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Poetry By Heart Blog

The most accessible literature

26th May 2022

I have always loved the accessibility and escapism that poetry can provide but in my teens, when I felt like I needed to escape the most, it was not the first thing that sprang to mind. Somewhere along the line, I had fallen out of love with poetry. I had developed misunderstandings of inaccessibility that were nothing to do with the words on the page. I felt that my own voice had become a distant whisper, but I found myself again through the words of others.

There is safety in poetry; we apply our own identity to those words that someone else has gifted to us. There is something rebellious in interpretation—these words on this page can mean whatever we interpret them to mean: they belong to us and through these patterns, noises, words—our entire existence is intertwined, and we are connected to something greater than ourselves. The idea that my own words could form that connection with someone else—for someone else, was liberating and unifying.

Poetry is the most accessible literature: for the best and worst moments of our lives, there are words expressing the inexpressible. Across so many cultures, spoken word and food have united people, offering the sharing of experiences. What better pairing could there be than poetry and pancakes? And so the idea for our showcase entries was born.

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We selected students who can be quite hard to reach. Students who we knew would shine if only they’d give it a chance. Students who, for a range of reasons, had fallen out of love with poetry or performance or both. Excellent, passionate voices, extinguished by masks and lockdowns and years of uncertainty.

We selected a small cohort of students from year 9 and year 10 to come along and have a go. We headed to the food technology department and made fluffy American pancakes while reciting Christina Rossetti’s ‘Mix A Pancake’. This poem of just 22 words was easy for the students to learn. Reminding them of their capabilities. The rhythm of the poem meant that they could recite it together easily while multi-tasking or brave reciting parts alone. Some of the students even showed us a few of their best pancake-flipping-squirty-cream-catching skills. One of the most insightful things for us was how different both recitals were, which really demonstrates the versatility of poetry and the subjectivity of interpretation. Each student used their creative license to explore the words, performance and of course…pancakes.

It is not always about what we say, but about being heard. Valued. This was not only a great bonding experience for all involved, but a brilliant cross-curricular experience…maybe all poems should be accompanied by a delicious snack.

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Robyn Gardiner is a teacher of English Language and Literature at The Queen Katherine School in Cumbria. She has a comprehensive background in inclusion with a particular interest in educational social justice.

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Learning ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden – by heart

13th May 2022

Wendy MacKenzie-Ingle is a 60 year old English Teaching Assistant at Dartford Grammar School for Girls and a big fan of Poetry by Heart. She enjoyed organising bigger and bigger competitions in-school to select Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 winners every year until COVID struck.
Wendy has always avoided the Staff competition but this year accepted the challenge and set to learning a short poem. She says that ‘the experience has taught me a great deal about what the students have been doing all these years! I feel proud of getting the poem I learnt by heart and have found it extraordinary to spend much longer than usual with one poem. I am determined now to try a longer poem as I can see that, even as we get older, the brain finds its own way to hold onto poetry.’

This poem is inspired by ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden.


 

 

what did I know
of the effort involved
of the physical pain
of not remembering?

what did I know
of what youngsters do
of their plastic brains
of my declining cells?

what did I know
of of and to and and
of those small words
of how they trip up?

what did I know
of the ways to learn a line
of how to tame the words
of how to get inside the poem?

what did I know
of rhythm of beats
of walking in time to the words
of learning a way to learn?

what did I know
of the magical power of Sundays
of blueblack cold and cracked hands
of the poem getting hold of me?
what did I know
of the joy the satisfaction
of the sense of growing
of my heart swelling?

what did I know
after years of encouraging others to do this wonderful, life-changing thing?
what did I know?


 

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Close Reading

4th March 2022

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much we generally miss out when we read for meaning. And about what it is that can make a poem come alive for you, make you care about its details and feel connected to it. Memorising and reciting are brilliant ways to ensure that you don’t miss things out, because you have to get all the words active inside you – and in the right order (unlike Eric Morecambe’s famous line to André Previn about musical notes!). I’d like to share an example of this from my own recent experience, which I found revealing in a range of ways that connect with Poetry By Heart.

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I’ve long loved Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It’s about feelings of vulnerability as you get older and are more in touch with dying (not that cheery sounding, I know). Like most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poem is addressed specifically to a much younger man who the poet/speaker loves passionately. The age gap between them makes the speaker’s feelings of vulnerability come into focus with particular vividness and intensity. Here’s the sonnet, if you are not familiar with it –

That time of year thou mays’t in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs that shake against the cold;
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self that ties up all in rest.

In me though see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed by that which it was nourished by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

It’s the imagery – lovely and sad, bordering on bleak at times – that makes the poem work, and it was one of my favourite poems even when I was younger, mercifully not thinking about mortality that much. It was only recently that I tried to learn it properly by heart, though, and something extraordinary, that I’d never noticed before, began to come into focus for me about the way the imagery works. Aristotle famously said that in poetry, ‘the greatest thing by far is to be master of the metaphor.’ (Poetics) What I came to realise about this poem, though, was that Shakespeare, instead of performing his consummate mastery of the metaphor in any straightforward way, actually hesitates over how he is going to work the imagery – to the extent that he almost seems to risk losing control.

It was the second line of the poem that brought this sharply into focus for me when I tried to learn it by heart. In setting up a metaphor for his time of life quite traditionally in relation to the seasons, the speaker suddenly starts to go all wobbly about it.  The speaker’s ‘time of life’ is presented as equivalent to the moment when ‘yellow leaves, or none, or few’ hang on the trees’ boughs. This seemed fine to me when I was skipping past the line, reading for its general sense. But when I started to learn it by heart, I began to think ‘Well – which is it, Will?’ The ephemeral glory of autumn’s last show of colour which tourists flock to New England to see in the fall? Or a diminished version of this, when many of the leaves have been stripped away by the wind? Or the stark imagery of life in full retreat, when the branches are laid completely bare? It’s as if Shakespeare is aware not only of the metaphor’s power to develop thought in a uniquely evocative form, but also of where it acquires an energy of its own, breaking in different directions.

Robert Frost has an interesting theory about poetry generating awareness of the limits of metaphorical thought that may provide a useful insight into what I think is happening here. Frost believed that metaphorical thinking underlies nearly all forms of human cognition, including science. However, poetry, he thought, can help navigate such territory more discriminatingly. He wrote that –

‘unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values; you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and in its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.’
(‘Education by Poetry’)

This is ultimately the most important thing that poetry teaches us, for Frost. It offers a kind of training ground in judging how far one should travel along a metaphorical strand of thought before it starts to break down and becomes less useful – or even dangerous.

Is Shakespeare aware of what his metaphor’s limits are here, in the way Frost suggests, perhaps? He doesn’t seem to want to ‘ride’ the metaphor straightforwardly to its logical conclusion, but instead allows the image to break, like a river’s flow, in a number of different directions. Perhaps the metaphor doesn’t – or can’t – convey the full actuality of the speaker’s situation and feelings? Or is it fuller than the prosaic version of an actual moment and situation? Perhaps all metaphors encompass potentialities – worlds within worlds – in the same way that quantum physics has taught us that matter is indeterminable when we try to calibrate its movement and mass at the level of the smallest particle.

Before learning it by heart, I had read through the line about the yellow leaves repeatedly without noticing that there was anything unusual about it. I saw the various renderings of the image as all more or less the same – details piled on to give a more concrete sense of the wintry scene – rather than noting anything that made me more curious. But when you learn a poem by heart you have to get the precise sequence of words and images right. Do ‘few’ leaves come before ‘none’ – as they should do if the line were simply a progression along a timeline of diminishing life – or afterwards? Although the metre would be exactly the same, the line would be a lot smoother – and perhaps easier to remember? – if ‘few’ were switched with ‘none’ in a mathematically straightforward sequence. Instead Shakespeare deliberately makes the line more disruptive. Trying to fix the line in your memory, you realise that the illogical positioning of the sequence is a kind of clue, alerting you to something that may be more important – and odd – than you first thought. The wobble is indicative of a deeper level of uncertainty, I think, as Shakespeare hesitates over the adequacy of his metaphor to convey the range of potential feelings and situations involved.

Perhaps this relates most strongly to anxiety about what quality of passion and what enduring love you can retain as you approach death? Will the sap of the speaker’s strong emotions sink low as he approaches the end of his life? The image of trees stripped bare of all leaves suggests this possibility. Or will his fading vitality produce an extraordinary last burst of intense colour, as in the display of autumn’s yellow leaves? Or something in between? Projecting forwards entails uncertainty, which the instability of the metaphors encompass. The next two quatrains in the sonnet complete this process, each developing a new metaphor for the speaker’s feelings about his ageing body, as though the previous image didn’t quite cut it. First, the opening image of trees is substituted for the metaphor of afterglow, just after sunset: the light sustaining life at its most ephemeral edge before darkness takes over. Then this too gives way to the glowing embers of a fire, ‘that on the ashes of his youth doth lie’. It is as though the poem is testing out possibilities of the form in which a consuming passion may still be present as death approaches. It’s refusal to settle is also a commitment to inhabiting the potentialities of life and love as dynamic, incapable of being fixed in time, always subject to change.

