Poetry By Heart Blog

Romford Primary Schools Celebrate Poetry Week

7th July 2015

Poetry Week celebrations in Romford Primary Schools

For the past three years the Poetry By Heart London East county competition has been held in Romford Library. Karen Jordan and her staff at the library have organised superb events and in the last two years the London East champion has made the final eight of the national competition. But it is not just in the 14 to 18 sector where the act of taking a poem to heart is flourishing.

 

Over the course of a week the Multi Story Theatre Company worked in seven Romford Primary schools with a variety of year groups. Hillene, Broadford, Pyrgo and Mead Primary, along with Brookside and St Ursula’s Infants and St Ursula’s Juniors all took part in an inspiring Poetry Week celebration.

The ambition for the week was to engage the children in the joy of speaking poetry out loud: how do the words sound and feel as they’re spoken, where does the poem connect with you – head, heart or body?

One of the joys of the week was seeing how the children responded to a challenging collection of poems. W.H.Auden with 10 Year olds? Amy Lowell with 8 year olds? You bet! Several of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems were featured and these bought out the best in every age group.In fact, the more complex and challenging the poem, the more mature the response.

Bill Buffery from the Multi Story Theatre company commented: “As theatre practitioners and workshop leaders we can honestly say that leading these Poetry and Performance workshop weeks is one of the most satisfying experiences of the year. It’s really moving  to watch the quality of the children’s understanding of the world developing through their engagement with poetic language. It is also so pleasing to see a group of schools working together to champion the performing arts and use them to inspire the children!”

In the finale performance, all of the pupils joined together to perform AA Milne’s poem ‘Sneezles’. As a cluster we offer the pupils a wide range of opportunities to showcase their skills and talents: poetry, spelling, sports and maths. Seeing them all collaborate and enjoy the language of some great poems was a real joy. To also share that with parents from all seven schools made the event even more memorable.

I will leave the last word to Ruby Burchell from Broadford Primary: “Our poem was ‘Begged’ by Carol Ann Duffy. It was great fun to read it out loud as it was packed with tricky rhymes, alliteration and twists. I did feel nervous, but I loved the performance and want to do it again.”

 Malcolm Drakes is the Headteacher of Broadford Primary School – which is situated in Harold Hill, Romford. As Chair of the local cluster of primary schools, Malcolm initiated a Poetry Week. The key aim is to widen the cultural experience for the area’s pupils who often come from deprived backgrounds. It also celebrates performance poetry and provides an opportunity for pupils to enrich their knowledge of language. Through their YouTube Channel and blog the school seeks to promote and celebrate a wide range of learning opportunities that have helped Broadford Primary become one of the top performing primary schools in the country.

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Poetry Comics

24th June 2015

 

Image courtesy of paulktunis.com

Poet Chris McCabe reflects on the popularity of poetry comics and the debt they might owe to William Blake.

 

William Blake appears in The Poetry by Heart timeline for the year 1789 with his poem ‘The Chimney Sweeper’. This poem is from his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which demonstrated a new way of bringing together poetry and visual art that built on the manner of earlier (often religious) illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. In The Poetry Library’s current exhibition Poetry Comics Blake is featured amongst the poets and artists on show with the implicit question: If Blake were to begin his endeavour today, might we not consider it as a work that falls into the medium of comics?

 

Blake, as both a poet and an artist, was able to fulfil this kind of work himself: etching the words and images into the same copper plate to make one complete experience for the viewer. As far back as the beginning of Chinese ideograms we know that there has been a human wish to combine words and visual images. Poetry Comics shows us how modern artists and poets have explored this idea, combining poetry and sequential art to create new and surprising works.

The Poetry Library has a collection of over 150,000 items in every form and medium imaginable: epics, ballads, sonnets, haiku. There are even poetry balloons, beer-mats and T-shirts. What has been surprising is finding how many poetry comics exist in the library. Dadaist picture poems from the period of the First World War, broadsides from 1950s San Francisco, collaborations between New York poets and artists and small press publications from the 1970s. The greatest surprise has been finding that Poetry Comics is a currently thriving scene and that anyone can get involved in this exciting hybrid art form.

Chrissy Williams, my co-curator on this exhibition, is also a poet who has published a number of publications which combine poetry and sequential art, including The Jam Trap (Soaring Penguin Press, 2012) and Angela (Sidekick Book, 2013). She describes how she first became interested in Poetry Comics like this:

‘I had abandoned comics when I was younger, and it was only in coming back to them as an adult that I started to see the creative possibilities inherent in their structure. The visual language of the panel to panel transitions made me think of the transitions from line to line in poetry – how much is left unsaid, in both, for the reader to complete for themselves. And the line itself – both mediums concern themselves with trying to do more with less, with using the most economic (yet expressive) line possible. It struck me there were useful things both mediums could learn from each other, and the exploration started there.’

