Poetry By Heart Blog

National Poetry Day – with popcorn and Parliament!

18th November 2021

Today’s blog is a double feature about what Poetry By Hearters got up to National Poetry Day on 7th October 2021.

First, a talented group of Poetry By Heart 2020-2021 finalists and their teachers went off to 10 Downing Street for a special reception hosted by the then-new Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi. After a quick trip to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey and a rehearsal on Parliament Green, students performed their winning poems and the minister read one that is close to his heart, ‘How To Cut A Pomegranate’ by Imtiaz Dharker. We also had readings by two PBH teacher-poets, Oliver Lomax and Olga Dermott-Bond, by poet and PBH advisor and judge Daljit Nagra, and by surprise guest poet, Lemn Sissay. We ended by leading a shared reading aloud – students, teachers, parents, civil servants, the Secretary of State, the Permanent Private Secretary and the Downing Street staff – of the October calendar poem for Black History Month, Eloise Greenfield’s ‘Harriet Tubman’.

You can watch our short film of the visit below – and as you see our brilliant class of 2021 taking selfies on the steps of Number 10, think about where Poetry By Heart could take you and your students…

 

In our second feature looking back on National Poetry Day, Henna Riaz from Eastbury Community School in Essex takes us through her school’s special event filled with poems, fuelled by unbridled creativity, novelty badges and plenty of chocolate!

National Poetry Day is the annual mass celebration on the first Thursday of October that encourages all to enjoy, discover and share poetry. This year the event took place on October 7 and the theme was choice. To celebrate this event, I collaborated with the team at Poetry By Heart and challenged students at Eastbury Community School to find a poem, learn it and recite it aloud.

Students from years 7-10 eagerly accepted this challenge and hearing their recitations was an enjoyable way to celebrate National Poetry Day. It was truly an honour to host the event and celebrate their incredible recitations. We sat back and watched the recitals whilst enjoying a selection of snacks – popcorn, cakes, crisps and plenty of chocolates of course! Certificates and Poetry By Heart badges were also awarded to each competitor for their courage and creativity.

Each recital was fantastic, but the judging panel decided that the winning recital would be awarded to Emine Omer. She had constructed her own inspirational poem to recite. Emine’s recitation of her poem ‘Stereotypes’ was filled with immense passion and enthusiasm. Have a read of her poem below. Overall, it was truly a pleasure to hear amazing recitals by our students.

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“Amazing! I won and my performance was shared and seen by many. I am glad they heard about my feelings towards discrimination.” Emine Omer

“I recited ‘Letter to Lockdown’ and I took part in this competition to boost my confidence. I found it most enjoyable to recite the poem. For me it was fun, different and pleasantly surprising.” Trinity Lobow

Stereotypes
Just because I am a Muslim
It does not mean that I am a terrorist.
It does not mean that anyone can rip me apart

With a stereotype.
Just like everyone else
I am free as well.

No one can judge me by my identity.
No one can judge me by my freedom either.

Just because I am a Muslim

It does not mean that I am not allowed to have:

Dreams, hopes and ambitions.
I have the ability to change the world
Just like everyone else does.

Emine Omer

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We will remember

4th November 2021

11th November is a week away, the day we remember all those who have died as a result of war and conflict. In this blogpost, we’ve pulled together some of the Poetry By Heart resources you might want to draw on in planning acts of remembrance in your school.

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The November calendar poem is Sarah Teasdale’s ‘There will come soft rains’, a poem that imagines a world after humankind has destroyed itself, in which the natural world goes on – beautifully – without us. It’s a poem that might resonate with students far beyond its original context, given the contemporary apocalyptic vision of climate change.

The ‘There will come soft rains’ poem page on the website includes four different student performances of the poem. Inviting students to watch these after they’ve read the poem and to consider what they would change and why is a great starting point for preparing their own performance of this poem. This Sunday’s Poem of the Week email also features this poem and includes an activity to explore its shifting mood.

More broadly, the November calendar challenge is to invite students to select a poem from the Poetry By Heart First World War Poetry Showcase to read or recite on 11th November at a school or community remembrance event. There are poems written at the time of the First World War by soldiers and women auxiliaries at the frontline; and by people enduring the war at home in many nations, with some poems originally written in languages other than English. There are poems written after the war by modern and contemporary poets, responding in different ways to its long-term effects on families and communities. There are old classroom favourites as well as ‘lost voices’. You could invite pupils to start exploring the showcase by finding a poem they like by a man, a woman, a person of colour, someone dead, someone alive, someone they’ve heard of, someone they’ve never heard of, someone who wrote in a language other than English, a nurse, a soldier, or any other categories you like.

We’ve also refreshed the Performance Gallery to showcase seven outstanding pupil performances of a variety of First World War poems. This might be helpful to inspire your pupils to perform poems themselves, but you are also entirely free to use it if you’d like to show one or more of the performance videos as part of your school remembrance event.

And finally, for a bit of remembrance language work, our friends at Oxford English Dictionary have an amazing resource about 100 words that define the First World War. If that takes your fancy, we’d love to hear how you use it.

If your students speak a poem on 11th November, whether read or memorised, they’re well on their way to a Poetry By Heart competition entry. They could learn their First World War showcase poem by heart and then go on to learn a second for the Classic competition, or they could think about how to develop their First World War poem performance for the Freestyle category.

If Poetry By Heart features in your school/college on 11th November, we’d love to hear about it. Blogposts of 300-800 words with any images you’re able to share are always welcome, and can be written by students or staff! Get in touch via info@poetrybyheart.org.uk

 

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Spooky word stories for Halloween…

21st October 2021

Half term is just around the corner. Nights are drawing in, leaves are turning red, and pumpkins are starting to appear on people’s doorsteps… It must be nearly Halloween! Let’s take a look at some spooky words from the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Halloween and saints

Let’s begin by delving into the word Halloween itself. In the old Celtic calendar, the new year began on 1st November, and the last evening of October was ‘old-year’s night’, the night of all the witches. As Christianity spread, the Church transformed the celebration into All-Hallow-Even (or the Eve of All Hallows’– or All Saints’– Day). Hallow is related to the word ‘holy’ and is an old word for ‘saint’, and even is an archaic version of word ‘evening’. An interesting etymology for a night we associate with spookiness rather than saintliness!

Jack-o-lanterns, pumpkins, and punkies

Pumpkin lanterns are perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Halloween these days, the more fearsome the carving the better. In North America, the more common term is Jack-o-lantern: ‘a lantern made by hollowing out a pumpkin (or occasionally swede, etc.) and cutting a design into the rind, often one representing the facial features’. Although Jack-o-lantern in this sense dates back to 1837, the word was first used to refer to will-o’-the-wisp, ‘a phosphorescent light seen hovering or floating at night over marshy ground’. When you’re out trick or treating, can you see a resemblance?

Similarly, in Somerset people make punkies or punkie lanterns: lanterns made by setting a candle in a hollowed-out mangel-wurzel or similar vegetable. Punkie night, on which punkies are displayed and paraded, is usually celebrated on the last Thursday of October, and a traditional song is sung:

‘It’s Punkie Night tonight
It’s Punkie Night tonight
Adam and Eve would not believe
It’s Punkie Night tonight.’

Ghastly ghosts and gruesome ghouls

But back to Halloween. What’s your Halloween costume this year? Perhaps you’ll try your hand at dressing as a ghoul:

Originally in Arabic folklore: an evil spirit that dwells in a cemetery or other lonely or deserted place, esp. one preying on corpses or luring humans to death in order to consume them. In later use more generally: a frightening or malign supernatural being, typically having an appetite for human flesh, and the appearance of a grotesque or bestial humanoid.

Or perhaps you prefer the simplicity of a white sheet with some eyeholes cut into it. Have you ever wondered why we spell ghost with a ‘gh’ rather than just a ‘g’? Well, we didn’t always. Before the printing press was brought to England in the late 1400s, the word was most often spelled gost. The silent ‘h’ is largely the legacy of two printers with connections to the Netherlands, Caxton and de Worde, who were probably influenced by the Middle Dutch word gheest. Ironically, in modern Dutch you would write geest.

If a ghost costume isn’t really your thing, perhaps you’d rather be a ghostbuster? You might be surprised to know that ghostbuster is in the OED – and even more surprised to learn that it is much older than the 1984 film:

A person who investigates or deals with supposed paranormal activity or phenomena; spec. (originally) a sceptic who exposes bogus claims of paranormal activity or abilities; (now often) a person who claims to be able to eliminate or capture ghosts, poltergeists, etc.

Our first quotation is from Time magazine in 1930:

Wilhelmina Houdini has waited three and one-half years for word from her late husband Harry, magician and ghostbuster. Before he died he promised to communicate with her from the grave if possible.

Trick or treat!

Now to the main event. We may think of trick-or-treating as a fairly modern pastime, but people have been trick-or-treating for nearly a hundred years. In fact, although many of us assume it originated in the US, our evidence suggests it actually came from Canada.  Our earliest evidence is for the phrase trick or treat itself:

1927   Calgary (Alberta) Daily Herald 3 Nov. 22/4   [Referring to Halloween in Blackie, Alberta.] The very young..wandered in droves from door to door, heavily disguised and demanding ‘trick or treat.’ To treat was to be untricked.

But the etymology in our entry includes an earlier use of the form treat or trick from 1924, and a 1923 quotation, while not using the phrase itself, suggests that the practice may have taken place even earlier:

1923 Morning Leader (Regina, Sask.2 Nov. 3/5 Hallowe’en passed off very quietly here. ‘Treats‘ not ‘tricks‘ were the order of the evening.

And on that note, have a very happy Halloween full of treats.

 


 

Kirsty Dunbar is a Senior Editor for the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— past and present—from across the English-speaking world. Find out how to access the OED here.

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Kickstart Poetry By Heart on National Poetry Day

5th October 2021

This Thursday it’s the annual poetry bonanza of National Poetry Day in the UK and this year’s theme is choice. This theme couldn’t be more relevant for Poetry By Heart which all starts with pupils choosing a poem. Over at the National Poetry Day website you’ll see our friends there have launched an array of resources and toolkits, including posters and lesson plans – plenty of free stuff – to encourage your students to think about how they create, read and respond to poetry.

National Poetry Day is also a great day to think about poetry beyond its demands for exams and assessment. It’s a day to think about the big wide life of poetry, for enjoyment, for sharing, for talking about, for creativity and for wellbeing. Teachers have often told us that Poetry By Heart helps children and young people to engage with poetry in different ways, creating a real buzz about the school, developing confidence in the shyest pupils, and creating a more personal opportunity to own, inhabit and share their chosen poems. Last week’s blog entry written by a class at Linden Lodge School – providing education and support to sensory and/or visually impaired children – attests to the importance of poetry for all.

The team at Poetry By Heart have contributed two activities to the National Poetry Day collection. One is for primary pupils, the other for secondary, and both are all about selecting a poem from our online anthologies and then developing active approaches to speaking it out loud. The first activity, for Key Stages 1 and 2, could get you started with Laura Richards’ comic poem ‘Eletelephony’. The second, for older students in Key Stages 3, 4 and 5, focuses on Paul Dunbar’s poem ‘We Wear The Mask’. Click on either image below to be directed to the activity’s PDF file.

 

NPD KS1+2

 

 

NPD KS3, 4 +5

If those don’t pique your interest, here are some more ideas for kickstarting your National Poetry Day that we shared in our fortnightly Poetry Forum last week. We’d love to hear what you get up to this National Poetry Day, whether you try out one of the ideas here or have other fantastic plans lined up. So far our favourite is a small rural primary school in Suffolk where the class are all bringing in a favourite poem to share over mugs of hot chocolate. Hot chocolate and poetry! We’d love to hear your stories – Tweet-sized with pics over on @poetrybyheart or write us a longer piece for the blog!

1. Speak a favourite/random poem
Rehearse and simply speak your own favourite poem in assembly, form group or at the start or end of a lesson. You could say why it’s your favourite poem too. Or flip it and get pupils sharing their favourite poems. And for absolutely zero preparation on the day, hit the random poem button at the very bottom of the homepage, see what you get and read it aloud – or to keep the randomness within the KS2-3 poem selections, click the yellow random poem square at the bottom of any poem in the Mix It Up collection.

2. Learn a poem together
You could try one of our Learn-Along poem activities (you will need to register for free to access these). These take one poem and one class and you all have a go at learning and performing the poem in one lesson. The powerpoint resource gives you all the slides you need to take your class through the poem, with teacher instructions in the notes field. The activity invites everyone to join in with you, repeating the poem aloud together in different ways, with visual memory cues and blank fills to help work towards a memorised performance. Possible in one lesson? You bet it is!
Learn-Along 7+
Learn-Along 11+
If you’d like us to run a free Zoom workshop where we run through these activities together for teachers/staff at your school, contact us via info@poetrybyheart.org.uk or call 0117 905 5338.

3. Introduce Poetry By Heart
Use our launch slides to introduce Poetry By Heart to your class, poetry club or year group. The 5 minute film of this year’s Finalists’ Celebration Event at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, is on slide 4 – great to show where your pupils could be next summer. Sometimes security filters will block the video from playing so test it first and ask an IT technician to unblock it if necessary. It’s just a Vimeo link – nothing nasty!

4. Set October’s calendar challenge for Black History month
Check out the October challenge in the Poetry By Heart digital calendar. The October poem is Eloise Greenfield’s poem ‘Harriet Tubman’, about the American women who escaped enslavement and then rescued many other people. The challenge is to learn and perform this poem for other people as part of Black History month learning and celebration, or any other poem in the Poetry By Heart collection that recounts an aspect of Black History. You might have already had your paper copy in the post; if not, register now and we’ll send you one!

 

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What Poetry Means To Us

23rd September 2021

Linden Lodge School is a specialist college in South London, educating students aged between two and nineteen with vision and/or sensory impairment. Their student Lillie submitted a performance video for a self-written poem based around the character Puck from the William Shakespeare play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. She received a commendation and was invited to perform at the national finalists celebration event in 2021. This blog was collectively written by the Minerva 3 class at Linden Lodge to explore their thoughts on the significance of poetry to them.

 

Poetry is something that brings us together as a group. It is mindful and relaxing and engages the brain. It is satisfying to put words together. Writing poetry helped us particularly during the first lockdown, as it gave us a positive purpose. The world feels different and poetry helps us adjust to the changes. Poetry gives us a link to our own past and that of others. It let us think about the things we missed while appreciating what we still had. We think that often important poetry comes from key points in history. World War I poetry comes from people who had a lot to process and lockdown had some of this for us.

Poetry is also an act of trying to change the world and sometimes that is what we do with our poems. We think about who we are and what we want to be. We think about the rights we have and the rights we and others need.

Poetry makes us happy because it is a new way to think about the things we love. Poems can be funny and joyful. It’s amazing to hear the talent of our classmates. We were blown away the first time we wrote poetry together. It’s a conversation of the senses that allows us to understand and feel each other’s emotions. It’s a different way of speaking to each other. We can reach new audiences. We develop our language and means of expression when we continue to write poetry.

As visually impaired people, poetry is completely different. It depends on your level of vision but, on the whole, we experience things differently. For example, if we were writing about Spring, a sighted person might talk about visual elements such as the colour of flowers whereas a blind writer might focus on the feel or smell of them. Poetry is a way for us to convey the diversity of visual impairment. There are lots of assumptions made about blind people but we all have unique experiences. Poetry is how we express ourselves as individuals within a community.

 


You can watch Lillie’s performance of her self-written poem ‘Puck’ by clicking on the image above

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Poetry By Heart Finalists Celebration 2021 – The Movie!

10th September 2021

We’re pleased to present a short film of the 2021 Poetry By Heart Finalists Celebration Event held at Shakespeare’s Globe, London. The film gives a flavour of the day and includes interviews with some of our wonderful student performers and poet judges. If you want to remember this magical day in July or see what could be in store for you next year, start here!

The Poetry By Heart 2022 Finalists Celebration Event will be held at Shakespeare’s Globe, London in the summer term. To take part and be in with a chance of performing there, find out more about this year’s competition here. Registration is open for schools/colleges here.

 

 

With thanks to Fern Scott and her team at Great Scott Films for their ongoing collaboration with Poetry By Heart and their filmmaking wizardry.

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A Midsummer (nearly) Night’s Dream – July 2021

22nd July 2021

On Sunday 18th and Monday 19th July over 300 students, parents, teachers and guests took part in the 2021 Poetry By Heart finalists’ celebration event at Shakespeare’s Globe, London. Children and young people aged 7-19 from all over England performed 180 pages of poems on the magical main stage.

PoetryByHeart_Globe_190721-2

Poets Daljit Nagra, Jean Sprackland, Valerie Bloom, Patience Agbabi and Glyn Maxwell judged the 10 finalists in key stage of the Classic 2-poem competition and 10 more in a special 1-poem Celebration category. The 2021 national champions and special award recipients were:

• Classic Key Stage 2 – Romy – Beachborough School, Northamptonshire
• Classic Key Stage 3 – Jonathan – Silverdale School, Sheffield
• Classic Key Stage 4 – Elise – Rugby High School, West Midlands
• Classic Key Stage 5 – Michael – Aylesbury Grammar School
• Celebration – Indigo – Huntington Community Primary School, Cheshire
• Teacher Celebration – Debra – St Francis College, Hertfordshire
• Special Award – Sarah Leech, Oliver Lomax and students – Unsworth Academy, Greater Manchester
• Special Award – Natasha Sivadasan – Lister Community School, Newham, London

As well as enjoying all the fantastic poems performed by others, our finalists had a warm-up and rehearsal workshop for their own performance, a talk-tour about Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, a performance of As You Like it and a talk with poems by UK Poet Laureate Simon Armitage. We also hosted the announcement of the CLIPPA prize shortlist for the best children’s poetry published in the UK last year, with readings by shortlisted poets Manjeet Mann, Jane Newberry, Matt Goodfellow and Michael Rosen. The loud gasp when 300 people realised Michael Rosen was about to appear on stage will be one of our top memories for some time to come!

“Thank you for the whole of today. It was deeply inspiring as a teacher, so I can only imagine the effect might have been on the students.”

It was a magical day and close enough to midsummer for us to think of it as our own Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Thank you for one of the most memorable experiences we’ve had for a long time. 

Thank you for giving our students the opportunity to celebrate their success in one of the most exciting and iconic cultural locations in the world. 

Thank you for being a beacon of hope in a trying year. 

Thank you for somehow making this happen against all the odds.

 

“I feel very privileged to have been able to come along and be part of such a special event. The performances were spectacular. It is a day I will remember for the rest of my life.”

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Poetry By Heart 2020-21 – competition review

9th July 2021

Well, what a year! When we officially launched the 2020-21 competition on National Poetry Day in October, we’d all been through lockdown one, we still had national finalists from the 2020 competition to publicly celebrate and it was always, obviously, going to be a challenge to run a competition in the ongoing pandemic. It sure was. But for all the twists and turns of local lockdowns, firebreaks and then another national lockdown, the 2020-21 Poetry By Heart competition kept going because enough schools willed it to. Our enormous thanks to everyone for that.

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Competition formats

The competition format – a live, in-person, in-school competition – was severely tested by the pandemic. Schools adapted in really creative ways that we loved, though we also had a flurry of emails in early March from teachers absolutely determined to stick with the live format. We feel confident that whatever Covid-19 throws at us next year, we now have a range of formats that work.

Some schools held virtual live competitions on Zoom and other platforms. These sometimes also involved virtual meetings to share poems and rehearse performances. Teachers told us about how much pupils valued these times where they could come and hang out together, and work on their performances through sharing, talk and supportive feedback. The togetherness and the talk were as important as the competition, if not more so.

To support virtual competitions we created a set of virtual backgrounds for download – from a bare-boards theatre stage to a field of flowers and fairytale castle. We designed these so that no-one had to have other people peering into their home environment, and we certainly found them useful for that as the Poetry By Heart team adapted to home working. But some 2021 finalists have taken the idea further and used the virtual backgrounds for their performance videos. Their videos look great and they’re automatically badged as Poetry By Heart – we’d love it if more people used them like this next year!

Other schools had young people being filmed speaking their poems at home and this worked well too. Pupils sent in their videos to their teacher who then judged them and selected the national competition entrants. Not as interactive but it made for a nice home learning challenge that was do-able. And it had some extra benefits too. We noticed that where students filmed themselves at home, their performances were often in a quieter, more reflective mode than the live in-person performance mode affords. These performances were also different from those where a parent filmed the pupil. They were more intimate and perhaps a little more personally expressive. That gave us food for thought about what we’re doing and whether offering students alternative performance modes might give a space for students who might not otherwise take part.

We had a few reservations about videos made at home. There were a few videos where it was unclear whether the student was speaking the poem from memory or not. Not so much a question of ‘cheating’ as perhaps using a copy of the poem as a self-prompt. We gave the benefit of the doubt in all cases but needing a prompt inevitably affected the quality of the performance. Students filming themselves usually did so by sitting down with a device in front of them and very close. This tended not to support the best performances – standing up, for most people, makes it easier to breathe and use your voice more effectively. Next year we’ll be more explicit in encouraging a standing performance, even if self-filmed.

Timing

Because of Covid-19 we were able to push back the competition deadline to the end of March in order to give schools a better chance of taking part. The finals event was also pushed right back to the end of the school year, on 18th and 19th July, to give it the maximum chance of happening. This pattern of two terms for school competitions and a term for judging all the entries, selecting finalists and hosting the finalists event worked well. It fits far better into the pattern of the school year, it gave us more time to support new schools in getting involved, and it gave us more flexibility to respond to the exigencies of the pandemic. We would very much like to repeat this pattern next year.

Number of competition entries

 There was a clear sense this year that many teachers felt limited by the number of entries that could be made to the national competition. Many teachers wanted to send all their entries for us to select from, others wanted Celebration entries in each key stage, and others found workarounds to our upload system and they did what they wanted to anyway! This was not without its complications at our end but we hear you loud and clear and we’ll be revising the number of entries you can make in each category for next year.

Judging with feedback

The virtual judging of all the entries was developed last year in association with our consortium partners, The Poetry Society, Poetry Archive, CPLE, NATE, the English Association and Homerton College. We refined our processes for handling all the videos a little and the judging went very smoothly, with two people from these organisations and the Poetry By Heart team watching each batch of videos, scoring them according to the criteria, discussing them and writing two comments for each student, something to celebrate and something to improve. We then used these to create certificates and a record of achievement for every student who had a video submitted. Feedback from many teachers and parents, and school posts on Twitter, told us these were well received and we were pleased with this new development. As former teachers we know the value of assessment feedback but more than anything we really do love every video and we always want to honour the integrity and commitment of every performance. So, we’ll be doing that again next year!

Poem choices

We never know why young people choose the poems they do but we always love the variety of choices they make. Reflecting the increase this year in the number of key stage 2 and 3 entries, the most popular poems are those written for younger children. In first place in the popularity stakes was Robert Hull’s ‘Please do not feed the animals’, followed closely by Roald Dahl’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf’,  Rachel Rooney’s ‘The Language of Cat’ and A.F. Harrold’s ‘In the Tree’s Defence’. Popular among the historic poets were Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’, William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ and Christina Rossetti’s ‘An emerald is as green as grass’. We were delighted to see some of the new poems we added by historic black poets amongst the most popular choices, including Georgia Douglas Johnson’s ‘I’ve learned to sing a song of hope’ and Paul Dunbar’s ‘We Wear the Mask’, along with poems by contemporary black poets Valerie Bloom with ‘Time’ and Eloise Greenfield’s ‘Harriet Tubman’. Poems commonly set for GCSE featured quite strongly too, with Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and William Blake’s ‘London’ popular choices. We wanted to make it possible for GCSE pupils to invest their energy in poems they have to study but we think better performances usually come when young people choose poems for themselves.

