timeline for the year 1789 with his poem ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. This poem is from his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which demonstrated a new way of bringing together poetry and visual art that built on the manner of earlier (often religious) illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. In The Poetry Library’s current exhibition Poetry Comics Blake is featured amongst the poets and artists on show with the implicit question: If Blake were to begin his endeavour today, might we not consider it as a work that falls into the medium of comics?

 

Blake, as both a poet and an artist, was able to fulfil this kind of work himself: etching the words and images into the same copper plate to make one complete experience for the viewer. As far back as the beginning of Chinese ideograms we know that there has been a human wish to combine words and visual images. Poetry Comics shows us how modern artists and poets have explored this idea, combining poetry and sequential art to create new and surprising works.

The Poetry Library has a collection of over 150,000 items in every form and medium imaginable: epics, ballads, sonnets, haiku. There are even poetry balloons, beer-mats and T-shirts. What has been surprising is finding how many poetry comics exist in the library. Dadaist picture poems from the period of the First World War, broadsides from 1950s San Francisco, collaborations between New York poets and artists and small press publications from the 1970s. The greatest surprise has been finding that Poetry Comics is a currently thriving scene and that anyone can get involved in this exciting hybrid art form.

Chrissy Williams, my co-curator on this exhibition, is also a poet who has published a number of publications which combine poetry and sequential art, including The Jam Trap (Soaring Penguin Press, 2012) and Angela (Sidekick Book, 2013). She describes how she first became interested in Poetry Comics like this:

‘I had abandoned comics when I was younger, and it was only in coming back to them as an adult that I started to see the creative possibilities inherent in their structure. The visual language of the panel to panel transitions made me think of the transitions from line to line in poetry – how much is left unsaid, in both, for the reader to complete for themselves. And the line itself – both mediums concern themselves with trying to do more with less, with using the most economic (yet expressive) line possible. It struck me there were useful things both mediums could learn from each other, and the exploration started there.’

Chrissy organises a poetry comics workshop which invites poets and artists to come and make poetry comics together. In the exhibition at The Poetry Library there is a whole display case with loose-leaf pages assembled across each other in layers of cut-up colours and words. There is a real sense of fun and possibility. Pencil, ink and colour invite words to sit both in and outside of the panels. There is an image of a mountain with smoke firing out of it and the words read, above and below: ‘O Fire of love, newly arrived. / How armourless. Fiend of Hell.’

The exhibition also has some suggestions on how poetry comics work and how you might make them yourself. A sentence in bright pink curves around a column in the library: WHAT HAPPENS OFF THE PAGE IS AS IMPORTANT AS WHAT HAPPENS ON IT. Chrissy says:

‘When the line is at its most economic, you might see only a few marks on the page – this allows for even those with the most limited artistic ability (and I count myself among them) to work up ideas. Thinking of it as a collage between poetry and sequential art also means you can use found images to make ideas work. What interests me most about the process is finding new ways to explore the page.’

Perhaps the easiest way to make a start with your own poetry comic is to pick up the little booklet at The Poetry Library which simply says on the cover ‘see what happens…’. Who knows, this could be the start of your own beginnings as a maker of poetry comics? The best thing about this form is that you can work on it alone, with a collaborator, or in groups, and there is no end to the possibilities.

Poetry Comics at The Poetry Library is open Tuesday-Sunday 11-8 until 12th July.
There will be a further exhibition of new poetry comics work at the Poetry Society’s Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden from 1st September. This work will be drawn from a forthcoming anthology to be published by Sidekick Books: Over the Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics.

Chris McCabe is the Poetry Librarian at The Poetry Library, Southbank Centre. His poetry collections are The Hutton Inquiry, Zeppelins, THE RESTRUCTURE and Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2015). He has recorded a CD with the Poetry Archive, has had work included in numerous anthologies and was shortlisted for The Ted Hughes Award in 2014 for his collaborative work with Maria Vlotides, Pharmapoetica. His plays Shad Thames, Broken Wharf and Mudflats have been performed in London and Liverpool and his prose book In the Catacombs: a Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery, also published by Penned in the Margins, documents his search to find a great forgotten dead poet.

 

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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

 

 

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‘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.

 

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First Lines

31st March 2015

In his excellent little handbook “On Poetry”, Glyn Maxwell talks about a poem’s conception, the poem arising “from the urge of a human creature, once, upon a time – to break silence, fill emptiness, colour nothing with something, anything.”

