Poetry By Heart Blog

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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Unplugged: exploring a poem through drawing

4th June 2020

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

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

Give it a go: poem posters

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

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FREE Posters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Witch BWC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustrating William Blake’s ‘London’

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

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

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

 

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

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Poem of the Week

21st May 2020

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem of the Day emails

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

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

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

 

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

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Poems Need to be Read Aloud

6th May 2020

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

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


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Joseph Coelho

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Karen Lockney

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

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

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

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

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

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Some observations from a Year 7 pupil:

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


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

 

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

 

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

13th February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

3rd February 2020

Witch BWC

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

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The value of the memorised poem

9th December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few reflections in relation to Poetry By Heart –

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

How memorised poems tended to connect to life experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Dizzy Raptures

21st November 2019

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

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

 

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

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

Different poets, different lives

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

Rhythm, energy and musicality

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

Dramatic transformations

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

Love in a poem, loving a poem

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

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

 

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

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Emily’s Dream – lifting poetry off the page

15th November 2019

FWW blog Varty thin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7th November 2019

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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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Learning lines – an actor’s perspective

22nd February 2018


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

How do actors learn all those lines?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tamsin added:

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

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

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

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Words on your Wall

8th November 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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POETRY BY HEART NATIONAL CHAMPION 2017

8th June 2017

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Where the magic happens.

12th April 2017

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

 

‘You like stuff to do with Shakespeare and memory,’ a friend of mine said, recently. ‘You should see this magician, Peter Clifford. He’s memorized the entire works of Shakespeare.’

‘The entire works?’

‘Yep.’

‘37 plays? 154 sonnets? 5 long narrative poems? Word for word?’

‘Yes, seriously. He gets audience members to pick random pages from The Complete Works and he can recite lines from any of them. He’s amazing.’

We all know that a magician never reveals his secrets, but as Poetry By Heart launched its special Shakespeare Sonnet Competition this year, inviting students and staff to memorise individual sonnets, it seemed only right to ask advice from a man who appears to have memorized them all. So in the interests of research, I went along to one of Peter Clifford’s magic shows.

Early in the evening, Peter performed a memory feat in which he listed the titles of Shakespeare’s plays and narrative poems in chronological order, starting with Henry VI (Parts 2, 3 and 1) and ending with Two Noble Kinsmen. Impressive, I thought, but not quite The Complete Works. Using the method of loci (a memory strategy devised in Ancient Greece where images are mentally stored in an imagined building – see the NAWE article ‘The Old Man in the Attic’), plus a bit of focus and practise, I reckoned I could manage that myself.

But then things got a little more complicated. Peter invited an audience member to the stage and handed her a battered copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

‘Pick a page between 15 and 700,’ he said, explaining that this eliminated the introductory notes and index pages. ‘Tell me the page number and I’ll tell you the first word on that page.’

This was the spectacle my friend had raved about. Page numbers were turned to at random. Without fail, Peter recalled the first word on each and every one. Now this was impressive. And definitely not something I was about to try at home.

Then he took things even further. Peter asked the page-picker to choose the first or second column on any given page and decide if they wanted the first or last word.

‘Page 240, first column, first word.’

‘Married.’

‘Page 471, second column, last word.’

‘Mouse.’

‘Page 654, first column, last word.’

‘Weapon.’

After several increasingly rapid-fire demonstrations of this memory stunt, the entire audience was at the jaw-dropped-open-in-amazement point.

But still, there was more.

It turned out that, not only could Peter recall individual words from any page and column, but, as he went on to demonstrate in a final flourish of memorizing brilliance, he could also recite complete lines from every page. It appeared that my friend was right. Here was a man who had actually memorized The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Later I met Peter at a café and was immediately struck by his genuine enthusiasm and passion for all things connected with memory, performance and, in particular, Shakespeare. As well as being a magician, he is also a highly respected actor, director and writer, and has performed in numerous productions with the BBC, the Sheffield Crucible Theatre and the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory Company, amongst others.

When I asked whether he had in fact memorized The Complete Works of Shakespeare he smiled and explained that ‘this effect involves five different memory systems’, including a pegging system – using numbers to mentally hook images; a linking system – making connections between a series of images; and the method of loci, or memory palace. He also uses a mnemonic system in which he changes numbers into images and links these to things he wants to remember. ‘This is a very old system for memorizing that has been used in different ways. We are visual creatures. We remember images better than words.’

So the answer is, yes and no.

But, interestingly, these mnemonic tools that Peter has so thoroughly mastered are not strategies he uses when actually performing Shakespeare.

‘When I learn pieces as an actor, and poems in fact, I’ll always go for what’s beneath the words. What are the images? What are the emotions? What am I trying to communicate? If you can work that out, that gives you a core feeling and you’re much more likely to remember that than just random shapes – words. Don’t try to remember just the words.’

He says that when it comes to learning a poem by heart, understanding the meaning of the work is vital. ‘It’s an intellectual process of spending time with the poem and understanding it. I’ll look at the verse structure, the rhythm, assonance, alliteration – all those things that the poet will have used.’ He also says it’s important to ‘discover what your own personal, individual emotional connection to the poem is. That’s the story you tell.’

Almost simultaneous to this understanding comes a process of making a physical connection with the words. He suggests whispering the lines ’so you get the sounds of the consonants. Then take the vowels out for a while.’ Next he might ‘take the consonants out and just speak the vowels, to get the emotional sound – the emotion seems to come through the vowels more than the consonants.’

The way to learn a poem by heart Peter suggests, is not through memory palaces or any of the strategies that he might use in his magic shows, but through ‘practice, practice, practice. Do it over and over again. Once you know what you’re trying to communicate, the words will be there and you won’t have to think about them.’

He argues that the memorizing process happens naturally when you spend focused time with a poem. ‘If you put in the time to work on the poem first, to find out what’s happening, then you find that you’re already learning it.’ He reaches a moment ‘when you’re not thinking about the words on the page. You’re embodying the words as though you’re talking to someone. You have this emotion you want to share and you use the poem to communicate that.’

Ultimately, though, he says there is no short cut to learning a poem by heart. ‘The real key is ‘workman-like graft! Learn your lines, learn your lines, learn your lines.’

It seems the real trick to poetry and recitation is less to do with mnemonics and more to do with getting to know the words intimately, discovering the emotional truth beneath the lines and finding a way to deliver them that is truly your own.

And, as we know from the best Poetry By Heart performances, that’s where the real magic happens.

 

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

7th March 2017

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

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

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

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

20170307_BLOG_Cake

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

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

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

Amazing Chocolate Cake

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

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

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

So how do you eat the works of Shakespeare?

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

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

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

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

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

20170307_BLOG_EatCake

Why is it worth it?

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

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

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The Ear Is The Best Reader

24th February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We look forward to sharing our future plans with you.

Tracey Guiry
Director
The Poetry Archive

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

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Poems, Pictures and Prophecy

14th March 2016

Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………..

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Voices From The First World War

3rd March 2016

3.48pm Orgreave by  BsOu10Eo Creative Commons

3.48pm Orgreave by BsOu10Eo Creative Commons

On March 19th 2016 at Homerton College 41 young people will recite poems chosen from the Poetry By Heart World War One showcase. In the run up to this moving event we are delighted to publish an article by Connie Ruzich first seen on her Blog http://behindtheirlines.blogspot.com/  that features two of the poets in our anthology: Robert Graves and Charles Sorley.

On October 5th, 1915, twenty-year-old Charles Sorley wrote to his father describing his time in the trenches outside Loos: “…rain and dirt and damp cold. O for a bath!”  Sorley was known for his love of stormy weather: as a student at Marlborough College, he exulted in wet and windy runs across the trails of Marlborough Downs.   An excerpt from the last stanza of “Song of the Ungirt Runners,” a poem he wrote in early 1915, expresses that passion:

The rain is on our lips,

We do not run for prize.