Less commonly chosen poems in the 2021 competition were also as intriguing as ever. Roy Fisher’s poem ‘Birmingham River’ has been on the 14+ timeline since the beginning of Poetry By Heart in 2021 but this is the first time we’ve seen a performance of it entered in the national finals of the competition. We also loved seeing poems performed that we added to the collections from new academic research into lost, neglected and forgotten children’s poetry. These poems include Margaret McBride Hoss’s ‘The Land Where The Taffy Birds Grow’, E. Pauline Johnson’s ‘Lullaby of the Iroquois’ and Carolyn Wells’ ‘A Bicycle Built for Two’. The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes said way back in 1881 that ‘When the school-children learn your voices they are good for another half century’ and we like to think we’re contributing to that kind of collective cultural memory.

Classic

The Classic competition was as breathtaking as ever, with spectacular performances by so many students that the judges had a difficult job selecting finalists. Key Stage 3 saw the most entries by far. We would love to see more key stage 2, 4 and 5 entries next year. We had some feedback that Poetry By Heart works well with younger pupils with a first round where everyone has a go at learning one poem, and then some children choosing to go on and learn a second one. Other feedback about key stage 4 and 5 suggested that pupils had too many worries about GCSE and A-Level assessments to be able to take on Poetry By Heart. We hope their lives are less stressful next year and they feel able to enjoy learning something a little off-piste again soon.

Celebration

The Celebration competition was originally intended to be a route for maximum participation, an entry point to get started with Poetry By Heart, and to encourage creative freestyle performances. This year’s entries partly reflected that intention but it was also a default option for many schools in the circumstances of the pandemic, simpler to explain to students learning at home and to make happen remotely. Next year we will make a stronger distinction between the Classic and Celebration categories. We want to see more personal expressiveness in the Celebration category, more risk-taking with different performance styles, more creativity. The Classic can stay classic but let’s have a bit of fun with Celebration!

Showcase

The Showcase was a new category, all about enabling schools and students to participate who want to do something else with poetry. We had a greater number of self-written poems this year, many of them heartfelt responses to being young in the pandemic. One school’s students chose to make creative videos of their poems being spoken and another had a poetry speaking occasion where students spoke poems in the modern foreign languages they are learning. The Showcase category was also used by pupils in Key Stage 1 who didn’t want to be left out and chose nursery rhymes and shorter poems to perform, and by pupils who wanted to perform a poem not included in our collections.  We love this variety and will continue this category next year too.

 Finalists’ Celebration Event

This will take place on 18th and 19th July 2021 at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London. It has been immensely difficult to organise a live event for 300 people in an ongoing pandemic. The breakthrough came when our poet advisor, Daljit Nagra, suggested doing it outdoors. We toyed with Wembley Stadium and then were delighted to find The Globe were keen to work with us on an this. It will be a different kind of finalists event than in previous years. Our poet judges Daljit Nagra, Valerie Bloom, Patience Agbabi, Jean Sprackland and Glyn Maxwell will be live-judging from videos that all of the finalists have had an opportunity to re-submit in the light of first round judging feedback. It has to be like this as not all finalists will be able to attend, given Covid rates and self-isolation requirements. This makes it fair for all the finalists whether they can be at the event or not. Every young person will still get to perform one of their poems on the Globe’s main stage and the day will focus on celebrating young people and their poems. You never know, we might even prefer it like this…

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Summer reading for pleasure – get students learning a poem for National Poetry Day

24th June 2021

National Poetry Day will be on Thursday 7th October this year, and now is a great time to set your class the challenge of learning a poem over the holidays ready for the big day. This year’s National Poetry Day theme is Choice, and we’re excited to be working with the team at National Poetry Day to contribute to their special 2021 collection of free, downloadable, primary and secondary teaching and learning resources, launching on the NPD website on 30th June along with free poster packs. Here’s how we’re thinking about the choices Poetry By Heart offers.

Choice is front and centre in the design of Poetry By Heart. Our strapline says it: ‘Choose a poem. Learn it by heart. Read it aloud.’ To help students explore and choose poems, our free online anthologies display hundreds of poems that can be filtered by theme, era and poet gender; searched by title, poet or keyword; and scrolled through across time. There are age-graded timeline anthologies, themed collections of First World War and Romantic poems, all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and our secret favourite, the Mix-It-Up collection, a place for younger readers to have fun picking poems through playful discoveries and journeys down digital rabbit-holes. There are videos in the Choose a Poem sections of the Learning Zone that show how to explore the collections.

Anyone using the site can choose which anthology they want to browse – and each timeline is a democracy of poets where William Shakespeare has as much prominence in the 14+ anthology as your relatively obscure (but no less fascinating) Mary Leapor, an eighteenth-century working-class poet. The anthologies span a millennium of English-language poetry, meaning that children and young people can choose poems that speak to us across the centuries, like Beowulf, or fast forward through time to poems by contemporary writers like Raymond Antrobus and Zaro Weil.

You can also explore the choices made for the Poetry By Heart national competition. Filter any timeline for poems that have performance videos and watch former finalists bring their chosen poems to life. Or click an age group icon below to go straight to a video performance gallery of finalists in that age group/key stage. What did they choose?

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After the choosing comes the learning – memorising the words as well as working out how best to perform the poem. Pupils can listen to former Poetry By Heart finalists talking about their experience of memorising a poem, getting to know a poem and performing a poem. You have to spend a fair bit of time with a poem to memorise it and prepare a performance – that makes it really important that pupils choose a poem they love, or sparks their imagination, or intrigues them enough to want to get to know it. And they might also choose how to perform their poem – solo, in a pair or small group, or as part of a voice choir conveying the poem in a creative way, or by making a video treatment of the spoken poem.

The final step of the Poetry By Heart-National Poetry Day journey is for pupils to perform their poems! They might choose to practise with classmates in school, with family at home, with friends in the park, or by speaking it to the dog or a mirror. When they’re ready, pupils could choose how to come together to share their poems aloud – a simple moment in class or form time on National Poetry Day? a National Poetry Day assembly? a performance beyond the school gates? could they perform on local radio? Where might they choose to take their poems?

We’d love to share a selection of your favourite student performances in our National Poetry Day performance gallery. Simply capture the performance on video and upload to our secure platform via our Showcase Uploader – login from the homepage and select Showcase Upload. We’ll tweet the performance gallery to the world!

To get started, here’s a link to our Home Learning Challenge instructions that you can share with your class – a perfect Summer reading project, a great way to join in with National Poetry Day, and a starting point for getting students started with Poetry By Heart. The next national champion could be sitting right there in your classroom!

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ELSA Poetry by Heart 2021 – France

11th June 2021

Antony McDermott of the English Language Schools Association tells us about Poetry By Heart France’s 2021 competition, the challenges of persevering through Covid-19 and their list of winners from schools across France and further abroad…

 

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Once again the ELSA Poetry by Heart France competition has been a wonderful experience for everyone concerned and we are proud to announce this year’s winners – but before scrolling down to find out who they are – let’s go back in time to September 2020 when we launched the competition.

Back in September 2020 we were hoping to organise a competition where once again all of the schools could meet up and take part together. It soon became clear that this was not going to be possible and that we would need to switch (once again) to a virtual competition. Once the decision had been made, we were unsure how schools would react, but the response to our initial email was extremely positive with schools from all over France and one from school from Nairobi signing up for the competition. We ended up with around 20 schools taking part in either the Middle or High School competition – a record number for our competition here in France.

In what has turned out to be a difficult year for many schools, the Poetry by Heart competition has been a real highlight. For us here in France it has allowed us to create a sense of community, bringing different schools together through a joint love of poetry. All of the schools that have taken part have expressed the enthusiasm and motivation that their students have for the competition, and the joy that the different performances have brought to the other students in the school.

What struck the judges the most when receiving the different entries was how varied the choice of poems has been this year: some students have chosen canonical poems while others have gone for the newer voices of contemporary poets; some students preferred poems with a clear political message while others showed a preference for poems with a more intimate feel – what is undeniable is the passion and emotion that all of the students put into reciting these poems.

We would like to thank everyone who has made the ELSA Poetry by Heart France competition possible: all of the teachers and schools who helped organise in-school competitions; all of the judges who kindly gave up their time; all of the wonderful students who took part and gave life to the competition; the ELSA (English Language Schools Association) for their support in promoting the competition in France; and most importantly, the Poetry by Heart team in the UK for their continued support and guidance with our competition.

And now, here are the winners…

 

GRADE 6
1st place
Zabel – Collège Lycée Camille See (Paris)
2nd place (equally placed)
Amelia – Ecole Jeannine Manuel (Lille)
Lois – Lycée Français Denis Diderot (Nairobi)
3rd place
Chiara – American School of Paris (Paris)

 

GRADE 7
1st place (and Middle School Overall winner)
Valeria – Collège Lycée Camille See (Paris)
2nd place (equally placed)
Maude – Institut Saint-Joseph (Limoux)
Louise – Ermitage International School (Maisons-Laffitte)
3rd place
Aimée – Collège Sévigné (Paris)

 

GRADE 8
1st place (equally placed)
Juliette – Collège Lycée Camille See (Paris)
Zoe – American School of Paris – Extension Program (Paris)
2nd place (equally placed)
Uma – EIB La Jonchère (Paris)
Hélène – MS & HS Blanche de Castille (Le Chesnay)
3rd place (equally placed)
Ella – Ecole Massillon (Paris)
Penelope – Section Internationale Paris Ouest (Paris)

 

GRADE 9
1st place
Luke – Institut de la Tour Paris (Paris) – with the poems ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Goodbye’
2nd place
Melanie – Lycée Français de Nairobi (Nairobi) –  with the poems ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ and ‘To the Snake’
Special Mention
Annajulia – Collège Lycée Camille See (Paris) – with the poems ‘Envy’ and ‘What the Chairman Told Tom’

 

GRADE 10
1st place
Sofia – Ecole Jeannine Manuel (Lille) – with the poems ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’
2nd place (tied)
Claire – Lycée Camille See (Paris) – with the poems ‘The Things That Matter’ and ‘The Beast In the Space’
Ian Sacha – Lycée Français de Nairobi (Nairobi) – with the poems ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ and ‘Dusting the Phone’
Special Mention
Ilona – Institut de la Tour (Paris) – with the poems ‘There is no God’ and ‘The Cleaner’

 

GRADE 11
1st place
Ysée – Ecole Jeannine Manuel (Paris) – with the poems ‘The Mistress’ and ‘The Lost Woman’
2nd place
Charlotte – Institut Notre Dame (Paris) – with the poems ‘A Song for St Cecilia’s Day’ and ‘Langley Lane’
Special Mentions
Francesco – CIV Valbonne (Valbonne) – with the poems ‘A Blockhead’ and ‘Minority’
Lucy – Collège Sévigné (Paris) – with the poems ‘Envy’ and ‘The Thought Fox’

 

GRADE 12
1st place
Camille – Blanche de Castille (Le Chesnay) – with the poems ‘If’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’
2nd place (tied)
Jihane – Ecole Jeannine Manuel (Paris) – with the poems ‘The Song of The Smoke’ and ‘Josephine Baker Finds Herself’
Emma – Institut Notre Dame (Paris) – with the poems ‘The Things That Matter’ and ‘Not My Best Side’
Special Mentions
Elivre – SIS Sèvres (Paris) – with the poems ‘I Started Early – Took My Dog’ and ‘Poetry’
Tanguy – Lycée Français de Nairobi (Nairobi) with the poems ‘Love’ and ‘Wedding’

 

Special Mention – HORS COMPÉTITION
Victoria – Grade 5 – Bordeaux International School (Bordeaux)
Poem: A Ballroom For St Bernards

 

2021 Poetry by Heart High School Overall Winner
Sofia – Ecole Jeannine Manuel (Lille)


 

Antony McDermott is Head of English at Ecole Jeannine Manuel in Paris. He is the competition organiser for Poetry By Heart France.

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Voices Together

28th May 2021

In the Large Group Celebration category of Poetry By Heart, a group of more than six students, perhaps even a whole class, performs a poem by speaking it collaboratively. We want to re-vivify the art of choral speaking in creative, inclusive and exciting ways. We’re armed with little more than a 19th century teachers manual that includes how to dress in togas while speaking chorally, some really imaginative entries in this year’s competition and some cool examples from collaborative slam poetry. To help us think about it, Marie McHugh shares her experience of working in this way and guides us through some approaches to a particular poem her classes have loved performing. If you have experiences of choral poetry speaking to share, we’d love to hear more!

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to imbue them with the shades of deeper meaning.”

Maya Angelou, poet and author

Ensemble delivery of a poem using various voice combinations, solos, and a range of imaginative contrasts to explore meaning, tonal beauty and the particular significance of the words, can be an entertaining and exciting experience for everyone involved. Poetry out loud helps master public speaking skills, builds self-confidence and develops sensitivity to the effects of sound and meaning. This enhances the growth of a rich personal vocabulary, promoting diversity in delivery and empathy in understanding, whilst providing great fun. The classroom atmosphere that manifests learning and fun simultaneously is one to be nurtured.

Collaborative speaking and learning by heart can foster myriad contributions, one way or another, across the ability spectrum. It embraces the joy of whole group involvement: by its very nature choral verse is inclusive. Every student can contribute to a unique interpretation of old favourites or new discoveries and there are opportunities for everyone to get actively involved in the delivery of the poem. Always a few nascent thespians will desire the limelight and want to deliver specific lines singularly or in a small group, while others will be perfectly happy to work in unison with a bigger group.

Those not so keen to court the limelight will be able to blend within the group, much as singers in a choir, who are emboldened by consequence of numbers. Theirs is as crucial a contribution as those not born to blush unseen. Star players and star backgrounders are mutually dependent. No student needs to be put on the spot or stand out in a group and there is a perfect opportunity to employ the diverse individual skills and talents within a group. For example, appropriate music might enhance choral delivery and there may be players available, or those with sufficient musical savvy will have pleasure in the search for something singularly apt.

Whole group performance of a poem can be thrilling for both performers and audience. I have found this to be true across the age and ability ranges. A transformation happens when the poem becomes a unique interpretation reflecting the specific talents of the group, as well as contemporary or pertinent issues. Everyone interested will develop their own methods, but ideas that follow may add an initial confidence if there is little or no experience in organising a whole group presentation of a poem.

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Choosing the text with some advice on modus operandi
There are a number of suitable poems in the Poetry by Heart anthologies or there may be some that spring to mind that you have a hunch the group might like. Provide a copy of a number of poems for each student as well as displaying to the group on an overhead screen. Encourage individuals or small groups to improvise by reading aloud particular lines and verses to explore what they like. I can rarely stop myself from joining in, too. This can be very entertaining and students are immediately involved. Having considered several potential choices, possibly over a couple of meetings, decisions will be made by the majority with teacher guidance. Of course, a teacher may decide to choose a poem in advance and present the choice as made. Knowing the group well enables a judicious choice.

Many poems can lend themselves to choral performance but here are some of my suggestions, suitable for children of different ages, listed in no particular order. Those with an asterisk feature in one of the Poetry By Heart timeline anthologies:

The Shooting of Dan McGrew – Robert Service
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge*
The Daniel Jazz – Nicholas Vachel Lindsay
The Lady of Shallott – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sohrab and Rustum – Matthew Arnold
Among School Children – W B Yeats
Cataract of Lodore – Robert Southey*
The Highwayman – Alfred Noyes
Jabberwocky – Lewis Carroll*
The Destruction of Sennacherib – George Gordon Byron*
Kubla Khan – Samuel Taylor Coleridge*
The Dong with a Luminous Nose – Edward Lear
My Last Duchess – Robert Browning*
The Pied Piper – Robert Browning
The Cremation of Sam McGee – Robert Service
Mandalay – Rudyard Kipling
If – Rudyard Kipling*
The Song of Hiawatha – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow*
The Hill We Climb – Amanda Gorman
Josephine Baker Finds Herself – Patience Agbabi*
What If – Benjamin Zephaniah*
The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock – T S Eliot

Beginning the work and seeking below the surface for meaning 
Discuss content and meaning, bearing in mind that a deeper understanding of the words will lend distinction and quality to the choral interpretation. Give some small group time so that students can practise different ways of delivering specific lines or verses, within each sub-group and then to the whole group. Consider the structure or form and invite comments on how the poem works and how best it might be delivered. The whole group reads the poem aloud after which reactions and opinions about delivery can be shared with more examples. Ideas will develop in quality through rehearsal. Try out different voice combinations and contrasts to elucidate the meaning and facilitate tonal beauty as well as the appreciation and significance of the words.

Example: Characters and consideration of some textual features in Robert Service’s, ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’

Discuss with students the various characters in the poem and how they might be interpreted in relation to what happens. Small group feedback to the whole group should elucidate certain subtle inferences in relation to characters and their actions. Consider the poet’s use of dramatic irony and any features geared to persuade and influence the reader to judge particular characters, or create atmosphere and opinion.

Here are some examples of language the poet uses to set the scene.

‘A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon.’

This line evokes the rowdy, yet apparently jocular ambience of the saloon named after the sled-pulling, hugely strong dog, employed in the Yukon during the Gold Rush. Is the Malamute Saloon a place of camaraderie as well as refuge from “out of the night which was 50 below”? Does the phrase “into the din and the glare” introduce an uneasy more contentious mood? How might this rowdy, “whooping it up” atmosphere punctuated by the “stumbling miner” be reflected by the students in performance and a change in the music?

‘The kid that handles the music box was hitting a jag-time tune.’

Think about the difference in the poet’s use of “jag-time” to refer to “rag-time” and try to explain it. Use YouTube to listen to some rag-time music.

‘Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.’

What effect does the alliteration give to McGrew’s name? Is there any significance in where he is sitting and what he is doing? Note the further alliteration where several points are made about Lou. What are they? Look hard at the last line of the final verse and think about poetic effects in relation to the way Lou is described. What purpose is served by the use of hyphens?

‘There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,’

This emotive description of McGrew’s nemesis, a gold prospector seeking retribution, portrays him as a desperate, yet vulnerable character, and acts as a precursor or harbinger of something sinister in the offing. Consider the line, “With a face most hair and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done”… comment on persuasive techniques and any other devices you have noted in this verse or elsewhere in the poem that you find interesting. As distinct from the kid, the miner has a tremendous ability to play the piano and as such his past is imbued with mystery and speculation. Why might the poet desire to infer this?

The narrator/onlooker has a crucial role, yet he remains nameless. Why? How does the poet establish his credibility? How might his voice sound? Students might like to give an example of the voice. Imagine a particular accent and a way of delivery. Is he confident? Should he sound credible?

Further textual considerations
Beginning with the word “shooting” in the title, make a list of all words in the poem ending in ‘ing’. Comment on any apparent significance. The use of the present continuous tense lends a timeless quality to perennial issues of the human condition, like love, greed and violence. Any other ideas you might mention?

There are several uses of hyphens, dashes, ellipses … and one pair of brackets. What function do they serve? They allow the reader space for thought, give room for inference, as well as instruct the delivery of the lines. Consider what specific ideas might be inferred in several such pauses in the poem. The poet does not tell us all the details from the mouth of the narrator. He wants us to speculate.

Note the ethereal atmosphere evoked by the universal imagery in verse 5 and the significant change in the sound of the music beautifully played, and reflect on the impact of the last six words. Consider the difference in imagery in verse 6. Note the juxtaposition of the last two lines and the significant use of brackets. What is inferred about the lady that’s known as Lou in the last line of the verse?

What effect does the music have in verse 7 when it suddenly changes? How might Dan McGrew’s line: “I guess I’ll make it a spread misere” be delivered? What does he mean by these words? Should it have a contradictory, casual delivery or a villainous one?

Wider issues
Discuss atmosphere engendered by the description of the Yukon, referred to as the ‘Great Alone’. Consider further the significance of the imagery in verses 5 and 6. Hunger is not just of the ‘belly kind’ but consider the reference to loneliness and homelessness. Encourage students to think about the area’s geography and history, including the extreme cold and the Gold Rush. How should a choral presentation include significant music to complement the themes? What sounds, other than those of the music, help to create atmosphere? Could someone mimic the howl of a timber wolf, for example? Insights gained here will inform and shape the delivery of the poem, helping students to make it their own. I find it extremely interesting that the range of talents available within a particular group reinterpret a poem and always find something new to celebrate. Are there any other themes of contemporary resonance worthy of discussion and how may they inform the delivery?

Could this poem be described simply as a revenge story? What is the final outcome? Why does the poet choose not to include the other nameless man’s death in the poem’s title?

Invite everyone in the group to write a sentence making a personal response to this poem.

There is so much more to be discovered in this poem. This is an example of a particular approach, but each teacher will have their own toolkit, interests and ways of working. Enjoy discovering, sharing ideas and reading between the lines.

Simply out of interest
Created by the ancient Greeks, choral poetry was usually accompanied by a musical instrument known as a Lyre, similar to a small harp. There were both men and women in the chorus and the poems were mainly religious in character. The actors were made to seem very tall with built up shoes and facial masks depicting various expressions. There could be as many as 50 chorus members in the ensemble but over time the number reduced to between 12 and 15 actors. Perhaps the logistics of preparing many costumes became too much trouble. The task of the chorus in Greek Theatre was to give the audience a deeper understanding of the characters involved in relation to their thinking and motivation. In time choral sub genres developed from choral drama to include and celebrate a variety of public festivals and family occasions.

Wikipedia provides the following occasions when choral speaking would be used in Greek theatre.

The marriage song (Epithalamium)
The lament or dirge (Threnos)
The praise to a god (Paean)
The maiden song (Partheneion)
The processional (Prosodion)
The hymn (In praise of…)
The dithyramb (In praise of Bacchus)
Praise for people (Encomium)
Song at a party or
Symposium (Skolion)

Where might The Shooting of Dan McGrew fit within these sub genres?

Though much is covered here, much remains to be discovered by you and your students!


 

Marie McHugh was Head of English at Emmanuel College, Gateshead, and a manager of learning and teaching across the curriculum. In the early 1970s, she taught English in Zambia and travelled extensively in Africa. She now writes poetry and prose and has been involved with Poetry by Heart since 2013. Her love of poetry began long ago on first hearing Walter de la Mare’s Nicholas Nye and Rudyard Kipling’s Mandalay. 

 

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‘Togetherness and Unity’ – the Unsworth Academy Showcase poem

13th May 2021

At the end of the first lockdown in 2020, the young people of Unsworth Academy worked with poet Oliver James Lomax to co-create a poem and video. Oliver helped scaffold the poem and his friend, the musician Damien Riley, wrote the music. The whole thing was edited and put together by keen amateurs in school. Teacher Sarah Leech tells us it came about when as a school they noticed that some learners had really struggled with the challenges of lockdown and they wanted to help them. She says “It is no secret that poetry, both the writing and reading, is very therapeutic so we decided to use the combination of poetry and lockdown challenges to produce the poem”. In this week’s blogpost you can watch Unsworth Academy’s video-poem ‘Togetherness and Unity’ and learn more about how it was created and what it has meant from the poet Oliver James Lomax. ‘Togetherness and Unity’ was an entry in the Showcase category of the 2020 Poetry By Heart competition.   