Chrissy organises a poetry comics workshop which invites poets and artists to come and make poetry comics together. In the exhibition at The Poetry Library there is a whole display case with loose-leaf pages assembled across each other in layers of cut-up colours and words. There is a real sense of fun and possibility. Pencil, ink and colour invite words to sit both in and outside of the panels. There is an image of a mountain with smoke firing out of it and the words read, above and below: ‘O Fire of love, newly arrived. / How armourless. Fiend of Hell.’

The exhibition also has some suggestions on how poetry comics work and how you might make them yourself. A sentence in bright pink curves around a column in the library: WHAT HAPPENS OFF THE PAGE IS AS IMPORTANT AS WHAT HAPPENS ON IT. Chrissy says:

‘When the line is at its most economic, you might see only a few marks on the page – this allows for even those with the most limited artistic ability (and I count myself among them) to work up ideas. Thinking of it as a collage between poetry and sequential art also means you can use found images to make ideas work. What interests me most about the process is finding new ways to explore the page.’

Perhaps the easiest way to make a start with your own poetry comic is to pick up the little booklet at The Poetry Library which simply says on the cover ‘see what happens…’. Who knows, this could be the start of your own beginnings as a maker of poetry comics? The best thing about this form is that you can work on it alone, with a collaborator, or in groups, and there is no end to the possibilities.

Poetry Comics at The Poetry Library is open Tuesday-Sunday 11-8 until 12th July.
There will be a further exhibition of new poetry comics work at the Poetry Society’s Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden from 1st September. This work will be drawn from a forthcoming anthology to be published by Sidekick Books: Over the Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics.

Chris McCabe is the Poetry Librarian at The Poetry Library, Southbank Centre. His poetry collections are The Hutton Inquiry, Zeppelins, THE RESTRUCTURE and Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2015). He has recorded a CD with the Poetry Archive, has had work included in numerous anthologies and was shortlisted for The Ted Hughes Award in 2014 for his collaborative work with Maria Vlotides, Pharmapoetica. His plays Shad Thames, Broken Wharf and Mudflats have been performed in London and Liverpool and his prose book In the Catacombs: a Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery, also published by Penned in the Margins, documents his search to find a great forgotten dead poet.

 

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Poems for Comparing

7th June 2015

 

When I was Head of an English Department at a sixth form college in Sussex back in the 1990s we developed what we called an ‘induction unit’ for students choosing to do English Literature A level with us. From September to November we introduced Year 12 groups to a very wide range of authors and genres offering, we hoped, a veritable smorgasbord of stimulating literature. It was fun to create and to adapt each year and once our new students got over the shock of being told, ‘Don’t worry about the set texts yet…’ they seemed to enjoy the induction unit too!

 

We wanted to avoid anything resembling a set text like I avoid red kidney beans after experiencing a severe case of food poisoning from an insufficiently cooked batch of the red devils many years ago. We did not want to launch in to a detailed analysis of whatever Jane Austen was on the specification that year much as we all loved her novels. No, we wanted to work on generic skills to do with reading texts and writing cogently about them through work on as many different styles of literature as we could effectively pack in to eight weeks.

Of course as the narrator in L.P. Hartley’s ‘The Go Between’ wearily states, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Today such reckless disregard for the prescribed texts on a specification would probably lead to disciplinary procedures but of course all of us who have ever taught English know and promote in all kinds of ways the value of ‘wider reading’ as a way of enriching the taught and assessed curriculum.

For Poetry by Heart team members it has been very rewarding to hear from teachers about how they are using our freely available online poetry anthology. We have heard not only from those whose students are actually participating in the competition but also those using the collection of 206 poems and 63 First World War poems as a valuable classroom resource without necessarily entering the competition. Making use of the anthology to encourage wider reading and to allow the honing of ‘English’ skills is often mentioned in the feedback we receive.

One demanding element within pre and post 16 English specifications concerns the requirement to compare texts. In the build up to the start of teaching the new GCSE specifications in English there has been much debate about the requirement for students to study at least fifteen poems and to show understanding of the relationships between texts. In A level over many years the importance of making comparisons and seeing connections between texts has been stressed in assessment objectives.

So, all this thinking about wider reading and comparing texts led me to consider what poems I might put alongside some of my favourites in the Poetry By Heart anthology to encourage the development of those generic ‘comparing’ skills that are valued so highly.

Below are 6 suggestions with the (A) poem taken from the Poetry By Heart anthology and the (B) poem chosen from outside our anthology. Some are challenging and some more straightforward. Some might suit a little summer holiday wider reading assignment for Year 9 or 8 before the onset of GCSE and some might suit Year 11 or 12. All the (A) poems are of course available at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk whilst the (B) poems are easily accessible at various sites like www.poemhunter.com

1)      (A) ‘The Soldier’ Rupert Brooke and (B) ‘Drummer Hodge’ Thomas Hardy.

