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Poetry By Heart Blog

The most accessible literature

26th May 2022

I have always loved the accessibility and escapism that poetry can provide but in my teens, when I felt like I needed to escape the most, it was not the first thing that sprang to mind. Somewhere along the line, I had fallen out of love with poetry. I had developed misunderstandings of inaccessibility that were nothing to do with the words on the page. I felt that my own voice had become a distant whisper, but I found myself again through the words of others.

There is safety in poetry; we apply our own identity to those words that someone else has gifted to us. There is something rebellious in interpretation—these words on this page can mean whatever we interpret them to mean: they belong to us and through these patterns, noises, words—our entire existence is intertwined, and we are connected to something greater than ourselves. The idea that my own words could form that connection with someone else—for someone else, was liberating and unifying.

Poetry is the most accessible literature: for the best and worst moments of our lives, there are words expressing the inexpressible. Across so many cultures, spoken word and food have united people, offering the sharing of experiences. What better pairing could there be than poetry and pancakes? And so the idea for our showcase entries was born.

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We selected students who can be quite hard to reach. Students who we knew would shine if only they’d give it a chance. Students who, for a range of reasons, had fallen out of love with poetry or performance or both. Excellent, passionate voices, extinguished by masks and lockdowns and years of uncertainty.

We selected a small cohort of students from year 9 and year 10 to come along and have a go. We headed to the food technology department and made fluffy American pancakes while reciting Christina Rossetti’s ‘Mix A Pancake’. This poem of just 22 words was easy for the students to learn. Reminding them of their capabilities. The rhythm of the poem meant that they could recite it together easily while multi-tasking or brave reciting parts alone. Some of the students even showed us a few of their best pancake-flipping-squirty-cream-catching skills. One of the most insightful things for us was how different both recitals were, which really demonstrates the versatility of poetry and the subjectivity of interpretation. Each student used their creative license to explore the words, performance and of course…pancakes.

It is not always about what we say, but about being heard. Valued. This was not only a great bonding experience for all involved, but a brilliant cross-curricular experience…maybe all poems should be accompanied by a delicious snack.

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Robyn Gardiner is a teacher of English Language and Literature at The Queen Katherine School in Cumbria. She has a comprehensive background in inclusion with a particular interest in educational social justice.

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Learning ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden – by heart

13th May 2022

Wendy MacKenzie-Ingle is a 60 year old English Teaching Assistant at Dartford Grammar School for Girls and a big fan of Poetry by Heart. She enjoyed organising bigger and bigger competitions in-school to select Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 winners every year until COVID struck.
Wendy has always avoided the Staff competition but this year accepted the challenge and set to learning a short poem. She says that ‘the experience has taught me a great deal about what the students have been doing all these years! I feel proud of getting the poem I learnt by heart and have found it extraordinary to spend much longer than usual with one poem. I am determined now to try a longer poem as I can see that, even as we get older, the brain finds its own way to hold onto poetry.’

This poem is inspired by ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden.


 

 

what did I know
of the effort involved
of the physical pain
of not remembering?

what did I know
of what youngsters do
of their plastic brains
of my declining cells?

what did I know
of of and to and and
of those small words
of how they trip up?

what did I know
of the ways to learn a line
of how to tame the words
of how to get inside the poem?

what did I know
of rhythm of beats
of walking in time to the words
of learning a way to learn?

what did I know
of the magical power of Sundays
of blueblack cold and cracked hands
of the poem getting hold of me?
what did I know
of the joy the satisfaction
of the sense of growing
of my heart swelling?

what did I know
after years of encouraging others to do this wonderful, life-changing thing?
what did I know?


 

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Close Reading

4th March 2022

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much we generally miss out when we read for meaning. And about what it is that can make a poem come alive for you, make you care about its details and feel connected to it. Memorising and reciting are brilliant ways to ensure that you don’t miss things out, because you have to get all the words active inside you – and in the right order (unlike Eric Morecambe’s famous line to André Previn about musical notes!). I’d like to share an example of this from my own recent experience, which I found revealing in a range of ways that connect with Poetry By Heart.

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I’ve long loved Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. It’s about feelings of vulnerability as you get older and are more in touch with dying (not that cheery sounding, I know). Like most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poem is addressed specifically to a much younger man who the poet/speaker loves passionately. The age gap between them makes the speaker’s feelings of vulnerability come into focus with particular vividness and intensity. Here’s the sonnet, if you are not familiar with it –

That time of year thou mays’t in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs that shake against the cold;
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self that ties up all in rest.

In me though see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed by that which it was nourished by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

It’s the imagery – lovely and sad, bordering on bleak at times – that makes the poem work, and it was one of my favourite poems even when I was younger, mercifully not thinking about mortality that much. It was only recently that I tried to learn it properly by heart, though, and something extraordinary, that I’d never noticed before, began to come into focus for me about the way the imagery works. Aristotle famously said that in poetry, ‘the greatest thing by far is to be master of the metaphor.’ (Poetics) What I came to realise about this poem, though, was that Shakespeare, instead of performing his consummate mastery of the metaphor in any straightforward way, actually hesitates over how he is going to work the imagery – to the extent that he almost seems to risk losing control.