But the storm the water whips

And the wave howls to the skies.

Eight days after writing to his father, on October 13, 1915, in one of the last attacks of the Battle of Loos, Sorley was shot in the head and died instantly.  In the chaos of the battle, his body was never recovered: he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial, along with 20,609 other British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave.  His poetry was published three months after his death in the slim volume Marlborough and Other Poems. 

In February 1916, Robert Graves, another soldier poet serving in France, wrote to his friend Edward Marsh that he had “just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorley” and that “It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age.”  In 1918 Graves’ published a volume of his own poems, Fairies and Fusiliers: it includes a poem that remembers Charles Sorley and celebrates a life of action.

Sorley’s Weather

WHEN outside the icy rain
  Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain
  Snugly under shelter?
Shall I make a gentle song         5
  Here in my firelit study,
When outside the winds blow strong
  And the lanes are muddy?
With old wine and drowsy meats
  Am I to fill my belly?         10
Shall I glutton here with Keats?
  Shall I drink with Shelley?
Tobacco’s pleasant, firelight’s good:
  Poetry makes both better.
Clay is wet and so is mud,         15
  Winter rains are wetter.
Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,
  For though the winds come frorely,
I’m away to the rain-blown hill
  And the ghost of Sorley.

 

(Robert Graves 1895 – 1985)

 

Tobacco, firelight, and poetry are pleasant and good, but “Sorley’s Weather” urges readers to put down their books and stride out into rough storms on rain-blown hills.  Experiencing the wildness of nature is far better than retreating to the fireside with the Romantics.  Even Percy Shelly’s meditations on nature (“The wilderness has a mysterious tongue/ Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild”) can be left behind on the window sill.  Sorley’s own poem “Rain,” written in 1912, tells readers where to find him:

 

When the rain is coming down,
And all Court is still and bare,
And the leaves fall wrinkled, brown,
Through the kindly winter air,
….
There is something in the rain
That would bid me to remain:
There is something in the wind
That would whisper, “Leave behind
All this land of time and rules,
Land of bells and early schools.

 

For those mourning the dead and remembering the thousands of every day tragedies of the Western Front, it was windswept hills, mud, and winter rain that were best able to summon the ghosts of the men and boys who would never return.  At the start of the Battle of Loos, torrential rains flooded the trenches, and Graves’ poem calls to mind the conditions of the war, as well as the weather that Sorley loved so well in life.

J.R.R. Tolkien, writing about another rover and warrior, wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”  Not long after enlisting, Sorley wrote in a letter home, “Indeed I think that after the war all brave men will renounce their country and confess they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Powell, A Deep Cry).

Connie Ruzich About the AuthorDr. Connie Ruzich is a University Professor of English at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2014, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the ways in which the poetry of the First World War has been used to frame, commemorate, and discuss the war.  She has been teaching language and literature for twenty-two years, and her research examines how language use and practices shape identity.  In her spare time, she enjoys hiking in the woods, listening to obscure bands from the 1980s, and watching goat videos on YouTube. She writes a blog that shares and discusses poetry of World War I, focusing on the lost voices of the war: Behind Their Lines

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Uniting Pleasure With Truth

29th February 2016

'The Yellow Fairy (21st Century Version)' by Elaine flickr Creative Commons

‘The Yellow Fairy (21st Century Version)’ by Elaine flickr Creative Commons

Years ago when I was at school, memorising poetry was considered a bore and a chore; learners were generally indifferent, if not openly hostile, towards the activity. The reasons are obvious to me now; we had no choice in the matter, our teachers showed little enthusiasm for it, and as far as I can recall no one ever challenged our apathy with encouragement or celebration of its potential benefits.

 

As a result, if we thought about it at all, learning poetry seemed a pointless rote exercise. But even at the time I could not deny that once learnt, a poem was permanently lodged in the memory, just like ‘times tables’ we chanted daily. Like it or not, from childhood, I had co-ownership of some elegantly phrased language. Several decades on, I now realise that these ‘lodgers’ rewarded me generously for the trifling effort I made to acquire them; and they keep giving.

What benefits can this ongoing ‘companionship’ have for us? In the early 1960s, I was required to recite poems at local public speaking events. Despite worrying at the thought of being tested on an ability to regurgitate lines I scarcely understood and hardly heard as I uttered them, I found I could readily intone their musicality. Adults seemed impressed with the achievement too.  So, aged seven, I was really chuffed at being (momentarily) the centre of attention as I showcased regular metre and rhyme in poems such as Charlotte Druitt Cole’s The Yellow Fairy. (1) In those days, I enjoyed unsuppressed pleasure at reciting children’s verse under adult scrutiny; today, the feat of recalling it all so vividly, throughout an immense gap in time amazes me!

Discourse about the human condition, experienced through set texts, held my interest and ensured my studies in English Literature felt relevant at secondary school; throughout my teenage years, poetry’s power to express my unarticulated sensibilities – to speak, as it were for me – was empowering. Of course, pupils were still expected to memorise chunks of literature – ironically for the prosaic function of illustrating points in essays, rather than any deep, intrinsic purpose. But by this time I had also discovered and memorised poems that explored themes of love and loss –  new feelings which often seemed overwhelming and induced stunned silence in me. By learning verse by heart, I felt able to demonstrate greater expansiveness; at any moment, I could ‘piggyback’ on articulations that ‘said it’ better than I ever could. As Samuel Johnson observed, poetry offered ‘the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.’(2)

In addition to the more intense ownership of poetry learnt by heart, its durability is impressive. To carry an exceptionally well expressed thought with you through life’s journey is to retain something permanent in an irrepressibly transient world.  It represents something to cling on to in rough times and to celebrate in good; and poetry learned by heart is an extraordinarily ‘unadorned’ and ‘natural’ activity requiring absolutely no props, notes, costumes, stage, – no accoutrements whatsoever. Today, simple antidotes to the exhausting and dispiriting speed and complexity of modern life are popular; ‘mindfulness’ is sweeping the nation as the latest means of calming the mind and raising the spirits. But Learning and reciting poetry to oneself also has the power to soothe and console; and verse lends dignity to emotion. According to John Donne ‘He tames it that fetters it in verse’(3), and by acquiring it, we often understand it more completely and benefit from its abiding instruction and comfort.

British Folk Ballads are an excellent resource for teaching literary concepts to children. Simple language, strong regular rhythms, repeated four line abcb rhyme scheme and incremental repetition (in which a phrase recurs with minor differences as the story progresses) are all wonderfully effective devices to enable a listener to quickly commit verse to memory – as of course was the intention in the oral tradition of which ballads occupy a major part; they are also a useful template for creative writing, with narratives that are often full of tension, drama, mystery, comedy.  The listener/reader is often immediately plunged into a mysterious and dramatic situation, without narrator comment as in the opening of The Unquiet Grave:

Cold blows the wind to my true love

And gently drops the rain

I only had but one true love

And in green wood she lies slain. (4)

 

Ballad narrators usually do not speak in the first person (unless speaking as a character in the story), and often do not comment on their reactions to the emotional content of the ballad. So there is plenty of scope for the speaker and listener to play an active role in performance and interpretation.

My enthusiasm for poetry learnt by heart owes much to the traditional ballad form and I sincerely hope that in over three decades of teaching, I have persuaded at least a few learners that there is much more to memorizing verse than the purpose of passing examinations.

Much more could be said in on this topic but for me the simple pleasure of learning and sharing what Coleridge described as ‘the best words in the best order’ (5) is a form of art – one that it is accessible to us all.