This is a popular pairing and one that has cropped up on many an exam paper over the years but it’s a good one. Brooke’s soldier’s death produces a ‘…corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’ whereas Drummer Hodge’s body lifeless after a Boer War battle is absorbed in to the South African landscape. ‘Yet portion of that unknown plain/Will Hodge for ever be.’

2)      (A)’Ae fond kiss and then we sever’ Robert Burns  (B) ‘Since there’s no help come let us kiss and part’ Michael Drayton.

Two moving poems about love and loss and in Drayton’s case lingering hope.

3)      (A) ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ William Blake  (B) ‘The Sluggard’ 1715 Isaac Watts

Taken from his collection ‘Divine Songs’, Watts’ poem is an example of the kind of morally uplifting and ‘improving’ verse that remained very popular for many years after its publication. Blake’s poem of course is much more morally ambiguous and challenging whilst seeming to adopt the conventions of eighteenth century poems for children.

4)      (A) ‘On the Death of Robert Levet’ Samuel Johnson (B) An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell’ John Dryden.

Different approaches in style and tone to commemorating the sadly departed.

5)      (A) ‘You are old father William’ Lewis Carroll (B) ‘The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them.’ Robert Southey.

Lewis Carroll’s famous poem from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and the poem by Southey that it so amusingly parodies

6)      (A) ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Night’ The Gawain Poet  (B) ‘Piers Plowman’ Lines 1 to 21 William Langland.(A pairing for Year 12 perhaps?)

Sir Gawain is a favourite amongst the Poetry By Heart team as it reminds us of the remarkable winning recitation of the poem by our first champion Kaiti Soultana in 2013. You can see her recitation here: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight/ Comparing these two magnificent middle English alliterative poems would encourage the appreciation of sound effects and the texture of words and would really draw attention to the acoustic quality of verse. The opening 21 lines of ‘Piers Plowman’ show the start of a spiritual journey just as Gawain is journeying in his poem:

‘In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,

I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,

In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,

Wente wide in this world wondres to here.’  (‘Piers Plowman’ The Prologue – lines 1 to 4)

 

What poems would you choose to pair with poems from the Poetry By Heart anthology? It would be great to hear from you.

Mike Dixon is a former Head of English and former Head of a sixth form college on the south coast. He is now an education consultant and delighted to have been part of the Poetry By Heart team since the launch of the project in 2012. mike.dixon@poetrybyheart.org.uk

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International Dylan Thomas Day

12th May 2015

Dylan Thomas – Writing Shed Laugharne. Image Courtesy of Heather Cowper www.heatheronhertravels

A very popular choice this year in the post 1914 section of the Poetry By Heart anthology was Dylan Thomas’ 1934 poem, ‘The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower’ http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-force-that-through-the-green-fuse-drives-the-flower/ Our evaluation of the 2015 competition suggests that this poem was comfortably in the top quartile of poems selected for recitation. As we approach the first ever international Dylan Thomas Day, poet Martin Daws offers some thoughts on the enduring popularity of Thomas’ verse. Martin writes:

 

Few modern poets are so widely known as Thomas, or so widely liked and even fewer are so pleasurable to read out loud.

Let’s look at the fourth line of Thomas’ verse play, ‘Under Milk Wood’ in which he speaks of the wood limping down to the:

‘sloeblack, slow, black, crow black, fishingboatbobbing sea’

What a line to memorise and read out loud! It’s a nursery wall of word plays, repetitions, alliterations, internal rhymes, surprise punctuation book-ending unexpected word mergers that combine to create a rising, effervescent music that swells like the sea it describes. This is one fun line of poetery. I can imagine him smiling when he read back over it, rolling it round his mouth, savouring it, like a vintner, taking a craftsman’s pleasure as he sculpted it in to the baritones of his famously resonant reciting voice.

This is spoken word poetry at its best combining the intimate eye of the writer with the lyrical ear of the musician: the two become one in the mouth of the poet or the actor. Many people will know Richard Burton’s famous performance of ‘Under Milk Wood’. You can hear the opening section here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2a6zCR-ycs

Together the poetry and voice combine in a euphonic South Walian symphony of slow drawn warmth inducing a dream like lucidity. This is where word meaning and word sound intersect to make more than their respective parts. This is where poetry comes to life for me; where I find my feeling in it.

A little personal theory with a touch of poetic licence: words are abstract, right?  The word ‘chair’ isn’t a chair – it’s an abstract representation that we understand means a chair. When we hear the word ‘chair’ we perceive it as both an abstract but also a sound and the sound carries its own set of meanings – is it loud, quiet, gentle, angry? Okay, chair is a very neutral word and it’s hard to imagine a ‘chair like’ sound but compare that to the potential in a word like ‘slow’.

