- A welcome from Andrew Motion, Co-founder
- What teachers say
- What poets say
- Contact Poetry By Heart
Poetry by Heart is a national poetry recitation competition for schools and colleges in England. It’s also a website for teaching and learning about poetry – by heart and out loud, and with plenty of choice for young people to explore poems and find the ones they love. It’s a resource for everyone in schools, in England, and everywhere else.
In the national Poetry By Heart competition young people aged from 7-18, in key stages 2, 3, 4 and 5 choose poems they love, learn them by heart and perform them in a school or college competition. There can be as few as three contestants and as many as the whole school.
With our support and free materials, teachers pick their school/college competition winner(s), make a simple video of their performances and upload them for judging. Every national competition entrant receives positive feedback from the judges and a certificate celebrating their achievement. The best will be invited to perform their poems in front of top UK poets at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – and the new Poetry By Heart national champions will be crowned.
Poetry By Heart is simple to set up, it’s all free and schools and colleges have until 31st March 2021 to choose who will represent them in the national competition. All the details are on the 2021 competition information page.
Schools and colleges can also take part by uploading videos of pupils performing poems for sharing on our website, if a non-competitive option is preferred.
Poetry By Heart has always been a partnership between poetry and education. It was founded in 2012 by poet Andrew Motion, UK Poet Laureate 1999-2009, and educator Julie Blake, and initially developed by The Full English with The Poetry Archive. This collaboration now been expanded to include The Poetry Society, the English Association, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, the National Association for the Teaching of English and Homerton College, University of Cambridge. Poetry By Heart is funded with the support of the Department for Education.
A welcome from Andrew Motion, Co-founder
Ever since I first started reading poetry in earnest, more than forty years ago, I’ve always thought its meaning has as much to do with sound as it does to do with sense. Poetry, crucially, is an acoustic form. It’s emotional noise. That is why it’s often able to move us before we completely understand it. Its sounds allow us to receive it in our hearts, as well as in our heads. It was for these reasons, among others, that Richard Carrington and I launched the Poetry Archive ten years ago, and also why I established Poetry by Heart with Julie Blake.
Poetry By Heart allows us to appreciate and enjoy this in the most fundamental way – by encouraging young people to learn poems and recite them aloud. In eight years, it has grown from strength to strength: since 2013 thousands of pupils have had some experience of this kind of poetry learning and sharing. This is both serious and fun: an excitement and a dare. It offers young people new ways of finding pleasure and confidence in poetry. It is about understanding and remembering the deep recurring truths about our experience as humans, in terms that are especially beautiful and resonant.
Most of us have some recollection of being made to learn things when we were young ourselves, and most of us can remember bits or all of those poems in our older age. This tells us several things, I think. It tells us how important it is to learn good stuff, so that our heads are full of nourishing words. It tells us this good stuff changes its meanings in very interesting ways as the years pass and the words stay in our memories. It tells us that despite or because of the effort involved in learning by heart, we as humans have a primitive appetite for it. It makes us feel good. It makes us find ourselves.
Poet, former Poet Laureate
Co-founder of Poetry By Heart
What teachers say
A poetry buzz
“The competition and all the fantastic supporting resources have generated a poetry buzz across and beyond the school. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it has changed the lives of the young people who have taken part, offering them the opportunity not simply to engage with poetry but to own it, inhabit it, and share it.”
“Some students sign up who say they don’t even like poetry! They want to compete because it is a challenge. Learning a poem by heart appeals to lots of different types of students and often to those we least expect.”
“It’s egalitarian – in our school it is rarely the top set who win and the confidence and pleasure it gives the lower ability students is undoubted.”
An essence of who and what we are
“Poetry explores the essence of who and what we are. Young people spend much of their time trying to understand themselves through technology which can be destructive in the way that it distances them from that essence.”
An opportunity to perform in public
“Opportunities such as those offered by Poetry By Heart are increasingly rare. If we are to produce articulate young people who have the confidence to stand in front of large groups and present, to lead business and industry confidently we have a responsibility to prepare them and support them for public scenarios.”
“I ran the Poetry By Heart competition at two schools and it absolutely galvanised interest, broke through gender boundaries and gave an incredible range of pupils, from macho Rugby players to painfully shy pupils the chance to be rewarded for taking risks.”
A living encounter
“It has massively increased our awareness and enjoyment of poetry: it brings poetry ‘alive’, off the page and into people’s hearts.”
“I teach students with special needs and it gives them a huge boost when they can remember a whole poem by heart AND perform it. On top of the impact on self-confidence, it supports cognition and learning.”