‘We look at the world once in childhood, the rest is memory.’ – Louise Glück

This quote is scribbled on the front page of my poetry work diary and I have had a heightened sensitivity around it since lockdown began; finding myself deeply concerned for the emotional wellbeing of young people, their lack of connection and the impact of isolation on their mental health. To me, it has been vital to try to connect with them through creativity and poetry at every possible opportunity. I do not believe that any of us are going to come out of this experience unchanged and we have a responsibility to understand how the youngest and most vulnerable in our society have been affected.

Over the last twelve months, I have been incredibly privileged to work in partnership with The Working Class Movement Library in Salford. Delivering poetry workshops to schools, in some of the poorest communities across the North West, I have used the Library’s rich and diverse archive as a resource to inspire students to write. It has been a challenging experience, but truly inspirational to see young people respond creatively, sensitively and with dignity to the difficult issues facing them today. Using language and poetry to make the case for free school meals and the Black Lives Matter protests, was humbling as many of the students had personal experience of the issues.

I have witnessed an honesty and purity that I believe we can all learn from; they have taught me about our capacity to understand each other and have inspired me to try and ‘get young again’ before embarking on a new poem of my own. I see my younger self in many of these students and I am passionate about connecting with children from working-class backgrounds through poetry because I identify as a working-class writer… although I am still trying to unpick what this actually means.

My understanding that I was working-class came to me a lot later in life, I never knew we were poor until I grew up and met people from other backgrounds. My experience was the only world I knew and for most of my childhood I was incredibly happy. I find that offering shared experiences and reading personal poems about my childhood can open a beautiful and emotional dialogue with young people. This personal experience has provided me with a rich resource as a writer and it has become a vessel for others to start talking openly and honestly in the development of their writing.

I often have it said to me that it must be ‘very therapeutic for the students’ or ‘it’s cathartic’ which is all true, but for me that is simply not enough. I love to see young people become empowered by language, developing their own voice, proudly embracing their local accents, and I believe they deserve a greater outlet to share their unique and amazing work. Over the recent months, I have been developing a young person’s Working Class Movement Library poetry prize, hoping to create further opportunity for students work to reach a wider audience, for publication, and acknowledgement of their achievements. Fundamentally, I want all young people to have a greater confidence in themselves to write and the opportunity to do so- long after they leave school.

Working with Unsworth Academy in Bury and English teacher Sarah Leech on the Lockdown Poetry Film was a life affirming experience for me. Writing alongside a group of children, from such diverse cultural back grounds, some in care, and some learners for which English is not a first language, was a huge honour. This microcosm of British society is often unheard or unrepresented and being part of this creative process was deeply touching.

Some students used sign language to communicate their poetry, some translated it from other languages, some rapped their contributions, and some simply spoke their words, it was a wondrous scene of togetherness and unity that was moving to watch unfold. As their ideas married together, in a powerful singular voice, we heard the truth and raw honesty of their experiences. The poem is underwritten by unique ideocracies that can only come from working- class life.

Seeing the writers begin to acknowledge that they were the only people capable of writing this poem was so powerful. I saw them grow in confidence and self- esteem over the course of the project, confronting their fears through language and expressing themselves in new ways. Many have continued to send me their new poems since the close of the workshops, which aside from the wonderful group poem, has been the greatest achievement of the project. The response to the poem by the press and local community has given these young people the respect they deserve, something to be proud of and given us all real hope. This project was the perfect protest during these difficult times.

 

Oliver James Lomax was born in Little Lever, Bolton in 1983. Last year he had two collections of poetry published, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Nan (a collaboration with Age UK Oxfordshire) and his first full collection The Dandelion Clock described as “Poems that dance with originality and are tenderly unafraid of love and belonging.” – Mark Thomas

Oliver has written poetry for film and television, his work has been performed by Maxine Peake and during lockdown he worked with BBC Newsround to film poetry writing tips for children, his poems are now taught in Manchester schools. In 2020 he released his first spoken word single Don’t Laugh At My Astro Turf Diane, hailed by BBC 6 Music’s Tom Robinson as “An unholy hybrid of John Cooper Clarke and Mark E. Smith.”

Oliver writes between his home in Hale and his adopted office of the Working-Class Movement Library in Salford; he is currently working on his new collection God Missed The Last Bus And Walked Home publishing in May 2021.

“Tidy boy. Tidy poems. Spend your filthy lucre on this book!” – Cerys Matthews

For or more information please visit    Oliver James Lomax • Home

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Low cost, high impact – why we took part in Poetry By Heart

13th May 2021

Rowena Kaminski – Head of School at Tilstock Church of England Primary School – writes about about how taking part in Poetry By Heart has helped Tilstock’s children and their families, including children in Key Stage 1. We love all your stories about how Poetry By Heart has made a difference for your pupils and welcome more contributions to the blog if you’d like to write about your experience. Talk to us at info@poetrybyheart.org.uk for the guidelines.

 

We have a high rate of SEN – about 36% – and a high rate of pupil premium children at Tilstock Church of England Primary School. We are a lovely small school (81 pupils) in a beautiful rural area, but rural deprivation is a real thing. Our children do not have access to theatres, youth clubs, museums and if parents do not drive, how likely is it that they’re going to get to a library over 20 miles away?

Our children generally come into school with low starting points and, consequently, have very low self-esteem. To ask them to get up and speak in front of an audience is a big ask. They may not have grown up with their opinions valued or maybe even as part of a meaningful conversation – often our children will go home and sit on their tablet or Xbox. Conversations are few and far between and as a result their spoken language is limited and undervalued.

Children’s literacy skills are a huge priority for us. We have spent considerable time and training on the teaching of high-quality phonics to support our lowest 20% of readers. We know that vocabulary and the spoken word has a huge impact on our children’s writing. We want our children to be confident to not only use language, but to understand it. One child did not know what the word ‘proud’ meant.

I did some research into how we can develop spoken language in a way that would support the English curriculum across the school (spoken language, listening and attention, vocabulary, drama). Poetry was identified as one of the ways that we could develop the importance of language in our children’s lives. I felt that poetry was really underused and not something that appeared on our regular CPD sessions. Poetry books were not the chosen texts for our pupils or staff.

I found the Poetry by Heart competition online. It is simple, no new resources needed, apart from the website and the children’s voices. This meant it was low cost and high impact – the benefits of poetry were obvious, so we knew that we were not taking any big risks. Children would be celebrated for their efforts and build their self-esteem. During lockdown, Poetry By Heart meant being part of a community event where the whole school could take part – this was very important to us – and it was easily accessible. The lifelong learning element was also important – how we visualise what we want for our children, not only when they leave us, but for life. Once the poem has been learned, it will not be easy to forget.

Introducing more poetry into our school day, has without a doubt, helped to develop early literacy skills. Poetry has also enabled conversations and confidence around terms such as similes and metaphors. It has enabled our children to develop a love for literacy.

Poetry is very manageable for our children, who are generally ‘put off’ by huge chunks of text. We have a lot of children for whom English is an Additional Language and children with speech and language difficulties, so being such a small amount of writing, poetry is less intimidating. It has been wonderful to see Polish children in our community recite poems in English that they have learnt by heart.  The classic poems have exposed our children to literature from our shared cultural heritage. There is also a safety with poetry – children feel safe that there are no right or wrong answers when discussing their responses to a poem. For emotional support, poetry has provided an opportunity for them to explore their personal experiences and to write about themselves and their feelings (this was important during lockdown).

But also, it is enjoyable. The national curriculum tells us that pupils should ‘establish an appreciation and love of reading’, and as a school we believe that, and poetry should be a big part of that. We have really enjoyed having fun with poems. The children have been very creative, adding their own actions and personality to them.

We have had a fantastic response to Poetry By Heart from the children, staff and parents. We have had children as young as 4 entering the competition, memorising a poem that took me ages to learn. We had children with SEN and EAL learning poems and performing them beautifully. For staff, using the Poetry By Heart website has made it simple to ‘drop’ poetry into the school day. We now have a selection of poetry books from the library to enhance our selection. Teachers and pupils are regularly dipping into these books now. We are using the speaking and listening curriculum to assess the children’s performances and having the recordings of their poetry performances also means that we can sort of baseline them. We can track where they are now and follow this journey not only through the year but through their whole time with us.


 

Rowena Kaminski is Head of School at Tilstock C of E Primary School, part of the Marches Academy Trust in Shropshire.

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A light in the dark…

29th April 2021

Year 5 teacher Aelaha Ahmad tells us she has always had an admiration for poetry, seeing it as the medium that allows us to express and convey our emotions and feelings in the most ravishing way possible. In this week’s blogpost, she tells us how she developed Poetry By Heart in her school, Berkeley Academy in Hounslow, in the extraordinary circumstances of the 2020-21 school year.

 

We started off the competition last year for the first time and as it was new to our school, I experimented with the competition simply with my own Year 5 Class. The enthusiasm was brilliant, we were all buzzing, the students waiting eagerly to perform final pieces, then the entries were sent and we hastened into a national lockdown. It looked like the end after all the hard-work that was put into rehearsals, but when everything seemed so gloomy, the Poetry By Heart judge’s remarks definitely shone a light in the dark crevices of our hearts and minds. We had highly commended performances, a county winner and national finalists.

With the competition being a success in our first year, it was a must that we would enter again. The triumphs from 2020 spurred many more students to participate in this event as we opened it to the whole of key stage 2. This year we ensured that the stakes were higher so I made sure that class teachers across key stage 2 each chose three students for our showcase: two who were eloquent performers and one who needed a confidence boost.

The students showed great patience and determination. Despite being in class bubbles, they were ever so wonderful at ensuring they were able to connect via Zoom and Google Classroom. It was such a delight for the children to see students from different year groups, to connect, clarify and take a big responsibility. A lot of my students aimed to learn their poem off by heart as soon as we had our opening ceremony, one even stating the next morning “Miss, the Zoom meeting was so fun, I wish we could have a poetry meeting everyday!”

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During the unprecedented times in January, reverting back to a national lockdown yet again, we stayed in touch through many platforms. The children were brilliant at giving each other tips but also boosting morale. One of the students posted this, a quick poem Qayenat in Year 6 wrote to boost the morale of her fellow Poetry By Heart candidates:

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Qayenat also created a word cloud also created to show her admiration for the competition:

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This competition has certainly developed the children’s verbal skills, and students who were once sheepish and rather reserved developed a sense of satisfaction when they played back their videos and could see how confidently they had performed. I can definitely see how the competition has had an impact as it has reciprocated in their participation in the classroom. For the already-confident children, the competition has allowed the students to push themselves further beyond their comfort zone by considering unique ways of performance. Some children took on board the challenge of changing the rhythm, finding a beat that is comfortable and finally singing the poem as a means of creative expression.

Some of the playground conversations I have had with the students after the competition have been promising and have really given me an insight as to how poetry is a means of therapeutic escape. A couple of my students have now developed an interest in discovering a new poem a day.

On the penultimate week before the Easter holidays, I dedicated an hour simply to poetry. One of my all time favourite poems has got to be Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘The British.’ We read the poem and focussed on the extended metaphor of a recipe and how the poem accentuates that no ethnicity is superior to another. In the end, ‘all the ingredients (ethnicities) are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.’ The students then thought hard about the elements that make up their personality and character, their current and old habits and wrote their own Zephaniahesque poems following the extended metaphor of cooking. It was wonderful to have them perform the poems with such pride and integrity.

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Poetry has allowed the students in my classroom, in our school, and human beings all around the world to see the soul of other beings, whether alive or dead. It permits us to see the weight on the poets’ minds and hearts, allowing us to grasp the inner turmoil of these poets who are also human beings like us and have allowed us. Poetry enables us to cultivate empathy for others which is the most important facet in our lives especially with the unwelcome, dangerous visitor ‘coronavirus’ having not packed its bags and seemingly having made itself feel at home.

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Aelaha Ahmad is a Year 5 Teacher at Berkeley Academy in Hounslow.

 

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The Pandemic, Poetry and Healing

15th April 2021

All the way through this year’s Poetry By Heart competition, teachers have been telling us that poetry has been a lifeline for lots of children and young people. We’re intrigued by the idea that poetry might help us all to find our way out of the Covid tunnel, but we’ve been hard pressed to put a finger on what it might do or why. We invited Dr Mariah Whelan, the Jacqueline Bardsley Poet-in-Residence at Homerton College, Cambridge, to help us understand it through the perspectives she brings to bear from an understanding of trauma.

 

The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of young people in the UK. If you work in education you’re probably acutely aware of this but the data is now starting to confirm it, too. In a survey of 11-17 year olds conducted by the NHS in 2020, 54.5% commented that lockdown has made their lives significantly worse[1]. Even more worrying, however, is the fact that young people’s lives weren’t all that great before the pandemic hit.

According to the Good Childhood Report published by The Children’s Society in 2020, in the past decade British children and young people’s happiness and sense of wellbeing has significantly decreased[2]. UK children are now ranked the lowest in Europe for ‘life satisfaction’ and UK children aged 15 rank the lowest of all those surveyed for having a ‘sense of purpose in life’[3]. What we have then, is a situation where underlying poor mental health has been exacerbated by an acute global health crisis. The UK government is committed to ‘Building Back Better’ but what might this mean for the UK’s children and young people in terms of their wellbeing?

In this blog I’ll explore the ways that poetry – writing it, reading it and learning it – might help to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on young people. In order to do this, I’ll explain how we might productively frame children’s experiences over the past year through the idea of trauma. I’ll outline trauma as a set of processes that happen in the bodies and brains of humans when we are exposed to significant stressors. Poetry, I’ll suggest, can help to alleviate the symptoms of this traumatic stress, encouraging psychological healing and an improved sense of wellbeing.

Trauma: what is it?

Psychological trauma is a set of neurological processes that take place when humans are exposed to overwhelming stress. Every day human beings take in massive amounts of sensory data that our brains process into schemes of knowledge, understanding and prediction. Different parts of the brain are involved in this process but they can roughly be split into two groups: the limbic brain (which is evolutionary older, unconscious and interested in our survival and emotions) and the prefrontal cortex (which is evolutionary younger, conscious and makes rational interpretations). In stressful situations, these two parts of the brain operate as what psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk calls ‘the smoke detector’ and ‘the watch tower’[4]. When we’re exposed to stress our limbic brains go off like a smoke alarm, causing our bodies to secrete stress hormones. Our hearts race, our palms get sweaty and our breathing increases getting us ready for ‘fight or flight’. The prefrontal cortex, however, is the part of our brain that allows us to ‘hover over’ our ‘feelings and emotions’ allowing us to decide if we really are in danger: is that a tiger lurking in my peripheral vision or is it just a bush that looks like a tiger? The super-speedy limbic brain will make you gasp and your stomach drop almost instantaneously when you perceive a threat while the slower rational brain will talk you down from that state of fear as you appraise the situation and realise that you’re safe.

Traumatisation happens when our ‘smoke detector’ and ‘watchtower’ are thrown out of balance. When we face life-threatening and terrible events, our conscious brain is confounded and unable to tell the limbic brain to switch off. We stay in ‘fight or flight’ mode, our bodies surging with powerful stress hormones. Our ability to integrate events into autobiographical and narrative memory becomes inhibited, our experience of linear time can become unreliable and experiences register as disconnected sensory impressions. We can begin to suffer contradictory symptoms that manifest along an erratic timescale. A person might not be able to recall what has happened to them and yet also experiences intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and profound feelings of guilt and shame[5].  We may find ourselves engaging in re-enactments of traumatic events, unable to make positive decisions for ourselves while compulsively engaging in high-risk behaviours. At the less extreme end of the spectrum, we can begin to experience feelings of disconnection, depersonalisation and low mood.

While we associate trauma with catastrophic events, exposure to continuous low-level stress can throw our limbic and conscious brains out of balance resulting in traumatisation through chronic means[6]. For young people in 2020-2021, pre-existing worries about exams, the future, crime, poverty, loneliness and bullying have been exacerbated by the acute crises associated with the pandemic[7]. We have a cohort of students with some of the worst mental health in the world. As of 2020 there are 8.9 million children in English schools alone[8]. How can we possibly deliver appropriate mental health and wellbeing services to so many children across a diverse range of educational settings?

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Healing Trauma with Poetry

One key strategy for alleviating the symptoms of trauma is to support people to reclaim and tell their story. When we experience traumatic events, our conscious brains are overwhelmed and unable to process experience into narrative and autobiographical memory. Our experiences are instead coded as ‘traumatic memories’ within non-verbal parts of the brain as emotions, moods and fragmented sense impressions. For Judith Lewis Herman, however, people can be helped to ‘speak of the unspeakable’[9].  Giving narrative shape to traumatic experiences helps to integrate traumatic memories within the wider personality, alleviating many of trauma’s symptoms.

While reclaiming one’s story might help to mitigate the effects of trauma, it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to try and translate the chaotic and fragmented experience of trauma into linear forms of storytelling. In this context poetry can offer an alternative way of expressing  difficult experiences. Poems very rarely come out fully formed, instead they usually begin with a single image, word or line that in turn gives birth to further patterns of images. These images very often work more by association and implication rather than by explicit narration, relying on simile and metaphor to obliquely address their themes and ideas. Using poetry then, we can start to stitch together our story out of the emotions and flashes of sensory data that are available to us. It offers us a mode of expression that is appropriate to the experience of trauma, allowing us to approach difficult experiences in oblique ways.

The creative processes involved in writing a poem can have a positive impact on the trauma-damaged limbic system (our emotional ‘fire alarm’). Before I ask my students to write a poem, I guide them through a series of breathing and focusing exercises. These exercises help students to calm down, feel safe, connect with their interior world and pay attention to their bodies and emotions. Deliberate and conscious relaxation prepares students for writing but it has an added benefit of telling the limbic system it’s safe to switch off. During the writing process itself, I encourage students to come back to this place of mindful calm as, when trying to write a poem, it is very often a question of relaxing in order to find the next word or phrase rather than trying to consciously force it to come.

Composing a poem can also help to re-engage the imaginative faculties that are impaired by an out-of-control limbic system. In my classroom, I often ask students to create a mental picture of whatever they are writing about by focusing on how the ‘object’ or ‘scene’ looks, feels, tastes, smells and sounds in their mind’s eye. This activity helps to increase blood flow and cognitive activity in the parts of the brain responsible for imagination, re-activating and strengthening the creative faculties. This imaginative capability can then be used to help students imagine better futures for themselves and their communities, an ability that is again often impaired in traumatised brains. Finally, moving the body, including shaking the arms, standing up and even going for walks, are also key poem-writing strategies for loosening up conscious control and surrendering to unconscious wisdom. Movement and body-based therapies are playing an ever-more important role in our treatment of trauma as moving the body helps to activate and heal the non-verbal parts of the brain where trauma can be stored[10].

In addition to writing poems, reading poetry can have enormous benefits for the traumatised brain. When we engage in silent reading, the human brain projects its sense of self into the text. We ‘read ourselves into literature’ and this can help people to connect with their own experiences by empathising with the experiences of others[11]. When we read a poem about emotions that echo our own, for example, we often experience feelings of recognition and validation. Poetry not only offers us a way to feel our own feelings but does so by exercising our empathetic abilities which, once again, can be particularly damaged by trauma. For Sue Gerhardt, reactivating empathy is key to any therapeutic relationship, allowing individuals to reactivate the ability ‘to be heard and to listen, to listen and to be heard’[12]. The page becomes a place where individuals can discover their experiences by empathising with others, reclaiming their emotions within an interpersonal context that can move at a comfortable pace of their own choosing.

Learning poetry by heart also offers potential avenues for improving our sense of wellbeing. Although no research has been conducted into how memorising and reciting poems impacts on mental health per se, research has been conducted into how learning poems by heart impacts on the brain. In ‘By Heart: an fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose’, Adam Zeman and his team used magnetic resonance imaging to identify the parts of the brain stimulated by different kinds of reading. Self-selected passages of poetry known ‘by heart’  activated areas of the brain associated with ‘internal mentation including autobiographical memory, envisioning the future […] theory of mind, and moral decision making’[13]. These are all areas of cognitive activity that are negatively affected by traumatic experiences. While it is yet to be formally studied, there is much potential for exploring how learning poetry can help to bolster the parts of the brain damaged by trauma and to alleviate its symptoms.

Conclusions

In 2020-2021, the underlying stresses faced by children and young people in the UK have been exacerbated by the acute crisis of a global pandemic. Traumatisation, an imbalance of the limbic and conscious areas of the brain caused by extraordinary and/or sustained stress, has serious consequences for learners. To mitigate its effects, poetry offers one way to support young people. In my classroom, I’ve certainly seen the benefits poetry’s non-linear forms, mindful methods and activation of empathy and imagination can give to young people. One caveat, however, is that poetry of course can’t solve everything. While creative and poetry-based interventions can be extraordinarily helpful, they cannot be a replacement for the professional psychiatric care that some children will require to come to terms with their trauma. That said, as the oldest literary art form, poetry has been used for centuries to help humans understand ourselves and our world. Writing, reading and learning poetry might just offer us one way to support children and young people to process what they’ve been through over the past year. Doing so might be one way to meaningfully and authentically begin to ‘Build Back Better’, addressing the damage done to young people by the pandemic and the underlying stresses that impact on their lives.

Dr Mariah Whelan is the Jacqueline Bardsley Poet-in-Residence at Homerton College, Cambridge. Her first collection the love i do to you was published in 2019 and won the AM Heath Prize. She is a Fellow in Creative Practice at University College London where her interdisciplinary research project ‘Poetry: an Art Practice Predicated on the Unknowable’ explores the relationship between poetry and knowledge. 

[1] Vizard, Tim et al. (2020) ‘Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2020’ The Health and Social Care Information Centre (NHS Digital) <https://files.digital.nhs.uk/AF/AECD6B/mhcyp_2020_rep_v2.pdf>
[2] ‘The Good Childhood Report 2020’ The Children’s Society, p. 23. <https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-11/Good-Childhood-Report-2020.pdf>
[3] ‘The Good Childhood Report 2020’ The Children’s Society, p. 37.
[4] Van der Kolk, Bessel (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Body and Brain in the Transformation of Trauma, p. 61.
[5] Caruth, Cathy (1995) Trauma: Explorations in Memory, p. 4.
[6] Ruth Leys (2000) Trauma: A Genealogy, p. 6.
[7] Morris, Judy. (2021) ‘Mental Health and Poetry: These are Passing Clounds’, n.p.
[8] (2020) ‘Academic Year 2019/2020: Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics’, n.p. <https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/school-pupils-and-their-characteristics>
[9] Judith Lewis Herman (2015) Trauma and Recovery, p. 179.
[10] Shoshana Ringell (2012) Trauma: Contemporary Directions in Theory, Practice and Research, p. 7.
[11] Judy Morris (2021) ‘Mental Health and Poetry: These are Passing Clounds’, n.p.
[12] Gerhardt, Sue (2015) Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, p. 205.
[13] Adam Zeman et al. (2013) ‘By Heart: An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose’, p. 150.

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Poetry By Foot

18th March 2021

We asked PBH team member Mike Shortis to write about how poetry memorisation has gone from being something he enjoys as a creative pursuit to becoming a useful and reliable tool for physical pursuits. Here he focuses on how poetry found its way into his long-distance walking.

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Mike stands in Hondarribia, Spain, moments before crossing over the Txingudi bay into France. September 2013.

 

I grew up in a family of people who are all mystified by words, although each in our own way. I enjoyed poems as a child inasmuch as I enjoyed and appreciated the creative problem of making words rhyme, but if it wasn’t related to animals then my attention rarely held.