We are – all of us – imperfect readers. We read selectively, moving on when we think we have grasped the sense, locking onto what we need at that moment, just as we only perceive a fraction of what is actually around us at any point in time. Memorising can bring us closer to a complete experience of the poem itself, however, as opposed to the interpretation or meanings we have abstracted from it. This is still an interaction, of course – a creative, two-way process in which we bring our own experience to the encounter and make the poem our own inside ourselves. But it is the whole poem. And the slow, chewed over, and many times repeated ritual of getting by heart all the words in sequence brings the poem into focus in its entirety. If this is not done purely by rote, we are likely then to become attentive to things we’d never noticed before. And, perhaps most importantly, we become closer to the poem. As Robert Frost (yes, him again) also observed, ‘[T]he closeness, everything depends upon the closeness with which you come [to the encounter]’. It’s this closeness which is the fundamental element in our relationship to poetry, he thought: it can yield insights worth more than all the strained, foolish – and even clever – things we can say and think without it.

 

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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Poetry By Heart Goes Global

3rd February 2022

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For a long time we’ve had schools beyond England enquiring about taking part but the world is a very big place and we’ve been thinking about how best to respond in a meaningful way. In recent years, we’ve supported the English Language Schools Association in France in running a Poetry By Heart France competition, and we helped Talk The Poem in Jamaica to set up their competition too. And we maintain friendly relations with our colleagues in the USA, Canada and Ireland who run similar competitions too.

But at last we’ve decided the best way to find out how to run a Poetry By Heart international competition is to start with a small-scale pilot this year and to work closely with a modest number of schools on the future design. So, if you teach in a school that is not in England, or if you have a partner school elsewhere in the world, or if you have friends, colleagues and family who teach in other countries, get in touch at info@poetrybyheart.org.uk to find out more about the pilot. We’d love to talk to you! This is your chance to shape what happens!
The international pilot competition will offer…

· bespoke support by email, phone and Zoom to help you and your colleagues to develop Poetry By Heart in your school

· access to our online Poetry Forums (we’ll figure out the timezones as we go!) to meet and share ideas with the PBH team and other PBH teachers

· a digital copy of our 2021-2022 poem-a-month calendar with monthly learn-a-poem challenges to help you get pupils started

· access to the 2022 competition kit with downloadable certificates, fun Zoom backgrounds (in case you’re teaching online at any point), launch slides and learn-along poem resources

· open access to all the poem collections on the website, for use in the competition as well as for other teaching and learning purposes

· access to the online competition entry system for easy video upload of your winning performances by the deadline of midnight on 30th April 2022

· up to 12 pupil entries in total in the Classic competition category, up to 3 per eligible Key Stage.

Every pupil correctly entered will receive a digital certificate. A number of finalists in each key stage will be given individual feedback about their performances and invited to polish and resubmit them (if they want to) for our final judging panel of top poets whose task will be to select a Poetry By Heart International champion in each key stage. In this pilot phase we will work with participating schools to explore the most realistic options for celebrating these champions.

The Poetry By Heart international competition pilot does not include countries that already have equivalent competitions such as Ireland, France, Canada, Jamaica and the USA. However if you’re teaching in those countries we’ll be very happy to link you up with your national competition so you can take part there.

We’d love you to take part in the Poetry By Heart international pilot competition. Can we count you in?

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Carrying poetry with you

6th January 2022

Through working for Poetry By Heart, Tom Boughen tells us he’s grown to better understand the legacy of poetry memorisation in schools, and the effort to provide better resources for teachers and students to engage with.

Many older people have memories of learning poetry by rote in class. The spectrum of personal experience means those memories can easily be accompanied by a nostalgic smile or a painful shudder. There is such an enormous disparity between people’s personal experiences of poetry memorisation in schools, depending on resources, teacher preparedness, the suitability of the poems or the age when you first attempted it. It is almost a roulette-spin between the most inspirational moments of one’s education, or some of the dreariest and most disengaging.

It was one of those November evenings when night creeps up at four o’clock. Over dinner with my grandad at my parents’ house, the subject of poetry memorisation reared its head. I’d never given much thought to my family’s own experiences of it. With no prompt from me, my grandad, ninety-five years old that October, freely recited the first two stanzas of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W.B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

Remarkably the only thing he forgot was the poet and poem title. When reminded of the poet’s name he exclaimed “that was it, Yeats!” like remembering an old friend. His ability to recite the poem wasn’t based on the visual. He hadn’t seen the written form of it for many years. It was a poem that he learned by rote at fourteen, coinciding with the outbreak of the Second World War, and was able to recite at a dinner table over eight decades later.

‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is the only poem he remembers from that class of over thirty students, in which poems were recited en masse. Occasionally a student was required to stand up in front of everyone to recite alone, with the implied threat that if you forgot any of the words, you would be required to do this again and again until you did remember.

Victorian narrative poems and ballads were the trend of the late 1930s and early 1940s schoolroom. My grandad recalls staid, sedate lessons where he studied ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ by Matthew Arnold and ‘The Lady of Shalott’ by Tennyson. He would have liked to do ‘The Charge of The Light Brigade’ – battles and certain-death glory seem to have appealed to him more than lyrical romanticism – but he never had the opportunity. He has one of his old exam papers from the time, showing the significance of Victorian narrative poetry, even in 1940.

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His eyes light up when remembering Shakespeare. In comparison to learning poetry by rote as a whole class, with Shakespeare each student was assigned a specific speaking part, and encouraged to bring a more creative interpretation of the dialogue. I was surprised to hear that his teachers adopted such a free approach to Shakespeare especially compared to the mass rote-learning of poetry, but regardless it explains the enduring appeal of Shakespeare to my grandad.

We often say that to learn a poem by heart is to carry it with you for life. This is my testimony to the possibility of that. My grandad has carried Yeats with him like a treasured possession for eighty years, along with a slice of Shakespeare’s Richard III. He can still start the doomed soliloquy:

‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.’

 

Tom Boughen is Content Coordinator at Poetry By Heart, has a History MA and previously worked as a TEFL teacher in Madrid. He enjoys reading, writing and playing tennis.

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My poetry by heart learning journey

1st December 2021

In this week’s blogpost, UEA teacher educator Vicky Christoforatou shares the story of her personal journey in learning poems by heart, starting in Year 1 of a primary school in Greece and leading to Poetry By Heart in Norfolk. If you have a poems by heart journey to share with us, we’d love to hear from you!

One of my earliest school memories was a poetry recital as part of a whole school assembly on the theme of nature. There were 20 of us in Year 1 (6-7 years old) and we were each allocated a different but thematically linked poem. My poem was ‘The Little River’ by Zacharias Papantoniou, a prolific early 20th century writer whose work celebrated the language of the people as opposed to standard Greek. The poem is a simple dialogue between a young persona and a playful little river in regular rhyme and question-answer structure – not that any of that mattered to my Year 1 self! I loved playing the part of the little river while my mum asked the questions helping me rehearse at home. Standing in front of the big mirror in our living room I practiced different voices, expressions, gestures demanding an engaged audience (any adult in the room) and feedback on the preferred performance. ‘The Little River’ has stayed with me and I taught it to my daughter when she was younger as we strolled along River Wensum in Norwich.

Learning poems by heart was part of our everyday experience in class and not just an activity for special occasions. We practiced choral readings with our teacher and our homework was routinely to memorise a stanza or a whole poem to be delivered in front of the class the following day. Progressing to high school, I learned more complex poems; free verse, longer epic poems and poems set to music. The words, the lines, the stanzas are still with me like a personal anthology. Recently, my current PGCE cohort asked me to contribute a poem to their anthology celebrating National Poetry Day. The theme was choice. I chose Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy; a poem that taught me not to be afraid and to enjoy the journey. I have no recollection of analysing poems in class; we never annotated the features, but we learned the different meters; we never wrote critically about the poems but sometimes drafted our own poems, changed the poems into other forms and talked about the ideas. Every time I came across a new poem, I would size it up; a product to be consumed, not analysed. How long? Does it rhyme? Can I hear the rhythm? Can I see the images? All of these would help me memorise it and make it my own.

learning journey

By the time I took the module Introduction to British Poetry as an undergraduate of English Language and Literature at the University of Athens, I considered myself an expert on poetry; just because I had read and remembered so many poems (although none in English). During those early encounters with literary criticism and analysis, I did not feel overwhelmed. It seemed logical that there are different ways to analyse a poem as there as different ways to perform and recite a poem. When faced with an abundance of poetic terms, I was not confused; I had a bank of poetry under my skin to give flesh to the labels.

When I started teaching English in South East London, September 2000, my relationship with poetry was shaken. I struggled to plan lesson and activities that would produce effective analytical paragraphs written by my students. Matching the tasks to the assessment criteria felt like wearing ill-fitting clothes, uncomfortable and restrictive. It must have been around 2014 , a chance discovery of this competition –Poetry By Heart- giving me license to give the poems back to my students, hear their voices while allowing them to develop their own anthologies, their own journeys, and interpretations. At first, it was not about entering the competition; it was about validation and the freedom to recite poems in class, with the class.

Poetry by Heart brought poetry home for me…

 

Vicky Christoforatou is a Lecturer in Education on the Secondary PGCE Course (English) at the University of East Anglia. Vicky also leads the Lesson Study module as part of the MA Educational Practice and Research.  Having enjoyed a long and rewarding career working with secondary school pupils and their teacher, Vicky’s main interest is developing innovative professional development opportunities for mentors and early career teachers. Vicky’s favourite poem is ‘Ithaka’ by C.P. Cavafy.

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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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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.