It was the second line of the poem that brought this sharply into focus for me when I tried to learn it by heart. In setting up a metaphor for his time of life quite traditionally in relation to the seasons, the speaker suddenly starts to go all wobbly about it.  The speaker’s ‘time of life’ is presented as equivalent to the moment when ‘yellow leaves, or none, or few’ hang on the trees’ boughs. This seemed fine to me when I was skipping past the line, reading for its general sense. But when I started to learn it by heart, I began to think ‘Well – which is it, Will?’ The ephemeral glory of autumn’s last show of colour which tourists flock to New England to see in the fall? Or a diminished version of this, when many of the leaves have been stripped away by the wind? Or the stark imagery of life in full retreat, when the branches are laid completely bare? It’s as if Shakespeare is aware not only of the metaphor’s power to develop thought in a uniquely evocative form, but also of where it acquires an energy of its own, breaking in different directions.

Robert Frost has an interesting theory about poetry generating awareness of the limits of metaphorical thought that may provide a useful insight into what I think is happening here. Frost believed that metaphorical thinking underlies nearly all forms of human cognition, including science. However, poetry, he thought, can help navigate such territory more discriminatingly. He wrote that –

‘unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values; you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and in its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.’
(‘Education by Poetry’)

This is ultimately the most important thing that poetry teaches us, for Frost. It offers a kind of training ground in judging how far one should travel along a metaphorical strand of thought before it starts to break down and becomes less useful – or even dangerous.

Is Shakespeare aware of what his metaphor’s limits are here, in the way Frost suggests, perhaps? He doesn’t seem to want to ‘ride’ the metaphor straightforwardly to its logical conclusion, but instead allows the image to break, like a river’s flow, in a number of different directions. Perhaps the metaphor doesn’t – or can’t – convey the full actuality of the speaker’s situation and feelings? Or is it fuller than the prosaic version of an actual moment and situation? Perhaps all metaphors encompass potentialities – worlds within worlds – in the same way that quantum physics has taught us that matter is indeterminable when we try to calibrate its movement and mass at the level of the smallest particle.

Before learning it by heart, I had read through the line about the yellow leaves repeatedly without noticing that there was anything unusual about it. I saw the various renderings of the image as all more or less the same – details piled on to give a more concrete sense of the wintry scene – rather than noting anything that made me more curious. But when you learn a poem by heart you have to get the precise sequence of words and images right. Do ‘few’ leaves come before ‘none’ – as they should do if the line were simply a progression along a timeline of diminishing life – or afterwards? Although the metre would be exactly the same, the line would be a lot smoother – and perhaps easier to remember? – if ‘few’ were switched with ‘none’ in a mathematically straightforward sequence. Instead Shakespeare deliberately makes the line more disruptive. Trying to fix the line in your memory, you realise that the illogical positioning of the sequence is a kind of clue, alerting you to something that may be more important – and odd – than you first thought. The wobble is indicative of a deeper level of uncertainty, I think, as Shakespeare hesitates over the adequacy of his metaphor to convey the range of potential feelings and situations involved.

Perhaps this relates most strongly to anxiety about what quality of passion and what enduring love you can retain as you approach death? Will the sap of the speaker’s strong emotions sink low as he approaches the end of his life? The image of trees stripped bare of all leaves suggests this possibility. Or will his fading vitality produce an extraordinary last burst of intense colour, as in the display of autumn’s yellow leaves? Or something in between? Projecting forwards entails uncertainty, which the instability of the metaphors encompass. The next two quatrains in the sonnet complete this process, each developing a new metaphor for the speaker’s feelings about his ageing body, as though the previous image didn’t quite cut it. First, the opening image of trees is substituted for the metaphor of afterglow, just after sunset: the light sustaining life at its most ephemeral edge before darkness takes over. Then this too gives way to the glowing embers of a fire, ‘that on the ashes of his youth doth lie’. It is as though the poem is testing out possibilities of the form in which a consuming passion may still be present as death approaches. It’s refusal to settle is also a commitment to inhabiting the potentialities of life and love as dynamic, incapable of being fixed in time, always subject to change.

We are – all of us – imperfect readers. We read selectively, moving on when we think we have grasped the sense, locking onto what we need at that moment, just as we only perceive a fraction of what is actually around us at any point in time. Memorising can bring us closer to a complete experience of the poem itself, however, as opposed to the interpretation or meanings we have abstracted from it. This is still an interaction, of course – a creative, two-way process in which we bring our own experience to the encounter and make the poem our own inside ourselves. But it is the whole poem. And the slow, chewed over, and many times repeated ritual of getting by heart all the words in sequence brings the poem into focus in its entirety. If this is not done purely by rote, we are likely then to become attentive to things we’d never noticed before. And, perhaps most importantly, we become closer to the poem. As Robert Frost (yes, him again) also observed, ‘[T]he closeness, everything depends upon the closeness with which you come [to the encounter]’. It’s this closeness which is the fundamental element in our relationship to poetry, he thought: it can yield insights worth more than all the strained, foolish – and even clever – things we can say and think without it.