The first poem I remember learning just for myself is ‘Nature’s First Green Is Gold’ by Robert Frost, and I would have been about 17. I read it in The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and I had to stop to write it down. Around the same time, a family friend happened to play me a song on the guitar that I hadn’t heard since I was 5. On hearing the lyrics, the sense of absolute recall to childhood was near-supernatural. This was when I realised that poetry and song, as well as being beautiful in their own right, are extremely effective tools for storing and recreating lived experience. I began to carry a notebook to write down poems and quotations, either for the memories they invoked or the sense of calm that came from knowing I could keep something so beautiful with me in my head at all times.

What I’d describe as an embodied use of poetry is something that I first discovered some years later, when I decided to walk along the north coast of Spain into France, from Oviedo to Lourdes.

The mental environment brought on by the physical constraints of daily walking was new to me. In the average day of walking 25-30km alone, there is very little decision-making to do. As long as you have water and follow the path, all that remains is to put one foot in front of another and repeat until sunset.

In this way the mind is oddly free from the normal state of constant decision-making, and you’re often surprised by where your attention goes when there are no decisions left to make. You may find yourself flitting between forgotten memories and impressions, such as watching hail from a classroom window as a 6 year old, or sudden revelations about the immediate natural environment. Realising that those are cork-oak leaves you’re seeing, and not holly, for example.

Often you hypnotise yourself with the rhythm of your own footsteps. The awareness of this sound is gradual, until you suddenly realise that all you’re hearing is the steady roll of your boots on the trail. Once it’s clear that your one simple goal will be realised by living and moving in meter for 5 weeks, spoken poetry suggests itself naturally as an accompaniment.

At some point on the way I picked up hiking poles. These took the weight off my back, sped up my pace and put down a layer of syncopated tapping over the rolling of bootsteps. The resulting speed and intensity of my walking trance meant that if you were a horse, sheepdog, vulture or hazel stand on the north coast of Spain in August 2013, you may well have seen me come lurching out from around a country bend, tapping away with my walking sticks in a daze and sporadically breaking out into every poem that my mind successfully dredged from the depths of memory. However this might have appeared to the bystander, it was a state of bliss to be in, and it changed my relationship to those poems and poets, as well as poetry in general.

First off, having anything at all that you can fix your focus on for a long time is extremely useful when doing repetitive physical activity. Sometimes you turn to the poem just for the joy of it, when it fits your mood or your surroundings. At other times you know you can take refuge in your poem as a mantra when your mind or body is tired; that is to say that sometimes it’s something to fill the mind when you’ve exhausted all other topics of thought, and at other times it saves you because you have 3km left as the sun’s going down and it’s the one thing that will pull you along. If I compare walking with sailing, poetry is at times the dolphin playing in your bow-wave, and at other times it’s the wind behind you.

Constant living reliance on a poem as a tool brings newfound gratitude for the toolmaker, as well as empathy for what persuaded them to create it in the first place. Constant turning over of the poem can yield new interpretations and inflections. Some days it comes out like a prayer; a call to those mysterious sources of strength that hide within ourselves, each other and the world. Some days your poem comes out like a fortune being read. Once in a while you have a day where something is gnawing at you and you’re not sure what it is until you say your poem, and by your tone and breath you realise instantly that you are tired/thirsty/annoyed and you can then solve these problems.

 

Mike Shortis has worked on and off for Poetry By Heart since 2013. He can normally be found studying languages, writing up his travel journals or planning his next trip.

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Wild Writing in the time of Corona or how poetry is getting me through the pandemic!

4th March 2021

In our blogpost on 18th June 2020, Like seeds that will bloom in their own rhythm, Nina Alonso wrote about her video project involving women from around the world learning a poem by heart and sharing it as a way of getting through the pandemic. The poetry mattered as much as the heartfelt connection with other people. A year on, our endurance is being tested to its outer limits even as the vaccination programme begins to offer some new hope. So, we are delighted to share with you this week the work Cassie Flint has been doing with her ‘Wild Writing in the time of Corona’ poetry writing project, taking to YouTube and Facebook in the pandemic to bring the possibilities of poetry to all who want to connect with it in these difficult days. 

 

In the last five years at the end of what feels like a lifetime of teaching English, I ran a Poetry Club in my school. We also were regulars in the wonderful Poetry by Heart competition. We would meet for about half an hour each week at lunchtime and would do all sorts of poetry writing but what emerged from that was what I called ‘Wild Writing’. Essentially this was how to make a poem from a series of what you might call random prompts that came from the students. Sometimes we would do this collaboratively and the students, who came along, grew to love it. I then took that onto a Creative Writing Course I ran as an Adult Education evening class where again the adults found that they were amazed at what could be achieved with very little input and a short amount of time to be creative in.

As time passed and the coronavirus came and seemed to be reluctant to leave, I looked for ways to keep my own creativity going. I also wanted very much to include and invite as diverse a range of people to join in as I could. I imagined I would do a few workshops, with a video. I enlisted the help of those I knew and set up the page on YouTube and Facebook so that anyone could view it and respond and I made it as multilingual as I could. At one point there were translations of the contributors’ poems into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Korean, Hindi and Urdu. People joined in and also gave feedback on each other’s writing: it was unfailingly positive and with a poem a day, the body of poetry soon grew. I then introduced a do something different day and on the seventh day of each week, I introduced a new poetic form, or a dedication to a national or international event, or an awareness week. There are now videos on everything from slam poetry to sestinas, haikus to curtal sonnets!

The premise is simple. I give a list of six subjects or items. For example:
1. Postcard
2. Radio
3. Wet weather
4. A group of people with a purpose
5. A shoreline
6. An element

Against each item, you write whatever comes into your mind when you see that word, so making your own. What would you write for each one, a word or phrase is all you need and it needs to be done quickly. This is what I came up with…

1. Postcard – a postcard to a friend
2. Radio- a live broadcast of a Hindi chanting
3. Wet weather- drizzle
4. A group of people with a purpose – people going to swim
5. A shoreline – the tip of India
6. An element- air

Everyone has a different list, obviously. Then comes the trick. You look at the list and see how you could combine those words or the ideas behind them into a poem. This is what I ended up writing…

Postcard Poem
Dear Charlie,
It’s hard to tell you on a postcard all that I can see,
But I’m here where the end of India meets the oceans,
Jumbled, raucous, heaving at the edges, Kanyakumari.
Since five singing has circled the air like ribbons, echoey high Tamil voices
Holding notes, hallelujahs, as a slower, deep voice answers
Against the eternal metronome of the gently ebbing waves.
Small, wide boats with eyes on their elegant prows, their work done, line up on the shore.
While later come the families, wading into to the waters, fully clothed
Like gods and goddesses I think, realising they’re home.
No space. Much love to you. Kiss kiss.

There was always the caveat that you didn’t have to use all six. I suggested that they try to get at least four in. The form is completely up to the writer. Some people like to be descriptive, others to tell a story. It can rhyme or not but the essence here is to do it quickly, so what emerges is in a sense very unpolished, but that is the wildness of the process. A contributor linked it in a way to automatic writing, such as was coined by the surrealist poets, but I think generally there is a strong element of crafting that creeps into the process. Some people like to edit their poems and I also suggest that the process is enhanced by reading your poem back to yourself, to hear what it sounds like. Curiously, having been a student of the critic F. R. Leavis and hearing him lecture on the virtues of poetry being read out loud, this simple act of using your phone to record your own voice has been oddly comforting. You hear the rhythms, the flow of your words and that is in itself, I find, an uplifting experience.


Cassie Flint writes poetry and works at the University of Sunderland, helping to train English teachers. She also has a role as a British Council Schools Ambassador. She has taught English for all her life and describes herself as an inveterate traveller, loves poetry and literature and the way it brings people and different cultures together. She can be contacted via email or via the ‘Wild Writing’ project page on Facebook.

Cassie also reflects on her experience visiting Pakistan via the British Council-run programme Connecting Classrooms in an article for The Guardian, January 2015.

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Female poets of the First World War

16th February 2021

We asked Lucy London, poet and writer of the blog Female Poets of the First World War which female war poets she would most like to see represented in schemes of work for First World War poetry.  Lucy includes some poets and poems that are already in the Poetry By Heart First World War poetry showcase but she also gives us some intriguing new poets and poems to investigate. Which would you add? 

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Wounded Australian soldiers treated by female nurses in a British hospital, circa. 1916. Public domain.

 

I think it a shame to study so few of the women poets of the First World War, as it does not give a true picture of the involvement of women in the conflict. Until I began researching this for an exhibition in 2012, I had no idea of the extent to which women were involved in the war. It is also important to remember that the First World War came at a time when in many countries, women were campaigning for the right to vote. I also wanted to demonstrate the global impact of the First World War – the first war that affected nearly every country in the world in some way – and tried to find poets from as many countries as possible. As I researched, I discovered quite a few women poets who served in some capacity – as nurses, drivers and so on – and I am still finding them. The list so far is on my blog Female Poets of the First World War.

Of the First World War female poets represented in school anthologies and schemes of work, three tend to appear more frequently. Jessie Pope volunteered to work at St. Dunstan’s Home for soldiers blinded in the war (the charity is now called Blind Veterans UK), which was opened in 1915, Margaret Postgate Cole was a pacifist and I don’t know what Katharine Tynan did, though her sons fought in the British Army. There were, however, other female poets who were far more closely involved in the First World War. Among my favourites are:

May Sinclair
British poet May Sinclair helped Dr Hector Monro to fund and set up his Flying Ambulance Corps. As Dr. Monro’s Personal Assistant May, by then 52, travelled to Belgium in September 1914. After six hectic weeks, she returned home suffering from shell shock. May, a famous writer back then, wrote about her experiences in A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, published in New York by Macmillan in 1915, and she continued to raise funds for the war effort. You can read May Sinclair’s poem ‘Field Ambulance in Retreat’ in the Poetry By Heart First World War poetry showcase.

Rosaleen Graves
British poet and musician Rosaleen Graves was the sister of the more famous male poet Robert Graves. She joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment on 17th September 1915 and, after initial training in Chislehurst and London, was sent to No. 54 General Hospital in Wimereux, France on 23rd November 1917. Rosaleen served in France until 14th March 1919. For a taste of one of her war poems, try ‘A stronger than he shall come upon him…’

Ella Wheeler Wilcox
American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox travelled to the Western Front in 1917 to read poetry to the American Troops – quite an undertaking back then for a woman of 67. The troops were very pleased to see her and really appreciated her performances. Ella wrote poems specially for the troops while she was in France and published them in a volume entitled Hello, Boys! You can read a digital copy of Hello Boys on Project Gutenberg.

Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland
British poet Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, who funded and ran a hospital in France. You can read a digital copy of her memoir Six Weeks at the War on the Internet Archive. Her poems are more difficult to find but you can read ”The Tirailleur’ in Lucy’s blogpost.

Winifred Holtby
British poet Winifred Holtby drove ambulances in France. The more famous female First World War poet, Vera Brittain, wrote a biography of her friend, Testament of Friendship; the story of Winifred Holtby which you can read a digital copy of with a free Internet Archive library account. Her poems are not widely available but you can read ‘Trains in France’ in Lucy’s blogpost.

Mary Borden
American poet Mary Borden set up and funded a medical team and went to France 1915 – 1918. Her memoir, The Forbidden Zone, is in print and also available in its first published form with a free Internet Archive library account. Mary Borden’s long poem ‘Song of the Mud’ is linked to in the Poetry By Heart First World War showcase and we have heard some amazing student recitations of this.

Other favourites include Beatrix Brice MillerMarjorie Kane SmythHenriette Hardenberg and Nadja, the pen-name of Louisa Nadia Green, but there were a great many more and even now, over two years after the centenary of the Armistice of the First World War, I continue to find others and people send me information about hitherto undiscovered poets. I also have many on my list still to research and as my research continues I try to add them to my blog, hoping they will reach a wider audience.


 

Lucy London is a poet and writer. Since 2012 she has been researching for a series of commemorative exhibitions, beginning with Female Poets then adding Inspirational Women, Fascinating Facts, Forgotten (male) Poets and, more recently, Artists of the First World War. Exhibitions have been held in a wide variety of places. Panels are sent free of charge via e-mail to anyone wishing to host an exhibition for display as they wish. Each of the sections has a blog and Facebook page:

Fascinating Facts of The Great War
Inspirational Women Of World War One
Female Poets of The First World War
Forgotten Poets of the First World War
Lesser Known Artists Of World War One
The Fascinating World of Marchesa Nadja Malacrida
Great War Graves Centenary Project

Also on Facebook:
Inspirational Women of World War One
Female Poets of the First World War
Forgotten Poets of the First World War
Fascinating Facts of the Great War
Artists of the First World War

You can also find and follow Lucy on Twitter

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Dancing by the Light of the Moon – Gyles Brandreth on learning poetry

4th February 2021

In this review of Gyles Brandreth’s Dancing by the Light of the Moon, David Whitley talks about ‘Poems to Learn By Heart’ as a distinctive genre of poetry anthologies. He reviewed Clive James’s The Fire of Joy for us and is well versed in our own reciting anthology – Poetry By Heart: a treasury of poems to read aloud. If we hadn’t just packed up all our poetry books to shift between offices, we’d add more to this list – and we’d love to hear of others! Our favourite examples of the genre are ones, like Brandreth’s, that include lots of guidance about how to recite. This is not a new genre: we’ve seen wonderful examples of 19th century school anthologies that are really particular about specific techniques of instruction. We’ll write something about those soon, but here’s David on the latest edition to the recitation canon. 

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The title of Gyles Brandreth’s recent book, Dancing by the Light of the Moon, derives from the closing refrain of his favourite poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, which he learned by heart as a child. But the subtitle that accompanies this on the cover makes a strikingly grand claim for the art of memorising poetry more generally: ‘How poetry can transform your memory and change your life’, it proclaims. Brandreth, the genial presenter and performer of so many radio shows, knows how to woo an audience and is determined in this book to leave no stone unturned in his efforts to sell the idea that memorising poems is good for you. But if there is a touch of overkill in promoting his pitch here, Brandreth’s enthusiasm is obviously genuine and infectious. Much of what he has to say chimes effectively with what Poetry By Heart is trying to do too, of course.

Brandreth’s claims for the positive effects of memorising and reciting poetry range from the cradle to the grave: babies benefit greatly from hearing poetry regularly and memorising poems later in life will prevent your suffering from dementia, he argues. In between these instrumental claims, there are a whole raft of more affective gains to be had from memorising verse, all of which contribute to our well-being and resilience. After three chapters laying out the groundwork for his far-reaching claims, garnering support from psychology and neuroscience along the way, Brandreth charts a meandering course through various kinds of poetry, exploring their appeal and the challenges they offer for memorising. Above all, this is an anthology of poems to take into one’s memory, bound together by Brandreth’s personal touches as genial guide and enthusiastic host. There are plenty of poems from across the whole spectrum of poetry for anyone to get their teeth into here.

One of the most valuable aspects of this distinctive contribution to the ‘Poems to Learn By Heart’ genre, is Brandreth’s gathering together the voices, wisdom and insight of many others – particularly poets and actors – along the way. There is plenty of practical advice for both memorising and reciting here, much of which will serve as a useful guide for anyone thinking of participating in Poetry by Heart. Although much of the advice offered may be familiar to regular visitors to the PBH website, there are also some striking emphases and, at times, new angles opened up.

Some of these emphases are conveyed in passing, with light touches. Brandreth introduces a list of more challenging poems suitable for memorising at the end of the book, for instance, with the enticement of these being “longer poems to look out for now that you’ve mastered the craft and art of learning poetry by heart”. Positioning the memorisation of verse as a ‘craft and art’ is appealing, not only because it suggests joining a kind of ancient guild, whose skills and knowledge go back millennia – to the dawn of humanity as we know it, indeed. But the phrase also suggests this is something that can be improved and made more pleasurable by sharing experience and techniques with others. Likewise, Brandreth’s notion that “every poem takes you on a journey of sorts” (p.57) is a useful touchstone. Brandreth urges – “[W]hatever the journey, be aware of it. As you travel through the poem, look at each line or phrase or thought as a stepping stone – or as a stop on a country railway ride”. Looking at the poem like this helps keep both the detail and line of progression in focus in a very natural way, as you try to learn it. It’s a more organic – indeed dynamic – way to appreciate how form works over time, rather than analysing a poem’s structure in more abstract modes.

Some of the best advice Brandreth includes comes from other people. He cites Lenny Henry, for instance, advocating writing a poem out by hand before even starting to try to learn it. Henry suggests you should write your lines out “at least ten times” to get maximum benefit. This may be a tad extreme for most people, but it  makes the idea vivid. Henry is also emphatic that the – now rather old-fashioned – practice of writing out by hand is essential in getting the words to cleave fast to your memory.

Brandreth has some good advice about recitation as well as memorising. He cites T.S.Eliot’s reminder that “poetry remains one person talking to another” to warn against over-dramatic forms of performance, for instance. “Only use gesture as you would if you were telling a story to a friend’, Brandreth urges, as a corollary to Eliot’s assertion. This brings into fresh, clear focus that the aim of a performance – even in reciting to a large audience – is to capture something of a poem’s intimacy in the style of address. Big gestures can easily lose this.

Brandreth includes quite a long sequence of advice specifically on reciting blank verse from the actor Ian McKellen. Since more than half the total number of lines in English poetry (including most of Shakespeare, of course) are written in blank verse this is clearly an important area to consider. McKellen urges appreciation “that the last word of the line”, in blank verse especially, “is invariably the most important for the sense and the sound and it is a sort of teaser, leading on to the beginning of the line that follows. That’s the energy of blank verse”, McKellen argues, “- it is always moving onwards, often urgently…”. Building on Brandreth’s notion of the poem’s sequence as a kind of journey, McKellen suggests that in “regular blank verse, each line contains one thought, so that the speeches are made up of a series of logical links.” A consequence of this is that it “disturbs this forward movement if the actor does too many ‘naturalistic’ pauses in the middle of the lines…the natural place to pause (but then only when really necessary for effect) is usually at the end of the blank verse line – even if the end of a sentence occurs in the middle of a line…”

As I began this blogpost reviewing the passionate and comprehensive case Brandreth builds for the far-reaching value of memorising verse, it may be apt to finish with a footnote to this – literally actually! Towards the end of the book, Brandreth appends a footnote to a poem by John Updike, which contains two quotes from the American writer (who was a strong advocate of learning poems by heart). In the first of these citations, Updike claims that “[A]ny activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better”. This doesn’t refer solely to learning poems by heart, of course, but it has a particular resonance for this activity, I think. Not only does this quote emphasise that memorising poems is much more a creative art than a mechanical drill. It also opens onto the perception that the process of memorisation may be creative in complementary ways. To memorise a poem is to enter deeply into the particularity – the inscape, as Gerard Manley Hopkins called it – of the poem itself, which is where its creativity resides. But it is also to take a creative resource into oneself – a form of words, something understood[i] – that is alive to new contexts and potentialities, enabling you to make fresh perceptions and connections. The creativity is both in the poem and in you, in other words, and memorising creates a permanent live link between these two. The second Updike quote, which Brandreth introduces as being “bang on the money when it comes to the value of simply taking time out to learn a poem”, is: “What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit”. This really doesn’t need any further glossing –  “breathing room for the spirit” is something we clearly all desperately need at the moment.

 

 

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.


 

[i] “something understood” is the last phrase in George Herbert’s amazing sonnet, ‘Prayer’. That it should have popped into my head at this moment is itself an example of the kind of creative connection I’m suggesting here.

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Love, actually – Valentine’s Day 2021

21st January 2021

Here and now, in January 2021, we can see the days getting longer and lighter at the same time as Covid-19 does its best to make them shorter and darker. To play out part in tipping more light into the balance, we’re thinking this week about the light of love in all its forms. What better time to say ‘I love you’ than now? And who better to help us to say it than the poets?

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We’ve created a performance gallery where you can enjoy some of the fantastic recitations of love poems by former Poetry By heart contestants. Be blown away by Jordanah’s powerful performance of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘Invitation to Love’, then prepare to be completely charmed by Will, Wardah, Sarah, William, Jack and Clover reciting their selection of poems.

We hope these seven performances might inspire you or your students to learn a love poem for Valentine’s Day. One of our very favourite poetry recitation teacher-stories is this. A teacher told her year 10 boys that learning a poem by heart and reciting it on Valentine’s Day was a great way to impress the objects of their affections. They were highly sceptical but intrigued. Next lesson, a lad walked into class and shrugged, “it worked Miss”. We love that story!

Below we’ve curated three little clusters of love poems from across the Poetry By Heart website for you to enjoy and explore, to share in class or it at home. We’d love to hear what you would add, subtract or substitute in the clusters – tweet, call or email us your suggestions.

 

Friends and Family

Raymond Antrobus, ‘Happy Birthday Moon’
Dad reads aloud. I follow his finger across the page

Valerie Bloom, ‘Granny Is’
Granny is

Berlie Doherty, If You Were A Carrot
If you were a carrot

Ted Hughes, ‘Cat’,
You need your Cat

E. Pauline Johnson, ‘Lullaby of the Iroquois’,
Little brown baby-bird, lapped in your nest

Jackie Kay, ‘Double Trouble’
We were rich and poor

Grace Nichols,‘Praise Song for my Mother’
You were

 

Classic love

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘How Do I Love Thee/ Sonnets From The Portuguese’
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways

John Clare, ‘First Love’
I ne’er was struck before that hour

John Donne, ‘The Good Morrow’
I wonder by my troth, what thou and I

Christopher Marlowe, ‘The Passionate Shepherd To His Love’
Come live with me and be my love

Walter Raleigh, ‘The Nymph’s Reply To The Shepherd’,
If all the world and love were young

William Shakespeare, ‘Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Philip Sidney, ‘Song From Arcadia’
My true-love hath my heart and I have his

 

Modern love

Carol-Ann Duffy, ‘December’
The year dwindles and glows

Ian Duhig, ‘From The Irish’
According to Dinneen, a Gael unsurpassed

Paul Dunbar, ‘Invitation To Love’
Come when the nights are bright with stars

Mick Imlah, ‘Maren’
You saw so much romance in competition

Jackie Kay, ‘Dusting the Phone’
I am spending my time imagining the worst that could happen

Edwin Morgan, ‘Strawberries’
There were never strawberries

Alice Oswald, ‘Wedding’,
From time to time our love is like a sail

 

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Poetry Screen with the Poetry Archive

7th January 2021

Our partner, The Poetry Archive, has just launched an exciting new project to encourage young film makers and poets to make video poems, inspired by the poems on the Archive.  In this week’s blogpost, artist, Fiona Meadley, who created the project, writes to explain what it’s all about and to encourage your students to take part.


Hats off to you teachers adapting through the pandemic and finding different ways to engage your students. I hope Poetry Screen can support that by inviting pupils to have fun creating a video poem – working independently at home and developing their English, art and media skills.

We’re looking for short poetry videos inspired by the poems recorded in the Poetry Archive.  There are two options. Either, pupils can write a poem in response to any of the poems in the archive, make an audio recording of it, then edit in some visuals.  Or, they can use one of the classic recordings listed and add their own visuals.

I was really taken by Day 4 of Poetry by Heart’s advent calendar  (‘The Thorn’, Helen Dunmore).  Instead of filming a regular talking head poetry recitation, students added some simple animation and spontaneously created a video poem! Here it is…

Imagine that classic William Blake poem ‘The Tyger’ brought to life with simple stop motion animation and drawings.  Lockdown walks may yield footage to match Gerard Manley Hopkin’s ‘Pied Beauty’, or A.E. Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’, or  William Blake’s ‘London’More introspective poems like John Milton’s ‘When I consider how my time is spent’ could provide an outlet for the mood of these times

If your pupils are more likely to engage in contemporary poetry, they could try writing their own poem in response to a poem with a strong visual element.  In the Children’s Poetry Archive, Dennis Lee’s ‘Alligator Pie’ memorably mixes food and animals, guaranteed to spark off quirky rhymes!  Joseph Coelho’s ‘If All the World were Paper’ encourages pupils to have fun imagining the world made of one material.  Laura Mucha’s ‘Albatross’ deals with personal difficulties by imagining herself a bird.