Screenshot 2021-07-09 at 15.06.08

 

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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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…

 

ELSA logo 2

 

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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‘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.

 

https://www.berkeleyacademy.org.uk/

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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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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.
phyliis_wheatley2phyliis_wheatley2Dunbar-Paul-jpegDunbar-Paul-jpegWilliam_Stanley_BraithwaiteSarojini NaiduDuBois-WEBE Pauline JohnsonRabindranath_Tagore_portrait_(1)Rabindranath_Tagore_portrait_(1)Sarojini NaiduAlice_Dunbar-NelsonLangston_Hughes_1936McKayMcKaygeorgia d johnsonbats3Margaret Walker (1915-1998), pioneering African American poet, novelist and critic, is best known for her 1943 poem, FOR MYLangston_Hughes_1936Langston_Hughes_1936gbrooks3-23-12_RobertHaydenJamaica MarketMiss Lou Portrait ColourGreenfieldTubmancropDove-Rita-jpegJohnson-Linto-Kwesi-jpeg731px-Joy_Harjo_smiling,_2019Dabydeen-David-jpegNichols-Grace-jpegBhatt-Sujata-jpeggbrooksKhalvati-Mimi-jpegMoniza AlviKay-Jackie-jpegMoniza AlviAgard-John-jpegMoniza AlviZephaniah-Benjamin-jpegBerry-James-jpegBerry-James-jpegNichols-Grace-jpegNichols-Grace-jpegDharker-Imtiaz-jpegDove-Rita-jpegLondon, UK. 13 June, 2012. Valerie Bloom performing at POEM 2012 Poetry Olympics, Queen Elizabeth Hallsilhouette - femaleLondon, UK. 13 June, 2012. Valerie Bloom performing at POEM 2012 Poetry Olympics, Queen Elizabeth HallBerry-James-jpegAgard-John-jpegBerry-James-jpegHardi-Choman-jpegBerry-James-jpegBrathwaite-Kamau-jpegOlive SeniorDharker-Imtiaz-jpegAgard-John-jpegMorris, Mervyn 300Nichols-Grace-jpegNagra-Daljit-jpegKay-Jackie-jpegAgbabi-Patience-jpegMarkham-E.AJospeh-Anthony-jpegZephaniah-Benjamin-jpegdorothea-smarttRose-Jacob-Sam-La-jpegDharker-Imtiaz-jpegDharker-Imtiaz-jpegAgard-John-jpegObserver New ReveiwJoseph Coelho, award winning poet at Edinburgh International Book Festival 2019, Scotland, UKsilhouette - femaleObserver New Reveiw

 

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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.

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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…

She Will Soar Banner

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?

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

7th November 2019

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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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The Power of Poetry For People With Dementia

2nd December 2015

Daffodil

Image courtesy of Feggy Art Creative Commons

I am a firm believer that the arts play an important part in all our lives. We might not be conscious of it, but whether we take our pleasure from curling up with a good book; watching a spellbinding performance on stage or our televisions; or losing ourselves in the creation of our own masterpieces, the arts can leave a significant impression on us all. At Alzheimer’s Society we champion the arts as a way for people with dementia and carers to express themselves. We believe everyone has the right to participate in the arts, and for people with dementia, we know that there are many benefits. It can improve quality of life and well-being by stimulating emotions and creativity.

Organisations like The Reader champion shared reading groups which they believe improve quality of life through cognitive stimulation, social interaction and meaningful engagement each week. From Betjeman and Blake to Wordsworth and Yeats, there is also some evidence that reading poetry could have therapeutic benefits for people with dementia and a number of poets have explored dementia in their work. Gillian Clarke’s famous poem about conducting a poetry reading in a hospital captures the moment when a man who has not spoken for many years suddenly recites Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’:

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

(Gillian Clarke Collected Poems Carcanet 1997)

For those interested in this subject it is worth noting that The National Association of Writers in Education produced a volume of their journal devoted to ‘Writing and Dementia’. (Volume 61 www.nawe.co.uk )

Many of my colleagues are lucky enough to witness the power of poetry first-hand. Reciting the rhymes and rhythms, metre and cadence of a good poem can bring great pleasure as Pam Ollis, Alzheimer’s Society’s Social Events Coordinator knows only too well. At an Alzheimer’s Society Memory Café several poetry sessions have taken place, one featuring a local poet who read her own poems and encouraged others to read theirs as well.

Pam said: “The sessions went down really well and a stand out moment for me was seeing a lovely lady who has been living with Alzheimer’s disease for five years, read out ‘Jerusalem’ when she had never uttered more than a few words in the entire year of knowing her. She really came to life and it was fabulous to see the power of poetry.

“A carer also read out a poem ‘My love is like a red red rose’ to his wife who has dementia and the whole room was moved to tears.”

Most people with dementia remember the distant past more clearly than recent events. This is because memories tend to decline in reverse order to when they were experienced. People will often have difficulty remembering what happened a few minutes or hours ago, but can recall, in detail, life when they were much younger.

For that reason, poetry can be a useful tool for reminiscence activities; a poem has the potential to unlock memories and emotions. Perhaps there was a poem that someone will remember because their parents or grandparents read it to them when they were a child, or a poem that was used in English lessons at school. Maybe there were poems written by husbands or wives in the early days of a budding romance.

It is worth acknowledging that a poem may not always elicit fond memories, a particular subject may cause someone to recall unhappy times. Or it could be that for some people with dementia poetry and English lessons are not the things to get hearts racing. But that said, the power of both the arts, and poetry in particular, certainly strikes a chord with many of us and a project like Poetry By Heart has every chance of encouraging creative engagement with poetry in the classroom and beyond.

‘Your story’ is a place on Alzheimer’s Society’s website for people to share their experiences of living with dementia. Stories can be submitted by anyone who has been affected by dementia, including people with dementia, carers and relatives. Visit www.alzheimers.org.uk/yourstory to find out more.

It seems fitting to sign off this blog with some poetry. This verse from a 16 line poem was shared with me by a colleague on behalf of 78 year-old Pat McCarthy. Pat is living with dementia. She is very creative and enjoys painting as well as putting pen to paper and writing her own poetry.

AUTUMN

Autumn is a lovely time, with leaves all brown and yellow.

It’s like the autumn of my life when I began to mellow.

When I was young I had no time to sit and look around

But, now I’m getting older all these pleasures I have found.

There now seems to be a growing body of evidence that the structure and patterns of poetry and the reminiscences of poetry can be beneficial for some people with dementia as they engage with, in Clarke’s words, ‘the music of speech’.

JAbout the Author: Jenna Hopkinson is the media officer for Alzheimer’s Society covering the South West of England. She has an interest in communication and has a BA in English Language and Communication from Cardiff University. Alzheimer’s Society encourages people to share their experience of living with dementia by submitting poetry or stories to the ‘Your Story’ page on their website.

Visit alzheimers.org.uk/yourstory for further details.

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‘A Momentary Stay Against Confusion’

7th October 2015

Rachel Kelly reflects on how the therapeutic power of remembered poetry helped her through serious depressive illness.

 

Courtesy of Glacier NPS Rainbow from Logan Pass parking lot. Creative Commons

Courtesy of Glacier NPS Rainbow from Logan Pass parking lot. Creative Commons

Shortly before his death, the seventeenth-century religious poet George Herbert sent the collection of prayers and poems he had written privately throughout his life to a friend. He requested that his friend only publish them if he believed they could ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected soul’ and would be ‘of use’.

 

Fortunately for us, his friend opted for publication, and Herbert’s poems have been a source of comfort and enjoyment ever since. Herbert’s idea that poetry should be of use is central to my own love of poetry and informs my working life: after many years as a journalist, including a decade at The Times, I now run poetry workshops for mental health charities including Depression Alliance, Mind, and Cooltan Arts as well as for bookshops such as The Idler Academy in West London and Alain de Botton’s The School of Life.

Poetry first provided solace for me when I was struck down with severe depression nearly twenty years ago. It was then that my mother – my constant nurse and companion – would sit by my bedside and repeat a line from Corinthians (the Bible being naturally rich with poetry): ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness.’

These thirteen words were at the heart of my recovery as they helped reverse my feelings of despair. I would become stronger because of the ordeal. I often think of depression as like a trapdoor opening inside me, and so I would repeat the words my mother gave me endlessly, mantra-like, when I felt in danger of falling through.

Since that first depressive episode I have continued to battle with depression, but thanks to drugs, therapy and above all poetry, I am keeping my ‘Black Dog’ on a tight leash. When I was very unwell, I could only absorb the odd line, which I would focus all my attention on, stilling the anxious chatter in my head. Favourites include the last lines of Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth’, famously quoted by Winston Churchill in his wartime speeches.

In front the sun climbs slow; how slowly,

But westward, look, the land is bright’. 

Another favourite is almost any line from Emily Dickinson’s ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’ in which the poet compares hope to a bird. Hope is ever-present, even if it’s small and in your peripheral vision.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words-

And never stops – at all –’

I began to discover that I was not alone in finding poetry helpful in dark times. The healing power of words has a long history, dating back to primitive societies who made use of chants. By the first century AD, the Greek theologian Longinus wrote about the power of language to transform reality, to affect readers in deep and permanent ways, and to help them cope with the vagaries of their existence. Spool forward to the twentieth century and by 1969 the Association of Poetry Therapy was established in the USA.