The part of Dylan Thomas’ poetry that I respond to best is his exceptional ability to create a fusion of word sounds and their meanings which at its best creates new, holistic word meaning infused with musical feeling; that’s where the poetry is.

About the author:

Performance poet Martin Daws was appointed Young People’s Laureate for Wales in April 2013. Currently very active in this role, Martin works across Wales to engage and inspire young people to empower themselves through their creativity. As Young People’s Laureate Martin also represents Wales internationally; creating partnerships and sharing skills with other socially engaged poetry organisations and practitioners around the world.

For more information about Martin visit: http://www.martindaws.com/

 

 

 

Blog editor Mike Dixon from Poetry By Heart adds:

Literature Wales have provided with us with further information about International Dylan Thomas day and the range of exciting events taking place in May including activities aimed at young people..

All over the UK, online, and from New York, Brussels, New Zealand and Italy people will be celebrating the magic of Thomas’ poetry through a series of walks, talks, readings and exhibitions.

Cerys Matthews MBE, Welsh singer, songwriter, author and broadcaster says: “I’ve enjoyed celebrating Burns Night over the years and often wanted to celebrate Dylan Thomas in the same way – at last there is a date in the diary for Dylan Day. Why not raise a glass to this little great man every year on 14 May and enjoy the chance to savour the brilliance of his work by reading out excerpts and throwing a party, wherever you are!”

How to get involved in the celebrations?

If you are aged between 7 and 25 years old you can submit up to four lines of poetry (in English or Welsh) inspired by the theme ‘our community’ to Dylan’s Great Poem – an international appeal to create a new 100 line–bilingual poem inspired by Thomas’ words.  To submit visit www.developingdylan100.co.uk. The new poem will be revealed on 19th May, and performed live at the Hay Festival.

Get involved on Twitter by taking a photo of yourself reading Dylan in unusual places using the hashtag #DylanSelfie

Take part in one of the many events, walks, readings taking place, including:

‘Take away poems’ by Martin Daws, Young People’s Laureate of Wales, from the Dylan Thomas Writing Shed outside the St David’s Centre in Cardiff on 14 May

The first public display of Dylan Thomas’ notebook at Swansea University.  Bought by the University in 2014 for £104,500

An opportunity to listen to recordings of Dylan’s work from the audio archive of 92Y in New York – the 2014 reading of Under Milk Wood starring Michael Sheen and Kate Burton, and an excerpt from the 1953 premiere, with Thomas himself in the cast. www.92y.org/dylanday

Oxford ‘Walk on the Welsh Side’

Literary Pub Tour in Fitzrovia, London

‘A Dylan Odyssey’ – a collection of Thomas-inspired literary tours will be published by Graffeg.

To find out more about all the events taking place visit www.literaturewales.org.uk/dylan-day/

International Dylan Thomas Day is organised by Literature Wales and funded by the Welsh Government

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Memorisation, Recitation and the Muslim Tradition

10th May 2015

 

A boys’ hifz class – north east London mosque. Photo: Bill Gent Used with permission.

Being involved in an organisation and a project like Poetry By Heart can be both an exciting and rewarding experience. For, watching the process through which young people commit passages of literature to memory, learn to live with it ‘inside’ themselves, and then stand up in performance in order to recite to others, stirs both head and heart.

 

But, there are other traditions of memorisation and recitation too, which are driven by their own histories, dynamics and expectations. Such a tradition is that of hifz committing the whole of the Qur’ān to memory – within the Muslim community.

The sound of the Muslim Qur’ān

‘The Qur’ān (Koran) is the sacred book of Muslims.’ Such a statement is indisputable … or is it? In one sense ‘yes’, but in another, ‘no’. In school RE pupils often learn to think of the Qur’ān as one example of the category ‘sacred books’. The resultant mental imagery is then obvious: a book consisting of pages of text of Arabic which is, of course, written from right to left. But, unstartling though this might seem, this does a great disservice to the place of the Qur’ān in the experience of Muslims across the ages. For, digging deeper into Islam reveals that the prime experience of the Qur’ān for Muslims is as sound. Indeed, fieldworkers in Islamic societies have observed, the sound of the Qur’ān is omnipresent in Muslim societies: it comes from the radios of taxicabs, from recordings played in open-fronted shops, from schools and mosque classrooms. Even the hallowed call to prayer (the adhan) might be heard from several minarets at once in the lead-up to prayer times. Yes, indeed, as one American scholar has put it, ‘The Qur’ān, to be the Qur’ān, has to be heard’.