(1)

The Yellow fairy

by Charlotte Druitt Cole

There lived in a laburnum tree
A little fairy fellow,
He wore a feather in his cap,
And he was dressed in yellow.

He sang a song the whole day long
So merry and so clever,
But when I climbed to peep at him,
He flew away for ever.

(2) Samuel Johnson Lives of the Poets 1791

(3) John Donne The Triple Fool (Songs and Sonnets)

(4) “The Unquiet Grave” is an English Ballad in which a young man mourns his dead love too hard and prevents her from obtaining peace. It is thought to date from 1400 and was collected in 1868 by Francis James Child, as Child Ballad number 78

(5) Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria

 

Andy About the author: Andy Revell was born in the small town of Cuckfield to which he returned after an extended sojourn of twenty years living and working in Birmingham (where he was awarded his first Degree in Education), Wolverhampton, Southampton and the New Forest. In addition to teaching, he has had stints working as a postman, factory worker, auctioneer’s assistant, hospital porter, theatre technician and auxiliary nurse.

Andy has taught a variety of subjects at a range of levels including: PGCE, English Language, Literature, Communication Studies, Media Studies, Film Studies, Drama, Integrated Science and Sports Studies having worked full time in seven different establishments over a period of 37 years.

He has 4 children and 4 grandchildren – and is immensely proud of them all!

His hobbies include Local History, Sports, Film, Theatre, Music and perhaps not surprisingly he enjoys reading poetry!

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A View From The Judge

14th February 2016

Surrey competitors anxiously await the Judges’ decision

 

Poetry By Heart is indebted to over a hundred people who make up the judging panels in our county competitions. Novelists, poets, academics, media professionals and members of local communities have the often demanding task of deciding who will be the county champion. In this Blog we hear from Greg Freeman one of the judges in the Surrey competition. This article was first published on the Write Out Loud website on February 11th 2016. www.writeoutloud.net/public/index.php

 

‘Taking the poem inside you’

 

Throughout England secondary school pupils aged 14-18 are standing up to recite in public two poems that they have learned by heart. The regional and county contests for Poetry By Heart, an organisation set up by the former poet laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, are taking place, to find finallists to battle it out next month in Cambridge. I was at the Surrey heat on Wednesday night, as a member of the judging panel, and to hear Mike Dixon, one of Poetry By Heart’s regional coordinators, say that the scheme had been launched four years ago at the National Portrait Gallery. “We weren’t 100% sure that it was going to work. This is not a new idea – it’s a very, very old idea … so there were worries that some people might think it was backward-looking.”

I know that my parents had to learn famous poems by heart at school in the 1920s and 1930s. But Dixon said: “There is a big difference, we think, between learning by rote, and learning by heart – really taking that poem inside you.” Many performance poets up and down the country would second that, of course.

Our chair of judges, novelist and poet Adrienne Dines, who was also a judge last year, agreed. She would be looking for deliveries that were not too dramatic, she said. “I want to see them owning the poem – just letting the poem do the talking.”

Pupils from seven schools took part in the Surrey contest at Woking library. All are required to recite two poems – one pre-1914, and another post-1914 – from an online anthology that you can find here. There is also a selection of first world war poems to choose from as well.

The teenagers delivered poems that included Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, an extract from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’, and others by modern poets including James Fenton, Imtiaz Dharker and Jacob Polley. Wednesday night’s winner, Maya Ahuja-Hofheiz, from Caterham school, recited George Meredith’s ‘Lucifer in Starlight’ (1883) in the first half, and Vicki Feaver’s ‘Judith’ (1994) in the second. The runner-up was William Davies, from Charterhouse school, and Adrienne Dines, in her judges’ comments, also commended the performance of Bobby Hedgeland, from Sunnydown school, whose joy and excitement at being on the stage was wonderful to see. There were very few fluffed lines, and the overall standard was extremely high. Mike Dixon paid tribute to the “passion, support and determination” of teachers who had organised recitation contests in their schools: “I’d like to thank all the teachers in this room today for engaging in this process.”

Wednesday night at Woking library was enhanced by background music in between the performances that was provided by a trio from nearby Winston Churchill school – Adam Grainger (piano), Ben Moore (violin), and Philip Norman (cello).

The national finals of Poetry By Heart will take place at Homerton College, Cambridge, on 18-19 March.

Greg anthology 2

About the Author:  Greg Freeman is a former newspaper sub-editor, who is now news editor for the poetry website Write Out Loud. Last year he published his debut poetry pamphlet collection Trainspotters (Indigo Dreams). In that collection is a long poem –a sestina – called ‘Learning By Heart’, which tells how the poet’s father used a phrase, “that inward eye”, from a poem he had learned by heart at school … Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ – to help him cope with the trauma of being a prisoner of war, working on the ‘Death Railway’ in the far east. You can read the full poem here

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Tom Boughen Has Left The Building…

7th February 2016

Photo by Joe Dunckley www.flickr.com/photos/steinsky/214473113 Creative Commons

Clifton Bridge Photo by Joe Dunckley www.flickr.com/photos/steinsky/214473113 Creative Commons

There have been some tearful farewells in the PBH Office just recently as we have had to say goodbye to Tom Boughen who has been a highly regarded member of our team specialising in administration and marketing. Tom will be moving to London and working for the British Council. Happily he is returning briefly to us at the finals in March. You might have thought we would just let him enjoy watching the finals this year but we’re making him work too! Below you can read some lovely reflections from Tom on his three years with PBH.

I’ve recently accepted a new job in London and will be leaving Poetry By Heart. I’d like to share my thoughts on this competition, having been part of it for nearly three years and directly involved in the highs and lows and laughs and searing frustrations which accompany the life of any arts organisation.

Hopefully I can neatly sidestep any self-indulgence because I feel as if this project has been a success not simply because we’ve worked hard on it, but because teachers, librarians and students wanted it to be. I’ve enjoyed being the voice of the email inbox, the Twitter account, the newsletter and speaking directly to just about everyone who wanted to speak to us.

This is Poetry By Heart’s fourth year. The first year, so I’m told, succeeded on a wing and a prayer. I joined in the second year when everything was a little bit smoother, the budget was a bit bigger and Julie Blake, our great leader, could mould the competition into something that had the potential to really reach people. It’s not our place to say it has, but I like to think so anyway (so much for lack of self-indulgence!).

My defining memory of the second year is catching trains and visiting county contests. I was train-hopping across the country in the bleak midwinter, staring at drowned fields from a fly-encrusted window and staying in identical Travelodges. It was often very cold and very dark except for the evenings where I could step into warm libraries and arts centres and theatres and watch young people making the most of their talent and their voice. The 2014 national final is my defining PBH memory because it felt like the culmination of something big. I realised that this was an exciting place to be and it was actually making some difference to even just a few hundred teenagers who felt strengthened by being able to move an audience with words alone. Matilda Neill was the winner that year and I’ve never heard such silence in a room filled with so many people as I did during her recitation of In Memoriam by the poetic giant Michael Longley.

I was train-hopping far less in Poetry By Heart’s third year thanks to our wonderful regional development team. It’s very rare you ever meet a group of people who are so creative-minded and friendly, and yet simultaneously so practical and resourceful that they can put together a competition like this. The national finals moved to their present location at Homerton College and became infused with a great sense of support and camaraderie fuelled by everyone who works there.