I began to put my own belief that poetry can help those facing adversity into practice, initially as a cottage industry. I swapped poems with friends and became a volunteer at our local prison’s education department where I ran poetry workshops. For me, one of the ways poetry helps most is by recharging the spent batteries of my own language. Take Herbert, for example. His poem ‘Love’ begins:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin’.

The line ‘Guilty of dust and sin’ describes exactly how I feel when I’m depressed: worthless, hopeless – guilty. What a perfect capturing! Herbert also offers a compassionate voice: that of Love, who ‘bids us welcome’. He knew how to perfectly balance the darkness of his descriptions with consolation. http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/love-iii/

A powerful poetic line can diminish the sense of being alone. This was particularly striking to me when I came across poems written hundreds of years ago which describe a similar blackness to that which I was experiencing. Poetry also brings one’s mind into the present moment and back into ‘the flow’ of life. Mental illnesses such as depression tend to cripple our sense of time: involvement in the present is overwhelmed by worries about the future or regrets about the past. But the complexity and subtlety of poetry requires you to concentrate on the here and now.

Robert Frost put it best when he said that a poem can offer a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, which is what happened to me all those years ago when my mother sat at my bedside and recited those words to me. Now I know those lines by heart and many more besides: a golden store to be used as and when. I find learning a poem especially helpful when I’m awake in the small hours. There’s something hugely comforting in the mind’s secure possession of a literary work.

In my new book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, I record a diary of my year and the week-by-week strategies that have helped to keep me calm and happy and manage my depression: from the philosophies I try to practise, to spring cleaning, to new ways of communicating, breathing exercises and more.  These strategies have all proved invaluable to me, but one of my favourite things about the book is the poems I have included at the beginning of each season. I think poetry will forever be at the heart of each new chapter.

 

Rachel Kelly Colour High Res About the author

In her memoir Black Rainbow, bestselling author and former Times journalist Rachel Kelly tells the story of how poetry was at the heart of her recovery from two depressive episodes. Now she campaigns to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, speaking at schools, universities and literary festivals on the healing power of words. She also runs poetry workshops at her local prison and at mental health charities. Rachel is an ambassador for UK charity SANE and Vice President of United Response. Her new book Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness will be published by Short Books in November 2015. For more info on Rachel and her work please visit www.rachel-kelly.net.

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Libraries at the Heart of Communities

23rd September 2015

DSC01830 - lower size

PBH 2014 Champion Matilda Neill of Whitley Bay High School receiving her trophy from Sir Andrew Motion

This year 15 Poetry By Heart county competitions will be organised by much admired library services in association with Poetry By Heart. Our second September Blog is provided by not one but two librarians who talk about their experiences of Poetry By Heart

 

Libraries By Heart 1   by Gareth Ellis (Library Manager Whitley Bay High School)

 

It was the delicious simplicity of the idea that first struck us: memorise a poem by heart. The process, long abandoned by schools as a routine method of teaching, suddenly seemed both a new concept and a tradition worth saving. Using it as a means of exploring the depths and breadths of a poem, of building confidence in students and, ultimately, of having fun, made it irresistible. For us, the prospect of learning and competing within a school context, a county environment and maybe even on a national level breathed fresh air into this most fundamental – and actually rather ancient – activity.

Whitley Bay High School, a large state comprehensive of over 1600 students in North Tyneside, first took part in Poetry by Heart in 2014 and then again in 2015. In 2014 we were lucky enough to see our hugely talented student Matilda Neill go on to win the competition and our competitor in 2015 also got to the finals, so we’ve been privileged to see how Poetry by Heart works from the beginning right through to the end! But ultimately the real reward has been the opportunity to work with young people and watch as they choose, inhabit and possess their poems and how they draw an audience into their reading of the piece through their own unique interpretation of it.

The process is very straight-forward and the Poetry by Heart team are always on hand to assist. In Whitley Bay High School the competition is run as a joint venture between the Library and the Drama Department, with help from English teachers too. We advertise the opportunity to all students in Years 10 – 13, meet with keen and interested competitors to delve into Poetry by Heart’s incredible online poetry timeline and then offer students times to come along and rehearse their poems, if they want to. We found that all our competitors were keen to come and practise regularly and these meetings turned into treasured lunchtimes during which we heard their performances and fellow competitors supported each other, offering feedback and constructive criticism. Then we launch our school event, inviting staff and students to watch and witness the announcement of our winner who then gets the privilege of performing at a county level.

We’ve found Poetry by Heart to be a hugely positive experience and the competition has become an annual expectation within school, with staff and students eagerly anticipating it. Furthermore, it’s raised the profile of poetry within the school community, generated an excited discussion around literature and given students the chance to explore and develop their own communication and literacy skills. It’s also opened doors into poetry rooms our students might not have otherwise found the key to. They’ve discovered poems and poets they might not have normally encountered, have been exposed to movements and styles, genres and modes and have been (thanks to the online timeline) able to place these within the wider, greater tradition of poetry in English.  When students memorise a poem they’re possessing something that will stay with them forever and as their lives develop, take shape, shift and change, so too will their understanding and interpretation of the poem. The poet Don Paterson often describes a poem as ‘a little machine for remembering itself’. Poetry by Heart oils the cogs of that machine, and our students who have been involved in the competition have come away all the richer for it.

Ellis, Gareth GJE copyAbout the Author: Gareth Ellis is a Chartered Librarian and has been the Library Manager at Whitley Bay High School for over a decade. He has an interest in and a passion for poetry and has an MA in Modern & Contemporary Poetry from the University of Bristol. Gareth runs a variety of reading and poetry initiatives at Whitley Bay High School, including school visits from the likes of Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, and an annual Literature & Performing Arts Festival. He has recently been designated a Specialist Leader in Education.  

 

 

Libraries By Heart 2  by Ian Anstice (Locality Librarian for Cheshire West and Chester Council)

Poetry By Heart 2015 The Cheshire County Contest at Chester Town Hall

Poetry By Heart 2015 The Cheshire County Contest at Chester Town Hall

Much to my shame, I had not heard about Poetry By Heart before being told it was one of my duties to arrange the Cheshire judging.  This pained me as I’m both a full time librarian and responsible for Public Libraries News so most of my time is spent in public libraries one way or another and I should have known about it, especially as I was to discover how great it was.  Thankfully, my very helpful colleague Debbie Owen had arranged the competition the year before and ensured I did everything necessary.

The first thing I learnt was that, and this was quite a surprise to me being used to local council finances, the whole thing was fully funded. Yes indeed, money was attached.  This meant that we could book a great venue (the very impressive Chester Town Hall)  and arrange a Master of Ceremonies for the evening (the no less impressive – but a lot more fun, sorry Chester Town Hall – performance poet Dominic Berry). There was even (whisper it) something left over for refreshments, a photographer and presents for the judges.

Yes, judges.  This is a proper thing. There’s not just one judge.  Oh no. There’s at least two main judges (we kept the Cheshire poet Gill McEvoy and newspaper reporter Carmella De Lucia from the year before) who judge how good the poem readings are and also an accuracy judge who checks basic things like words, or even whole lines, being missed. Not wanting to pass everything off on others, I got to be technical judge that evening.

The actual schools are contacted by the Poetry By Heart regional co-ordinator and do all the preparatory work themselves so for me I could concentrate just on the judging event. The co-ordinator just let me know how many schools were attending and the names of the students so that was pretty easy as well, especially as I quite enjoy producing programmes. So the big day came and everything was ready and I was quietly confident the day before

And then it started snowing. Not just a little snow, oh no.  Big snow. And although I got to work OK, it was clear that the east of the county was getting far more. When I phoned one of the schools to see if their students were still on for that evening, I could tell that the school secretary (while polite) clearly thought I was stark, raving insane.  Panic stations. Thankfully, ten phone calls later we had got agreement from Chester Town Hall to reschedule at no extra charge and contacted everyone to let them know it was not happening.  Except, sadly, one judge who we simply could not get hold of who turned up in the evening. I am so glad to say that Gill took it in great part, and happily turned up for the rearranged evening.

And, my, was I blown away. You hear a lot about how terrible teenagers are.  You know, slouching around, growing their hair long, listening to loud music (or was that the 60s?) but, my goodness, all of the contestants were beyond good.  These were teenagers who not only had memorised whole poems but could speak them clearly and also put emotion into it. Their teachers came too and there was a lot of pride in the air for all their performances.  And, quite right too, because every single one was impressive. The talent clearly showed what a good idea the whole competition was, with the students doubtless about to go on to do wonderful things and this experience will help to give them confidence to do it. Frankly, also, it will  instil in them something better: a love for poetry that will be of uncountable benefit.

For public libraries, the Poetry By Heart competition gives us entry into that most difficult of markets, that of the teenager.  Although junior schools are a prime source of readers for us, all that changes when the kids go to Big School. Often we don’t see them again until they come back again while they’re studying at University or when they have kids themselves.  The competition gives libraries a chance to remind students of our existence and how we can help them.  It also hits the spot when it comes to poetry, which again, is not an easy sell. I would also suggest that for those authorities who have school library services, running the competition could strengthen a natural connection between schools and libraries.

So, librarians, if someone tells you it’s your chance to run a competition by these people, grasp the opportunity in both hands.  You never know, you may even learn some poetry in the process yourself.