But this aural quality of the Qur’ān is not just a consequence of its multi-layered use in Muslim society: it is part of its essential quality. To understand this means going back to the beginnings of the Islamic religion and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (570 – 632 CE). At the age of 40, Muslims believe, Muhammad had a life-changing experience in which the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) revealed to him the first words of the Qur’ān. Muhammad then committed these words to memory in order to recite them to other members of the first Muslim community in Makkah. Such revelations continued for the remaining 23 years of his life and it was during the month of Ramadan each year, it is said, that he rehearsed everything that he had already memorised. And, by the time of his death, many others within the early Muslim community had also memorised the revelations and recited them, often with great beauty and finesse, so that others could do likewise. This body of memorised and recited material constituted the Qur’ān, an Arabic word that means ‘recitation’. It was only later that the memorised material was gathered together to form a book, but this has always been secondary to the recited Qur’ān.

The chain of transmission

Thus we have the central place of memorisation and recitation within Islam, but more than this: we also have the start of a chain of transmission through which, from one Muslim generation to the next, not only the words that were revealed to Muhammad were passed on but also the sound of those words being recited. Moreover, in being memorised in Arabic (the Qur’ān is not the Qur’ān unless it is in the original language of revelation), it was embodied in the bodies and lives of the memorisers. Indeed, in the West African Muslim tradition, those who have memorised the whole Qur’ān are sometimes called ‘walking Qur’ans’.

To the present day, all Muslims will learn parts of the Qur’ān in Arabic; its recitation is both needed and vaunted in everyday Muslim life. During each of the five daily times of prayer (salat), for instance, pious Muslims recite passages from the Qur’ān out loud, particularly its opening words (al-Fatihah). There is no tradition of silent reading within the Muslim community: even when recited in private, the words will be sounded on the lips.

Within the historical Muslim community, there have always been those who have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to memorise the Qur’ān. Still to this day, such people might be encouraged to commit the whole of the Qur’ān to memory. And do remember: the Qur’ān, to be the Qur’ān, is in Arabic and the majority of Muslims worldwide are not native Arabic speakers. And remember, again, that this is not only a case of learning the ‘words’ but also of being able to recite them in a beautiful manner, according to tradition. As such, the fullness of the revelation which is the Qur’ān is believed to lie in both its words and the sounds of those words being recited. This has the consequence that, in order to learn the Qur’ān by heart, the learner must sit at the feet of a teacher who can correct mistakes and demonstrate to his/her pupils the appropriate sounding of the Arabic words.

The memorisation of the whole Arabic Qur’ān which consists of 30 larger sections (juz), themselves comprising 144 smaller chapters (surahs), is an extraordinary mnemonic achievement and those who achieve this have been likened to elite athletes. Such people are given the honorific title hafiz (male) or hafiza (female) but no-one knows how many huffaz (the plural term) there are in the word today, though Muslims often talk in terms of millions. Even so, it is certain that many British Muslim students who go to state or private school during the day will then also go on to mosque classes each weekday evening (and sometimes before school too) in order to complete hifz – the memorisation of the whole Qur’ān, a task that might take three or four years.

You can’t retire as a hafiz

On achieving hifz, there will be family and mosque celebrations for the Muslim boy or girl (or man or woman, for there is no age limit). But, in one sense, achieving hifz is not the end: it is also the beginning. For huffaz are then expected to retain their memorisation, so that it can be called to the front of memory at a moment’s notice, for the rest of their lives. Huffaz adopt different ways of keeping their Qur’anic memories alive – through a daily period of recitation at home, perhaps, or quietly reciting a passage of the Qur’ān on the way to and from work. But, if they find that they are struggling in this, then the month of Ramadan comes to their rescue for, during the whole of this month, additional late night prayers (tarawih) consist of the male congregation gathering together as, at the front of the often very large gathering, one or several huffaz in turn, recite a whole thirtieth section of the Qur’ān. And those who have also memorised that particular Qur’anic section are duty bound, if the reciter makes an error at a particular point, to interrupt and recite correctly so enabling the main reciter to correct himself and then continue on. In light of this, huffaz will make sure that they have rehearsed the passage for the particular day, working with another memoriser, perhaps, to identify where difficulties in wording and sounding might be met. Ramadan, then, is not only a month of fasting but is also a month of intense reading and revision.

Poetry by Heart and Qur’anic Memorisation

So, to begin where we started. There are many traditions of memorisation and recitation. In the same way as there is an annual Poetry by Heart competition leading to finals, there are also, throughout the Muslim world, Qur’anic recitation competitions. There are famous reciters, too, many of whom will be able to recite the Qur’ān in one of the several dialect forms (qira’at) in which it was passed down. The Internet has also come to play its part in each context: Poetry by Heart competitors can hear their chosen poems being read out loud by others in the same way that Muslims can hear, and be inspired by, famous Qur’anic reciters – many of them Egyptian – on CD or on YouTube. And, in each case, perhaps, the end-result is the stirring image of a human being, often young in years, who has dedicated immeasurable time and energy in order, with beauty and meaning, to recite to others. Indeed, as Andrew Motion says on the Poetry by Heart website, recitation – perhaps in all its many forms – creates both ‘an excitement and a dare’.