 

He invites us to think about the opening line of any poem as the precise moment at which the pressure of that silence breaks into an utterance that has to be heard. Maxwell suggests letting photography help us think about this, imagining any first line as a photographic frame. Imagining this as a “snapshot” encourages us to slow down our reading, to really think about the moment at which this voice starts to speak, where it’s coming from and its orientation to us, its readers and hearers. Maxwell suggests these key questions:

“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 in 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?… Consider how he or she is there, how the poet is imprinted on the poem.”

It’s a set of questions that can take us a long way, just with the first line. At another point, Maxwell also suggests storyboarding as a creative way of getting inside a poem. Try it in conjunction with his ideas about opening lines and interesting things happen. Take a storyboard sheet and use the final frame to visualize the moment of the opening line. Then fill in the four or five frames before that. What happened to cause such a build up of pressure that the first line became inevitable?

Try this with any line of poetry you like but the Poetry By Heart website could help students find their own favourites. From the homepage of www.poetrybyheart.org.uk click on “Resources and Downloads” and then “Index of First Lines”.  This is an A-Z list of the opening lines of the 200+ poems in the Poetry By Heart timeline anthology, hyperlinked to the full poem pages. Alternatively, from the “Resources and Downloads” page click on “Learning Resources” and you will find a pdf of the index of the first lines that you could download and share.

To go further, give students the first and last lines, and consider how the poet might get from A to B before reading the whole poem. You might explore the first line and then have students writing one or more next lines to explore where it might go and then where the poet took it. And if your students are planning to enter the next Poetry By Heart competition, it’s another way of exploring the poems to find ones they might want to commit to memory.  Taken completely out of context, they offer surprising and delightful little voyages of discovery.

 

Julie Blake is the co-founder and co-director of Poetry by Heart. Pictured here at the opening of Poetry by Heart 2015 at Homerton College, Cambridge University March 2015

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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.

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New Additions to the Poetry By Heart First World War Showcase

2nd January 2015

In January and Feburary 2015  the county round of Poetry By Heart will be taking place up and down the country in arts centres, libraries and museums. In forty two different venues students will be reciting not only their pre and post 1914 poems but also a poem chosen from the special Poetry By Heart First World War showcase. In another January Blog post Anne Caldwell reflects on how she made use of the showcase within a memorable First World War commemorative event in Bolton whilst below Poetry By Heart Project Assistant Tom Boughen highlights some of the new additions to the showcase

 

The First World War collection has been an integral part of the Poetry By Heart experience for over a year. We uploaded the first poems to the showcase in November 2013 to coincide with Remembrance Day, and were impressed by the way in which so many students brought these poems to life with emotional and powerful recitations in the County rounds.

We’re very pleased to announce that we have expanded the collection for the centenary year! The aim has always been to include a variety of voices, from the old British favourites Owen and Sassoon, to Guillaume Apollinaire (French), Edward Slonski (Polish), Stadler and Trakl (German), Seeger (American); the contemporary voices (Andrew Motion, Mick Imlah, Owen Sheers), and to also include the voices of women such as Sara Teasdale and Helen Mackay, offering witness to the horrors of war from the home front and hospital units. Taken together from so many different sources, we hoped that this collection would be a diverse showcase of poetry from different corners of the same conflict.

With these additions we hope our collection continues in this vein.

Anna Akhmatova – In Memoriam, July 19, 1914

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-july-19-1914/

Akhmatova’s poem is the first in our collection to shed light on the Russian experience, and concerns the declaration of war on Germany; with a real sense of impending doom.

Laurence Binyon – For The Fallen

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/for-the-fallen/

You already know the fourth stanza; it is quoted every 11th November…

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Discover the rest of Binyon’s elegant and enduring tribute.

Mary Borden – Song of The Mud  

Mary Borden (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/song-of-the-mud/

One of the greatest horrors of trench warfare is often overlooked. Borden writes about the ‘invincible, inexhaustible mud of the war zone’ in a poem that becomes distinctly more nightmarish as it goes on.

Eleanor Farjeon – Easter Monday (In Memoriam E.T.)