All the kit needed is a mobile phone, a phone tripod and a microphone.  Editing could be on simple free software like imovie.  Collaboration is encouraged, so pupils could work with someone older – an older sibling, parent or grandparent (so long as everyone’s role is acknowledged).

The closing date is 1 June 2021, and Poetry Screen will select five submissions to showcase, paying a royalty fee of £200 each.  Full details can be found here Poetry Screen – Poetry Archive.

Given the wide age range Poetry Screen is open to (under 25s), the selectors will take account of the ages of entrants.  We’re looking to encourage young people to engage with poetry by making poetry videos – it would be great to include work by primary, secondary and post-16 pupils, as well as film school students!

Fiona Meadley, info@poetryscreen.uk

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Wishing you all a Merry Poetry Christmas

10th December 2020

It has been widely noted that people seemed to put up their Christmas trees earlier than usual this year. 2020 has been, well, 2020. A year so bad that it’s already entered common slang as an adjective with negative connotations. Any opportunity to bring some festive spirit into our lives has been eagerly taken.

So here at Poetry By Heart we set about creating a festive poetry advent calendar. It cheered us up no end as we scoured anthologies and talked with our project partners at The Poetry Society, the Poetry Archive and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education to create a fresh collection of Christmas poems. Some of the poems are upbeat and cheery good fun, some invite reflection and hope for the future.  Some of the poems are well-known and some of them are lost, neglected or forgotten gems. Some of them are classics, some are contemporary.

Advent Calendar 24

The poems are all accompanied by an interactive classroom activity and many with performance videos submitted by schools across England and one or two from further beyond.

The poetry advent calendar is yours to enjoy and share with your students and colleagues in school but also with friends and family. Open the door each day, read the poems and imagine how good they’d sound out loud with a solo voice or a chorus of voices and hopefully some smiles!

All of our advent calendar poems are eligible for the 2021 Poetry By Heart competitions, Classic and Celebration, and what better time to learn a poem by heart than these Christmas holidays when so many other activities will be limited…

We love every one of the 24 poems but we confess that there are some clear team favourites – and we’d love to know which ones you especially enjoy. First up for us is ‘Lady Icicle‘ by E. Pauline Johnson, which you’ll find behind the 9th December door.  See if you can read this and not visualise icy landscapes, crystalline snowflakes and a sense of dreaminess and warmth.

Little Lady Icicle is dreaming in the north-land
And gleaming in the north-land, her pillow all a-glow;
For the frost has come and found her
With an ermine robe around her
Where little Lady Icicle lies dreaming in the snow…

We also absolutely LOVE the video that goes with it – four young ladies all dressed in white, reciting the poem in parts with a lovely and lively sense of the poem’s musicality. This is the kind of performance we’d love to see in the small group category of the Celebration competition.

Our second team favourite is by the wonderful African-American poet Langston Hughes’ ‘The Carol of The Brown King‘….

Unto His humble
Manger they came
And bowed their heads
In Jesus’ name.

Three wise men,
One dark like me –
Part of His
Nativity.

The video performance we have for this behind the 2nd December door is a reflection of the poem itself; simple and strong. The representation of people of colour has drawn a huge amount of coverage and far-ranging demonstrations of support in the past year. Hughes’ poem is moving and powerful, reaching across the century and speaking to us about the importance of seeing ourselves in the culture that surrounds us.

Last but not least, we are really enjoying Edwin Morgan’s ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card‘, the poem behind the 7th December door…

jollymerry
hollyberry
jollyberry
merryholly
happyjolly…

It’s completely off-the-wall, an unusual poem that has proved an unexpected favourite. We weren’t even sure it could be recited but the brilliant thing about working with children and young people is just how often they turn your assumptions upside down and prove you entirely wrong!  We totally recommend watching the breathless belter of a video recitation that we were sent that is on the poem page. It is nothing short of awesome, in the full awe-inspiring sense of the word!

Thank you to all the students, teachers and schools who produced all the wonderful video performances.

Here’s wishing everyone a peaceful Christmas, and much rest and relaxation after the longest term ever in the history of education.

 

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Black poets matter – the Poetry By Heart poem collections

26th November 2020

In response to emails from a student and a teacher at different times this term, we’ve been thinking about all the black and minority ethnic poets featured on the Poetry By Heart website.  As our filters don’t yet make it easy to see them all in one place, we’ve gathered the 75 poems from across our collections and put them all here! If you click on a poet portrait, you’ll be taken to a poem by that poet somewhere on the site. Some poets have more than one poem so you’ll find some portraits repeated. Sometimes they cluster together and sometimes they are further apart – we sequenced them by the poem’s publication date. You’ll find exciting contemporary poets (some of whom are our national competition judges and MC) as well as poets who lived in the 20th century, and a few from previous centuries. There are poets born in or who migrated to Britain, and poets from other regions and countries including the Caribbean, India and the USA. There are favourite poets whose poems have featured regularly in school anthologies and there are poets who are less well known. The poems are drawn together from all the different timeline and showcases.

We hope this blogpost will be a source of joyful discovery, reading and sharing these poems aloud – and a resource for classroom discussion, independent research and student projects on poets they want to explore further. We’d love to see inspiring and magical performances of all these poems recited in this year’s competition – if your students want inspiration, some of the poem pages also feature student performances. And we’d love to have additional suggestions to consider in our next review of the site in the summer term.
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P is for Poetry

12th November 2020

In our blogpost today, we hear from Naomi Cortes about her thriving poetry programme for primary schools, P is for Poetry. There are lots of great tips in here about working with poetry aloud with a class – from making the first moment when you read a poem magical, to warming up voices and confidence with tongue twisters, and having fun with a whole class performance of a poem. Remember – whole class performances can be entered for the Poetry BY Heart Celebration competition and we’d love to see more! Talk to us about how to get started. But first, here’s Naomi…

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Tell us about your P is for Poetry programme

In the morning I wake up and I say, “Ms Naomi, today’s a poetry day!” And off I trot with poems in hand – contemporary and classical, narrative and rhyming, nonsense or acrostic, haiku or sonnet, from all around the world.

Every week my poetry programme – P is for Poetry – engages with over 600 children in three Southwark primary schools. I share the power of words with pupils from Early Years through to Key Stages 1 and 2. The children reflect the diversity found within any city school – additional languages, varying abilities, disadvantaged backgrounds – but all with a need to express themselves, and through poetry they are able to do this with me.

What kind of moment do you create for poetry?

Magical! It has to be just right, that first moment when I bring a new poem to a class. I have one chance to pitch it perfectly. I would have read this poem to myself a couple of times… But out loud? No. So, this is the moment I have to connect a child with the power of poetry. I ask my children to close or cover their eyes and they know now is the time. All they have to think about are the words and images of the poem I am about to share, and the feelings it is evoking within them. And then, we share with the others in our class how our poem makes us feel, how it resonates with each one of us.

This is a huge part of the magic, and it’s my most challenging task: to ensure that every single child connects with the poem I’ve presented; that they can relate to the words, the theme, the tone, the expression within the poet’s own creativity; that they think to themselves, “Yes, I understand this,” and they feel ownership of the words placed before them. This is the starting point, where we will all leap together into the world of the poet’s vision.

How do you help children to really connect with the poem?

A visual language that works with the written word is vital to enabling all children to have a relationship with poetry. Whether an action is reflecting the meaning of a word or phrase, or is telling the audience how it makes us feel, this added form of expression encourages pupils who may feel a little reluctant to speak the words out loud. Including every child is a key to success, and being aware of each child’s method of learning is what inspires me. It’s so much fun, bringing this visual language to life. Sometimes an action can be very literal and I might say, “Give me something a bit scrummy.” Pupils will then take the imagery of that word further, and create something quite imaginative and complex. That is an absolute gift that adds another level of understanding and gives the children other ways of expressing what’s within the work.

How do you make it fun?

I have approximately twenty-five minutes with each class, so I have to make a big impression quickly, and create a fun environment which encourages all the children to want to learn and engage with poetry in their own way. This is where my experience and understanding of theatre comes centre-stage. Starting from Tongue Twister Challenges and the inclusive Venga-Venga Game, I am able to set the scene: a safe place where we can all learn something new, together. Performing poetry for the children with enthusiasm and dynamic interaction places them in front-row seats for the Ms Naomi show, the hottest seat in school that day!

What do young people get from performing poems?

Pupils enjoy the challenge of a new poem, and when I introduce their “Class Poem” – the one they will be exploring, learning and performing – there is always a huge cheer. Here is their opportunity to contribute to a poem which is just for them. Every Class Poem is a poem that’s “new” to me, that I haven’t taught before. During our time together we explore the ideas and the feelings of the poem, and incorporate all of this into our own expression of its meaning. Using gestures and movement, intonation and articulation, each child enjoys this expressive way of engaging with their poem. I encourage them to be bold with their choices and believe in their abilities to perform in front of others. This confidence grows in differing ways, from raising a hand in class, to sharing their ideas about a word or an action, to standing in front of others, with no text in front of them, performing an entire poem from memory. The children find that they enjoy the acting and the challenge of remembering the words and actions.

Recent months have obviously been very unsettling for children, but I have found that poetry has been a wonderful gift for them. Discovering techniques to deal with the difficulties we face has become so important, and pupils are able to lose themselves in the world of poetry and find calmness amongst it all. They tell me that, “Remembering a poem and the actions that go with it helps me to feel calm,” and, “When I sit on my own and think about my class poem it relaxes me.”

And what’s in it for you?!

I get a huge sense of achievement watching a class of thirty children embark on a fantastic voyage with a poem – watching them realise the worlds of their imaginations, their “lightbulb” moment as they clearly see a word, and their confidence as they share with others the power of expression through words. I love doing what I do in my poetry programme because I see it has an impact: it empowers children to use their voices to make sure that they are heard.

Find out more on my YouTube channel and my website naomicortes.com

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Lost voices of the First World War

29th October 2020

In 2017 and 2018 Poetry By Heart collaborated with the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme to run three very special tours to France and Belgium. There we read and recited First World War poems in the places related to the poems and poets –  including lost, forgotten and neglected poets of the war too. We knew about these poets from Professor Connie Ruzich’s blog, Behind Their Lines, so we invited her to join us – and to help us to choose poems to read and recite. 

In this blogpost ahead of a commemoration taking place when our world is once again in turmoil, we talk to Connie Ruzich about her just-published anthology, International Poetry of the First World War: an anthology of lost voices. This anthology includes a wonderful selection of poems alongside Connie’s contextual explanations, in sections about ‘Soldiers’ Lives’, ‘Minds at War’, ‘Noncombatants’, ‘Making Sense of War, ‘Remembering the Dead’ and ‘Aftermath’. We’re busy adding some of these poems to the Poetry By Heart First World War poetry showcase. Connie also shares her memories of the moments she especially remembers from those wonderful battlefield tours with Poetry By Heart students and teachers, when taking students on field trips was What We Did.

IPofFWW - Ruzich (3)

In International Poetry of the First World War you bring together ‘Lost voices’ from the period. Why do you think it’s so important to capture these lost voices – and how does this anthology expand our understanding of responses to the conflict and its creative legacies?

As the poems in my anthology demonstrate, there was no single representative experience of the Great War, nor was there a typical response to the conflict. And that is important, because poetry anthologies have long served as a crucial means of preserving and shaping literary, cultural, and social histories. Toni Morrison has written, “Canon building is Empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate … is the clash of cultures.” The canon of First World War poetry started to be established around 1930, with a new impetus in schools from the 50th anniversary in 1964, and since that time, it has focused almost exclusively on a select number of British soldier poets who fought on the Western Front and wrote in protest of the war. In recent years, there have been increasingly numerous calls to expand the range of voices and perspectives of First World War poetry, but few modern anthologies have included a representative sample of poems written by women and noncombatants, and fewer still have included poems not originally written in English.

International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices is intended neither to supplant nor to challenge the value of previous anthologies, the poets, or their work, but rather to supplement the canonical poetry of the war and to be read alongside it.  Recovering the diverse body of war poems that were originally published and reading them with a deeper appreciation of their social, cultural, linguistic, and historic contexts can provide a richer understanding not only of war poetry, but of the war itself.

You have described the process of discovering these poems as “happy mudlarking”. Could you say a little more about how you approached this daunting task of assembling this collection?

Mudlarking is the activity of searching the muddy foreshore and banks of rivers for anything of value. I moved my search for lost literary treasure on to dry ground, discovering lost poems and voices in second-hand bookshops, historic society collections, libraries, and museum archives. Digital collections were also invaluable. Numerous poems included in the anthology were written by people who did not identify primarily as poets, but who felt the need to respond to the war and to shape meaning out of their experiences of patriotism, fear, trauma, and grief.

It was particularly rewarding to discover and recover women’s war writing from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, India, America, Australia, and Russia. Both patriarchal societies and the military establishment have frequently attempted to distance women from war. Cynthia Enloe discusses ways in which combat has been viewed as “society’s bastion of male identity,” arguing, “Women as women must be denied access to ‘the front’…. And yet, because women are in practice often exposed to frontline combat, the military has to constantly redefine ‘the front’ and ‘combat’ as wherever ‘women’ are not.”[i]  It is a myth that women did not experience the physical horror of the First World War:  French and Belgium women’s homes were overrun by invading armies, British women were killed in bombing raids, and Armenian women were massacred along with men and children. The first industrial world war challenged the concept of the home front as a safe zone that was separate from the war. British suffragist and pacifist Helena Swanwick wrote in 1915, “War is waged by men only, but it is not possible to wage it upon men only. All wars are and must be waged upon women and children as well as upon men.”[ii] And though most women lacked first-hand experience of the battlefront, it is impossible to deny that women had first-hand experience of the war. In many women’s war poems, war has escaped its boundaries; women writers reach across border lines as they challenge conventional ideas about women’s distance from the war and seek to bridge the gap between themselves and other women’s experiences. American writer Amy Lowell in her poem “September, 1918” describes the effort that many must have felt as she describes her “endeavour to balance myself / Upon a broken world.”

From your extensive anthology, are there any poems that are especially meaningful to you, or that you find yourself regularly returning to?

Many poems haunt me, particularly those that mourn the loss of youth and innocence, such as Scottish officer E.A. Mackintosh’s poem “In Memoriam,” written for a private he was unable to save;  G.B. Smith’s poem “Let Us Tell Quiet Stories of Kind Eyes,” which remembers Robert Gilson, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s friends and a member of Tolkien’s first fellowship; or Lucie Delarue-Mardrus’s “Regiments” and Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s “He Went for a Soldier,” both of which describe young recruits marching to their death, accompanied by celebration and cheers.

Other special poems are those that evoke memories of Poetry by Heart tours of the Western Front, poems that were powerfully read and shared by teachers and students: Hedd Wyn’s “War” read in both English and Welsh at Artillery Wood Cemetery (“Ballads of boys blow on the wind, / Their blood is mingled with the rain”), Anton Schnack’s “Standing To” read in both English and German at Langemark Cemetery (“I shall go into death as into a doorway filled with summer coolness”), and René Arcos’ “The Dead” read in both English and French at the Ring of Remembrance (“The widows’ veils / In the wind / All blow the one way”).

Poetry by Heart tour Oct 2018

But perhaps my favorite poems are those with compelling back stories such as Tom Kettle’s “To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God” (written shortly before his death), Clifford Dyment’s “The Son” (written for the father who was killed when Clifford Dyment was a young boy), or Gladys Cromwell’s “The Extra” (written by an American nurse volunteer who was overwhelmed by the trauma she witnessed in France and who took her own life).

This project’s work has been a rich adventure, and it is my hope that readers will encounter the same pleasures of serendipitous discovery, finding new and meaningful voices, histories, and poems in this collection. (When ordered directly from Bloomsbury’s website, the code GLR TW5 can be used for a 35% discount.)

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Connie Ruzich was a 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the use of poetry in British centenary commemorations of the First World War. She is the editor of International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices (Bloomsbury, 2020), and she runs the popular blog Behind Their Lines, which discusses poetry of the Great War. Her essay “Distanced, disembodied, and detached: Women’s poetry of the First World War” appears in An International Rediscovery of World War One: Distant Fronts (Routledge, 2020), and an essay on wartime language and identity will appear in Multilingual Environments in the Great War (Bloomsbury, 2020). She is a professor of English at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, and you can follow her on Twitter @wherrypilgrim.

 

 

[i] Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You? The Militarization of Women’s Lives (Boston: South End Press, 1983), 15.

[ii] Helena M. Swanwick, “Women and War” (London: Union of Democratic Control pamphlet, 1915), 1.

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The Fire Of Joy – Clive James on learning poetry

15th October 2020

Clive James’ last book The Fire of Joy  – written with the support of his artist daughter while he was dying – is a sparkling testimony to a life lived with the pulse of poetry running through it. The book embodies and bears witness to James’s deeply held beliefs about poetry, beliefs that relate strongly to the project of Poetry By Heart. In this week’s blogpost, David Whitley enjoys this new anthology of poems and explores what James has to say about getting a poem by heart and saying it aloud. 

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Poetry is primarily sound for James (or ‘noise’ as he puts it, with characteristically undercutting pretensions): “noise is the first and last thing poetry is. If a poem doesn’t sound compelling, it won’t continue to exist”, he opines.

This fundamental belief is what inspires the whole book, whose main purpose “is to provide ammunition that will satisfy the reader’s urge to get on his or her feet and declaim”. James is a little tongue-in-cheek in casting the urge to recite as ‘declamatory’, but he is deadly serious about the strength and importance of the impulse itself. “Even the most shy young people, in my experience, have this desire,” he argues, “although they might suppress it for fear of making clowns of themselves. With a poem, the most important thing is the way it sounds when you say it.”

What makes poetry stay with you, though, is the way it also slides insidiously into your memory. Reflecting back on his life, James recognises that his “understanding of what a poem is has been formed over a lifetime by the memory of the poems I love; the poems, or fragments of poems, that got into my head seemingly of their own volition, despite all the contriving powers of my natural idleness to keep them out. I discovered early on that a scrap of language can be like a tune in that respect: it gets into your head no matter what. In fact, I believe that is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself.”

The Fire of Joy, then, is a treasure house anthology of the poems that have stayed with James over a lifetime, the poems that have come to mean most to him. Each is accompanied by a personal, penetrating – and sometimes provocative (there is always a bit of the showman about Clive James)– commentary.

The central importance he ascribes to memorisation and performance will be familiar themes for those who visit the Poetry By Heart website regularly: but James manages to invest them with fresh impetus and perspective here. Right from the off, for instance, we are cued into the nuances of the most desirable way construe recitation by the phrasing of the subtitle. There are dozens of anthologies of poems to memorize with the words ‘by heart’ on the title page, but James’ version sports ‘Roughly 80 Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud’. To ‘Get by Heart’ feels deliberately less earnest and institutional than the more standard phrasing, ‘Learn by Heart’; while to ‘Get’ also engages a range of subsidiary meanings; such as taking hold of something desirable; or understanding, as in the colloquial expression ‘I get it’. Even the injunction to ‘Say Aloud’ subtly marks its distance from the declamatory urge with which James (somewhat hyperbolically) introduced the topic. ‘Say aloud’ is less self-consciously histrionic, closer to ordinary speech than alternatives such as ‘declaim’, ‘perform’, or even ‘speak’.

After a brief introduction (interestingly, here James recalls his own school experiences of recitation, where he learned to associate poetry with freedom), James offers a page or so of advice for reading aloud which he calls ‘rules’. These are clearly sacred tenets for him, the distillation of his own experience and his lifelong attempt, not only to bring poetry alive, but to stay true to its essential form. A number of these nostrums are similar to the advice given on the Poetry By Heart website, though given distinctive Jamesian phrasing. “Go more slowly than you think you need to”, he begins, for instance; and later, with a slightly sardonic edge: “No amount of vocal beauty will compensate for the fact that you have no idea what the poem means. Figure it out before you start”. (One might add to this Jamesian credo that you often ‘figure it out’ at a deeper level in the process of getting a poem by heart, however).

But it is in the attention that he gives to line endings that James’ advice is most distinctive – indeed punctilious. One of his injunctions is simply to “[K]eep your voice up towards the end of the line”. This seems sensible in terms of not trailing off, but also recognises that line endings – especially where they rhyme – are designed to give subtly greater emphasis to the last word. More controversially, though, James provides a whole inventory of strict rules for administering pauses to line endings, at least in relation to regular stanzas. It is worth quoting the edicts in full here:

pause for the length of a comma at the end of the line to indicate that the line is turning over. If there is already a comma there, pause for the length of two commas. Pause also for two comma lengths at the end of any line ending with a semi-colon, colon or full stop. Pause for at least three comma lengths between stanzas. Don’t be afraid about the pauses losing you the audience. The impetus of the line will keep them listening, whereas a stumble from too much gabble will very soon make them wonder why they didn’t stay at home and watch television.

Teachers, and many experienced reciters, may wonder whether this antidote to ‘gabble’ risks being too doctrinaire, potentially inhibiting fluency and instinctive feel for the rhythms of verse amongst younger reciters who are finding their way into this ancient art for the first time. But these strict rules do provide an interesting topic for debate. And perhaps it is good to be this clear about baseline principles for recitation that cleave so closely to the formal structure of the poem, even if you decide to loosen and vary this practice? James doesn’t say how line endings in more open, free verse forms should be treated, but one suspects that he feels these should still generally be marked to a large degree consistently. Comments from Poetry By Heart users and any other interested parties would be very welcome!

I’ve finished this blogpost with a focus on some rather technical aspects of recitation. But I would heartily recommend James’ book on more general grounds – for its wit, wisdom and unbounded enthusiasm for the power of poetry to enrich our lives. Amongst other things, this is an exceptional anthology of poems.

 

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.

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Voyages in Verse – editing She Will Soar

30th September 2020

Following on from her first volume, She Is Fierce, Anthologist Ana Sampson has produced a second anthology of work solely written by women – She Will Soar: Bright, Brave Poems of Freedom by Women. We’re digging into it as we focused hard on including more lost, forgotten and neglected women poets in the revised Poetry By Heart digital anthologies launched today and we want to see who we’ve missed! We’re also loving the focus on freedom and escape.

In this week’s blogpost, Ana discusses the process of creating and editing the anthology and shares some of the joys and occasional agonies that she encountered along the way. We reckon her postperson should meet our postperson…

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She Will Soar: Bright, Brave Poems of Freedom by Women is the second anthology I have edited that gathers work by women from the ancient world to the present day. The previous volume – She is Fierce – had been a general collection, designed to be both broad and friendly, and with no particular thematic focus. She Will Soar concentrates on poems about wanderlust, freedom and escape – all subjects that have preoccupied female writers, who have always operated under more constraints than their male counterparts. And, of course, the verses I gathered took on an extra resonance during the strange, locked-down months of spring 2020.

It starts – of course – with reading.

There were poems I already knew and wanted to include. To add to these, I plundered my own shelves and those in libraries, from the small but much-loved library in my home village to the British Library and brilliant National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre (although they are sadly closed at present, they have some wonderful poetry available to browse online.) I bought second hand books, gratefully accepted bags of delights from my editor, devoured poetry publications and spent hours online (Twitter is a particularly good source of interesting new work, I’ve found.) I lapped up recommendations wherever they were offered.