 

For further reading

Gent B (2011) ‘But You Can’t retire as a Hafiz: fieldwork within a British hifz class’, Muslim Education Quarterly, 24: 1 & 2, 55-63

Gent, B (2011) ‘The world of the British hifz class student: observations, findings & implications for education & further research’, British Journal of Religious Education, 33:1, 3-15

Gent, B (2015) ‘The Hidden Olympians: the role of huffaz in the English Muslim community’, Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life

Nelson, K (2005) The Art of Reciting the Qur’ān, New York: American University in Cairo Press

 

Dr Bill Gent is an Associate Fellow of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU) and editor of ‘Professional REflection within RE Today, the journal of the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE). billgent49@yahoo.co.uk

 

 

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Planning For Risk

26th April 2015

Creative Commons Jake at Gocredit

When I read about the “unplanned” lesson on the Poetry by Heart blog, I was certainly nervous about trying it. In fact, a reasonable amount of planning was essential for this lesson. I now realise that what I was doing was planning for risk…which is something rather different. It is somewhat unnerving and very, very worthwhile.

 

The starting point for the lesson was to use the random poem selection facility on the Poetry by Heart website, pulling out an “unplanned” poem from their excellent anthology. My first challenge was how to solve the problem of making the randomly chosen poem available for the students to work on, as soon as it had come up. My solution was to have a poetry starter involving some memorisation. While it ran, a colleague completed the printing for us.  Thank you Emma – what a star! The starter was a group challenge – see how much of the opening of “Night Mail” you can learn in five minutes. Pretty much everybody got most of the first two stanzas, but some got further, and had fun doing it.

The poem that came up by chance  was Christina Rosetti’s “A Frog’s Fate”. When the poems arrived, I issued one A3 ideas sheet to each table of four. Their first challenge was to work out the story, the narrative. And as I started to read it for the first time, I panicked. They wouldn’t get it. They’d rebel. It was awkward, complicated language, contrived, alien, I could hardly get a grip on it myself. They’d reject it and resent what I’d imposed on them. It would be a disaster.

Very quickly, most groups had latched onto to the Frog’s death as the key component of the poem’s narrative. I pushed them. I said I needed more than that. I gave them another two minutes. Then, going from group to group, I picked up their sheets and read what they’d got to the rest of the class. One group had absolutely nailed it – and so I was able to ensure that all groups understood that basic narrative and felt secure with it.

Next: questions, feelings, atmosphere.  This was when the noise in the room changed. While the class had been trying to get the story, they were fairly loud, with some off task chat as they struggled with it. Now, knowing the shape and outline, they really settled in. Much quieter, much more thoughtful. We were all struggling with the deeper ideas, though. They wanted me to tell them what it meant and what it was about. This was where not knowing the poem before the lesson really helped. They were seeing me having difficulties, and I was responding to their questions with more questions. We were in it together. Fantastic.

With ten minutes to go, I took photos of the A3 sheets, so the class could see what the other groups had been up to. Here’s a selection of what they came up with:

– about a person, but also not

– he didn’t realise he knew nothing about the village beyond; his arrogance led to his death

– a sad horrible death, no one notices, and he dies on a hideous highway

– the highway may represent karma

– he thought he was important, but when he died, no one knew.

– it’s a fable, but about what?

In that short time they’d really got to the heart of the poem and its driving ideas. The discussion as I went round the groups had been very encouraging indeed. This is a class who seem to need huge amounts of reassurance all the time; during this lesson they developed confidence and began to work independently in a way I’ve not seen before.

Three cheers for random poetry selection…thank you, Poetry by Heart.

 

 Caroline Mortlock is  currently having a wonderful time as Lead Practitioner in English at Beacon Academy in Crowborough, East Sussex. Previously Caroline has led a variety of English departments and been an assistant head teacher. She is a voracious and prolific reader who is just beginning to start writing again. Her love of poetry began after bravely standing up and reciting “I like Noise” at the Norfolk County Verse Speaking Competition in 1972!

 

 

 

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‘Fifty Poems’ at Lucy Cavendish College – University of Cambridge

11th April 2015

Lucy Cavendish College Library

In Michaelmas Term 2012, three second year English students decided to put together a compilation of poems by female writers to celebrate the literary achievements of women. Hannah Schühle-Lewis, Kassi Chalk and Charlotte Quinney were the three students and, after their final year exams, they were able to make their idea a reality, as part of the celebrations for Lucy Cavendish College’s 50thanniversary. The aim of this project: www.lucy-cav.cam.ac.uk/fiftypoems was to not only celebrate the poetic achievements of women, both in and outside the literary canon, but also to foreground the range of voices which constitute our College community. I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute to this fantastic project which, in many ways, reflects the ideals and purpose of the ‘Poetry by Heart’ scheme.

