Poetry By Heart Blog

Poetry By Foot

18th March 2021

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

4th March 2021

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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