Speaking freely, this competition gets an amount of flak from some quarters. Is it worthless? Is it teaching poetry the ‘wrong way’? I speak only for myself, not on behalf of the competition, not on behalf of my employer. I’ve got an absurd sentimentality for the project and I’m ridiculously biased but I think it’s a bloody fantastic thing at its best. I’ve seen so many students become invigorated with a palpable sense of confidence right there on stage as they successfully reel off a Keats or a Zephaniah. I’ve watched video footage of an interview in which a student from a West Midlands state comprehensive declared, totally unprompted, “this has made me think I could go to university! I could actually do that!” as if he had surprised himself with the realisation. Is it teaching poetry the ‘wrong way’? I personally reject the idea when I’ve seen so much passion from so many young people who are approaching the form for the first time, and are taking the voices of great poets and moulding them in their own style. These words mean something to them.

Incidentally I’ve picked up two poems by heart myself. One is ‘Ozymandias’ (Shelley), the other is the hymn of every disillusioned teenager: ‘This Be The Verse’ (Larkin). If nothing else, it’s an exceptional icebreaker.

Now I’m winding down and I feel like I’m talking more than an Oscar winner. I’m going to self-consciously mumble my thanks to Julie Blake, Kath Lee and Tim Shortis for giving me a shot after a job interview on a grey September afternoon in 2013. Thousands of History university graduates were let loose from university during that month into a frightening world of dwindling employment opportunities. They sat in job interviews, wearing badly-fitted suits and tremulously making a case for themselves. I was a lucky one.

TOMAbout the Author: Tom Boughen was born in Hull and now lives in Bristol, having worked in administration and marketing for Poetry By Heart for three years, and will begin working at The British Council in London in early February. He has a History MA from the University of Bristol, and wrote his thesis about Indian soldiers in the First World War. During his downtime over the summer he likes to go globetrotting, his 2015 jaunt taking him to the USA, Mexico and Cuba. In his spare time in Bristol, he likes to read, write and watch deliberately obscure films.

 

 

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Something to set down. The Journey of the Magi

24th January 2016

Adoration of the Magi. Detail from casket made in Limoges currently housed in the Museum of Scotland. Photo courtesy of Lawrence OP Creative Commons

As many of us recently took down Christmas decorations and cards (the PBH team keeps coming across stray bits of tinsel amongst the office files) we may have noticed how often we saw images of the three wise men. In this guest blog Jorj Kowszun takes a closer look at the legend of these mysterious men through a consideration of one of our anthology poems.

 

The three wise men – the Magi, or often the three kings – are an iconic image of Christmas. They are a very common Christmas card theme and often used in Christmas advertising to alert us to the season: usually they are riding camels, often very stylised, occasionally setting gifts down before the baby Jesus.

All there is about these characters is a short passage in Matthew’s gospel Chapter 2: 1-12 that tells us very little – not even how many of them there were. Yet a whole mythology has built up around them. This includes names, ethnicities and countries of origin. If you visit Cologne Cathedral you will even be shown a golden reliquary that is supposed to contain their bones!

The building of the mythology around the Magi is an expression of a natural desire to give flesh to these enigmatic characters. T.S. Eliot approached their story in his poem “The Journey of the Magi” by exploring that journey from the “inside”. You can hear Eliot reading his poem here on the Poetry Archive website: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi

It is a grittier focus on the hardship of the journey. The uncertainty about their purpose in making the journey. The disturbing effect it had on them and on their lives afterwards – leaving them feeling dissatisfied, out of place, longing for something else.  Maybe even wishing they hadn’t done it.

My wife and I are Strictly Come Dancing fans and the pundits on the show talk regularly about the “Strictly journey” which is a very good description. People join the show and some of them stay only a short time and their journey ends abruptly in disappointment. Others find hidden depths of talent in themselves and stay to the very end. Others still find themselves taken out of the journey earlier than is fair because of the fickleness of the voting public and others stay far too long for similar reasons.

It is for all of them an extraordinary journey, taking them outside their normal pattern of life and inviting them to develop new skills, to manage new relationships, to do something totally different.

The Magi – whoever they were – chose to go on this journey. Their friends and family probably thought they were mad, or at least taking part in a wild goose-chase. But they were following a star – this expression has come in to our language now to mean following a dream or an ambition. They believed the journey was worthwhile and would bring them nearer to something special in this world.

Eliot’s poem gives us a reality check. A stern corrective that says it’s not all running about and having fun. Times will be hard. Often you will question the value of your journey and at the end you will have become a different person and will no longer fit comfortably into your original familiar box.

That’s something to set down perhaps.

JorjAbout the AuthorJorj Kowszun is currently in charge of Mathematics at the University of Brighton. He entered the academic world only a few years ago at a relatively late stage in his life. Before that he ran a successful consultancy business for many years, mostly helping managers in education with improving their strategy and finances. He started his business when he was made redundant from the job of deputy principal following a merger of colleges – while dispiriting at the time, it opened up a whole new range of opportunities! Much of Jorj’s working life has involved the education of 16-19-year-olds.

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The Patterns of Poetry

4th January 2016

Pencil Pattern: John Bugg Photography Creative Commons

Pencil Pattern: John Bugg Photography Creative Commons

There is a pleasure in poetic pains / Which only poets know.

– William Cowper

Mr Cowper got it right. Poetry does appear to involve a lot of pain: for evidence, teachers only have to listen to the collective cry of agony issuing from their classes whenever “poetry” is revealed as the subject for the day. And then, there’s the pain that inspires a lot of it, the pain it often expresses, and last but not least, the pain of having to memorise it. Ouch!

So, what if we wanted to share the pleasure that “only poets know”? One way to help children enjoy that unique tingle is to show them how they can turn the secret keys of the poem, and see how it works. With this knowledge, they need never feel bamboozled by a bard again. Instead, they will feel emboldened and empowered whenever they encounter “some words in a group where the lines don’t reach the other side of the paper”. This, by the way, is my favourite definition of poetry, provided by a Year 7 pupil in my first year of teaching many years ago.

The secret keys of the poem are its patterns. Reading a poem for patterns is only one way to read it, and yes, there will be finer nuances that may not come to light with this reading technique. But, the benefits are great. Patterns are clues to meaning and intention. Patterns highlight the important bits. Patterns give us a way to talk about poetry. And patterns help us learn it too.

Let me give an example. Here are the first two stanzas of a poem I often use with children around 9 – 11. It’s by Charles Causley:

Timothy Winters comes to school

With eyes as wide as a football-pool,

Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

 

His belly is white, his neck is dark,

And his hair is an exclamation-mark.

His clothes are enough to scare a crow

And through his britches the blue winds blow.

The choice of poem is not coincidental. The child in “Timothy Winters” appears to be around the same age as them. Many children of that age are exploring the world wars and evacuation. They might be reading Michelle Magorian’s classic “Goodnight Mister Tom” or even John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”. They may know or be a child suffering neglect. They have a context for the poem and its subject.

Whatever poem is chosen, it must be displayed so that everyone can see it, and so that annotations can be added “live” during what follows. An A3 version centred on a flip-chart page or a copy of the text on an interactive whiteboard is ideal. I only ever reveal this part of the poem (there are another six stanzas) at first, because focus is important to reading for patterns. Modelling is the next step. To model reading takes confidence. You have to articulate and make explicit a usually subconscious and invisible process. But it’s worth it, to show learners what it looks and sounds like when a reader is making meaning from a text. Lots of children don’t know that this is a process, or something that can be learned.