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/easter-monday-in-memoriam-e-t/

You may know the prolific poet Edward Thomas – he also appears in our anthology. Eleanor Farjeon, best known for her children’s stories, had a close relationship with Thomas which ended in heartbreak with his death in April 1917. This poem is affecting for its simplicity with a particularly poignant ending. Farjeon’s mourning is tangible throughout the lines.

Julian Grenfell – Into Battle

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/into-battle/

The best-known war poets – for example Sassoon and Owen – are vociferously anti-war and deeply cynical. Grenfell’s poem is one of few in our collection that is overwhelmingly in favour of the war, portraying the soldier’s struggle as one of destiny. It is curious to wonder how Grenfell’s thoughts on the war might have changed had he lived past 1915.

Rudyard Kipling – My Boy Jack

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-boy-jack/

A poem about loss and regret, and barely disguised mourning for Kipling’s son Jack, killed in action early on in the war. A simple poem, but no less powerful for its simplicity

Glyn Maxwell – My Grandfather At The Pool

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-grandfather-at-the-pool/

Contemporary poet and Poetry By Heart judge Glyn Maxwell’s poem is about the act of remembrance and his grandfather, and the effect history has on the living.

Ezra Pound – Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Part I)

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/hugh-selwyn-mauberley-part-i/

This is an extract taken from Pound’s lengthy eighteen-part poem. His language is visceral and contemptuous of the ‘botched civilisation’, ‘an old bitch gone in the teeth’ for which so many men died.

Edgell Rickword – Trench Poets

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/trench-poets/

The first of two new additions by Edgell Rickword. He served as a soldier and survived the war, becoming increasingly more political in later life as a committed socialist. This poem is bleakly comic, describing a solder attempting to fend off the rats and worms from consuming the body of his dead friend (we told you it was bleak!).

Edgell Rickword – The Soldier Addresses His Body

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-soldier-addresses-his-body/

There is a strange sense of detachment in this poem, and Rickword returns to the gallows humour present in Trench Poets. It ends with an unusual sense of self-deprecation, as he decides to ‘have a drink, and give the cards a run and leave dull verse to the dull peaceful time.’

That’s our run through the new additions! With the county contests coming up, hopefully we’ll see and hear some of them being recited at arts venues and libraries across the country.

 

Tom Boughen (standing second from the left with other members of the Poetry By Heart team) is a key part of the Poetry By Heart set up for the 2014-15 competition having completed a work placement with Penguin UK to help out with the Poetry By Heart book published on October 2nd. He is a University of Bristol history graduate and the PBH paid project assistant for the life of the competition.

(Main image above – ‘Poppy Field’ by Mark Shirley – Creative Commons)

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Publishing Poetry

19th September 2014

Tony Lacey, publisher of the new Poetry By Heart book, reflects on forty years at Penguin and the pleasures and challenges of publishing poetry. Tony also contributes his own choices to this Blog’s ‘Desert Island Poems’ series.

 

Edited by Julie Blake, Mike Dixon, Jean Sprackland and Sir Andrew Motion. Published by Penguin. Publication date: October 2nd 2014

I’ve been at Penguin for forty years and published a huge range of books, from sports personality biographies and war memoirs to upmarket literary fiction. But one of the true highlights was publishing the second series of Penguin Modern Poets in the late 90s. I’d grown up, literally, with the first series, buying each volume as they came out through my teens and beyond: it was through these little volumes that I first read Gavin Ewart, John Fuller, Dannie Abse, and a host of others that became favourite poets of mine. It was also through Penguin Modern Poets that I came to know the Beats and the Mersey poets.

Twenty-five or so years later I was toying with the idea of a follow-up, second series, and slightly to my surprise my colleagues were encouraging: I’d always thought of poetry as a bit of a private passion, best left to those professionals in the field like Faber. We ended up publishing twelve volumes between 1995 and 1997, each volume containing the work of three poets as in the first series, and I think you can gauge the quality by the poets featured in the first and last books: James Fenton/Blake Morrison/Kit Wright and Helen Dunmore/Jo Shapcott/Matthew Sweeney. I’ve just done a quick count on the Poetry by Heart timeline, and I reckon that eighteen of the poets included there were in our series.