As the kitchen table and living room floor disappeared under the stacks of paper and books, and my apologetic intimacy with the postman deepened, I began to construct a longlist. I’m enormously grateful for technological advances that allowed me to avoid carrying a houseful of books to the nearest photocopier. An app called Tiny Scanner turns pages into printable PDFs when you photograph them on your phone. I turned my houseful of post-it noted books into towering stacks of paper, and closeted myself with them.

I always find the process of whittling down a longlist for an anthology completely agonising. It was important to me to include voices from different eras, points of view and places, so that each reader would find something that struck a chord with them, and so the anthology would have a varied music to it. So when I had two poems that expressed similar feelings, or were very like one another in tone and style, I tried to lose one of them to keep the reading experience broad and interesting. She Will Soar includes, as a result, poems from today’s spoken word superstars (Kae Tempest, Sophia Thakur), canonical big hitters (Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning), forgotten pioneers (Charlotte Forten Grimké, Edith Södergran), suffragettes (Emily Wilding Davison, Charlotte Perkins Gilman), talented students (Ellie Steel, Lauren Hollingsworth-Smith), eighteenth century Bluestockings (Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu), a scandalous Victorian celebrity (L.E.L.), a ninth century courtesan-nun (Yü Hsüan-Chi) and a few national Laureates (Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke, Jackie Kay) among many others. It’s fascinating to find the same themes addressed in far flung places and distant eras by women leading such dramatically different lives.

Since the anthology took freedom, travel and escape as its theme, some chapters suggested themselves readily. There were poems about journeys over land and by sea that travelled happily together. A chapter gathering poems in which birds and beasts appeared as emblems of freedom was eventually dropped, with my favourites from that section flying elsewhere in the volume to roost. I had also originally planned a chapter which looked at some of the ties that bound writers – constraints of society, gender and even dress – which became, as my wise editor pointed out, rather heavy reading. Some of these poems were cut and others placed elsewhere.

Once the whittling had been done, and the poems were divided into thematic chapters including ‘Words can set you free’, ‘Flights of fancy’ and ‘Taking flight’, I closeted myself with print outs of each chapter. I read the poems – silently and out loud, as I hope readers will do – and shuffled the order until it felt… right. I aim for variety but also a sense of flow even though I think anthologies are as often dipped into as read in sequence.

My final task was to write the chapter openings. In these and the book’s introduction I tried very briefly to say something about the particular circumstances of female writers: how limited their social, political, literary, economic and educational freedoms had been through many of the centuries covered. I researched and wrote brief biographies of each of them, and found some of the stories of women from earlier eras immensely moving. Many defied disapproving husbands and fathers, dismissive editors, enormous families, vicious critics or society’s censure. Some faced mental or physical illness, and even fled repressive regimes. At times it was considered so disgraceful for women to publish, they wrote under male names, as the Brontës and George Eliot did. We will never know how many more didn’t feel they could write, or wrote and didn’t publish. But these women wrote. Lots of them have fallen out of fashion, some of them were ignored or didn’t dare publish during their lifetimes. Now, though, I hope they will be read alongside some of the most talented and inspired writers of today.

She Will Soar: Bright, Brave Poems of Freedom by Women is out now. You can find Ana talking (mostly) about poetry and books on Twitter and Instagram, and sign up for her newsletter here.

 

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Inspiring Poetry in your School through the CLiPPA Shadowing Scheme

3rd September 2020

A year ago the Poetry By Heart competition and timeline poetry collections expanded to include children and young people in key stages 2 and 3. We didn’t quite know what to expect, particularly from the youngest but we ended up blown away by all the fantastic performances. This would have come to no surprise to CLPE and the teachers who take part in the wonderful CLiPPA Shadowing Scheme.

We’re really looking forward to the announcement next month of the CLiPPA shortlist of the best new children’s poetry books. We’ll be looking out for great poems from these collections that we might want to add to the Poetry By Heart collections. If you take part in the Shadowing Scheme, let us know what you and your students love best! 

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Poetry is one of the most important branches of literature. We’re introduced to language and reading through the rhyme we hear and join in with as children and our poetry journey begins there. How well we travel along the road depends on how well exposed we are along the way to the joys and potential poetry offers to us as readers and writers.

 

Here at the CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) we believe poetry is a fundamental element in the development of children’s literacy. We see the importance of children hearing from, working with or watching professional poets. Seeing a poet bring their own work to life and beginning to understand what that means in terms of the creation of poetry helps children to see themselves as writers.  Listen to poets talk about their writing process; what inspires them, their unique voices, how they work, how they draft, edit and redraft – all this yields a wealth of information to consider the freedoms and support we give children in their own writing.

 

Our Poetryline website (https://clpe.org.uk/poetryline) offers all of this, for children to see and hear many poets, both well-loved and contemporary. This inspires children and enriches their learning, hearing from a poet direct can encourage a love of poetry for life.

 

Our poetry award and schools shadowing scheme enhance poetry in primary and secondary schools. Each year the CLiPPA (Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award) Shadowing Scheme begins in hundreds of schools across England. The scheme encourages children to read, write and perform poetry written by CLiPPA shortlisted poets using FREE CLPE teaching resources. Teachers are then invited to send in individual or class performance videos from which overall winners are chosen by the CLPE.

 

The schools shadowing scheme has been transformational for children and teachers.

 

CLiPPA perfromance 2018
“This experience has transformed not only my teaching of poetry but how the children in my class relate to it. I am confident that should anyone ask my class if they enjoy poetry their answer would be yes. The significance of deep exploration and the performance of poetry which CLiPPA highly promotes enabled my class to connect with the poems they studied, to understand the emotion in the poetry, and allowed them to take themselves to that destination – become that character (or in our winning performance’s case become ‘Old Foxy’).”

 

– Gemma Gibson, Teacher involved in the Shadowing Scheme in 2018.

 

 

CLiPPA perfromance 2019

 

“So would I recommend that you try the shadowing scheme with your class? YES! The teaching sequences are easy to follow and the children really benefit from the immersive approaches and the whole shadowing scheme has created a real buzz about poetry in our school.”

 

– Mary Gahan, Teacher involved in the Shadowing Scheme in 2019.

 

Every year the fantastic performances submitted by schools enable us to see the transformative power of poetry in engaging and developing the confidence of young readers.

 

The shadowing scheme involves children across the primary years and students in Key Stage 3. Get involved this year, and inspire and promote poetry in your class: https://clpe.org.uk/aboutus/news/clpe-announce-new-partnership-years-clippa

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Poetry By Heart France

21st August 2020

Poetry By Heart is part of an international family of related poetry reciting competitions: Poetry Out Loud in the USA, Poetry In Voice/Poésie en Voix in Canada, Talk the Poem in Jamaica, Poetry Aloud in Ireland, Poetry for Life in South Africa, and, as teacher and competition organiser Antony McDermott reports here, Poetry By Heart France.

We love all these international connections and this year we’re taking a first step, with Poetry In Voice/Poésie en Voix in Canada, towards a future international competition too. That will take time to develop but for now we’re hugely excited that one state school finalist from key stage 4 or 5 in the 2020-21 competition will be invited to Toronto in 2021 to perform alongside the Canadian Poetry In Voice competition winner at the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize awards ceremony.

More news about that soon, but here’s Antony on what these international connections mean for Poetry By Heart France.

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Our Poetry by Heart adventure began back in 2015. As an English teacher and poetry-lover, I was looking for ways to bring poetry to life in the classroom and to move students away from thinking that poetry was just about studying a small number of poems for a final exam. One question kept coming back to me: how could I encourage my students to develop a true love of poetry – a feeling they would hopefully carry with them after they had left school? When I came across the UK Poetry by Heart project, I knew straight away that this was a project that had so much to offer: it allowed students to discover a vast range of poetry; it emphasised student choice; and it encouraged students to develop a personal relationship with a poem and to express that through the power of voice, tone and intonation. The competition was also a reminder to all of us of the simple joy of hearing a poem being recited and how wonderful that can be.

And so it was, that with the support of ELSA (English Language Schools Association) and the kind encouragement of Tim Shortis and Julie Blake, we managed to set up our first competition in March 2015. Ten schools, mainly from the Paris area, took part and from the off the response to the competition was overwhelmingly positive. Of course, competition day was a wonderful event – a moment when students stepped onto the stage and were able to share their love and appreciation of poetry with a rapt audience. The wide impact that the competition had was also expressed by all of the teachers there – many referred to the way it had helped to raise the profile of poetry in their schools; the way it had encouraged their students to begin to think about what sort of poetry they liked and why; and the way that it had also allowed different students to shine, with many discovering a talent that they had not known they had, a talent to move people and transmit a feeling just through recital.

The success of the 2015 competition and the positive feedback on the day made it clear to us all that we had to do everything possible to continue the competition each year, and make it a permanent fixture of the school calendar. With some pride we can say that it is mission accomplished as the competition has continued each year since 2015 and the number of schools participating has increased from 11 to 17. The competition is also interesting for us here in France as it attracts students with differing relationships to English: some have an Anglophone parent and so speak English at home; others are bilingual and juggle two languages both at home or at school; some are French students who have developed a strong bond with the English language and English literature through their studies; and others are students for whom French and English are not their first languages. What all of these students do share is a love of poetry and a desire to share that love of poetry through the power of voice – the Poetry by Heart competition in France gives them the opportunity to do that.

Since 2015 the Poetry by Heart UK organisers have always been extremely encouraging, giving us support and advice from across the Channel. It was therefore with much excitement (and some nerves) that we were lucky enough to welcome Tim Shortis and Julie Blake to our 2017 finals here in France. It was a truly magic moment for everyone (teachers and students) to hear Julie tell us about the UK competition, how it had started and its evolution, and to receive encouragement from her and praise for our students’ recitals. Not only did the visit give validation to Poetry by Heart France, but it also felt, in a small way, as if we were building bridges and making connections (through the power of poetry) at a time when links between the UK and Europe seemed to be particularly fraught.

The excitement continued as our 2017 winner was invited by Tim and Julie to attend the British finals in the magical setting of The British Library in April that year. What an honour it was for our winner, Eléonore, (a student at the Institut Notre Dame school in Paris), to find herself reciting The Galloping Cat, in front of a packed room of UK finalists. As well as reciting her poem, she was treated like a true celebrity, being interviewed by the UK team about her experience as a Poetry by Heart competitor, and she also got to meet the actor, Freddie Fox.

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Eléonore meets the British actor, Freddie Fox, one of the guest speakers at the event

 

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Eléonore being interviewed by the UK organisers about her love of poetry

 

The Poetry by Heart France competition continued smoothly and successfully in 2018 and in 2019, and so by 2020 setting up the competition all seemed very simple. Everything was in place and we were all raring to go: the date of Saturday March 14th had been confirmed; the 16 participating schools had chosen their students; the venue was ready; the judges had been found and most importantly, the refreshments had been ordered – what could possibly go wrong? Of course, this was without taking into account the arrival of the Coronavirus. Just a week before the competition, we were told that for safety reasons it was no longer possible to organise large gatherings of people – Poetry by Heart France had to be cancelled. For the many students who had prepared their poems and who were ready to recite them, it seemed like a terrible shame but not much could be done.

A few weeks into lockdown though and once online teaching and learning had become the norm, it seemed more and more obvious that something could and should indeed be done to revive the 2020 competition. A message was sent out asking if students would be willing to film their recitals and the response was positive – yes, students were indeed keen to still take part. At a time when everyone was adapting to a difficult situation, poetry offered us all the chance to escape into other worlds and be transported by the beauty of other voices. The students taking part all managed to do just that through their delightful recitals. In the end, 29 enthusiastic students took part from 14 different schools in France – and the 2020 competition (version française) had been saved.

So what lies in the future for Poetry by Heart France? We will definitely continue with the English version here in France in 2021 and aim to encourage even more schools to get involved. We will continue to develop our middle school Poetry by Heart competition, which has been running now for a few years (and which has been a big success helping to enthuse younger students with the excitement of poetry recital), and we are looking into the possibility of creating a primary school competition as well. Our next big project though is to set up a bilingual version with the possibility of allowing students to recite poems in both French and English – this really would be a lovely way to celebrate poetry from different cultures. We’ve come a long way since everything started in 2015, but what has become evident along the way is the positive impact that the adventure has had on us all: it has allowed us to create a stronger sense of community amongst the participating schools; it has allowed us to promote the love of poetry in the classroom in a profound way; and most importantly, as listeners it has also given us so many magical moments hearing the emotion and passion of young voices reciting their favourite poem.


2020 Poetry BY Heart France Winners

Alexander Gliott (Josephine Baker Finds Herself) – First Prize – LISG American Section

Morgan Distler (God, A Poem) – Second Prize – Collège Sévigné

Matteo Joyce (Porphyria’s Lover) Lycée Camille Sée and Emma Georges (The Cleaner) Institut Notre Dame – joint Third Prize

Honorable Mentions to Emma Cowen (Dusting the Phone) LISG British Section and Joseph Hanlon (The Journey of the Magi) SIS Sèvres

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Close encounters with poetry

16th July 2020

At Poetry By Heart we always want to thank teachers for their work in making the competition happen in their schools, and for using the opportunity in so many creative ways to bring poetry alive for children and young people. In the context of doing this in an extraordinary school year, shaped in strange ways by Covid-19, we wanted to say that thank you louder. We were able to do that with the support of Candlestick Press in the form of a poetry pamphlet. Candlestick’s assistant editor Kathy Towers reflects here on the unique approach of the independent poetry publisher and notices some common themes with Poetry By Heart.

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Candlestick Press occupies a very particular niche in poetry publishing; our unique Ten Poems about recipe has been bringing poetry to new audiences for over 12 years and in that time we have sold over 600,000 pamphlets. The ethos is simple: encourage people to discover (and hopefully love) poetry by appealing to an enthusiasm, whether this be knitting, football, birds, bees, clouds or baking.

 

In this time of coronavirus poetry seems to have become more important and potent than ever: people are turning to poetry for company, comfort and distraction, as well as to connect with others and share experiences. Some are revisiting poems they learned by heart at school and finding comfort in the familiar words. Others are looking for new poetry that reminds them of the things that don’t change – the beauty of the natural world and the reliable progress of the seasons, for example.

 

Candlestick’s slimline mini anthologies are designed to be the opposite of daunting – ten poems are neither too many nor too few to offer a satisfying immersion. Each title provides an intense and hopefully memorable encounter with poetry. In this way, Candlestick’s approach could be said to have something in common with Poetry by Heart. You can’t learn a poem by heart without getting right under its skin and breathing as it breathes.

 

We work very hard to get our titles into outlets beyond the ‘usual’ mainstream and independent bookshops; our pamphlets are sold in some surprising places including museums and galleries, bakeries, wool shops, garden centres and national park visitor centres.

 

Choosing a theme is one of the lovely parts of the job. Sometimes ideas come in from readers via the website. Often, it’s a case of a topic seeming to cry out for the mini anthology treatment. Who could resist Ten Poems about Bees, Ten Poems about Baking or Ten Poems about Flowers? There’s also fun to be had in going a little off the beaten track: Ten Poems about Sheds has been a highly popular title, as has Ten Poems about Husbands and Wives.

 

One of the keys to a Candlestick title’s appeal is the beauty of the cover. Our ‘instead of a card’ tagline means that every pamphlet must look gorgeous enough to rival the most gorgeous greetings card. This is why we often commission leading contemporary artists to create our covers for us and we’ve been thrilled to showcase work by people such as Angela Harding, Celia Hart, Hugh Ribbans and Sarah Young.
We often ask a guest to headline our titles – something that plays an important role in boosting appeal. Ten Poems about Gardens has an introduction by Monty Don, Ten Poems about Bees is introduced by environmentalist Brigit Strawbridge Howard and Ten Poems about Art is edited by art critic and writer Geoff Dyer.

 

One of our top selling titles is Ten Poems about Walking edited by poet and keen walker Sasha Dugdale. The selection is a mix of old and new and covers all manner of walking experiences – from walks / talks with much-loved friends to Wordsworth’s Old Man Travelling and a support group for widows sharing a flask of tea on the top of Helvellyn. The warmth and humanity of the poems must surely be one of the reasons for the title’s continuing popularity.

 

We’re really delighted to be supporting Poetry By Heart, particularly at this extraordinary time. From our two very distinct niches it’s clear that we share some important beliefs: that poetry matters, that poetry is for everyone to enjoy and that in the best and worst of times poetry can offer light, beauty and solace.


Thank you to Candlestick Press and thank you again to every teacher who took part in Poetry By Heart 2020. The competition fun begins again in September.

@poetrycandle

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Quarto to Showcase – creating a digital collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets

26th June 2020

In this week’s blogpost, Tom Boughen, who is currently helping us add new learning material to the Poetry By Heart website, explores how Shakespeare’s plays were opened up for him by his A Level English teacher and how working on our Shakespeare’s Sonnets Showcase has now introduced him to the sonnets too.

I have a personal certainty that anyone who engages with Poetry By Heart for any length of time will walk away having learned something about poetry that they didn’t know before. This is no less true for those of us who work on the project. I’ve been spending time in the company of William Shakespeare’s 154 published sonnets, which are at the heart of Renaissance literary tradition, yet I have to admit that I knew little about them until recently.

I was surprised to find how much I did know, the snippets which have wormed their way into the public consciousness. Like many quotes from great literature which have done this, they come without much recognition of their origin.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

or

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,

And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field…

or

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red…

These might ring a bell, but it feels really satisfying to actually see these in their full context, akin to finally remembering the title of a song when the tune has been at the back of your mind for a few days.

The Shakespeare sonnet showcase has been on the site for a while, since 2017. It was originally created to continue the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. It often feels that we never really stop the ongoing celebration of Shakespeare’s life and works but we thought we could help students to discover something new. This is a challenge when contending with possibly the most famous writer in the English language and given that he was writing 400 years ago, when the English language was very different to today.

We took that challenge head-on. Alongside the modern English version we offered an alternate version published with the original spellings of 400 years ago. The development of language, and its evolution over the last 400 years, is evident when lining up two versions of the same poem – and it’s fascinating. And if you thought Shakespeare’s writing only works with a refined, upper-class accent, try watching the video below of Trevor Eaton reciting Sonnet 18 in Original Pronunciation.

Trevor Eaton – Sonnet 18 -Original Pronunciation from Poetry By Heart on Vimeo.

The development of language from Shakespearean English to modern English is also evident with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) links available throughout the showcase. We plan to add many more links in the coming weeks. Each link will take you to the OED definition, specific to the context of the poem, and find out the background to any words that might be obscure, difficult to understand, or just plain quirky.

From grappling with Hamlet in my own English A-Level class, I know that Shakespeare really comes alive when it’s taken off the page and is instead tumbling out of people’s mouths. As a moody, testosterone-filled teenager, the themes of parental alienation and destructive masculinity really struck a chord with me, but never more until I actually watched Kenneth Branagh, Ethan Hawke, David Tennant, Laurence Olivier – and yes, even Mel Gibson – deliver the lines which before had often seemed perplexing. In the same way that you can pick up on the meaning of a sentence in a foreign language by tone, body language and voice, you can do the same with Shakespearean English.

On this basis, each sonnet includes an audio recitation by Professor David Fuller, who has studied the link between sound and meaning in the sonnets, and many more also have links to Poetry Archive readings by poets. We also plan to include more videos of a wide variety of actors and performers giving their own unique interpretations.

Ultimately, through helping to build this project, I have a greater level of personal accessibility to the world of Shakespeare’s sonnets than I did a few weeks ago. All credit to my A Level English teacher, who employed a wide range of resources to help unlock Shakespeare’s plays. Now I’m beginning to see his sonnets in the same light, and I hope the Poetry By Heart Shakespeare showcase will help more young people in the same way.

 

 

Tom Boughen currently teaches English as a language assistant in Madrid. A full-time member of the Poetry By Heart team between 2013 and 2016, he still occasionally returns to make contributions to the project, and otherwise spends his time reading, writing, going for walks and practising his Spanish.

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Like seeds that will bloom in their own rhythm

18th June 2020

Like seeds that will bloom in their own rhythm

During the first phase of the global Covid-19 pandemic, in April and May 2020, Nina Alonso wanted to explore the much-repeated idea that poetry would help us through the crisis. She invited women friends around the world to learn one poem by heart during the lockdown and to video themselves performing it. Nina is exploring the videos and the testimonies of the women involved as part of her research, but she also edited clips from each recitation to create a new video-poem that is a response to the crisis too. In this week’s blogpost, we share Nina’s video (which includes our Director, Julie Blake, reciting T.S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ rather bleakly) and her thoughts on this activity. 

The women I invited to learn one poem by heart during the confinement are friends or family from different generations (from age 18 to 75) and they come from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, living in different countries in different continents. From Hong Kong, the UK, Brazil, Mauritius, Spain, Uruguay, Palestine, Australia, Luxembourg, France, Colombia, Moldavia, Italy, Luxembourg, Malawi, Chile, USA and Greece, each of us chose poems that felt close to our hearts, meaningful or comforting in different ways during the crisis.

Some of us made video-recordings together, recording our recitations as they were displayed on the screen in online video chat applications. Others just video recorded themselves when they felt the poem was well learnt and well internalised (hopefully for ever). These video recitations are part of a short film that integrates these memories of poetry learning and recitations. And a new poetry composition emerged as lines from the different recitations were put together. The composition is made of poems recited in English, Portuguese, French, Euskera, Spanish, Sign language, Arabic, Italian and Greek.

The outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic made us deal with uncertainty, grief and loneliness, and it made us feel anxious, fearful and sad. We all had the need to stay connected with our loved ones. Like most people in the severe stage of the lockdown, I could not be with my friends and family. Many of my friends were far away and finding new meaningful ways of being connected with them warmed my heart. Being aware of the power of poetry learned by heart and its recitation, the idea of sharing this kind of experience during the crisis made sense.

At the beginning I started to learn a poem by heart with a few friends – one in Brazil, another in Hong Kong, Chile and one in Moldavia. The process of choosing the poems and learning them connected us deeply while also giving us a sense of joy and satisfaction. As I shared what I was doing with other friends, many wanted to do the same, and I encouraged them to learn a poem either by themselves or, as some of them suggested, with their mothers or daughters. I thought we could then link all these experiences together, so I asked these women friends to record themselves reciting their learned poems so I could weave us together in a collaborative poetry video composition.

They all responded enthusiastically. At a time when the search for accomplishment, obtaining material outcomes, recognition and productivity seems to be the drive of contemporary societies, it surprised me that none of the 24 women who sent me their recordings ever asked a single question about the purpose or utility of the initiative. These women clearly understood, without the need of discussion or questioning, Nuccio Ordino’s idea of the usefulness of the useless.

We don’t know what these poems will mean in the future for the women who participated in this project. Maybe some of these women will treasure the poems (or parts of them) in their hearts for ever, and maybe the emotions inspired by the poems or some meanings will develop over time. It would be interesting if we could trace the emergence and development of poetic meaning in what Peter Middleton calls “the long biography of the poem(s)” that these women learned during the Covid 19 pandemic. What we know now from the feedback they shared with me is that they experienced joy and satisfaction while learning the poems, and that being part of a collaborative project that gathered women from different parts of the world and linguistic backgrounds, warmed their hearts, made them feel mutually enriched and proud of their capacities to weave sensitive, peaceful, borderless and non-utilitarian connections.

The experience of learning a poem during confinement, sharing this experience with friends, and then in this great network of women around the world, brought a sense of beauty and union in these difficult times. The challenge of remembering each word gave me new ways to experience poetry. Suddenly each verse started to gain fresh life in everyday activities, popping up in my head when I was cooking, doing household chores or in interactions, and poetry felt engrained in objects and actions that once were felt to be meaningless.

