1st December 2021
In this week’s blogpost, UEA teacher educator Vicky Christoforatou shares the story of her personal journey in learning poems by heart, starting in Year 1 of a primary school in Greece and leading to Poetry By Heart in Norfolk. If you have a poems by heart journey to share with us, we’d love to hear from you!
One of my earliest school memories was a poetry recital as part of a whole school assembly on the theme of nature. There were 20 of us in Year 1 (6-7 years old) and we were each allocated a different but thematically linked poem. My poem was ‘The Little River’ by Zacharias Papantoniou, a prolific early 20th century writer whose work celebrated the language of the people as opposed to standard Greek. The poem is a simple dialogue between a young persona and a playful little river in regular rhyme and question-answer structure – not that any of that mattered to my Year 1 self! I loved playing the part of the little river while my mum asked the questions helping me rehearse at home. Standing in front of the big mirror in our living room I practiced different voices, expressions, gestures demanding an engaged audience (any adult in the room) and feedback on the preferred performance. ‘The Little River’ has stayed with me and I taught it to my daughter when she was younger as we strolled along River Wensum in Norwich.
Learning poems by heart was part of our everyday experience in class and not just an activity for special occasions. We practiced choral readings with our teacher and our homework was routinely to memorise a stanza or a whole poem to be delivered in front of the class the following day. Progressing to high school, I learned more complex poems; free verse, longer epic poems and poems set to music. The words, the lines, the stanzas are still with me like a personal anthology. Recently, my current PGCE cohort asked me to contribute a poem to their anthology celebrating National Poetry Day. The theme was choice. I chose Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy; a poem that taught me not to be afraid and to enjoy the journey. I have no recollection of analysing poems in class; we never annotated the features, but we learned the different meters; we never wrote critically about the poems but sometimes drafted our own poems, changed the poems into other forms and talked about the ideas. Every time I came across a new poem, I would size it up; a product to be consumed, not analysed. How long? Does it rhyme? Can I hear the rhythm? Can I see the images? All of these would help me memorise it and make it my own.
By the time I took the module Introduction to British Poetry as an undergraduate of English Language and Literature at the University of Athens, I considered myself an expert on poetry; just because I had read and remembered so many poems (although none in English). During those early encounters with literary criticism and analysis, I did not feel overwhelmed. It seemed logical that there are different ways to analyse a poem as there as different ways to perform and recite a poem. When faced with an abundance of poetic terms, I was not confused; I had a bank of poetry under my skin to give flesh to the labels.
When I started teaching English in South East London, September 2000, my relationship with poetry was shaken. I struggled to plan lesson and activities that would produce effective analytical paragraphs written by my students. Matching the tasks to the assessment criteria felt like wearing ill-fitting clothes, uncomfortable and restrictive. It must have been around 2014 , a chance discovery of this competition –Poetry By Heart- giving me license to give the poems back to my students, hear their voices while allowing them to develop their own anthologies, their own journeys, and interpretations. At first, it was not about entering the competition; it was about validation and the freedom to recite poems in class, with the class.
Poetry by Heart brought poetry home for me…