I wish I could pretend that the series was a huge commercial success in the way that the first had been. (A figure of one million copies is often quoted as the number of copies sold of the Mersey Poets volume alone, published in 1967 – I can’t prove it because Penguin’s sales figures on computer only go back to the mid70s. But give or take a few hundred thousand, it was clearly a phenomenal figure – those were the days!)  Why the second series didn’t take off in the same way is a question for social historians – it has something to do with cultural climate of the 1960s. But I’m pleased by the way the series has stood up to the test of history – looking at them recently to check a few texts for the Poetry by Heart anthology, it struck me again that they represented a terrific introduction to a new generation of poets.

The fact that we’ll be publishing Poetry by Heart in my last months at Penguin is hugely gratifying. Not just because it is poetry, but because it’s the best kind of poetry publishing, in the great Penguin tradition of publishing the best but to the widest possible audience. And my Desert Island eight from the anthology?

‘The Good Morrow’ and ‘Dover Beach’ – great poems that obviously don’t require any justification from me but I’ve chosen them because, encouraged by Poetry by Heart, I’ve learnt them both in the past few months. No mean feat in late middle age, I can tell you! I’ve known them all my adult life but to be able to recite them feels like a miracle.

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ – because it’s so weird, and never seems any less weird no matter how many times you read it. I know Browning said his interest was on the dangerous side of things, but even so – this is a shocker.

‘The God Abandons Antony’ – I feel uneasy with poetry in translation. Reading it often feels like looking through a slightly fuzzy window: you know there’s something good on the other side but you can’t quite get it in focus. But this does it for me. There may be extra-poetic things going on here, I admit: Cavafy’s life is enormously resonant for one thing, and also I really like Leonard Cohen’s beautiful reworking of the poem, which features in his Book of Longing collection, the most successful book of poems I’ve ever published. (Not quite Mersey Sound figures but getting on…)

‘Skunk Hour’ and ‘I don’t operate often’ – I love the American poets of the 50s and 60s, perhaps above all other twentieth-century poets. Fashion has turned against the men (Elizabeth Bishop has now supplanted them in public esteem) but I persist in revering Lowell and Berryman. There’s a kind of stately excitability about Lowell that I like, and as for Berryman – whole chunks of his Dream Songs have stuck in my head as firmly as any 60s pop lyrics.

‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’ – one of Housman’s exquisite lyrics. I know that ‘exquisite’ is a slippery word, and I’ve heard it said that Housman is top second-division rather than first, but I don’t think all poetry has to be grandiose or all-encompassing, and I think this poem can stand beside the best.

Finally, William Empson’s ‘Aubade’ – this seems to have everything a great poem should: wonderful singability, real intellectual interest, and something of a puzzle about it too so that it never fully gives itself up.

Tony’s Desert Island Choices:

1)      ‘The Good Morrow’ John Donne

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-good-morrow/

2)      ‘Dover Beach’ Matthew Arnold

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/dover-beach/

3)      ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ Robert Browning

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/porphyrias-lover/

4)      ‘The God Abandons Antony’ C. P. Cavafy

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-god-abandons-antony/

5)      ‘Skunk Hour’ Robert Lowell

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/skunk-hour/

6)      ‘Dream Song No 67: I don’t operate often’ John Berryman

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/i-dont-operate-often/

7)      ‘Tell me not here it needs not saying’ A.E. Housman

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/tell-me-not-here-it-needs-not-saying/

8)      ‘Aubade’ William Empson

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/aubade/

 

Tony Lacey went to a grammar school in south London, then read English at the University of Bristol. He joined Penguin straight from university, and apart from one year at Granada, he has been there ever since. He was  Publishing Director of Puffin in the early eighties, succeeding the legendary Kaye Webb, before he moved over to adult books to be the first Publishing Director of Penguin’s new hardcover list, Viking.His authors include Will  Self, Nick Hornby, Claire Tomalin, Matthew Parris and William Trevor, and he has published a number of poetry anthologies – most recently The Poetry of Birds (edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee) and The Poetry of  Sex (edited by Sophie Hannah). He plans to retire in 2015 and at last read Edward Gibbon, Robert Musil, etc etc.

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Words and Music by Nick Freeth

5th September 2014

 

‘Hanging Guitars’ by Zeetz Jones

 

Nick Freeth explores the relationship between poetry and music and discusses musical settings of some of the poems in the Poetry By Heart anthology.