– Aline Federico, Brazil

During these times of social isolation and unrest, it meant a great deal to join a chorus of women, across the globe, in a form of poetic solidarity. I chose the poem ‘My words to you’ by Jean Valentine because it speaks to the language of longing: capturing the distance between us while simultaneously acting as a reminder of how intimate and universal is our shared sense of longing and separation. To learn a poem by heart is to also close the distance between the poet and the reader – to relive the poem and inhabit it – to walk a “poem” in Jean Valentine’s shoes. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity, for the reminder that I’m not alone.

– Chloe Firetto-Toomey, USA

 

Poetry heals and this reminded me of its power. I was very focused when learning the poem by heart and I even copied some lines a few times to help me memorize the lines. I was able to stay away from my phone while learning the poem. At first, I was a bit intimidated by the invitation because I hadn’t recited a poem for a long time but I felt that ‘Wild Geese’ resonated with our experience and I should memorize it. It makes a huge difference when you know you’re reciting to a friend. You want to do it well and not let your friend down. This was a very meaningful experience and I am so glad that I was part of it.

 

Akina Lam, Hong Kong

 

Nina (Dr M.L. Alonso) manages a school library in Spain and trains teachers in developing young people’s engagement with poetry. She has extensive experience in international organizations promoting young people’s engagement with multilingual literature.

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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.

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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?

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Poem of the Week

21st May 2020

In this blogpost, Julie Blake explains what Poetry By Heart’s Poem of the Week is up to. Who is it for? What do you do with it? Where can you find it? When does it come out? Why are we doing it? How can you take it further?

Poetry By Heart’s Poem of the Week is free and available in the Learning Zone on our website at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk. Or you can sign up to get it in your inbox by email.

 

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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, a long-ago former student to be precise, tweeted a plea to organisations to stop emailing him all their rather intense announcements of how they could help during the Covid-19 crisis. However well-meant, he had quite enough in his inbox to deal with to keep his job and his team going remotely, to home-school his children, to support his wider family and to simply get through a supermarket shop safely. I saw this tweet just as we were about to launch the new Poetry By Heart Poem of the Week feature. I looked at the email campaign lined up on my screen, ready to blast out our offer of a little support for poetry learning during Covid-19, and I deleted it. So if you’re thinking, “I didn’t know you were doing a Poem of the Week”, that’s why. We launched it quietly.

Even so, just by mentioning it a couple of times on Twitter and in our regular newsletter, we’re already heading for triple figures a couple of weeks on and, with the lockdown beginning to ease a little, it’s time to introduce it properly.

POTW graphic 1

Poetry By Heart’s Poem of the Week is a response to the Covid-19 crisis but it’s also part of the plan we had anyway to create more specific resources for exploring poetry out loud and by heart. The new Covid-19 challenge we had was to adapt what we had in mind to the new conditions where some teachers and students would be in school but most would be teaching and learning at home. We wanted to create a simple poem resource that could be enjoyed and shared by children and their families at home, and used as a starting point for a poetry lesson or activity in school.  It’s designed to be low-key and low-stress, easy to start but rich with possibilities for more extended exploration. There’s a link to one of the poems on our website and a short activity. It’s all about enjoying a poem, exploring its sound and sharing it aloud.

So far, we’ve featured Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Eagle’ and contemporary poet Joseph Coelho’s ‘Eastbourne’. This gives a little taste of the mixture of classic and contemporary poets we’ll be featuring. The poems will either have been written specifically for children, or written with children in mind (to follow the poet Rachel Rooney’s explanation of her writing), or they have often been selected for children.  We want families or classes with children of different ages to be able to enjoy them together, so the poems will tend to be on the shorter side and they won’t put up too many obstacles to fairly immediate enjoyment. Though poetry excels at “The weariness, the fever, and the fret” of humankind’s existence, as John Keats encapsulated it, we’ll be sharing poems that are positive, funny, joyful, uplifting or sustaining in some way, sometimes through the kinds of closer observation of the natural world that many of us have taken heart from in this quieter phase of the world’s turning.

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When you click on the poem link in the Poem of the Week feature, you’ll travel to the Poetry By Heart Mix-It-Up collection of poems. This is a “walled garden” of poems we’ve chosen for younger children. It’s designed to offer a playful interface for children to discover poems. Roll over a poem ‘tile’ and the poem title appears, click on it and there’s an intriguing line from the poem, scroll down and the poem is there in a dyslexic-friendly font. Scroll to the bottom and you’ll find a selection of random other poem-tiles to lead you on to new adventures in poetry. Click on the ‘Mix It Up’ button at the top of the wall of tiles and you’ll see why we called it that – hours of family entertainment right there!

The activity that comes with the poem is all about the sound of the poem. We want children to experience the poem and to feel for themselves poetry’s fundamental basis in voice and sound, in patterns of musicality, and in breath and the human heartbeat. This is the vitamin-enriched foundation needed for deep learning about language and form, when children are formally introduced to it in their schooling, and about all the many ways in which poets catch fleeting precious moments in a web of words. In Poem of the Week you’ll find prompts to have a go at saying the poem aloud – ideas about how to pace it, or where the emphasis fall, or shifts in tone that might need to be voiced. The idea is not to provide a comprehensive guide to reciting any individual poem, but to encourage experience and experiment over a number of weeks and many poems. The default activity is always this: read the poem, share it aloud, have a go at the activity.

But children and families, students and teachers, could go further with it, of course. A simple say-aloud of the poem might be the starting point for learning the poem by heart and preparing a performance of it in the here-and-now of home or school, for neighbours over the socially-distanced garden fence or for distant family over video chat. Sharing and talking about the poem might be the starting point of new poems created by children and adults. Take Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’. Most of us don’t get too many opportunities to watch the movement of an eagle, but what about really watching that blackbird pecking up the flowerbed, or that seagull swooping for chips? Which words could capture that precise moment of movement? Or try Coelho’s ‘Eastbourne’ as a starting point – what other impossible-to-answer questions do people ask you?

There are lots of other creative ways of exploring a poem too. Have a look at ‘The Witch’ poem poster created by artist Ben Westley Clarke. Could you have a go at something like this? All you need is a drawing implement and a drawing surface. I would say “pencil and paper” but I’ve seen some amazing chalk-art on pavements during the lockdown! Or create a video of your poem of the week – recited solo or in a pair or a whole group taking parts chorally, or turned into a mini-movie or an animation. We’d love to see what you can do!

Poem of the Week is free and available to anyone who wants it. It goes out by email on Sunday afternoons all ready for the week ahead – sign up to get it in your inbox. On Mondays, we add the latest feature to the Learning Zone of our website so you can browse the whole collection as it builds, whenever you want to and without inbox-overload. And if that whets your appetite for more poetry, you could also check out these other features that share a poem every day or every week.

Poem of the Day emails

For many years I‘ve subscribed to the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day email. It’s a wonderful resource for teachers and A Level students, often perfectly chiming with the day’s global events or the seasons, sometimes bringing you a loved classic, sometimes a new treasure. I share poems I especially enjoy with family and friends on my Facebook page. But, to be honest, most days it sweeps past me in the avalanche that is my inbox. I wish I could swim faster in the joyful torrent of words but I don’t. But I don’t give up on it either. The strange new conditions of our times are helping me recalibrate my guilt: letting poetry wash over and around me is fine. I’ll open the emails as and when I have – or more than usually need – the mental breathing space. You can also sign up for a poem of the day email with The Academy of American Poets.

Carol Rumen’s Poem of the Week articles in The Guardian

Poem of the day emails are what they say they are, but if you want a more substantial guide to poems you haven’t read before, you can’t do better than the poet Carol Rumens and her wonderful Poem of the Week series in The Guardian. Each week, the feature includes a poem and a commentary all about it. The selection of poems is fantastic – broad and inclusive, comfortable and surprising – and the commentary is pitched perfectly to the curious everyday reader. It’s fantastic radar-widening for teachers (and A Level students) and a model of clear, intelligent, accessible writing about poems. Can you tell I like it yet?…

 

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?

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Poems Need to be Read Aloud

6th May 2020

In the first part of this blogpost, poet Joseph Coelho makes the case for reading poems aloud and introduces his new collection, Poems Aloud, which presents the poems with lots of prompts and tips for lifting them off the page. In the second part, Karen Lockney reviews Poems Aloud with the very able assistance of a Year 7 Mystery Shopper!

Poems Aloud by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Daniel Gray – Barnett is published by Wide Eyed Editions
ISBN 9780711247680   £11.99 Hardback   Published 4 February 2020.


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Joseph Coelho

 

Poems need to be read aloud, they need to be heard and shared and experienced together. In this way poems can bring people together, in this way feelings can be shared, ideas contemplated, actions taken. This thought was at the forefront of my mind when writing Poems Aloud, my latest poetry collection, illustrated by Daniel Gray-Barnett. The collection aims to gently introduce young people to poetry through the performance skills that help lift poetry off the page.

 

Many people find poetry scary, something to be analysed, something purely to be studied, something that others write and others perform. With Poems Aloud, I wanted to break down some of those fears through the lens of performance. There are poems designed to be whispered in a friends ear, poems that encourage the reader to emphasise rhyme, poems that suggest actions, poems that need to be shouted. Not only do these techniques highlight the often overlooked medium of performance, but they also help the student find new ways of appreciating, understanding and relating to poems they have read, studied or indeed written.

 

Poetry, it seems, is having a much needed and long-awaited revival, with increasingly more collections being published and poetry slowly finding more shelf space in bookshops and on award-winners lists. The more the better, I say, because the more poetry is celebrated the more we can spread the message that poetry is there for us all, not just to pass the time but to help us through difficult periods in life. There are good reasons why poems are often read at funerals and shared at birthdays and weddings. Poetry manages to describe the indescribable, it finds a way to truly transmit how we are feeling. It’s for this reason that the growth of online resources, like the English Association’s Poetry Portal and the Poetry by Heart scheme that has children learning poems, off by heart, are so essential. With resources like the Poetry Bookmarks, the English Association is part of a growing community of organisations providing free resources that help students and teachers find new ways into poetry.

 

In the past our focus on poetry has mainly been around analysing and getting our analysis “right”, or writing purely to be read on the page, with no feel or regard for how the poem could be performed. For too long the worlds of performance poetry and published poetry often inhabited different spaces. All that is changing now, with many performance poets being published and recognised in arenas that were once mainly concerned with just the published word. In fact, things are changing so much that I often wonder if terms like “performance poet” continue to be valid: every performance poet I know, myself included, always wrote down their poems first, so aren’t we all just poets?

 

It’s thrilling to see poetry read by real poets appear on TV adverts and shared by celebrities. I strongly believe that with the gradual increase in appreciation of poetry as a performed as well as written art, we are seeing the gradual rise in the popularity of poetry as a whole. It follows that we must ensure that poetry is continued to be read, studied, analysed and performed. It is a beautiful, malleable and varied artform that should always be celebrated in all its different facets. We need to teach children all of these incredible ways that they can engage with poetry because, really, what we are teaching them is all the incredible ways that they can express and engage and become familiar with their own feelings and emotions and those of others. What better way to create a stronger tomorrow?

 

Karen Lockney

This lively celebration of poems to be read out loud, contains 29 poems by writer and performer Joseph Coelho, and it has the feel of a picture book in this hardback edition, colourfully illustrated by Daniel Gray-Barnett.

This would be an excellent addition to a poetry library in a KS2 classroom, and could also find some fans in slightly older children. It would work well for children to explore themselves, but could also be used by teachers as part of their poetry repertoire. This would also make a lovely bedtime reading book for younger children, where an adult could encourage the speaking out loud of a poem in a fun way, using the guidance given.

Its main strength is the pointers it has for each poem, or collection of shorter poems, to encourage a variety of reading and performing strategies such as tongue twisters and riddles; poems to take the voice from soft to loud, or vice versa; poems to read fast and slowly; poems for more than one voice. A couple of poems focus on homophones and verbs, and these could be a useful and creative addition to lessons exploring language features.

There are chilli ratings (1 for hot and 2 for extra hot!) that let the reader know they may contain difficult words or more challenging themes, though less able readers may need support accessing several of the poems.

The poems work well in conjunction with the illustrations, and readers will be able to experience the pleasure of an illustrated poetry book with a collection by a single poet, which offers something slightly different to anthologies more commonly found in classrooms and poetry collections for younger readers.

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Some observations from a Year 7 pupil:

I would have enjoyed reading this book in my Year 5 and 6 classrooms because it would have encouraged me to experiment with different ways of reading poetry out loud. I like the presentation and layout of each page, because it makes you want to spend longer reading the poems. It is good that it gives you ideas on how to read a poem out loud, because sometimes I struggle to know what to do to make a poem sound good. If you use the prompts to bring the poems alive, then this could be really funny e.g. the poem ‘Turn the Radio Up’ encourages you to start off whispering and then raise your voice until you are shouting by the end. I like the fact it links to musical terms like crescendo and diminuendo to help you understand the way sound can work in a poem. I would have happily read this book myself, but I also would have liked to work on it in groups or with my teacher. I think this book will help younger readers know how to bring poems to life, and to have fun with poetry.


JOSEPH COELHO is an award winning poet and performer from London, although he now lives by the sea. In 2019 he won the Independent Bookshop Week Picture Book Award for If All the World Were. He has been long-listed for The Carnegie Children’s Award with his poetry collection Overheard In A Tower Block, which was also shortlisted for the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award and Longlisted for the UKLA Book Awards. He won the 2015 CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award with his début poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules. His début picture book, Luna Loves Library Day was voted one of the nations favourite picture books by a survey led by World Book Day . His other poetry books includeHow To Write Poems and A Year Of Nature Poems. He has written plays for companies including: Soho Theatre, Polka Theatre, The Unicorn Theatre, Theatre Royal York, Oily Cart and The Spark Children’s Festival to name a few. Joseph has been a guest poet on Cbeebies Rhyme Rocket, Radio 4’s Poetry Playtime and Front Row. He is the presenter of BBC’s Teach Poetry (Oct 2018) and features in DiscoveryEDUK’s Poetry Curriculum. www.thepoetryofjosephcoelho.com@poetryjoe

 

KAREN LOCKNEY is a member of the Poetry By Heart team and a senior lecturer at the University of Cumbria.

 

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

13th February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

3rd February 2020

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

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The value of the memorised poem

9th December 2019

Memorised poemBetween 2013 and 2016, Debbie Pullinger and David Whitley conducted a research project – funded by the Leverhulme foundation – into how the value of the memorised poem was experienced and perceived. They conducted an online survey in which nearly 500 people participated, with a good spread of age groups from 18 to over 80. Participants were asked about when they learned poems and for what purposes, as well as being invited to reflect in more depth about a particular poem that had stayed in their memory and held special value for them. This research provides a very interesting backdrop – and to some extent an evidence base or even rationale – for Poetry By Heart. Below David Whitley offers some extracts from the Project’s main findings, together with reflections on issues raised that may be particularly relevant for Poetry By Heart.

In the final report we divided the central findings into three main categories or sets of issues:

  • what kinds of poems were held in people’s memories and had become particularly important to them;
  • how memorised poems tended to connect to life experiences;
  • and how memorisation affected participants’ understanding and experience of the poem.

What kinds of poems were held in people’s memories and had become particularly important to them?

It became clear that – in aggregate – the poems participants singled out as being particularly important for them could be seen as embodying a kind of recitation canon. This canon, moreover, existed in participants’ hearts and minds independently of any institutional context, even if a proportion of the poems had originally been learned in school. (Actually this proportion was rather less than we had expected, under half the total). So what seemed to characterise this informal canon? Here we quote selectively from the report of project’s findings:

‘The memorised poems selected by respondents may be seen as exemplifying an informal tradition. Insofar as this ‘tradition’ represents an informal alternative to more conventional canons, it has implications for how we might think about both the ‘uses’ of poetry, and the cultural processes of selection more widely… The single most striking feature of this informal memorised canon is that it is more conservative than the poetry syllabuses currently found in schools and higher education, being highly centred on male, white, British and Irish writers, most of whom have been dead for at least fifty years. Compared with those syllabuses, however, the memorised canon continues to value popular verse of the past which is no longer regarded academically, as well as giving a significant place to poetry with a strong appeal to the ear and to humorous works. Moreover, although largely conservative in cultural terms, elements of ethnic and regional diversity are clearly present. Given that the poetic tradition is often considered a cultural asset which underpins the expressive richness of the English language, we feel there is therefore scope for the alternative tradition of poems, held in the heartlands of memory, to be seen as a positive aspect of national identity, especially if its conservative qualities are reinvigorated and extended by practices incorporating greater diversity.’

A few reflections in relation to Poetry By Heart –

The significant poems selected by participants were conservative not only in terms of authorship (a huge preponderance of white, dead, males) but also in terms of poetic forms. Virtually none of the poems selected were in free verse or what tends to be categorised now as ‘open forms’, without a regular rhyme scheme or metrical structure. Clearly rhyme and metre help poems stick in the memory, but they also signal ‘traditional’. Over 100 years after the first great modernist experiments in free verse started, the freedoms associated with open forms are hardly ground-breaking or iconoclastic any more, but – with enormous variation – they are the forms that most living poets writing in English choose to work in. The informal recitation canon appears to be quite determinedly old fashioned, therefore, and Poetry By Heart has consciously set out to offer choices for memorisation that are both more inclusive in terms of the voice, ethnicity and origins of the poets, and wider ranging in terms of forms. Still, the Poetry By Heart anthologies try to recognise the continued appeal of more traditional metres and rhyme schemes for recitation as well as including a larger proportion of lighter, more humorous and popular poems than tend to be used in classrooms.

How memorised poems tended to connect to life experiences

For nearly all of our respondents, knowing some poetry by heart is regarded as an enriching, life-enhancing experience. The survey ranking gave an indication of the effects most likely to be experienced. Appreciation of the poem itself was the most prevalent, closely followed by the role of the poem as an emotional resource. However, the other suggested benefits were fairly evenly represented, as shown here (percentages rounded to nearest decimal place).

  • Helps me appreciate the poem more – 72%
  • Gives me a source of comfort in tough times – 63%
  • Helps me understand the poem better – 56%
  • Is good for being able to play with language – 54%
  • Helps me to make sense of life – 44%
  • Is good for making connections between things – 42%
  • Gives me confidence that I am able to remember things generally – 40%
  • Helps with being able to express ideas – 39%
  • Makes no difference- 3%

Fleshed out by findings from the qualitative textual analysis, the picture of a memorised poem is, typically, of a personal possession with connections to people who have been loved, or to significant life experiences. These connections are continually active in the experience of the memorised poem and may present themselves in different forms over time. Memorised poems tend to be transmitted in vivo, and are perceived as being alive in a different way from poetry that is accessed only in its printed form. However, this condition of being embedded within life experience does not mean that the poem itself is necessarily perceived impressionistically or in a purely subjective mode. On the contrary, the respondents who experienced the poem in this way also tended to have a very strong sense of its formal and semantic qualities. What differentiates it from the poem as an object of literary study (where the textual, abstract or conceptual qualities are foregrounded) is that the memorised poem tends to retain its connection to a web of personal, embodied associations. Indeed, for these events and experiences, the poem may itself act as a powerful mnemonic, tagging them with significance and transfixing them within the inner life, over time. This in turn undoubtedly contributes to the memorised poem’s vital role as an emotional resource, but it is probably the combination of this mnemonic property with an internalised sense of the poem’s formal structure that enables it to work so effectively, as often reported, as a container for strong emotion

How memorisation affected participants’ understanding and experience of the poem.

The phrases ‘by rote’ and ‘by heart’ occur frequently in the open-ended survey responses. Our analysis suggests that these two colloquial expressions do point towards a real difference in the practices and processes of learning, which may in turn tend to produce different experiences of the memorised poem itself. The way individuals relate to a memorised poem is undoubtedly the product of a complex of factors that include personal psychology, family culture, and school experience. Nevertheless, the poem learned ‘by rote’ – where the goal tends be the memorisation itself rather than engagement with the poem – is less likely to be retained over a prolonged period, or may not be as fully appreciated or understood. Although a poem learned ‘by rote’ may take root and come to be experienced in a fuller way, our evidence indicates that a productive, fruitful relationship with a poem is more likely to result from learning that might be described as ‘by heart’. In contrast to more functionalist, mechanical forms of ‘rote’ learning, deep or organic learning may be characterised by a focus on the poem’s inherent qualities, including its sensory attributes, and by an attitude of curiosity and playfulness. Many respondents experiencing poems in this way describe them in terms that cast the poem as a living entity – a finding which correlates with recent neurological understandings of the distinctive way in which the brain perceives and processes art forms more generally (McGilchrist, 2008).

Evidence from our interviews also indicates that memorised poems tend to exist in relationship with other forms, within a wide mental and textual landscape that may include:

  • wholly and imperfectly recalled poems, odd lines and fragments
  • poetry in published volumes and anthologies
  • handwritten personal notebook and quotations, exchanged with others orally and in writing.

Page and memory are experienced as mutually supportive counterparts within a multimodal nexus. Thus, memorised poetry may be understood not as a single or discrete category, but as one form of engagement within an ecology of interdependent forms and exchanges.

 

In summary, we believe these insights constitute an important perspective for current educational culture, where poetry memorisation is sometimes perceived as purely functional (a means to an end), as a superficial form of engagement, or even as a counter-productive practice. Our findings indicate the potential benefits of integrated memorisation practices that work in synergy with other forms of engagement, performance, appreciation, and meaning making. Memorised poems, in this context, may constitute an immensely valuable resource for life.

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Dizzy Raptures

21st November 2019

Roms showcase snip_edited v2 800pxThis week we’re focusing on the new Romantic Poetry showcase we recently added to the website. We developed this because (a) what’s not to love, learn and recite and (b) we wanted to support GCSE and A Level students with a wider surround-sound to the poems they’re studying. Judith Palmer, Director of the Poetry Society, made a delicious selection of these poems and many more in association with friends and colleagues at the Romantic poets’ literary societies, trusts and houses. Over time, we’ll come back to Judith’s selection and adding more poems to the showcase.

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

 

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

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

Different poets, different lives

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

Rhythm, energy and musicality

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

Dramatic transformations

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

Love in a poem, loving a poem

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

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

 

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

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Emily’s Dream – lifting poetry off the page

15th November 2019

FWW blog Varty thin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7th November 2019

Horrible thing_edited 800px
There are many different ways of getting started with Poetry By Heart but teachers’ top tip is always to give pupils some encounter with poetry recitation before asking them to give it a go. After all, if you’ve never seen or heard anyone reciting a poem before, how would you even know what “it” is?

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

Here goes…

The sounds, patterns and rhythms of names

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

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

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

‘maggie and milly and molly and may’

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

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

Joining in

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

What do you remember?

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

Call and response

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

Visualising the poem

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

Learning our lines

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

Class performance

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

Next steps in Poetry By Heart

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

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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.

 

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Learning lines – an actor’s perspective

22nd February 2018


This blogpost is written by Megan Rogers, General Manager at Actors of Dionysus

How do actors learn all those lines?

I imagine that this question is asked by almost all theatre-goers at one time or another. And that question might also spring to mind when watching a young person performing without the safety net of a book or autocue when reciting an extract from ‘Paradise Lost’ within the national Poetry By Heart competition. Recently I saw a fantastic production of King Lear at the National Theatre and I remember feeling absolutely in awe of Simon Russell Beale who not only gave a faultless performance in the central role, remembering massive chunks of text but delivered the performance so clearly that I understood the plot, having not really known the story.