A navigation aid
“In an age of growing anxiety, stress and mental health concerns, poetry, especially that which has been learned and internalised, can play a vital role in equipping students to navigate the choppy waters of adolescence.”
A lasting impact
“It gave our students the opportunity to engage with poetry in a different way. They genuinely loved it. Students did assemblies, poetry readings and brought in poems that they loved as part of the preparation. This had a lasting impact.”
What poets say
It was the most electrifying performance of poetry from the past I have ever experienced, a very special day. Hearing the work of dead poets live and kicking was an absolute treat. The finalists inhabited their chosen poems so completely that a magical thing happened: the poems inhabited them. They spoke from the heart. Their enthusiasm, their delight in the language inspired everyone in that room. This was serious fun.
Patience Agbabi, Poetry By Heart competition judge
Taking a poem into your heart makes it part of you. Saying the poem aloud makes you part of its life in the world. This is a rich and nourishing relationship that can last a lifetime.
Jean Sprackland, Poetry By Heart competition judge
The student performances gave a new depth, a fresh angle to some of my favourite poems.
Daljit Nagra, Poetry By Heart competition judge
The poems we learn when we’re young stay with us for the rest of our lives. They become embedded in our thinking, and when we bring them to mind, or to our lips, they remind us who we are as people, and the things we believe in. They become personal and invaluable, and what’s more they are free gifts – there for the taking. We call it learning by heart, and I think such learning can only make our hearts bigger and stronger.
Simon Armitage, UK Poet Laureate 2019-
Learning a great poem by heart is a simple and sure way of expanding your universe. If you want to give young people tools and techniques to expand their brains, learning poems by heart is a great way to do this. There is, of course, another advantage – once you learn a poem by heart, it becomes yours. The rhythm and music of each line lifts off the page and into your body, the sense and emotion unlocks and opens up your world.
The oral tradition… demands not only the griot but the audience to complete the community: the noise and sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him. Hence we have the creation of a continuum where meaning truly resides.
A memorised poem is a great work of art that you own forever, a priceless piece of cultural capital. This competition is like an open invitation to students to go into an art gallery and leave with their favourite Van Gogh. I think the element of performance is brilliant. Not only will it give students a real understanding of the music of poetry, it will also do wonders for their self- confidence.
… the most important truth concerning the teaching of poetry is the value that attaches to a few poems intimately experienced and well remembered. If, at the end of each year spent in school, students have been marked by even one poem that is going to stay with them that would be a considerable achievement. Such a poem can come to feel like a pre-natal possession, a guarantee of inwardness and a link to origin. It can become the eye of a verbal needle through which the growing person can pass again and again until it is known by heart, and becomes a path between heart and mind, a path by which the individual can enter repeatedly, into the kingdom of rightness.
May I suggest that we must always be desirous of creating spaces in which people might meet themselves, and know themselves, and celebrate themselves, and are even able to say back to us: thank you for giving ourselves back to us… spaces that exist outside the actual words….?
To learn a poem by heart is to make a friend, one that will stay with you for the rest of your life. And like the best of friendships, a poem got by heart will comfort, cheer and sustain. This is what makes this terrific project so valuable – after the excitement of public performance, every child who takes part will carry their chosen poems with them into their future.
It isn’t possible to understand poetry, which is a musical skill, without hearing and internalising some of its tunes. Poetry By Heart is a practical way to encourage this in schools and I think it could remove some of the confusion (and anger) people feel when confronted with poetry. Poems, unlike prose, are memory-efficient. That doesn’t just mean they go easily into the memory and stay there. It means the memory goes easily into a poem and grows there, perhaps infinitely.
… [a] poem is just a little machine for remembering itself… Whatever other function a rhyme, a metre, an image, a rhetorical trope, a brilliant qualifier or stanza-break might perform, half of it is simply mnemonic. A poem makes a fetish of its memorability. It does this, because the one unique thing about our art is that it can carried in your head in its original state, intact and perfect. We merely recall a string quartet or a film or a painting, actually, at a neurological level we’re only remembering a memory of it; but our memory of the poem is the poem.
Contact Poetry By Heart
If you’re a teacher, librarian or other member of staff in a school or college in England, we’ve got lots more information about the competition for you, and the best way to start a conversation is to register here.
For all other questions, you can contact us by email, phone or post on the contact details below.
Poetry by Heart, 13 Orchard Street, Bristol BS1 5EH
0117 905 5338