 It’s taken me a long time to stop myself rushing through poetry too quickly. The magic is much more likely to emerge if I recite the lines, or hear them read to me – and these ‘real-time’ processes can’t be hurried. I also love listening to musical settings of some poems, though I know many people have well-founded reservations about this hybrid genre. Words have their own tones and rhythms, which inevitably get overlaid by a composer’s additions; and even the finest verses will be spoiled by dull melodies and accompaniments, or by singers with wobbly voice production and cloudy diction.

 But when poetry and music combine successfully, the outcome is marvellous. I vividly recall participating, as a 12-year-old, in a performance of a choral setting of ‘I sing of a maiden’ by Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989). I don’t think I’d have made much of its Middle English words if I’d encountered them in the classroom. But as my fellow choristers and I learned how to sing them, we gradually grasped their meaning, and were able to absorb their inherent sense of wonder. Berkeley’s hushed, mysterious setting complements them perfectly, and is all the better for being uncompromisingly twentieth-century, not ‘faux-medieval.’

Solo songs, where the singer takes on the poet’s voice, tend to produce a more intense effect than choral works. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote his setting of William Barnes’ ‘Linden Lea’ http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-orchad-in-linden-lea/  for soloist and piano in 1901, and created one of his loveliest tunes for its three stanzas. (Most performers use a standard English version of these, though the printed score also supplies the Dorset dialect words.) He sustains some of the syllables in a way that might have surprised Barnes, but the results sound entirely natural, and the music’s lingering over the words “…cloudless sunshine overhead” evokes, for me, an especially English kind of eternal, pastoral present.

In ‘Linden Lea’, Vaughan Williams employs a single, repeated melody; but when composers choose, instead, to ‘tailor’ their notes to every line of a poem, there’s greater scope to vary the mood, and illustrate the text more elaborately. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) excelled at this, as we can hear from his treatment of two items in the Poetry By Heart anthology: a fragment of Christopher Smart’s ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’ in Rejoice in the Lamb (1943); and T.S. Eliot’s ‘The journey of the Magi’ (Canticle IV, for three solo singers and piano, 1971). http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/for-i-will-consider-my-cat-jeoffry/  http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-journey-of-the-magi/  I have to admit that the canticle setting always leaves me cold, for all its ingenuity, perhaps because I find it hard to imagine Eliot’s Wise Men singing to us at all!

By contrast, music is already at the heart of the words in some of my favourite Britten songs. His early collaboration with W.H. Auden, On This Island (1937), opens with the triumphal flourishes of ‘Let the florid music praise!’, before a disquieting change of mood takes hold. ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’, from his Thomas Hardy cycle, Winter Words (1953), supplies music of almost cinematic clarity for the description of a boy with a violin, and the handcuffed convict who breaks into an ironic ditty (“This life so free is the thing for me!”) on the platform beside him. And in the same work, Britten conjures up a choir of angels “singing and playing the ancient stave” for ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’, the tale “the tenor man told when he had grown old.”

Whatever their brilliance and power, though, do we actually need song settings? Isn’t the poetry complete without them? The answer to the second question is, of course, “Yes”, and I think the items I’ve mentioned must be considered as works of art in their own right – incorporating and augmenting the poems without ever supplanting them. However, there’s one category of verse in Poetry By Heart to which slightly different rules apply: the two ballads, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ and ‘Lord Randall.’

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-wife-of-ushers-well/  http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/lord-randall/

These pieces have been passed down through the oral tradition as songs, and only make their full impact when heard with their associated melodies. Because several ‘variants’ of the words and music have been preserved, we have a number of versions of the ballads to choose from: the ones I’ve recommended (sung and played by Martin Carthy, one of the ‘greats’ of English folk) are excellent starting points. Enjoy!

Nick’s choices, with suggested recordings of their musical settings (all available on iTunes):

I sing of a maiden (Anon.)

Berkeley’s setting: Choir of Lincoln College, Oxford

Linden Lea (William Barnes)

Vaughan Williams’ setting: Bryn Terfel/Malcolm Martineau

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry (Christopher Smart)

Britten’s setting (from ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’): Michael Hartnett/George Malcolm/Benjamin Britten

The journey of the Magi (T.S. Eliot)

Britten’s setting (‘Canticle IV’): Derek Lee Ragin/Philip Langridge/Gerald Finlay/Steuart Bedford

 Other Britten songs:

Let the florid music praise (W.H. Auden): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

The Choirmaster’s Burial (Thomas Hardy): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

At the Railway Station, Upway (Thomas Hardy): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

Ballads:

The Wife of Usher’s Well (Anon.): Martin Carthy (from album ‘Signs of Life’)

Lord Randall (Anon.): Martin Carthy (from album ‘Because It’s There’)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Nick Freeth playing his own ten string cittern made for him by Glasgow luthier Jimmy Moon

Nick was born in London, has been actively involved in music since childhood, and is especially interested in classical and popular English song.