As the only Higher Education College for women over 21 in Europe, all the students at Lucy have vastly differing experiences.  The minimum age of 21 means that even the youngest must have some ‘life experience’ before coming to the College for their education. This is one of the greatest things about College life here – every person has a different story to tell. This is borne out by the readings of the various poems which are the speaker’s natural interpretation of the words, rather than a practiced, or artificial performance. Although several English students contributed, a literary background was not a requirement for involvement in the project – just an interest in poetry and a willingness to lend a voice to the words on the page. Whilst several of the poems were by familiar authors, such as Christina Rossetti or George Eliot, others were written by students, like Charlotte Quinney and Heather Hind, as well as Gill Saxon, who works in our College library.  By having a selection of both traditional and modern, ‘Fifty Poems’ performed a similar function to ‘Poetry by Heart’, in showing how poetry is a living, vibrant medium of expression, not just a page in a textbook.

My own route to Lucy in 2011 was via deferred entry; I received the offer when I was 19 because I would be 21 in October 2012 and so eligible for admission.  In the intervening time, I worked and travelled for six months. This experience dramatically influenced the person I am today.  After I graduate this year, I hope to develop a career in International Development, an interest which originated from my trip around South Africa. This will be a little different from reading the greatest works of English literature, but one of the fantastic things about my degree is that the vast range of texts I’ve read have become as much a part of me as any other experience – and I don’t necessarily need to carry them all with me on my future travels! As the ‘Fifty Poems’ Project demonstrates, writing is all about individuals experiencing and exploring universal emotions: love, anger, frustration, doubt, hope, joy. In the words of Marianne Moore: ‘if you demand on the one hand the raw material of poetry, and that which is on the other hand genuine, you are interested in poetry’. The vocalisation of poetry makes both this rawness and honesty of emotion accessible. Some of my closest friends declare a positive fear of Shakespeare – as do many GCSE students, no doubt – and, on the page, it does look rather formidable. But, if you watch any accomplished actor of our day on the stage, speaking the verse (from David Tennant to Judi Dench) the meaning becomes immediately apparent from their intonation and expression. Even the most inaccessible speech of Hamlet’s appears comprehensible as performers communicate their understanding of the character through the language on the page. Just as the actors on stage bring vitality to the poetry, so too do the ‘Fifty Poems’ Project and ‘Poetry by Heart’; they all show how the same poem takes on a different shade of meaning when vocalised by a new individual.

I was delighted to be invited to the final of ‘Poetry by Heart’ on the 21st March. Each of the finalists performed to an exceptionally high-standard – I did not envy the judges in trying to select a winner. It was great to hear some old favourites, like John Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’ and Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, but even with those familiar poems, it felt like I was experiencing them for the first time. The poems really gained an added dimension, denied them on the page, especially with the callousness and vindictive nature of the voice in the Browning. The wrapping of Porphyria’s hair around her neck became all the more powerful as the speaker maintained the same tone throughout, even when describing how passionately the victim loved her yet unknown murderer. Many of the finalists chose a poem which they’d previously selected from the 1914-1918 period and they were all incredibly moving. A favourite of mine was Rose Macaulay’s ‘Picnic’, which I had not known of before. www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/picnic/. The reciter created a perfect balance between the beauty of the Downs and the violence of the guns at the Front. Many audience members tweeted about the power of the voices, and the goose bumps and tears were felt by everyone. One tweet spoke about the performances being a fitting tribute to all those who had fallen. It was amazing how these young students brought to life with tremendous power those vivid and horrific poems, reminding us that those soldiers’ sacrifice will never be forgotten by each passing generation.

At the core of ‘Poetry by Heart’ and Lucy Cavendish’s ‘Fifty Poems’ Project  is a desire to demonstrate what is great about poetry – not only its orality, but the individual readings that it encourages. In its earliest traditions, poetry was intended to be spoken, so that those who were unable to read were still able to participate in the experience of listening and hearing the stories of the great heroes of the past. Hundreds of years on, these initiatives restore this original purpose in appealing to the ear to entice the reader in. I hope in our collection, you can find at least one poem that draws your attention. I hope too that you follow your ears and enjoy the journey through new, or old, favourites.

About the author: Elinor George is from Cardiff in Wales. 23 years old, she is a third year English student at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Before coming to University, she took two gap years, which included a self-funded 6 months of travel to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. As well as travelling, her hobbies also include going to the theatre and rowing. Elinor has rowed for her College’s first boat since her first year at Lucy. One of her favourite novelists is Jane Austen which is fortunate as her parents named her after Miss Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility.