My modelling begins something like this:

“I’m going to read this poem out loud, in a particular way, looking for ANYTHING that might be a pattern. I’ll have to keep going back and re-reading because I won’t spot every pattern at first. Timothy Winters comes to school. No, nothing striking me as a pattern yet. Back to the start. Timothy Winters comes to school / With eyes as wide as a football-pool… hmm, I think I noticed several ‘s’ sounds there. Let me highlight those. Oh, and there’s that ‘oo’ in pool, school and foot. That might be a significant pattern so let me underline all those. Let’s keep going. With eyes as wide as a football-pool / Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters. Well, here’s a pattern of body parts now – I’ll circle eyes, ears and teeth. I’m thinking that can’t be a coincidence. Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters / A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters. Wow, here’s a group of words that all make me think of war or violence – bombs, splinters and blitz…

And so on. In a couple of minutes, the stanzas will be scrawled all over with arrows, notes and highlights. The children will be beginning to put up their hands to say “you’ve missed ‘as’ in the second line – there are two of them” or “there’s a pattern of colours, too”. All potential patterns will be identified, including that wonderful alliteration on the letter ‘b’ in the final line of the second stanza. Later in the lesson, we’ll all pronounce that line with emphasis on the plosive sounds and realise that it makes our lips do a “blowy out” movement, a bit like the cold winds in the poem.

Quickly, I give out copies of the whole poem, and ask the children to carry on with the pattern-spotting technique. Of course, they will usually notice a lot more connections than most adult first-time readers. And then begins the discussion of why these patterns might be important. We’ll be asking questions like “Why might the poet want to use a whole group of words that make us think about war?” or “Is it important that the poem rhymes like this?” They are great questions, and they begin the next stages of the reading process – speculation, inference, analysis and interpretation.

Some poets might take umbrage at their art being pawed over like this, but I have never found a better way to show children how poetry works. And the great thing is, that while they are reading and annotating, they are learning the poem. For a start, they are re-reading and, as any teacher knows, it is almost impossible to get children to re-read anything with purpose, so that is a huge bonus! They are drawing their own attention to its special bits. They are working out how different parts link together. They are finding joy in the repetition and the sounds. They are, without realising it, committing large parts of it to memory, and they are definitely “taking pleasure in poetic pains”.

 

Jane BransonAbout the Author: Jane Branson is an independent learning consultant in East Sussex. She worked for fourteen years in English departments in schools, before spending nine years as a member of the county council’s standards and learning team. She’s been a classroom teacher, an Advanced Skills Teacher, a head of department and a teacher-training tutor. A qualified Philosophy for Children trainer, Jane also writes regularly for Oxford University Press. She’s currently taking a creative writing class, has been the Chair of Governors at a local school for 6 years, and became a parish councillor earlier this year. You can visit her website at http://jbl.strikingly.com/ .

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Spell Casting

16th December 2015

Malkin by Camille Ralphs  The Emma Press

Malkin by Camille Ralphs The Emma Press

After a performance of my poem sequence Malkin about a month ago, one member of the audience came up to me and commented that it was interesting that the poems had a ‘double life’ – that is, they seemed to be enactive both on the page and on the stage.

The poems – which are dramatic monologues (poems written in the voices of individual characters) concerning the horrible but fascinating events of the Pendle Witch Trials, and so lend themselves easily to theatre – make use in print of unorthodox or ‘free’ spelling, through which they achieve a number of effects, some of which I’ll mention below.  I added the performative aspect to the recital of the poems only recently – since the way the poems appear in print is idiosyncratic and emotive, the only way to equal this off the page was to embody a similar impression in performance.  (Likewise, I might add, the only way I thought it possible on the page to equal the passion and empathetic engagement of a performed character was to make use of free spelling!)

Both are enactments of identity, albeit in different ways.  Both H.G. Wells (in his essay ‘For Freedom of Spelling: the Discovery of an Art’) and Simon Horobin (in his 2014 book Does Spelling Matter? ) have noted how orthodox spelling has been singled out as an indicator of class, intelligence and even moral goodness in the past; for a sequence of poems about a group of people maligned by society, no representation of language could be more appropriate than a subversion of this norm.  Additionally: on the page, as David Crystal (in Spell it Out) has pointed out, certain combinations of letters can have an emotive effect – instilled through cultural associations inherited from the language’s history – in much the same way as colours.  Consider, for example, all the emotional associations summoned by the colour red.  Something very similar happens when we are confronted with spellings like ‘kh’, ‘sc’, ‘gn’ and so on – especially when the words most commonly associated with those spellings only arrived into the English language very recently, and so still feel unfamiliar to the native speaker.

How can this sense of identity and emotion come across in a run-of-the-mill, stand-at-the-lectern-and-read-out poetry recital?  It can’t – the language is there, but the psychological upheaval isn’t.  When Allen Ginsberg performed, it frequently looked as if he was possessed by the poetry, as if for those moments he was something – or was in touch with something – larger than himself.  The same is true of the fierce vulnerability brought to contemporary performance poetry by Kate Tempest, or to internet poetry by Steve Roggenbuck.  Their popularity is clear evidence of the human connections they’ve made.  These connections, some heightenings of empathy, are surely the goal of any ambitious poetry reading.

This kind of raging performance isn’t the only effective kind, of course.  Often poetry calls for a more restrained response – quiet conviction, a slower revelation of meaning which allows the audience to meditate on what they are hearing.  Many of the performances given by Poetry By Heart participants are like this; as these are performances of work by another poet, they are to some extent also attempting to relate another identity.  Some are dramatic monologues, too.

‘Spelling’ is in itself a kind of pun – simultaneously a reference to spelling in orthography and an allusion to the oral tradition in poetry at its most ancient (the tradition of the spell or charm, or the chant of ritual).  As Simon Armitage recently stated in his inaugural lecture as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry: originally, “poetry’s instinctive address was to the ear, not to the eye.”  This is not at all to say that we should be literary luddites and ignore the technology of text – just that, where possible, it’s a good idea to use the full range of performative resources at our disposal, to make a work connective in as many ways as we can.  The ear and eye should move the mind in tandem; to produce work that maintains links not only with literature’s (and, by this, humanity’s) past but with its future, it’s pertinent to remain aware of the traditions of bard and scop as well as more recent textual developments.  (It’s worth mentioning at this point that unorthodox spelling, through the influences of the internet and txtspk, has almost become our vernacular.)

Why might it be necessary to state this case, to combine resources, augment the traditional with the avant-garde and vice versa?  Perhaps because, in the face of contemporary literary movements like ‘uncreative writing’, the lyric poet has the opportunity to loudly reassert and reinvent her relevance.  I, like so many writers, want to connect to the audience in a way that is visceral and resonant.  I want the audience to feel as well as hear the words, to know that here is poetry with blood in its mouth, that never minds its Ps and Qs and isn’t scared of spitting.  As Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  The performance of poems with a theme this dark can be a kind of community catharsis – but particularly a kind which recognises the smallest voice, which raises the smallest voice to a volume at which it can be appreciated.  That feels important right now.

There are numerous ways for a poem to wing its way into the world. To give poems a double life, or to make them doubly alive, make the most of most.

~

CamilleAbout the Author:   Camille Ralphs started in Stoke, and has studied in Lancaster, Cambridge and now Oxford.  She has been a poetry editor at international arts and literature magazine The Missing Slate since 2013; her debut pamphlet Malkin is out now with The Emma Press, and can be purchased here: https://theemmapress.com/shop/malkin-paperback/.  Some of her earlier work has been published in Earth-Quiet: Poems from the Tower Poetry Summer School 2012, Best of Manchester Poets Volume 3 and elsewhere.  She has performed her work in various venues across the UK.  In 2014, she was shortlisted for the position of Staffordshire Poet Laureate.

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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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Poetry By Heart – The Movie

19th November 2015

Hear From The Students from Poetry By Heart on Vimeo.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

TOMAbout the Author:

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

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Australian Bush Ballads

11th November 2015

Image Courtesy of Al McKay Personal Collection

Image Courtesy of Al McKay Personal Collection

Australian Al McKay offers a personal reflection on the popularity and impact of the Australian Bush Ballad.