Ian AnsticeAbout the Author: Ian Anstice is proud to have been a librarian in Cheshire since 1994 and now works as Locality Librarian for Cheshire West and Chester Council. He is responsible for reader development and children’s stock as well as other things like the Summer Reading Challenge.  In his spare time, he created the Public Libraries News blog which is now a main source of information in the sector, regularly used and quoted by library users, campaigners, the media and politicians.  He was named IWR Information Professional of the Year in 2011 and has won two Winsford Town Oscars for customer service in 2012 and 2014.

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Organising a Competition

7th September 2015

Photo: courtesy qthomasbower ‘Big Heart of Art’ Creative Commons

Firstly, let’s get something clear: I am a busy, but essentially, pretty lazy teacher.  I’m the Head of A Level English Literature in a large sixth form college with over 200 students and several members of staff to manage.  So when I first heard about Poetry by Heart my initial reaction, like it is to so many other initiatives, was “No, I just don’t have the time.”  But this initiative was giving me  the chance to be involved in something that had made me want to become an English teacher in the first place: Poetry!

 

So what do I do to make it manageable?  I begin by using the website, www.poetrybyheart.org.uk as a learning resource.  When our AS students return for a fortnight of A2 and HE research one of the tasks they have to undertake is to explore the timeline, find a poem they love and then share it with the rest of the class; just a lovely thing to do.

I also use a drip, drip effect throughout the year.  All my AS classes learned ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘The Cold Heaven’ (actions included) as preparation for their exam in May, “See – you can all learn a poem off by heart.”  Then in September I start to advertise the competition and hold my first meetings.  I’m always surprised by who turns up, often some of my ‘quietest’ students want to take part.

I hold my comp just before Christmas, an entire evening given over to poetry, live music and wine.  I’m lazy but I also like to show off my students so I host the night too, inviting a panel of judges made up of local heads, the Editor of the Northern Echo and, last year, Matilda Neil who gave a stunning performance (another advantage of living in the north east.) Each year I offer the audience the chance to vote for their favourite performance and the winner receives a small prize; this generates a lot of buzz during the interval.  Teachers perform poems towards the end as the judges deliberate and the winner comes back on stage for a final recital.  As the audience leave they each receive a handwritten poem in an envelope, each chosen by my  students and copied out in their best handwriting.

But you don’t need to go to so much fuss,  just a lunchtime with the librarian and a few other judges will suffice, because what I really love about PBH are the conversations and preparations that take place along the way.  Asking students why they chose a particular poem is so enlightening. Often they find it difficult to articulate beyond “I just like how it sounds” but that’s a wonderful starting point for discussions on tone, meaning, and emotions.  Listen to competitors at Cambridge meeting for the first time and they’ll spend ages discussing their poetry choices like freshers discussing their A Level results.

Note from the editor: We might need to consult the OED on the definition of ‘lazy’ as reading the above we think it might mean creative, industrious and imaginative!

We are very grateful to one of Julie’s students who writes below about her participation in the Poetry By Heart project:

What Poetry by Heart meant to me by Emily Popple

“Last December I took part in the Poetry by Heart competition at my college, thanks to a lot of encouragement from my English Literature teacher because, for a drama student, I was very reluctant to take part. That sounds stupid, but I was not fond of poetry and I did not like public speaking – at least not when I wasn’t playing a character. But, with Julie’s help I eventually picked out two poems and learned how much I actually love reading and performing poetry. The first poem was a no brainer for me, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ by Robert Burns. Burns’ poetry has always been a huge part of my life, my mum is from Ayr and so I’ve always had that connection to it. My brother and I used to have Burns’ poems and songs as lullabies, including this one, so it was an easy choice.

The more modern poem was more difficult as, like I said, I was not a poetry fan. I ended up with ‘Two Pages’ by Choman Hardi, which I just thought was so interesting. And it’s Poetry by Heart I have to thank for my new found love for poetry, I think that some people would find not winning discouraging and maybe that would reinforce a dislike for poetry, however, in my case it has just made me more determined to enjoy poetry and take part again next year. I can now say, with confidence, that I like poetry and that is all down to Julie Ashmore and the Poetry by Heart competition.”

Julie Ashmore (right) pictured with Poetry By Heart Regional Development Co-ordinator for the North East, Griselda Goldsbrough

 

About Julie Ashmore

Started teaching in 1999 and has been Head of A Level English Literature at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington for the last 10 years. Julie also teaches creative writing to adults and always includes poetry activities. She is passionate about Shakespeare, poetry, running and her two gorgeous daughters. 

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Helping Students Connect With Poetry

24th August 2015

Dr Aisha Spencer from the University of the West Indies reflects on exploring poetry with Jamaican High School students.

In late 2014, I was invited to assist a group of secondary school students in rural Jamaica, who were said to be having serious difficulty with understanding and responding to poetry. These students were in their final year of high school and were about to sit their Caribbean Secondary Examinations Certification examinations (CSEC) (which would be equivalent to the UK’s GCSE examinations).

 

The group comprised predominantly Creole speakers, who lacked fluency in the use of Standard English. Additionally, they were a part of a non-traditional school environment, which, in Jamaica, meant that they were seen as low academic achievers from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. These factors led to the students being labelled as ‘unable to do poetry’. But, what makes any student ‘unable to do poetry’? Typically, an evaluation like this is solely based on how well students are able to meet academic requirements. Classroom instruction geared towards helping students to be successful in their external examinations tends to focus heavily on very technical aspects of understanding a poem, rather than on the use of various strategies to help students personally connect with and understand the poems they read. An understanding of the technical aspects of a poem is important, but very often, we start at the wrong place when introducing students to the world of poetry. Examinations play an important role in helping students to matriculate so that they can gain access to various institutions or into the world of work, but as was argued by philosophers like Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey over a century ago, education ought to be a much wider and more experiential process which cannot itself be solely contained in the act of sitting a test for one to three hours. There is nothing a student is unable to do when he or she meaningfully connects with the subject matter or task at hand.

As I thought long and hard about how to help these students better understand and respond to the poems on their English Literature syllabus, my mind became activated by Louise Rosenblatt’s characterisation of literary interpretation as occurring through a transaction between the reader and the text. Rosenblatt describes the literary process as occurring through the prior knowledge and experience readers bring to the text as they internalize the textual details present. I began to reflect on the actual classroom experience of poetry many young people have today, both locally and internationally. These experiences are often quite static, focusing on the teacher as the crystal ball holder who contains all the ‘right’ ways of reading, interpreting and responding to the poems being studied in the classroom and who in turn passes on this ‘knowledge’ to his/her students. I therefore wanted to alter the ways students were ‘expected’ to react to poetry in the classroom by surrounding the student with that which was already familiar and by utilizing that which was already a positive feature of the student’s context. I wanted to allow students to ‘enter’ the poem (as spoken of by Milner and Milner (2008) as the way through which to introduce students to the literary content to be explored) based on the personal connections they were able to make with the poem, rather than solely based on their knowledge of the technical structures of the poem, such as the literary devices present or the traditional rhythmic patterns used in the poem. This kind of knowledge, I felt, could come after students were allowed to first establish a point of connection with the poem; a reason for wanting to read and explore the poem.

Many of the artistic and cultural experiences of students in Jamaica are framed by the deep-rooted presence of orality and music in the nation. Researchers (C. Brown(1970); Bernhart and Wolf, 2004) have already shed light on the intricate relationship between music and poetry, but few of us, as educators, understand the value of the ‘sound’ of poetry in helping students to truly appreciate, understand and respond to poems. One of the sub genres of poetry which pulls both orality and music together is Dub Poetry, a form indigenous to Jamaica, which emerged in the mid-twentieth century out of the well-known genre of Reggae music. The results were amazing! The students engaged with poems from poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Mikey G. Smith, Mutabaruka, Lillian Allen, some young local amateur dub poets, and many other dub poets across the globe. The oral component of dub poetry exposed the students to their history, culture and identity, and helped them to listen and respond to the poem with ease because students were already comfortable with this oral context. The musical component, which has its roots predominantly in the genre of reggae music, awakened their appetites for further engagement with the poetic by allowing them to evaluate the use of proverbs and other cultural forms present in the poems, which were embedded within their society’s oral tradition.

Rather than have students focus solely on dub poetry however, the dub poems were used as a tool through which to engage the students in other forms of poetry, including free verse poems, sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, and other types of poetry. Through focus on the ‘sound’ of the dub poetry and the ways in which this ‘sound’ was articulated by the poet on the page, students became skilful at analysing how sound can be produced in other poems through various rhythmic patterns, the specific arrangement of stanzas and lines, the placement of words, the use of literary devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, puns and so on. They were given the opportunity to create their own dub poetry, recite dub poems and other forms of poetry and were also asked to articulate the similarities and differences in sound present in various parts of a poem based on the use of such patterns as the iambic pentameter, the pattern of lineation in certain sonnets, internal and external rhyming patterns and many of the technical elements of prosody often present on the CSEC English Literature examination. Students also examined the use of tone and the power of the speaker’s persona and voice in representing events, situations and emotions within the poem. Through moments of intense and close listening to the ‘sound’ of the poem and through a number of recitations both of the poems being studied and their own creative pieces, the meanings of so many poems suddenly came alive and their figurative meanings no longer seemed so ‘impossible’ to comprehend. Students were able to comprehend, talk and write about their interpretation of the poem’s content based on their understanding not simply of ‘what’ was being said, but also of ‘how’ meaning was articulated in the poem. This played a crucial role in helping them to appreciate, understand and respond to the poems on their syllabus and eventually, in their exam.