 

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First Lines

31st March 2015

In his excellent little handbook “On Poetry”, Glyn Maxwell talks about a poem’s conception, the poem arising “from the urge of a human creature, once, upon a time – to break silence, fill emptiness, colour nothing with something, anything.”

 

He invites us to think about the opening line of any poem as the precise moment at which the pressure of that silence breaks into an utterance that has to be heard. Maxwell suggests letting photography help us think about this, imagining any first line as a photographic frame. Imagining this as a “snapshot” encourages us to slow down our reading, to really think about the moment at which this voice starts to speak, where it’s coming from and its orientation to us, its readers and hearers. Maxwell suggests these key questions:

“How much of the frame is taken up by the face of the poet? Is his or her whole figure in the poem, is he or she farther away? Back to you, gesturing in the distance? Hovering spectrally above? Seated, standing, walking? Is the picture in colour? What does he or she think of you? Can you be seen at all? Is the poet present at all?… Consider how he or she is there, how the poet is imprinted on the poem.”

It’s a set of questions that can take us a long way, just with the first line. At another point, Maxwell also suggests storyboarding as a creative way of getting inside a poem. Try it in conjunction with his ideas about opening lines and interesting things happen. Take a storyboard sheet and use the final frame to visualize the moment of the opening line. Then fill in the four or five frames before that. What happened to cause such a build up of pressure that the first line became inevitable?

Try this with any line of poetry you like but the Poetry By Heart website could help students find their own favourites. From the homepage of www.poetrybyheart.org.uk click on “Resources and Downloads” and then “Index of First Lines”.  This is an A-Z list of the opening lines of the 200+ poems in the Poetry By Heart timeline anthology, hyperlinked to the full poem pages. Alternatively, from the “Resources and Downloads” page click on “Learning Resources” and you will find a pdf of the index of the first lines that you could download and share.

To go further, give students the first and last lines, and consider how the poet might get from A to B before reading the whole poem. You might explore the first line and then have students writing one or more next lines to explore where it might go and then where the poet took it. And if your students are planning to enter the next Poetry By Heart competition, it’s another way of exploring the poems to find ones they might want to commit to memory.  Taken completely out of context, they offer surprising and delightful little voyages of discovery.

 

Julie Blake is the co-founder and co-director of Poetry by Heart. Pictured here at the opening of Poetry by Heart 2015 at Homerton College, Cambridge University March 2015

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Poetry by Heart in York

18th March 2015

Above: Winner Georgina Watkiss and Poet/Judge Helen Cadbury

 

University of York students Kate Murphy, Laura Wood and Becky Goodwin share their experiences of a PBH County Contest at York Explore – the venue for the North Yorkshire and East Riding County Contest.

 

The County Contest:

Despite the nervous excitement of the competitors, the entire day at York Explore felt relaxed and enjoyable, and the atmosphere was hugely positive and encouraging. There were cakes with the PBH logo on to welcome us with tea and drinks and the chance to relax and chat about reciting poetry before the competition started.

Teachers, parents, contestants, judges and librarians all told us about the value they placed on the competition. Here are just a few reasons why Poetry by Heart offers such a fantastic opportunity to everyone who gets involved:

It’s something different to get involved in. Frances Postlethwaite, Explore Library’s Children and Young People’s Librarian, said how the competition caters for an age group not often seen in libraries, and that it was nice to see young people in such a positive light. The parents we spoke to also valued the competition for encouraging students to do something different: poetry often seems less relevant to young people, but Poetry by Heart gives students a way of engaging with it on a very personal level.

The opportunity to engage with poetry in the way it was intended to be enjoyed: out loud!  When we spoke to the judges after the competition, they were impressed by the contestants’ successful engagement with difficult themes such as war. It was clear that the interpretation of the poems they gave came from the contestants themselves, and the dramatic aspect was clearly something the students enjoyed!

The competition element and excitement of competing beyond school level. The regional event was particularly exciting, with judges from various backgrounds covering creative writing to academia.  Georgina Watkiss, the winner from Ripon Grammar School, spoke of how she enjoyed speaking to contestants from different schools. At the final prize giving it was clear from the nervous excitement that all the contestants were fully invested in the competition, and went home with a clear sense of achievement (and quite a lot of cake)!

The winner:

Despite Georgina Watkiss’s three fantastic recitals, when finding out that she won the Yorkshire division of the Poetry by Heart semi-final, she was what could only be described as gobsmacked, although this does reflect on the extremely high standard of performances presented on the day. However, what is somewhat more surprising are the A level subjects that Georgina studies. The majority of students competing at the Yorkshire semi-final studied English literature, and as a result it was easy to see where their love of poetry and drive to enter the competition stemmed from.

On the contrary, Georgina doesn’t study English literature and rather than immersing herself in the humanities, Georgina studies maths, biology, chemistry and psychology. