Poetry By Heart Blog

Kickstart Poetry By Heart on National Poetry Day

5th October 2021

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

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

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





NPD KS3, 4 +5

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

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

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

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

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


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What Poetry Means To Us

23rd September 2021

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


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

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

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

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


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

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Poetry By Heart Finalists Celebration 2021 – The Movie!

10th September 2021

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

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



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

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

22nd July 2021

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Poetry By Heart 2020-21 – competition review

9th July 2021

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

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Competition formats

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

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

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

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

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


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

Number of competition entries

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

Judging with feedback

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

Poem choices

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

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


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


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


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

 Finalists’ Celebration Event

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

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

24th June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ELSA Poetry by Heart 2021 – France

11th June 2021

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


ELSA logo 2


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

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

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

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

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

And now, here are the winners…


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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Voices Together

28th May 2021

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

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

Maya Angelou, poet and author

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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‘Togetherness and Unity’ – the Unsworth Academy Showcase poem

13th May 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

For or more information please visit    Oliver James Lomax • Home

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

13th May 2021

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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A light in the dark…

29th April 2021

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


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

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

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


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



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


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

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

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


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



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







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The Pandemic, Poetry and Healing

15th April 2021

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


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

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

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

Trauma: what is it?

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

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

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


Healing Trauma with Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Poetry By Foot

18th March 2021

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

4th March 2021

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Female poets of the First World War

16th February 2021

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

You can also find and follow Lucy on Twitter

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

4th February 2021

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



David Whitley is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. He led the 3-year Leverhulme Trust funded Poetry and Memory research project, an interdisciplinary enquiry into the value and experience of poetry in the memory, and examining the relationship between memorisation and understanding.  He has an interest in poetry that has deepened throughout his lifetime.


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

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Love, actually – Valentine’s Day 2021

21st January 2021

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


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

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

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


Friends and Family

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

Valerie Bloom, ‘Granny Is’
Granny is

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

Ted Hughes, ‘Cat’,
You need your Cat

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

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

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


Classic love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Modern love

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

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

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

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

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

Edwin Morgan, ‘Strawberries’
There were never strawberries

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


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Poetry Screen with the Poetry Archive

7th January 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiona Meadley, info@poetryscreen.uk

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