In my interviews with these students about the use of dub poetry to help them better connect with other forms of poetry, the students expressed above all else, how much listening to and ‘sounding out’ the poems helped them to better interpret the poem on the page. Some students also shared that by remembering the poem and the way certain parts of the poem functioned, they were able to note similar patterns in other poems they read. By the end of the term, the students’ test results improved significantly, their attitudes were positively transformed, and more importantly, they no longer feared poetry but saw it as something to which they could respond, once they found the right point through which to personally connect with the poem.

 

Dr. Aisha Spencer is a lecturer in Language and Literature Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Kingston, Jamaica. She has been teaching language and literature for eighteen years and is especially passionate about finding innovative material and alternative forms of literary pedagogy to help children and young people better connect with and enjoy all genres of literature. She is the co-editor of a recently published anthology of Caribbean poetry, entitled ‘Give the Ball to the Poet’ : A New Anthology of Caribbean Poetry. Her areas of research interest are in Gender and Nationalism, Postcolonial Literatures, and Literature Education.

 

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Bursting into Poetry

21st July 2015

Image courtesy of Noel Hankamer – Arching Oaks

English teacher Alison Shaw recounts three experiences of getting the poem right off the page – twice out of the classroom too.

 

I love Glyn Maxwell’s idea of the first line of a poem being  ‘the precise moment at which the pressure of [a] silence breaks into utterance that has to be heard ( Julie Blake, March 2015). It puts me in mind of the transition which is the hallmark of musicals – the sudden switch from speaking to singing, the giddy energy that leaps out when a character launches into song.  Who can resist Maria in The Sound of Music when her answer ‘Raindrops on roses…’takes off into melody  ( well, perhaps many of you can, but I can’t!)

Poems often burst onto the page in a similar fashion and it struck me that it would be illuminating and fun for students to explore what could have prompted that bursting forth and show it in a mini performance.

I chose some of Shakespeare’s sonnets – ones whose first lines were direct and immediately engaging.  We read them through together and then pairs of students decided which one to make the climax of their drama.  Improvised conversations sprang up all over the class.  Friends started chastising friends; jealous lovers gave vent to their anger; there was a gradual crescendo then ..there it was…’Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day/ And make me travel forth without my cloak..’ uttered Priya, an accusing finger pointing at Emily; ‘Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend/Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?’ said Ruth from the window corner, sitting back to back with her partner.   The poems spoken in class were spoken TO someone; they had a real purpose; two of the secrets of great poetry, according to Adrian Mitchell.  The students had personalised the poems, made them their own.  I realised they had got the poem right off the page and into themselves and the more I could help them do that, the better.

So, when I saw the first line of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’:  ‘ O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,’ , I knew my A level class would have to go outside. A blustery October day helpfully came along and we left the classroom and each student positioned themselves by a tree and shouted out the poem.  Soon they were battling with the wind more than the poem – they wanted to get those words into the turbulent air. The ‘hear, O hear!’ took on a real power, an energy it could never have harnessed in the classroom.

My most recent attempt at getting the poem off the page was a poetry flash mob for National Poetry Day.  We had a little steering committee and the poem finally chosen to commit to memory was Masefield’s ‘I must go down to the sea again’.   ( Just the first verse – it was our first attempt, after all!)  It had a suitable te tum te tum te tum te tum rhythm  – being in ballad form, we could even have practised singing it to the tune of The House of the Rising Sun  – try it sometime ( Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence)!  It also had a pleasing sense of urgency at the outset and the students loved the aural effects in the line ‘And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking’.  Copies of the poem were surreptitiously distributed at the ends of lessons and on corridors.  Rehearsals took place behind closed doors.  Planning was meticulous: place – the outdoor café; time – first break; technical support – Kevin, the Drama teacher, with whooshing waves sound effects. We were very nervous when the time came, but, all in position, on Roberto’s cue, we nimbly climbed on top of the benches ( I had practised this in advance to avoid inelegance) and, from on high, the recitation began!  We had already decided to do the verse twice, but once the rhythm and vision got hold of us we really did not want to stop!   We got a good round of applause at the end and felt quite triumphant.  Living the poetry – that seems to be an answer!

Alison Shaw is an English Teacher and volunteer gardener.

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Romford Primary Schools Celebrate Poetry Week

7th July 2015

Poetry Week celebrations in Romford Primary Schools

For the past three years the Poetry By Heart London East county competition has been held in Romford Library. Karen Jordan and her staff at the library have organised superb events and in the last two years the London East champion has made the final eight of the national competition. But it is not just in the 14 to 18 sector where the act of taking a poem to heart is flourishing.

 

Over the course of a week the Multi Story Theatre Company worked in seven Romford Primary schools with a variety of year groups. Hillene, Broadford, Pyrgo and Mead Primary, along with Brookside and St Ursula’s Infants and St Ursula’s Juniors all took part in an inspiring Poetry Week celebration.

The ambition for the week was to engage the children in the joy of speaking poetry out loud: how do the words sound and feel as they’re spoken, where does the poem connect with you – head, heart or body?

One of the joys of the week was seeing how the children responded to a challenging collection of poems. W.H.Auden with 10 Year olds? Amy Lowell with 8 year olds? You bet! Several of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems were featured and these bought out the best in every age group.In fact, the more complex and challenging the poem, the more mature the response.

Bill Buffery from the Multi Story Theatre company commented: “As theatre practitioners and workshop leaders we can honestly say that leading these Poetry and Performance workshop weeks is one of the most satisfying experiences of the year. It’s really moving  to watch the quality of the children’s understanding of the world developing through their engagement with poetic language. It is also so pleasing to see a group of schools working together to champion the performing arts and use them to inspire the children!”

In the finale performance, all of the pupils joined together to perform AA Milne’s poem ‘Sneezles’. As a cluster we offer the pupils a wide range of opportunities to showcase their skills and talents: poetry, spelling, sports and maths. Seeing them all collaborate and enjoy the language of some great poems was a real joy. To also share that with parents from all seven schools made the event even more memorable.

I will leave the last word to Ruby Burchell from Broadford Primary: “Our poem was ‘Begged’ by Carol Ann Duffy. It was great fun to read it out loud as it was packed with tricky rhymes, alliteration and twists. I did feel nervous, but I loved the performance and want to do it again.”

 Malcolm Drakes is the Headteacher of Broadford Primary School – which is situated in Harold Hill, Romford. As Chair of the local cluster of primary schools, Malcolm initiated a Poetry Week. The key aim is to widen the cultural experience for the area’s pupils who often come from deprived backgrounds. It also celebrates performance poetry and provides an opportunity for pupils to enrich their knowledge of language. Through their YouTube Channel and blog the school seeks to promote and celebrate a wide range of learning opportunities that have helped Broadford Primary become one of the top performing primary schools in the country.

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Memorisation, Recitation and the Muslim Tradition

10th May 2015

 

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

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

 

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

The sound of the Muslim Qur’ān

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

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

The chain of transmission

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

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

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

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

You can’t retire as a hafiz

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

Poetry by Heart and Qur’anic Memorisation

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

 

For further reading

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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Planning For Risk

26th April 2015

Creative Commons Jake at Gocredit

When I read about the “unplanned” lesson on the Poetry by Heart blog, I was certainly nervous about trying it. In fact, a reasonable amount of planning was essential for this lesson. I now realise that what I was doing was planning for risk…which is something rather different. It is somewhat unnerving and very, very worthwhile.

 

The starting point for the lesson was to use the random poem selection facility on the Poetry by Heart website, pulling out an “unplanned” poem from their excellent anthology. My first challenge was how to solve the problem of making the randomly chosen poem available for the students to work on, as soon as it had come up. My solution was to have a poetry starter involving some memorisation. While it ran, a colleague completed the printing for us.  Thank you Emma – what a star! The starter was a group challenge – see how much of the opening of “Night Mail” you can learn in five minutes. Pretty much everybody got most of the first two stanzas, but some got further, and had fun doing it.

The poem that came up by chance  was Christina Rosetti’s “A Frog’s Fate”. When the poems arrived, I issued one A3 ideas sheet to each table of four. Their first challenge was to work out the story, the narrative. And as I started to read it for the first time, I panicked. They wouldn’t get it. They’d rebel. It was awkward, complicated language, contrived, alien, I could hardly get a grip on it myself. They’d reject it and resent what I’d imposed on them. It would be a disaster.

Very quickly, most groups had latched onto to the Frog’s death as the key component of the poem’s narrative. I pushed them. I said I needed more than that. I gave them another two minutes. Then, going from group to group, I picked up their sheets and read what they’d got to the rest of the class. One group had absolutely nailed it – and so I was able to ensure that all groups understood that basic narrative and felt secure with it.

Next: questions, feelings, atmosphere.  This was when the noise in the room changed. While the class had been trying to get the story, they were fairly loud, with some off task chat as they struggled with it. Now, knowing the shape and outline, they really settled in. Much quieter, much more thoughtful. We were all struggling with the deeper ideas, though. They wanted me to tell them what it meant and what it was about. This was where not knowing the poem before the lesson really helped. They were seeing me having difficulties, and I was responding to their questions with more questions. We were in it together. Fantastic.

With ten minutes to go, I took photos of the A3 sheets, so the class could see what the other groups had been up to. Here’s a selection of what they came up with:

– about a person, but also not

– he didn’t realise he knew nothing about the village beyond; his arrogance led to his death

– a sad horrible death, no one notices, and he dies on a hideous highway

– the highway may represent karma

– he thought he was important, but when he died, no one knew.

