Poetry By Heart Blog

Female poets of the First World War

16th February 2021

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

You can also find and follow Lucy on Twitter

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

4th February 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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


 

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

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