 

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

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Poetry By Heart Goes Global

3rd February 2022

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For a long time we’ve had schools beyond England enquiring about taking part but the world is a very big place and we’ve been thinking about how best to respond in a meaningful way. In recent years, we’ve supported the English Language Schools Association in France in running a Poetry By Heart France competition, and we helped Talk The Poem in Jamaica to set up their competition too. And we maintain friendly relations with our colleagues in the USA, Canada and Ireland who run similar competitions too.

But at last we’ve decided the best way to find out how to run a Poetry By Heart international competition is to start with a small-scale pilot this year and to work closely with a modest number of schools on the future design. So, if you teach in a school that is not in England, or if you have a partner school elsewhere in the world, or if you have friends, colleagues and family who teach in other countries, get in touch at info@poetrybyheart.org.uk to find out more about the pilot. We’d love to talk to you! This is your chance to shape what happens!
The international pilot competition will offer…

· bespoke support by email, phone and Zoom to help you and your colleagues to develop Poetry By Heart in your school

· access to our online Poetry Forums (we’ll figure out the timezones as we go!) to meet and share ideas with the PBH team and other PBH teachers

· a digital copy of our 2021-2022 poem-a-month calendar with monthly learn-a-poem challenges to help you get pupils started

· access to the 2022 competition kit with downloadable certificates, fun Zoom backgrounds (in case you’re teaching online at any point), launch slides and learn-along poem resources

· open access to all the poem collections on the website, for use in the competition as well as for other teaching and learning purposes

· access to the online competition entry system for easy video upload of your winning performances by the deadline of midnight on 30th April 2022

· up to 12 pupil entries in total in the Classic competition category, up to 3 per eligible Key Stage.

Every pupil correctly entered will receive a digital certificate. A number of finalists in each key stage will be given individual feedback about their performances and invited to polish and resubmit them (if they want to) for our final judging panel of top poets whose task will be to select a Poetry By Heart International champion in each key stage. In this pilot phase we will work with participating schools to explore the most realistic options for celebrating these champions.

The Poetry By Heart international competition pilot does not include countries that already have equivalent competitions such as Ireland, France, Canada, Jamaica and the USA. However if you’re teaching in those countries we’ll be very happy to link you up with your national competition so you can take part there.

We’d love you to take part in the Poetry By Heart international pilot competition. Can we count you in?

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Carrying poetry with you

6th January 2022

Through working for Poetry By Heart, Tom Boughen tells us he’s grown to better understand the legacy of poetry memorisation in schools, and the effort to provide better resources for teachers and students to engage with.

Many older people have memories of learning poetry by rote in class. The spectrum of personal experience means those memories can easily be accompanied by a nostalgic smile or a painful shudder. There is such an enormous disparity between people’s personal experiences of poetry memorisation in schools, depending on resources, teacher preparedness, the suitability of the poems or the age when you first attempted it. It is almost a roulette-spin between the most inspirational moments of one’s education, or some of the dreariest and most disengaging.

It was one of those November evenings when night creeps up at four o’clock. Over dinner with my grandad at my parents’ house, the subject of poetry memorisation reared its head. I’d never given much thought to my family’s own experiences of it. With no prompt from me, my grandad, ninety-five years old that October, freely recited the first two stanzas of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W.B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

Remarkably the only thing he forgot was the poet and poem title. When reminded of the poet’s name he exclaimed “that was it, Yeats!” like remembering an old friend. His ability to recite the poem wasn’t based on the visual. He hadn’t seen the written form of it for many years. It was a poem that he learned by rote at fourteen, coinciding with the outbreak of the Second World War, and was able to recite at a dinner table over eight decades later.

‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is the only poem he remembers from that class of over thirty students, in which poems were recited en masse. Occasionally a student was required to stand up in front of everyone to recite alone, with the implied threat that if you forgot any of the words, you would be required to do this again and again until you did remember.

Victorian narrative poems and ballads were the trend of the late 1930s and early 1940s schoolroom. My grandad recalls staid, sedate lessons where he studied ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ by Matthew Arnold and ‘The Lady of Shalott’ by Tennyson. He would have liked to do ‘The Charge of The Light Brigade’ – battles and certain-death glory seem to have appealed to him more than lyrical romanticism – but he never had the opportunity. He has one of his old exam papers from the time, showing the significance of Victorian narrative poetry, even in 1940.

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His eyes light up when remembering Shakespeare. In comparison to learning poetry by rote as a whole class, with Shakespeare each student was assigned a specific speaking part, and encouraged to bring a more creative interpretation of the dialogue. I was surprised to hear that his teachers adopted such a free approach to Shakespeare especially compared to the mass rote-learning of poetry, but regardless it explains the enduring appeal of Shakespeare to my grandad.

We often say that to learn a poem by heart is to carry it with you for life. This is my testimony to the possibility of that. My grandad has carried Yeats with him like a treasured possession for eighty years, along with a slice of Shakespeare’s Richard III. He can still start the doomed soliloquy:

‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.’

 

Tom Boughen is Content Coordinator at Poetry By Heart, has a History MA and previously worked as a TEFL teacher in Madrid. He enjoys reading, writing and playing tennis.

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