– it’s a fable, but about what?

In that short time they’d really got to the heart of the poem and its driving ideas. The discussion as I went round the groups had been very encouraging indeed. This is a class who seem to need huge amounts of reassurance all the time; during this lesson they developed confidence and began to work independently in a way I’ve not seen before.

Three cheers for random poetry selection…thank you, Poetry by Heart.

 

 Caroline Mortlock is  currently having a wonderful time as Lead Practitioner in English at Beacon Academy in Crowborough, East Sussex. Previously Caroline has led a variety of English departments and been an assistant head teacher. She is a voracious and prolific reader who is just beginning to start writing again. Her love of poetry began after bravely standing up and reciting “I like Noise” at the Norfolk County Verse Speaking Competition in 1972!

 

 

 

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First Lines

31st March 2015

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

 

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

“How much of the frame is taken up by the face of the poet? Is his or her whole figure in the poem, is he or she farther away? Back to you, gesturing in the distance? Hovering spectrally above? Seated, standing, walking? Is the picture in colour? What does he or she think of you? Can you be seen at all? Is the poet present at all?… Consider how he or she is there, how the poet is imprinted on the poem.”

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

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

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

 

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

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Poetry by Heart in York

18th March 2015

Above: Winner Georgina Watkiss and Poet/Judge Helen Cadbury

 

University of York students Kate Murphy, Laura Wood and Becky Goodwin share their experiences of a PBH County Contest at York Explore – the venue for the North Yorkshire and East Riding County Contest.

 

The County Contest:

Despite the nervous excitement of the competitors, the entire day at York Explore felt relaxed and enjoyable, and the atmosphere was hugely positive and encouraging. There were cakes with the PBH logo on to welcome us with tea and drinks and the chance to relax and chat about reciting poetry before the competition started.

Teachers, parents, contestants, judges and librarians all told us about the value they placed on the competition. Here are just a few reasons why Poetry by Heart offers such a fantastic opportunity to everyone who gets involved:

It’s something different to get involved in. Frances Postlethwaite, Explore Library’s Children and Young People’s Librarian, said how the competition caters for an age group not often seen in libraries, and that it was nice to see young people in such a positive light. The parents we spoke to also valued the competition for encouraging students to do something different: poetry often seems less relevant to young people, but Poetry by Heart gives students a way of engaging with it on a very personal level.

The opportunity to engage with poetry in the way it was intended to be enjoyed: out loud!  When we spoke to the judges after the competition, they were impressed by the contestants’ successful engagement with difficult themes such as war. It was clear that the interpretation of the poems they gave came from the contestants themselves, and the dramatic aspect was clearly something the students enjoyed!

The competition element and excitement of competing beyond school level. The regional event was particularly exciting, with judges from various backgrounds covering creative writing to academia.  Georgina Watkiss, the winner from Ripon Grammar School, spoke of how she enjoyed speaking to contestants from different schools. At the final prize giving it was clear from the nervous excitement that all the contestants were fully invested in the competition, and went home with a clear sense of achievement (and quite a lot of cake)!

The winner:

Despite Georgina Watkiss’s three fantastic recitals, when finding out that she won the Yorkshire division of the Poetry by Heart semi-final, she was what could only be described as gobsmacked, although this does reflect on the extremely high standard of performances presented on the day. However, what is somewhat more surprising are the A level subjects that Georgina studies. The majority of students competing at the Yorkshire semi-final studied English literature, and as a result it was easy to see where their love of poetry and drive to enter the competition stemmed from.

On the contrary, Georgina doesn’t study English literature and rather than immersing herself in the humanities, Georgina studies maths, biology, chemistry and psychology. Therefore, it is especially impressive that Georgina did so well, considering that poetry is purely a hobby for her. Georgina commented, “I can’t really spell and I’m not very good at it but I really like poetry”.

However, although Georgina certainly spent a great deal of time practicing by herself in her room, the English department at Ripon Grammar School supported Georgina leading up to the competition and on the day.

When choosing the three poems for the competition, Georgina noted that it was initially daunting as the anthology was so big, however she knew that she wanted poems that contrasted. Georgina’s elder sister, being a “huge Oscar Wilde fan”, helped her to pick The Ballad of Reading Gaol, whereas Georgina chose The Wedding as she liked the way in which it built up using similes, and finally Rain, a poem which she knew of before the competition and really enjoyed.

When asked what she thought of the competition, Georgina commented saying, “The competition is great because it’s different and poetry is supposed to be spoken, and through saying it out loud you can often understand it better than simply reading it”. Furthermore, the judges said that through trying alternative accents when reciting poetry, you can learn so much more about the poem due to the change in rhythm and stresses on distinctive words and phrases”.

Georgina’s win at the Yorkshire division semi-final is not only an impressive feat, but also proof of the accessibility of the competition. Although, Georgina doesn’t study English literature A level, her love of poetry and enthusiasm for it to be read out loud secured her a first place position.

Teacher involvement  from The Mount school in York:

How we are involved: We have participated in the competition for the last three years and Mount students Niamh Devlin and Amelia Cook went on to win the county competition and perform at the Final. Both students comment on how it has really opened their eyes to the power and beauty of spoken poetry. Interestingly, I think participating in the competition has also really improved my students ‘ability’ to respond to poetry in a more exploratory manner, in their written work. We think ‘Poetry by Heart’ a wonderful and very valuable initiative in promoting the love of and deeper understanding of poetry.

What we do:  At The Mount we get all students in Years 10 and 11, plus our Sixth Form Literature students to learn one of the poems for an initial, internal round. We get the GCSE students to make the poem a presentation, with an introduction about the poet and a personal response to the poem – this can then also be assessed for Speaking and Listening purposes. We get Lower Sixth pupils, who are studying AQA Spec A, to learn a poem from WW1-their chosen area of study-and Year 13 students to learn a ‘Love’ poem. Their area of study is ‘ Love through the Ages’. We also publicise the competition more widely and encourage any student, if she so desires, to participate, regardless of whether they are studying English Literature or not. Once we have selected class/year group winners, we have an internal competition, where the students recite their chosen poems. The winner goes forward to the County final.

The County Contest: The Mount participants and myself thoroughly enjoyed the experience at York Explore this year which was a lovely venue and as always, at Poetry by Heart, the support staff were delightful and what really strikes me about the competition is how friendly and supportive the whole experience is for students. Even though our representative Isobel Sygrove, was not a winner, she found the experience very enjoyable and particularly welcomed the opportunity to hear how the same poem can be interpreted in different ways.

The Future…

As everyone involved in the competition spoke so highly of it, it seems natural to talk about the future of Poetry by Heart. Now in its third year, the competition has been growing steadily in reputation. However, a question posed by several people that we spoke to was: how do we get more people involved?

Teachers Simon Chapman and Fiona Holland (Woldgate College) stressed the importance both of getting children involved with poetry, and of finding a way to make space within the curriculum pressures for those children who really do enjoy poetry.  This competition seems like a perfect way to do that, and in fact, Woldgate College suggested getting children involved from a younger age.

The competition is open to years 10 – 13, but perhaps engaging children in poetry, specifically this kind of performed-poetry, from a younger age would encourage more students to get involved when they reach year 10. It was noted by everyone we interviewed that the performance element really brought something special; it was clear that these poems had come to mean a lot to the young people reciting them.

Parents of one of the competitors on the day mentioned how valuable the videos of previous winners performing had been, telling us that they made the competition and the poetry less daunting.

The videos showcase the competitors, and also what the competition is about. Poetry by Heart isn’t about being a professional poet, or a professional performer; it’s about the students using their own voices, and their own interpretations to really connect with a piece of poetry, and then pouring that emotion into their performances. The video resources are a really important way to demonstrate to those taking part (and to those thinking of taking part) that, as Georgina, the winner on the day, declared: they can do it!

These videos are readily available on the Poetry By Heart website, so let’s spread the word!

Finally, Georgina told us that she would definitely do it again, and would definitely recommend it to others- surely that glowing review will inspire you to get involved? But if not, how about this quote from Don Paterson (courtesy of Hugh, one of the judges on the day): “Most of us can’t own a Leonardo, or a Turner, but if you know a poem by heart then you’ve got one of the world’s great masterpieces”.


About the Authors

 Kate Murphy – I’m a second year History of Art student. I was keen to take part in the PBH work placement as I thought it would be a great opportunity to get involved with something happening in York. Also I  loved the poetry competitions at school when I was little, so the idea of revisiting that but seeing the poetry recited at a higher standard really grabbed me. I was curious and excited to see the performances.

Laura Wood – I’m a second year undergrad studying English and Related Literature. I am really passionate about educational opportunities outside the classroom, and knew about Poetry by Heart from college, so I thought it would be a fantastic thing to get involved with.

 Becky Goodwin – I’m a 3rd year English language and linguistics student. I wanted to get involved in the project because, as a drama-lover, I really liked the  sound of the poetry recital competition.

 

 

 

A view of  Poetry by Heart from Ripon Grammar – Georgina’s School

 

Here at RGS we have followed the Poetry by Heart scheme from its quiet inception three years ago.  Nationally, and within our school, it is growing steadily, and is particularly appealing to students who aim to pursue any career which might involve public speaking.