The challenge of learning drama and poetry texts has struck me lately as our theatre company Actors of Dionysus, has just finished touring with a contemporary version of Antigone which is re-imagined in a futuristic, dystopian landscape. An initial two week research and development period allowed Artistic Director Tamsin Shasha and Writer Christopher Adams to really get to grips with the meaning of the text, and to explore new ways of presenting it. Along the way all our actors inevitably grappled with the task of learning, understanding and memorising lines and I wanted to share some thoughts about this process which may be of help to teachers and students working with the Poetry By Heart competition.

I believe that to learn something wholeheartedly you need to understand the meaning of it, and in the case of classical text this is paramount – for the Actor and the audience. During rehearsals for Antigone, Tamsin Shasha and Deirdre Daly, our Associate Director, worked closely with the cast on their understanding of the original text, splitting it in to manageable chunks first, before discussing themes, plot and character motives together, and then putting it on its feet, adapting and editing Chris’s text as the show developed. I asked Tamsin about line learning and the rehearsal process:

Yes it’s much easier to learn something when you fully understand it – it just sinks in much easier. When we rehearse our annual fund-raiser we rehearse and perform an ancient Greek drama within a week, putting considerable pressure on the actors to learn their lines in advance of the process. This is a necessity (due to a very short rehearsal process) and it makes for a baptism of fire performance – it’s worked for us for the last 5 years but there is only one crack of the whip so you have to get it right the first time! An adrenaline rush not for the faint hearted, but it proves it can be done.

I would argue that it is possible to learn something without fully understanding it, especially if you are learning parrot fashion and under duress – obviously this isn’t advisable, but sometimes needs must if you have a short rehearsal period and then you can add layers of meaning and interpretation thereafter. The memorising comes first. The nuance and the subtlety follows after, depending on the performer, their interpretation and what the director wants to see.

It is an interesting discussion about which method is best: learning by rote, the old school way of learning by repetition, or learning by heart, taking the text to heart and inhabiting it in pursuit of memorising it. Poetry By Heart challengers are encouraged to learn their chosen poem by heart and in this way they face many of the challenges that are faced by Actors within the rehearsal process, where they need to understand the text in order to inhabit their character and tell the story of the play through the character’s actions and intentions. Actors need to learn by heart in order to inhabit a character truthfully, in the same way that Poetry By Heart challengers inhabit their poem to memorise it. The point about understanding a drama text, taking it to heart and inhabiting it applies in a very similar way to Poetry By Heart participants who are choosing, engaging with and understanding a poem in pursuit of memorising it.

I asked Holly Georgia, who plays Antigone in our show, how she learns her lines:

The most obvious, natural and long lasting way of learning lines for me is to use them to build the actions and intentions for my character. It allows the writing to be fully influential to the character, giving a reason to say those exact words (why wouldn’t I say it any other way?), and I always hope to find things hidden in the text that the writer has put there for me to pull out and use to make my interpretation unique.

Once I’ve worked with the director and actors on this through the rehearsal process it’s so easy to understand through-lines and super objectives. I get to a point where the lines have been broken down to the extent that they flow so naturally, following the narrative and the character arc. At this point there almost isn’t any ‘line learning’ to be done at all!

I tend to spend a bit of time just repeating the words to myself to get the rhythm of the lines in my head- especially with classic texts or with dialects that aren’t familiar to me. Sometimes I’ll record sections or monologues onto my iPhone and play them back to myself when I’m on the tube.

I asked Holly if Actors find it useful to learn their lines before they begin acting, or do they prefer to block scenes first? Because our version of Antigone is a physical show, we began rehearsals in this way.

Some directors want you off-book for the audition let alone the first rehearsal. Others want nothing of the sort, in order to allow you to all work together to find the direction of the characters and the play. Although sometimes it all goes out the window and there is no structure or rules whatsoever, that’s what keeps it exciting!

Tamsin added:

Obviously when you have a 2-4 week rehearsal period or longer you have a lot more time to nuance, adapt the lines, play and discover. It’s more fun in a way because you have the freedom to play and experiment. I usually find though that however long you have in rehearsal you normally run out of time because that’s the nature of the creative process and there’s no such thing as a finished piece of art.

There are so many different approaches to learning lines, and each Actor values them differently; for some it is a case of repetition, repetition, repetition, whilst for others it comes from an understanding of the text and the scene, and a connection with other Actors in the space – For most, it is all of these things, mixed together. We live in an age where there isn’t just one sole method of learning and this can only be a brilliant thing for an Actor, or a Poetry By Heart reciter.

Actors of Dionysus are a registered charity and limited company with almost 25 years of experience producing high quality adaptations of ancient Greek drama and new writing inspired by myth. We recognise how important it is to keep the Classics alive and we are passionate about making contemporary performance which celebrates Greek literature and its relevance today. Our work is education-led, and our fully qualified arts practitioners run a varied programme of practical and interactive Classical and Greek drama workshops for schools, colleges and universities throughout the year. For more information about our education programme click here.

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Words on your Wall

8th November 2017

Have you got a poem on your wall? Ana Sampson, poetry anthology editor, shares her words on the wall.


When I was fifteen, I had words on my wall. Between the pictures of Kurt Cobain, Withnail and Bagpuss I taped up my favourite poems: Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. (I would have felt it necessary to defend the inclusion of Dylan at the time, but a Nobel Prize for Literature is a good passport to the pantheon of poets in anyone’s book.) ‘Fern Hill’ is all beauty, a hymn of pleasure tinged with the delicious ache of a nostalgia I was too young to really understand. ‘Mr Tambourine Man’’s lines about dancing beneath the diamond sky chimed with all the yearning for hedonistic beach parties a landlocked British teenager could muster (a lot). But why Wilfred?

I studied the First World War in class, like generations of school children since that cataclysm. We traced the underlying causes – the webs of European alliances, the scramble for arms, the rallying drumbeat of nationalism – and the fate of Franz Ferdinand. We learnt about the battles, the tactics and the casualties. But it wasn’t until we began to read war poetry that the terrors endured by the men – boys, really, most of them – came alive for me.

The Great War encouraged thousands to put pen to paper, producing plays and novels as well as poetry. Ordinary people turned to writing to process their experiences, and a generation of ‘trench poets’ sprang up almost overnight. In 1916 a canny London publisher printed an anthology called Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men – with a portable lightweight edition for the boys at the Front – and a second volume followed in 1918. Rupert Brooke’s patriotic war poetry and tragic death – from a mosquito bite, rather than in action – set the tone and his 1914 and Other Poems became a runaway bestseller. The disenchanted work of poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Owen found few fans at the time.

After the Armistice in November 1918 most of the war poets stopped writing – nobody wanted to mention the war – and only Brooke continued to sell in any numbers, bringing comfort to a grieving nation. However, at the end of the 1920s controversial memoirs of life in the trenches including Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front began to appear. These books ate away at any remaining illusions about the conflict. The writers whose patriotism turned to horrified disgust in the face of that war’s horrors are the ones whose words touch us most deeply now.

‘Strange Meeting’ is a work of hallucinatory horror. The epic language – vain citadels, blood-clogged chariot wheels, the swiftness of the tigress – evokes the colossal scale of the tragedy. Owen forces the reader to contemplate the squandered value of every one of the millions of lives lost, on both sides. Owen met Sassoon while recovering from shell shock in Scotland – ‘Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were’. Both men longed to close the vast gap of understanding between the troops at the Front and those left behind in Blighty, and ‘Strange Meeting’ is part of that quest. It is an enormous poem, straining with emotion, but written with extraordinary control. The unsettling half-rhymes (swiftness/tigress) and pararhymes (hall/Hell; groined/groaned) are designed to disturb. The time was out of joint; easy rhyme and gentle rhythm would be a betrayal of Owen’s message. The poem is a howl – though it isn’t without beauty: ‘hunting wild’ was a phrase I liked so much, I remember doodling it on my exercise books.

I have edited five anthologies and, each time, I look for poetry that particularly moves me to include. The latest is called Best-Loved Poems, so I was on a mission to gather well-known, familiar verses that readers would remember their own first encounters with, rather than uncover more obscure gems. There are other poems by Owen that are perhaps better known – ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ among them – but this was the one that had spoken so clearly to me I never forgot it. The experience of a sheltered suburban schoolgirl was light years away from the troops mired in mud on the Western Front but, like all great poetry, it seemed to take me there. Poetry is personal. It has been a privilege and a joy to edit volumes of it, and I can heartily recommend compiling your own anthology of favourites – physically and, if you can, in memory.

Reading brings so many rewards. It can parachute us into other lives, and whisk us off to exotic – or even imaginary – places. It can arouse powerful emotions and readers develop empathy through experiencing, second-hand, what the writer has endured or enjoyed. Poetry, with its inventive use of language, feels even more intimate than prose. Committing poems to heart helps us to absorb this nourishment even more fully, as we add the poet’s words to our mental furniture. In a world in which there is still so much war, ‘Strange Meeting’ is as essential to the canon as it was a hundred years ago. I no longer have a copy pinned to my wall . . . because I carry it in my memory.

Ana Sampson has edited five anthologies of poetry including I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. . . and Other Poems you Half-Remember from School – the number three poetry bestseller of 2009 – and Poems to Learn by Heart. Her latest, Best-Loved Poems: A Treasury of Verse, has just been published by Michael O’Mara Books. Ana works as a freelance publicist and copywriter. She is delighted that her eldest daughter is now old enough to quote sections of ‘The Lobster Quadrille’, and that the youngest already shrieks when a verse in Room on the Broom gets skipped. She tweets as @Anabooks.

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POETRY BY HEART NATIONAL CHAMPION 2017

8th June 2017

Indigo Douglas aged 17 from Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham is the new Poetry By Heart champion for 2017.

 

Reciting two poems in front of a highly appreciative, spell bound audience at the British Library in London, Indigo triumphed at the end of a search for a champion that began four months ago with hundreds of students taking part in school competitions up and down the country.

In presenting her with a specially designed trophy the Chair of the judging panel Jean Sprackland praised not only Indigo’s superb recitations but the performances of all 41 county finalists who gathered at the British Library conference centre.

Indigo who is studying the International Baccalaureate at Christ’s Hospital School said, ‘I’m so surprised and exhilarated to have won this fantastic competition. It’s been an unforgettable weekend and the support all the students have given each other has been wonderful.’

Indigo who became the Sussex champion in March also won her regional final before competing with eight other finalists on Sunday afternoon. Indigo recited, ‘An Epistle to Miss Blount’ by Alexander Pope and ‘Your Attention Please’ by Peter Porter.

Second place was awarded to Beth Molyneux from Urmston Grammar School, the Manchester champion and third place went to Isabella Redmayne from the King Edward VIth School who is the Northumberland champion.

Participants recited in front of a distinguished panel of judges from the world of poetry including Jean Sprackland, Daljit Nagra, Patience Agbabi, Glyn Maxwell, Tim Dee and Cambridge academic David Whitley. The poet Jacob Sam-La Rose hosted the event throughout the weekend. On Saturday evening after a splendid winners’ dinner at The Friends House near the British Library the poets read for the students and their teachers in a remarkable event that saw each poet take to the stage for five minutes.

“Poetry Please” from BBC Radio 4 recorded the finals weekend for a special “Poetry Please” episode to be broadcast on Sunday May 14th.

Previous Poetry By Heart national champions and finalists returned to help with the smooth running of the weekend in a testament to the lasting power of participation in the competition.

Before the national final the audience enjoyed contributions from three special guests. Louisa Tait from Seaford College in West Sussex, the winner of the new Shakespeare sonnet competition for adults, recited sonnet 57 and Eléonore Fontaine the winner of Poetry By Heart France from the Institut Notre Dame also recited. Finally the actor Freddie Fox talked about the importance of learning poetry by heart in his life and recited Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

At the end of a highly successful event Co-founder and Director of Poetry By Heart, Julie Blake said:

‘Five years ago, poetry recitation in schools was commonly seen as a nostalgic practice harking back to the nineteenth century, although some teachers and many poets always knew differently. Following the fifth Poetry By Heart competition and finals weekend it is back, with all the new life, vigour and creativity that young people from every county and major city in England are bringing to it. Poetry By Heart is now established in the school calendar with over a thousand secondary schools signed up to take part. Every year, young people from all school types and all social backgrounds are choosing poems that speak to them and taking them into their hearts. Poetry By Heart sets them on a journey for a lifelong enjoyment of poetry, read, shared and spoken aloud. Time will tell how this will shape our collective cultural life’.

2017 saw the introduction of a new Shakespeare Sonnet competition allowing any pupil in a school to record a recitation of one of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets.  Sam Mount from Springwood High School, Kings Lynn emerged as the national champion for the sonnet competition and he will be invited to recite at the Poetry By Heart 2018 national finals. Springwood High School was enjoying a double success after the weekend as the school also provided Poetry By Heart with its 2017 Norfolk winner and national finalist Abigail Peters. The Directors of Poetry By Heart will be visiting Springwood High School next week to present Sam with prizes and the school Library with a magnificent facsimile Shakespeare folio.

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Poetry By Heart – the search for our 2018 champion will be announced in June at NATE Conference in Nottingham 23rd-24th June 2017. Follow us on Twitter or email info@poetrybyheart.org.uk

 

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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.

 

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Learning a sonnet? It’s (like) a piece of cake

7th March 2017

Alison Powell explains the similarities between cake eating and sonnet memorization to students.

You’ve probably heard your teachers going on about how wonderful the bard is. ‘William Shakespeare was a genius,’ they might say. ‘Look. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Isn’t he amazing?’

And you might be thinking, ‘Big deal. Ed Sheeran has written at least 38 songs we know about, plus a heap he’s written for other people and he probably has a few more up his sleeve. What’s all the fuss?’

The trouble with this type of thinking is that it assumes a deep knowledge of something without proper experience of it. It’s a bit like saying you know what this cake tastes like, just by looking at the picture:

20170307_BLOG_Cake

Cake: Looks chocolate-y and good, but you can’t know how delicious it really is without taking a bite.

Perhaps you’re now thinking, ‘Yes, but I have read Shakespeare, actually. We did Romeo and Juliet/Macbeth/Othello in school last term.’

That’s great. But although reading a play in the classroom does give you a bit more of a flavour, it can be more like looking at a recipe and saying you’ve eaten the cake.

Amazing Chocolate Cake

  • 4 eggs
  • 175g self raising flour
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 175 g butter …

Again, you’re getting an idea of the cake, but you’re not getting the full experience of tasting it. You can think of a play as a recipe for actors. Until it’s brought to life on stage, it’s a bit flavourless and two-dimensional. You’ve come closer to understanding Shakespeare, but still haven’t had a proper bite.

There is, of course, only way to truly know how lovely the cake actually is. I can talk to you about it for hours. I can describe the fluffy light sponge that melts on your tongue and the gorgeously not-too-sweet cream that oozes from its centre. Until you’ve had a proper mouthful of it, though, you’re never going to appreciate the full-taste experience.

So how do you eat the works of Shakespeare?

The most effective way, I’d argue, is to perform a play or a poem by learning the words by heart. Shakespeare’s sonnets are just fourteen lines in length, so they’re a great place to start.

To learn a sonnet, you’ll have to spend some time with it, pinning it up on the walls of your interior world so that when you speak it aloud you have the chance to taste the words without looking at them on paper.

In the process of memorizing the lines you’ll come to understand how they roll together, to know the rhythm and the underlying metre. You’ll get to know the words and start to notice their layers of meaning. You’ll begin to feel the way the poem turns around line eight and appreciate the satisfaction of the final rhyming couplet.

The words might even start to feel like they’re your own.

This is a totally different experience to reading the words on the page. And, like eating cake, it’s not something anyone else can do for you. You have to try it yourself.

20170307_BLOG_EatCake

Why is it worth it?

Without having a good mouthful of the actual cake, you’ll never know about the secret ingredients the chef has added to surprise you. Without learning a sonnet by heart and speaking it aloud, you’ll never get to know its truth.

So come and find out what the fuss is all about. Take a big bite of Shakespeare.

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The Ear Is The Best Reader

24th February 2017

As Robert Frost once said, ‘the ear is the best reader’ and it is on this philosophy that The Poetry Archive was founded.

After meeting in a recording studio, Sir Andrew Motion (UK Poet Laureate 1999 – 2009) and the recording producer Richard Carrington, agreed how enjoyable and illuminating it is to hear poets reading their work and how regrettable it was that in the twentieth century many important poets had not been properly recorded. Major poets such as Hardy, Housman, Lawrence had never been recorded at all, and now that opportunity was lost forever.

Launched in 2005, the Poetry Archive now offers a free resource of national and international significance which has at its heart a belief in the profound insights that come from hearing poets’ own readings of their work.

From www.poetryarchive.org you can access and listen to the world’s premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their own work. The Archive exists to make poetry accessible, relevant and enjoyable to as wide audience as possible so alongside freely accessible recordings and a wealth of background information and materials, the Poetry Archive continues to develop new ways to provide teachers with the support they need. We have a range of exciting plans in the pipeline for 2017 and if you would like to get involved, or benefit from special offers and priority news on projects and developments, or simply hear our latest news, please subscribe to our teachers newsletter here.

We want you to love exploring our Poets and collections and we will continue to develop resources with teachers’ needs in mind:

MyArchive: The MyArchive feature of our website allows you to create your own account and bookmark collections and recordings that you would like to quickly and easily return to later, creating bespoke lessons and streaming collections as and when you are ready. There is no limit to the number of collections you can create, or how long you can keep them – they will be saved and ready as you need them.

Classroom Collections: If you don’t need to keep your own collections ready using MyArchive, you can use one of our tailor made Classroom Collections, which have been curated with teaching in mind. Go to the Teach section of our website and you will find collections such as Gothic Poetry, WW1 Poetry and Caribbean Poetry alongside suggested Lesson Plans and Glossary terms.

Download Audio: Our collections are free where we are able to negotiate those rights with our Poets and publishers, but if you wanted to take poems further you can use our Download Store to purchase individual poems and load them onto other devices to play anytime. We have created specific GCSE teaching focused albums, such as, ‘Poems from the AQA GCSE Anthology’, ‘Poems from the Edexcel GCSE Anthology’ and ‘Power and Conflict (Poems from GCSE Anthologies)’ to support your activities.

We are delighted to continue to support Poetry By Heart and we hope you enjoy exploring our collections.

We look forward to sharing our future plans with you.

Tracey Guiry
Director
The Poetry Archive

Between 2013 and 2016 Poetry By Heart was the principal educational initiative of The Poetry Archive, developed with The Full English and supported by the Department of Education. It was co-founded by Andrew Motion (Co-Director of The Poetry Archive) and Julie Blake ) Co-Director of The Full English and Education Director of The Poetry Archive) in February 2012.

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Poems, Pictures and Prophecy

14th March 2016

Blake

(America a Prophecy 1793 Copy E Library of Congress electronic edition)

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up;
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry’d.
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst;
Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years;
Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge;
They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.
Singing. The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.

Chris McCabe’s blog “Poetry Comics” prompted me to write something about William Blake’s prophetic book “America”, in particular, the verses on the illuminated page above.

I can’t remember when I first came upon the poetry of William Blake. It may have been as early as primary school with some of the lyrics from “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”. I seem to have a very early memory of ‘The Tyger and’ of ‘The Chimney Sweep’. Whenever it was, it was the beginning of a bit of an obsession with the man and his works. I’m not alone, of course. It seems that when people want to reference ideas of the “other”, the mystical, wild and strange they reach for Blake. The extraordinary deconstructed Western “Dead Man” being a relatively recent example.

I have chosen the text above because it is illustrative of a sort of shock and surprise concerning Blake that I myself experienced way back in the early years of the 1970s. I was studying at the University of Manchester and one of our lecturers advertised a talk on Blake incorporating colour slides from his prophetic books. This was a time before the ready availability of colour reproductions of Blake’s books. At that time I was familiar with just a few pieces of Blake’s art – the illuminated “Songs.” and student posters of “Glad Day”, “Urizen creating the World” but with few other examples. What I saw shocked me. The pictures were not at all like the pretty Georgian gothic pages of Songs of Innocence. True, there were again those neoclassical nude figures flying through the pages, but also there were monsters, aggression, violence and raw, often crude depictions – in fact, it was all somewhat like the pulp comic books of 1950s America. Flying, angry superheroes confronted deconstructed Biblical-looking patriarchs amid flames. There were dancing and swooning maidens, gesturing heroes but also darkness, pulsating brains and planetary globes of blood.

In the picture above we have a relatively tame example of one of Blake’s illuminated pages. Uncoloured versions make his etching techniques even more startlingly evident. Blake took great joy in his artistic methods and he directly linked his physical etching, engraving and printing techniques to intellectual perceptions about the nature of reality and God. I am quite sure that he was just as proud and aware of his stippling and hatching lines and marks in the clouds as Lichtenstein was of his enlarged “Ben-Day” dots in the 1960s. The actual artifice of etching is foregrounded and made evident. The blank paper itself is made into clouds and brightness. In the best of Blake’s work he handles the treatment of the words, images and coiling vegetation within the frame of the page as a unity. Here the page is dominated by a resurrected figure. His physique is brightly lit and stylised with “superman” muscles and a dramatically foreshortened pose. He sits on the road-kill flesh of his own dead body and looks up.

What’s it all about? These verses themselves are from the eighth plate of “America a Prophecy” printed in 1793. Although the poem centres on the colonists’ struggle against the tyranny of Britain, this poem contains very little at all about the real, historical events of the American War of Independence. Instead, some of the characters of the war, Washington, Franklin, Tom Paine, Gates, Hancock and Green and “Albion’s wrathful Prince” are involved in a narrative with Blake’s own mythological figures – Orc, Urizen, Oothoon and Rahab. Like an opera, or like a baroque ceiling painting, figures enact their passions against a background of wonders. Orc – a supernatural figure of violent and terrifying wrathful revolutionary fervour speaks the words on the page above.

What educational use does this excerpt have? It is one of the more quoted sections from Blake’s prophecies. I think that if students were presented only with the text and image above, without any context, the strength and meaning of the words and images would still be enough. Most would recognise the allusions to the Christian Resurrection. The rest of the words are a plain and simple evocation of freedom and the release from suffering – a universal human joy expressed here with simple economy:-

“Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:

Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air:”

…………..

“And let his wife and children return from the opressor’s scourge;

They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.”

Delving a little deeper, we might ask students to consider the versification, the symbolism and simple personification – “the linen”… “the clay” … “the slave” … “The Sun has left his blackness”.. “the fair Moon rejoices”…. “Empire”….“the Lion”…. “the Wolf”… (notice that these don’t get crushed, defeated or slain, they simply “cease”.) We might ask what is a prophecy? Something about the future? Unargued assertion? (“…For everything that lives is holy” …..”All religions are One”) What is the syntax of prophecy? Whose “voice” speaks prophecy – is it the poet or some other? What form do prophetic statements take? Can anyone prophesy?

If the constraints of the syllabus and teaching objectives permit wouldn’t it be great to ask the students to pick a contemporary problem or issue and write their own short prophecy? Illustrate their own street comic verses or graphic novelette? Learn some of Blake’s lines and practise declaiming them? Experience the exaltation of expressing a prophetic vision! Does it have any meaning or value still in our troubled and postmodern age?

 

Phil TAbout the Author: Phil Tomlinson lives in Hastings on the South Coast. He is a retired, former teacher of English and Media Studies and Deputy Head of a secondary school. He now coaches French undergraduates in English language in preparation for examinations to enter the grandes écoles.

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