 

How can I take you, in a few words, to the very soul of my patriotism instilled by early Australian poets who so shaped my appreciation of this great island continent?  Poetry by Heart was the essence of my Primary School education; we all recited by rote, either in the schoolroom or at home.  On poets’ wings I was transported to worlds beyond my comprehension.  By the age of ten I had learned, not only of the “old Country’s” poets: Keats, Shelly, Byron and Tennyson but of those quintessentially Australian “Bush Balladists”, Lawson, Mackellar, Paterson, Gordon, Kendall and Anderson.

Their words are forever imprinted into my very being always offering satisfaction.  These early poets developed a style of narration that gained great popularity as they portrayed the early pioneers in their struggles to establish a European foothold on what was a hostile shore but one that they tamed to “take now the fruits of our labour…” (“Pioneers”, Frank Hudson).  Bush ballads became popular late in the 1800s and were published by a Sydney Newspaper, “The Bulletin”.  The poems could be humorous as in O’Brien:

“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,

In accents most forlorn,

Outside the church, ere Mass began,

One frosty Sunday morn” [1]

and they could be sad when Lawson tells of Harry Dale:

“Now Harry speaks to Rover,

The best dog on the plains,

And to his hardy horses,

And strokes their shaggy manes:

“We’ve breasted bigger rivers

When floods were at their height,

Nor shall this gutter stop us

From getting home tonight!”[2]

Alas poor Harry and Rover drowned! Some poems were evocative of a heritage dominated by England as MacKellar wrote,

“The love of field and coppice,

Of green and shaded lanes.

Of ordered woods and gardens

Is running in your veins,…..

I know but cannot share it

My love is otherwise”[3]

and presented a paradox to be pondered by writers many of whom had little knowledge of that semi-mythical “Bush”.

In like vein, Lawson embraced his different world in the South:

“You may sing of the Shamrock, the Thistle, and Rose,

Or the three in a bunch if you will;

But I know of a country that gathered all those,

And I love the great land where the Waratah grows,

And the Wattle-bough blooms on the hill.” [4]

But the “Bush” could be a reality for any who chose to mentally explore as does Cuthbertson “down the shadowy reaches” [5] or to commune with those dreaming urbanites like Paterson:

“And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle,

Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street”[6]

The Bush was a romantic almost fantasy world populated by strong, adventurous men on horseback as they battled “drought and flooding rains”[7]

Many ballads are set to a rhythm of galloping horses painting scenes of courageous action:

“He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,

He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,

And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat –

It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride” [8]

Bush ballads used common words, were couched in simple rhymes and had little of classical reference.

Many poets expressed a perception of embryonic nationalism, a sense of being a new type of man removed from the constraints of his origins in Britain.  This ethos became popular towards the end of the nineteenth century as the federation of the Colonies into a Commonwealth became a reality.

The early poets came to this new Eden, a virtual paradise where every bird, animal, plant and indigenous peoples were completely unknown to them. Of course issues surrounding colonisation and the treatment of the Aborigine inevitably underpin any present day consideration of Bush poetry but as a young boy growing up I devoured the balladists appreciation of endless beaches, vast forests, deserts, mountains and plains. It was these Australian poets who taught me how to see.  When walking the shores of my youth, I learned from Kendall of:

“The silver-voiced bell-birds, the darlings of day-time,

They sing in September their songs of the May-time”[9]

In this poem he spoke of the different seasons in the South, “their songs of the May-time”, a reference to “Home”, that mythical ancestral Camelot set in England ten thousand miles and six months away.

Unbeknownst to me during those periods of reciting poetry by heart my perception of the nature of things was being enhanced giving me another depth and dimension of emotion.  It was May 1942. I was nine years old, the Battle of the Coral Sea, the war had come to Australia.  One morning I was sitting on a cliff overlooking the river that bounded my home engrossed with the  precision of two sea-eagles gliding in intersecting circles looking for quarry in the waters below when a flash of light drew my attention to squadrons of “War-birds”, fighters and bombers, marshalling in the sky above.  The aircraft came from the safe havens of airfields within a twenty mile radius of my home.  Those Kittyhawks, Hudsons and Beaufighters were freshly camouflaged in jungle green, dressed for their new role in the Pacific.  All were flying to the bases on our northern shores to fight the Enemy.  The analogy of these predators, these birds of prey, was not lost to me. But it was the pilots in their cockpits, new versions of my heroic horsemen, that I longed to join, to emulate and march to war accompanied by the familiar strains of Waltzing Matilda. [10]

Even today Lawson’s words:

“’tis Australia that knows, that her children shall fight while the Waratah grows,

And the Wattle blooms out on the hill”[11] are still ringing in my ears.

Adam Lindsay Gordon’s[12] “Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes” was published at the time of his death in 1870.  He is the only Australian poet whose bust stands in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. His poem, “The Swimmer” became a libretto for a work by Elgar. As he died on that beach his thoughts may have been with horses, those horses of his steeple chasing years:

“Oh! brave white horses! you gather and gallop,

The storm sprite loosens the gusty reins ;

Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop

In your hollow backs, on your high arched manes.”

In her Christmas speech of 1992  Queen Elizabeth quoted from his works:”Kindness in another’s trouble, Courage in one’s own..” but failed to acknowledge the author.

Some of my ancestors came to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788 and it was these European pioneers who carved out our modern civilization. Hudson paints a picture of men at work in the forests to which I relate for all are similar to so many photographs in my family albums.

“Our axes rang in the woodlands,

Where the gaudy bush-birds flew,

And we turned the loam of our new-found home,

Where the eucalyptus grew.”

Sometimes, when looking at my grandchildren, I think as he did:

“Take now the fruit of our labour,

Nourish and guard it with care,

For our youth is spent, and our backs are bent.

And the snow is on our hair.”[13]

when I consider my own mortality

That our nation was forged with unequalled endurance is unquestioned; that our children will grow with the wisdom instilled by learning poetry by heart that has stood me in good stead is arguable but initiatives like the UK’s Poetry By Heart suggest a new generation might once again engage with a very old idea.

To conclude with Australian memories it was a woman, Maybanke Anderson, who penned a stirring testimony to Australian men:

”A sturdy gift was the Ironbark

To the men who built Australia.

Walls and roof for the homes they made,

While the billy boiled and the children played,

Rest and peace in the leafy shade,

Love of the gum tree ne’er shall fade

From the mem’ry of Australia.” [14]

References

[1] John O’Brien 1878-1952 Said Hanrahan.

[2] Henry Lawson 1877-1922 Ballad of the Drover.

[3] Dorothea MacKellar 1885-1968 My Country.

[4] Henry Lawson Waratah and Wattle.

[5] James Lister Cuthbertson  1893 The Australian Sunrise.

[6] “Banjo” Paterson 1864-1941 Clancy of the Overflow.

[7] Dorothea Mackellar 1885–1968 My Country.

[8] “Banjo” Paterson The Man from Snowy River.

[9] Henry Kendall 1839-1882  Bell Birds.

[10] A B “Banjo” Paterson 1895 Waltzing Matilda.

[11] Henry Lawson  Waratah and Wattle.

[12] Adam Lindsay Gordon 1870 Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes.

[13] Frank Hudson  “Pioneers” The Songs of Manly Man and other Verses”, London 1908.

[14] Maybanke Anderson 1845-1927  To the Iron Bark.

PBH Al About the author: Al McKay was born on a farm in a remote part of Tasmania 82 years ago. His tertiary education was in  Sydney and London.  Primarily he is an eye surgeon and lecturer but concurrently has followed careers as an officer and consultant to the RAAF, a cattle farmer, a landscape gardener and a yachtsman whilst still finding time to write.