However, it has also given us a new focus on poetry.  In July a former student, Dr Paul Hullah, visited to speak at our annual prize-giving.  He attended RGS in the ‘70s and is now Associate Professor of British Literature and Culture at Meiji Gakuin University in Japan.   Dr Hullah is also a published author and poet and during his visit he shared his detailed knowledge of the Haiku, running workshops where students produced some fabulous work of their own.

In 2015 we wanted to extend Poetry by Heart and encourage more of our students to take part.  Therefore, in celebration of National Poetry Day, we ran it as a House competition and involved all year groups.  Each of the four school Houses sent representatives and we ran a series of heats at lunchtimes, using the same criteria as Poetry by Heart.  Lower School students could choose any poem, while the older ones had to use the Poetry by Heart anthology. House points were awarded to the successful contestants.

Prior to the competition we took the opportunity to involve our Patron of Reading, Dave Cryer (www.davecryer.co.uk), who ran a ‘hints and tips’ workshop for the contestants on performing poetry out loud.

The school final was held in the library during lunchtime and the performances were wonderful, with all the competitors doing themselves proud.

RGS competitors and judges

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The judges for the competition were Mrs Mars, English teacher, and Simon Edwards, proprietor of our fantastic local independent bookshop, Little Ripon Bookshop.  Mr Edwards commented:

“Thank you for the lovely opportunity to judge the Poetry by Heart Upper School Heats. All the contestants were confident and well prepared and they had chosen some very interesting and challenging poems. I’m sure that the winner will do very well in the next round.”

Juliet, one of our impressive competitors, said:

“We had to select one poem from a given list and learn it well enough to perform, being judged on criteria such as ‘voice and articulation’ and ‘evidence of understanding.’ We all then performed our poems on the Friday in the library with a special guest judge, Mr Simon Edwards of The Little Ripon Bookshop. I must confess that it’s a nerve-wracking experience (certainly not helped by the fact that I left learning my poem until the last minute) but very enjoyable to hear everyone’s takes on their respective poems.“

We are hopeful that some of the younger students will be enthused and will themselves take part in the national competition in a few years’ time.

Of course, the main objective was to find our school winner.  This was Georgina Watkiss, who then went on to represent Ripon Grammar School at the county contest which was held in York on National Libraries Day last month.

We were welcomed to the fantastic, newly re-opened Explore Library York.  Georgina and the other county finalists had the opportunity to take part in a pre-contest workshop to warm them up and then the performances began.  The level was extremely high, with all eight contestants giving fabulous recitations of their poems, and we were delighted when Georgina was announced as the winner of this county contest!  As I write Georgina and I are preparing to travel down to Homerton College in Cambridge for the regional and national finals, and are looking forward to meeting the other competitors and their school chaperones for what promises to be an experience we will never forget.

I am lucky to have a very supportive English teacher, Helen Mars, who is my ‘partner in crime’ for Poetry by Heart.  When she recently attended a cluster meeting with local primary staff she put forward the idea of a competition based on Poetry by Heart for Year 6 children.  The new National Curriculum programme of study for Upper Key Stage 2 includes “preparing poems and play scripts to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action”, and so this suggestion was met with enthusiasm.

We now plan to pilot this scheme in the Summer Term this year.  We will encourage local primaries to hold their own poetry recitation competitions to a find a school representative who will then attend a final event hosted here at Ripon Grammar School.  Helen and I will put together an anthology of poems from which they can choose.  The event will consist of a poetry masterclass and the final, where the Year 6 champion will be crowned.  I am really looking forward to this development, so watch this space!

Mrs Dring

Learning Resources Manager/Literacy Co-ordinator

Ripon Grammar School

 

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Planning the Unplanned Lesson – Poetry by Heart in the Classroom

12th February 2015

Pietro Zanarini 2010 How to Mind Map – Creative Commons

Poetry By Heart Regional Development Coordinator for the North West, Karen Lockney and Head of English, Susie Cooke at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Penrith discuss the lesson that refused to be planned!

 

Walking into a classroom about to teach a lesson you know you could have spent longer planning, is obviously not the best thing to do with Year 10 last thing on a Friday. Yet this lesson was deliberately unplanned (beyond the most skeletal of outlines). It’s lack of potential to be planned was part of the lesson’s very concept – it offered risk and, like risks tend to do, it offered opportunity.

The aim was to use Poetry by Heart web resources to introduce pupils to poems that would be ‘unseen’ to them, but crucially ‘unseen’ to us as teachers also. We would look at poems that neither we nor the class were likely to have seen before, and try to read and respond to them together. ‘We’ll read poems with you’, we said, ‘but be warned, we might not be able to tell you exactly what they mean, we might not even be able to fully understand them yet ourselves’.  They didn’t look 100% convinced.

However our intention was to develop confidence in dealing with unseen poems as part of their exam preparation. Their views on such questions are probably not atypical: ‘We might not understand it’, ’What if we don’t find the correct meaning?’ There it is, the ultimate fear that a poem has a ‘correct meaning’ to be teased out, and even worse, teased out in the pressure of an exam room. The idea of the ‘unseen’ poem may pose a particular challenge as classes cannot be prepared in the same way as they are for named anthology poems, for instance.

We showed the class the Poetry by Heart online anthology. It has a fantastic feature called ‘random dip’ (clearly accessible in a yellow box on the home page). Press this and any one of  over 200 poems will appear. True, we know some of the poems on the timeline, but we agreed that we’d be honest about this and tell the pupils if we had a significant head start. In fact the first poem generated was ‘Blackout’ by Grace Nichols which neither of us knew.  The poem was read out and the pupils were simply asked to note down and discuss images which leapt out to them, which we then discussed together. The overall context did not present itself straightaway, but most of us immediately felt a powerful mood of danger, and we honed in on images and language which gave us that feeling.

All well and good so far, but we were keen to move on. This was all going to be light touch, emphasising the idea that encouraging confidence with poetry comes with frequent exposure that is sometimes very light touch indeed, ‘little and often’ poetry reading, vehemently denying the urge to analyse every poem to within an inch of its life. Easier said than done though, as we realised when we got ready to generate the next poem and one girl said, ‘But what does this Nichols one mean?’, pen in hand, ready to scribble our pearls of wisdom down. Our response seemed counter-intuitive: ‘We aren’t entirely sure yet, but we are interested in going back to it later’. It’s more difficult than we might think to tell a pupil directly that we aren’t going to tell them the answer because we don’t know it ourselves yet, but this was at the crux of what we hoped to illustrate.

We then used the timeline filter (click ‘filter timeline’ in the grey bar at the top of the anthology page). With a glee for the macabre the pupils chose  the ‘Nasty Ends’ category and then ‘How to Kill’ by Keith Douglas. We spent longer on this poem, asking each group to learn a 4 line stanza by heart, putting these together so we had a fairly informal class recital. They made light work of this, and it allowed us to ask them more about their own stanza, and what they noticed in those they heard from others. We talked about whether their increased intimacy with the poem had developed understanding. Some very powerful personal responses emerged about humanisation within the dehumanisation of war. Pupils tentatively offered readings and were asked to justify them. ‘But I’m just not sure if I’m right’, insisted one girl, and we encouraged her to see that could well be an A* type of comment to make, provided the justification was there, and it was. Some of us thought the weapon in the poem a grenade, others a rifle. Which was ‘the right answer’ ? We debated this, searched for clues, wondered how we’d feel in an exam offering our thoughts. A great feature of the anthology is that there are some fantastic notes under each poem, just enough to give pointers and direct further thought. Having decided it would be OK in the exam to suggest either possibility about the weapon, we looked together at the notes. Lo and behold, they suggest there isn’t clarity in the poem. The right answer was that there was no right answer. In terms of the lesson, this was a godsend; we couldn’t have planned it better if we had planned it.

This was the first of regular, sporadic lessons with the ‘little and often’, ‘light touch, deep meaning’ approach, and they will of course complement other lessons where pupils spend much more time with poems, often in more structured contexts. But this sort of risky, ‘let’s see what we get’ lesson does, we feel, have its place to raise confidence with  poetry, to take it off its pedestal a bit, allowing the brilliance of lines, images, ideas within poems to shine briefly and randomly, and to allow fresh, personal response to emerge with increasing confidence.

From left to right: Karen Lockney, Andrew Forster, Poet and Literary Officer, Wordsworth Trust and Chair of Judges for the Cumbria Final; Susie Cooke and Nikhil Choudhury, Cumbrian Champion and Year 10 student at Susie’s school.

 

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Teesdale School and Poetry By Heart

1st February 2015

Chair of Judges author Anne Fine

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

 

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

Teesdale competitors and judges

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

 

 

The Age of Infancy

 

The earth and sky were unknown worlds to me

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

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

My own speech was like a meaningless word to me

During infancy’s pain if somebody made me cry

The noise of the door chain would comfort me

Oh! How I stared at the moon for long hours

Staring at its silent journey among broken clouds

I would ask repeatedly about its mountains and plains

And how surprised would I be at that prudent lie

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

My heart was no less than inquisitiveness personified

Recitation by girls at the school in Abbottabad

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

A form, as any taper, fine;

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is one of our collaborative ones;

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

striding out along the midnight sidewalk:

I am painted in navy blue and the

thin strips of luminescence cast down by the moon.

The calm footfall is a son

only I hear.

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

 

Memorising poetry

TED talk on memory

How to use a memory palace

 

Cassie Flint

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

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