He read English at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, joined the BBC after graduating, and went on have a busy career in music radio production with the Corporation, as Jazz FM’s Senior Producer, and later as a freelance. His BBC commissions included a series for Radio 3 presented by opera singer Robert Tear, shows for Radio 2 and World Service hosted by Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, and a Radio 2 documentary on the British Library’s National Sound Archive. Since 1999, he has been a freelance author, writing extensively about music and American subjects; he also works as an editor and publisher.

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Desert Island Poems

27th June 2014

Julie Blake chooses the eight poems she would take with her to a desert island from the Poetry By Heart anthology.

My “Desert Island Poems” challenge had all the usual problems of narrowing the choice to just eight, though at least I only had 206 poems to choose from and I already knew some so well that they would have been wasted choices. Instead, I’ve chosen poems because I love them but don’t have them by heart, and in my long months of solitude I’ll change that.

My first two poems will remind me of family. My grandmother can probably still recite ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’, the first line of Felicia Hemans’ ‘Casabianca’. Catherine Robson’s history, ‘Heartbeats: everyday life and the memorized poem’, has helped me understand why my grandmother would always break off at this point and mutter darkly about all poetry being rubbish. I should like to be able to finish the poem for her. Meanwhile, my grandfather left Scotland at a young age to find his fortune in London; only when he went back at the age of 72 to marry his second wife did he start celebrating Burns night but he died soon after and I’ll never know whether he had a poem. I’ll take ‘Ae fond kiss’ with me and make sure I do. Though the BBC’s recording of Alec Salmond reciting ‘A man’s a man for a’that’ is so gorgeous I may need that as my luxury.

The Scottish connection continues though it’s less about roots and much more about sound: Louis MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’. I’m a sucker for strongly metrical rhyming poetry – always have been, always will be, and I’m not going to apologise for it now! And it’s funny…

I didn’t know the next two poems at all before Poetry By Heart. Poets Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland selected the anthology and I guided them in avoiding curriculum clunkers and making sure the timeline was balanced. Charlotte Smith’s ‘On being cautioned…’ duly entered as a must-have sonnet. Its setting is Beachy Head, a place I know well having taught for ten years next door to the hospital to which the suicides are helicoptered. The poem will remind me of the pleasures of teaching – and the madness of walking on headlands. Meredith’s poem simply took my breath away with its super-saturated darkness.

My sixth poem has a different kind of darkness. I taught ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ many times and, being a bigger fan of Margaret Atwood’s poetry than her fiction, always started with her poem ‘Notes towards a poem that can never be written’, dedicated to Carolyn Forché. Forché’s poems can be unremitting in their gaze on the horror of our times, and ‘The Colonel’ is especially so. Jennifer O’Sullivan’s performance of it at the 2014 finals is one I’m sure I’ll never forget.

My final two poems will remind me of Poetry By Heart as they are written by two of our poet-judges. I adore tricky forms and Patience Agbabi’s ‘Josephine Baker Finds Herself’ makes me grin with delight at its technical accomplishment, the second half of the poem a delicious mirroring of the first. And, oh, those Brixton nights…

I can hardly believe how much Poetry By Heart has achieved three years after Andrew Motion and I first talked about it: it’s been immensely hard work by a committed team but also such intense pleasure in hearing young people share the poems they’ve loved and learned. My final choice is Andrew’s new poem ‘The fish in Australia’.  I’ve heard him read it twice and now always hear the cadences of his voice in it. I might learn this one silently and keep it that way.

So if you get the call from the Kirsty Young of the poetry world, which eight poems would you take to keep you company on your sun-kissed desert island?

Julie’s choices

Casabianca (Felicia Hemans)
Ae fond kiss (Robert Burns)
Bagpipe music (Louis MacNeice)
On being cautioned… (Charlotte Smith)
Lucifer in starlight (George Meredith)
The colonel (Carolyn Forché)
Josephine Baker finds herself (Patience Agbabi)
The fish in Australia (Andrew Motion)

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