He has written memoirs on surgical technology and of his youth serving as an infantryman.He has authored and produced a surgical DVD. He has had the same wife for almost 60 years.  Little would have been achieved without her.

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Contemporary Approaches to Poetry

21st October 2015

Image from 'I Amir' by Nisha Bhakoo

Image from ‘I Amir’ by Nisha Bhakoo

Writer and video artist Nisha Bhakoo explores her own response to poetry as both reader and writer.

 

I believe that honesty and courage are the most important things when writing poetry and that is probably true as regards the act of taking a poem to your heart and sharing it with others. It’s hard when you are first starting out as a poet because it’s natural to feel insecure about your work and to attempt to write like other poets. When I first started writing poetry, I spent a lot of time thinking about impressive words that I could slot into my poems. It was completely forced and I didn’t recognise myself in any of the work. I think that with time you understand that for a poem to work, you can’t write it for anybody but yourself. You have to write it in your own unique language and write about things that matter to you. Don’t worry about how others will respond to it; write about something that you would like to read. Every writer plays with language, form, imagery, and rhythm in different ways – the diversity of voices keeps poetry interesting and relevant.

You need courage as a writer because you are opening yourself up to scrutiny. Even the act of pursuing a career in writing is a courageous one because there are people who for all kinds of reasons will try to discourage you. I’m not saying that writing isn’t an insecure career, it is! You still need to make money and you will have to make many sacrifices, but in my opinion, it’s worth it. I have done everything from working at the council to teaching English to German kids to pay the bills, and I will continue to find ways whereby I can support my career. You have to be creative with that also.

The reader has to have courage and honesty as well. Your interpretation and opinion of a poem is worth a lot, and you don’t have to share the same interpretation as a critic, your teacher, or even the poet! Like music, there are no wrong or right answers in poetry. I think that one of the many reasons people are put off poetry is because they’re scared that they will get it wrong. Michael Rosen recently tweeted “Poets don’t know all the meanings of their poems. All the meanings of the poems are made by the poet and the readers”. I couldn’t agree more. The poet doesn’t seal the poem down after she’s finished writing it – it’s very much a two way street.

I have found that the people who harp on about poetry being dead usually haven’t read any poetry from the last few decades. There are so many exciting things going on with poetry at the moment. I’m especially enjoying the work of Emily Berry http://www.emilyberry.co.uk/ and Richard Siken http://www.richardsiken.com/. You have probably heard of them but if not Google them right away!

The Poetry By Heart competition is a fantastic way of getting young people into poetry. It shakes off the tired stereotypes of poetry being dull and only for the older generation. Through the competition, the young person reflects on the poem and recites it in a way that makes sense to them. This requires both honesty and courage because when you recite a poem by heart, there is no barrier between you and the audience. I’m sure this is an exhilarating experience and it is definitely a dynamic introduction to poetry.

Many contemporary poets have started using performance, sound and film in their work and it’s inspiring to see all the new ways that people are choosing to share their poems.

I decided to attempt to make a short poetry film last year. I have a passionate interest in video art, especially the work of Bill Viola and Gretchen Bender, so it seemed like a natural and rewarding thing to do. Through the B3 Media Talent Lab scheme, I managed to get some funding for the film. It’s called “I, Amir”, and it is an uncanny look at technology and identity. I didn’t write the poem specifically for the film. I chose it for “I, Amir” because it addressed the psychoanalytical themes that I wanted to explore. I don’t feel that the film enhances the poem but it does offer up something new to think about. Seeing poetry off the page also makes you question what poetry really is.

Poetry films and performance can also make poetry more accessible and draw in non-traditional audiences, which is fantastic because I think poetry is for everybody. This is why I think the Poetry By Heart competition is so powerful because it involves the young person and makes them an active participant.

I don’t think that poetry performance and films threatens the word on the page. I will always read poetry books because I enjoy reading poems at my own pace, being alone with them, and seeing their form on paper. I know that a lot of people out there don’t own or read poetry books but poetry is still part of their everyday life. Everyone from the hip hop fan to the headline writer at your local paper has a relationship with poetry. Poetry comes in many guises from a diversity of voices – it just isn’t always labelled as poetry.

 

Photo: Chris Schulz

Photo: Chris Schulz

About the author: Nisha Bhakoo is a writer and video artist. Her poetry has appeared in Poems in Which (Issue 8), Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Cadaverine, and Morphrog 11, and she is featured in the upcoming Mildly Erotic Verse by The Emma Press. She was shortlisted for Cambridge University’s Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2015, and selected for the GlogauAIR artist residency scheme, Berlin, in 2015. She has performed her work at a variety of venues in the UK and Germany. Her poetry film “I, Amir” (supported by B3 Media) will be exhibited at Rich Mix, London, from 24 Nov. to 5 Dec. 2015. You can find out more here: http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/event/i-amir-by-nisha-bhakoo/

 

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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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Poetry Comics

24th June 2015

 

Image courtesy of paulktunis.com

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Poems for Comparing

7th June 2015

 

When I was Head of an English Department at a sixth form college in Sussex back in the 1990s we developed what we called an ‘induction unit’ for students choosing to do English Literature A level with us. From September to November we introduced Year 12 groups to a very wide range of authors and genres offering, we hoped, a veritable smorgasbord of stimulating literature. It was fun to create and to adapt each year and once our new students got over the shock of being told, ‘Don’t worry about the set texts yet…’ they seemed to enjoy the induction unit too!

 

We wanted to avoid anything resembling a set text like I avoid red kidney beans after experiencing a severe case of food poisoning from an insufficiently cooked batch of the red devils many years ago. We did not want to launch in to a detailed analysis of whatever Jane Austen was on the specification that year much as we all loved her novels. No, we wanted to work on generic skills to do with reading texts and writing cogently about them through work on as many different styles of literature as we could effectively pack in to eight weeks.

Of course as the narrator in L.P. Hartley’s ‘The Go Between’ wearily states, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Today such reckless disregard for the prescribed texts on a specification would probably lead to disciplinary procedures but of course all of us who have ever taught English know and promote in all kinds of ways the value of ‘wider reading’ as a way of enriching the taught and assessed curriculum.

For Poetry by Heart team members it has been very rewarding to hear from teachers about how they are using our freely available online poetry anthology. We have heard not only from those whose students are actually participating in the competition but also those using the collection of 206 poems and 63 First World War poems as a valuable classroom resource without necessarily entering the competition. Making use of the anthology to encourage wider reading and to allow the honing of ‘English’ skills is often mentioned in the feedback we receive.

One demanding element within pre and post 16 English specifications concerns the requirement to compare texts. In the build up to the start of teaching the new GCSE specifications in English there has been much debate about the requirement for students to study at least fifteen poems and to show understanding of the relationships between texts. In A level over many years the importance of making comparisons and seeing connections between texts has been stressed in assessment objectives.

So, all this thinking about wider reading and comparing texts led me to consider what poems I might put alongside some of my favourites in the Poetry By Heart anthology to encourage the development of those generic ‘comparing’ skills that are valued so highly.

Below are 6 suggestions with the (A) poem taken from the Poetry By Heart anthology and the (B) poem chosen from outside our anthology. Some are challenging and some more straightforward. Some might suit a little summer holiday wider reading assignment for Year 9 or 8 before the onset of GCSE and some might suit Year 11 or 12. All the (A) poems are of course available at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk whilst the (B) poems are easily accessible at various sites like www.poemhunter.com

1)      (A) ‘The Soldier’ Rupert Brooke and (B) ‘Drummer Hodge’ Thomas Hardy.

This is a popular pairing and one that has cropped up on many an exam paper over the years but it’s a good one. Brooke’s soldier’s death produces a ‘…corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’ whereas Drummer Hodge’s body lifeless after a Boer War battle is absorbed in to the South African landscape. ‘Yet portion of that unknown plain/Will Hodge for ever be.’

2)      (A)’Ae fond kiss and then we sever’ Robert Burns  (B) ‘Since there’s no help come let us kiss and part’ Michael Drayton.

Two moving poems about love and loss and in Drayton’s case lingering hope.

3)      (A) ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ William Blake  (B) ‘The Sluggard’ 1715 Isaac Watts

Taken from his collection ‘Divine Songs’, Watts’ poem is an example of the kind of morally uplifting and ‘improving’ verse that remained very popular for many years after its publication. Blake’s poem of course is much more morally ambiguous and challenging whilst seeming to adopt the conventions of eighteenth century poems for children.

4)      (A) ‘On the Death of Robert Levet’ Samuel Johnson (B) An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell’ John Dryden.

Different approaches in style and tone to commemorating the sadly departed.

5)      (A) ‘You are old father William’ Lewis Carroll (B) ‘The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them.’ Robert Southey.

Lewis Carroll’s famous poem from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and the poem by Southey that it so amusingly parodies

6)      (A) ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Night’ The Gawain Poet  (B) ‘Piers Plowman’ Lines 1 to 21 William Langland.(A pairing for Year 12 perhaps?)

Sir Gawain is a favourite amongst the Poetry By Heart team as it reminds us of the remarkable winning recitation of the poem by our first champion Kaiti Soultana in 2013. You can see her recitation here: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight/ Comparing these two magnificent middle English alliterative poems would encourage the appreciation of sound effects and the texture of words and would really draw attention to the acoustic quality of verse. The opening 21 lines of ‘Piers Plowman’ show the start of a spiritual journey just as Gawain is journeying in his poem:

‘In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,

I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,

In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,

Wente wide in this world wondres to here.’  (‘Piers Plowman’ The Prologue – lines 1 to 4)

 

What poems would you choose to pair with poems from the Poetry By Heart anthology? It would be great to hear from you.

Mike Dixon is a former Head of English and former Head of a sixth form college on the south coast. He is now an education consultant and delighted to have been part of the Poetry By Heart team since the launch of the project in 2012. mike.dixon@poetrybyheart.org.uk

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International Dylan Thomas Day

12th May 2015

Dylan Thomas – Writing Shed Laugharne. Image Courtesy of Heather Cowper www.heatheronhertravels

A very popular choice this year in the post 1914 section of the Poetry By Heart anthology was Dylan Thomas’ 1934 poem, ‘The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower’ http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-force-that-through-the-green-fuse-drives-the-flower/ Our evaluation of the 2015 competition suggests that this poem was comfortably in the top quartile of poems selected for recitation. As we approach the first ever international Dylan Thomas Day, poet Martin Daws offers some thoughts on the enduring popularity of Thomas’ verse. Martin writes:

 

Few modern poets are so widely known as Thomas, or so widely liked and even fewer are so pleasurable to read out loud.

Let’s look at the fourth line of Thomas’ verse play, ‘Under Milk Wood’ in which he speaks of the wood limping down to the:

‘sloeblack, slow, black, crow black, fishingboatbobbing sea’

What a line to memorise and read out loud! It’s a nursery wall of word plays, repetitions, alliterations, internal rhymes, surprise punctuation book-ending unexpected word mergers that combine to create a rising, effervescent music that swells like the sea it describes. This is one fun line of poetery. I can imagine him smiling when he read back over it, rolling it round his mouth, savouring it, like a vintner, taking a craftsman’s pleasure as he sculpted it in to the baritones of his famously resonant reciting voice.

This is spoken word poetry at its best combining the intimate eye of the writer with the lyrical ear of the musician: the two become one in the mouth of the poet or the actor. Many people will know Richard Burton’s famous performance of ‘Under Milk Wood’. You can hear the opening section here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2a6zCR-ycs

Together the poetry and voice combine in a euphonic South Walian symphony of slow drawn warmth inducing a dream like lucidity. This is where word meaning and word sound intersect to make more than their respective parts. This is where poetry comes to life for me; where I find my feeling in it.

A little personal theory with a touch of poetic licence: words are abstract, right?  The word ‘chair’ isn’t a chair – it’s an abstract representation that we understand means a chair. When we hear the word ‘chair’ we perceive it as both an abstract but also a sound and the sound carries its own set of meanings – is it loud, quiet, gentle, angry? Okay, chair is a very neutral word and it’s hard to imagine a ‘chair like’ sound but compare that to the potential in a word like ‘slow’.

The part of Dylan Thomas’ poetry that I respond to best is his exceptional ability to create a fusion of word sounds and their meanings which at its best creates new, holistic word meaning infused with musical feeling; that’s where the poetry is.

About the author:

Performance poet Martin Daws was appointed Young People’s Laureate for Wales in April 2013. Currently very active in this role, Martin works across Wales to engage and inspire young people to empower themselves through their creativity. As Young People’s Laureate Martin also represents Wales internationally; creating partnerships and sharing skills with other socially engaged poetry organisations and practitioners around the world.

For more information about Martin visit: http://www.martindaws.com/

 

 

 

Blog editor Mike Dixon from Poetry By Heart adds:

Literature Wales have provided with us with further information about International Dylan Thomas day and the range of exciting events taking place in May including activities aimed at young people..

All over the UK, online, and from New York, Brussels, New Zealand and Italy people will be celebrating the magic of Thomas’ poetry through a series of walks, talks, readings and exhibitions.

Cerys Matthews MBE, Welsh singer, songwriter, author and broadcaster says: “I’ve enjoyed celebrating Burns Night over the years and often wanted to celebrate Dylan Thomas in the same way – at last there is a date in the diary for Dylan Day. Why not raise a glass to this little great man every year on 14 May and enjoy the chance to savour the brilliance of his work by reading out excerpts and throwing a party, wherever you are!”

How to get involved in the celebrations?

If you are aged between 7 and 25 years old you can submit up to four lines of poetry (in English or Welsh) inspired by the theme ‘our community’ to Dylan’s Great Poem – an international appeal to create a new 100 line–bilingual poem inspired by Thomas’ words.  To submit visit www.developingdylan100.co.uk. The new poem will be revealed on 19th May, and performed live at the Hay Festival.

Get involved on Twitter by taking a photo of yourself reading Dylan in unusual places using the hashtag #DylanSelfie

Take part in one of the many events, walks, readings taking place, including:

‘Take away poems’ by Martin Daws, Young People’s Laureate of Wales, from the Dylan Thomas Writing Shed outside the St David’s Centre in Cardiff on 14 May

The first public display of Dylan Thomas’ notebook at Swansea University.  Bought by the University in 2014 for £104,500

An opportunity to listen to recordings of Dylan’s work from the audio archive of 92Y in New York – the 2014 reading of Under Milk Wood starring Michael Sheen and Kate Burton, and an excerpt from the 1953 premiere, with Thomas himself in the cast. www.92y.org/dylanday

Oxford ‘Walk on the Welsh Side’

Literary Pub Tour in Fitzrovia, London

‘A Dylan Odyssey’ – a collection of Thomas-inspired literary tours will be published by Graffeg.

To find out more about all the events taking place visit www.literaturewales.org.uk/dylan-day/

International Dylan Thomas Day is organised by Literature Wales and funded by the Welsh Government

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

11th April 2015

Lucy Cavendish College Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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First Lines

31st March 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Poetry by Heart 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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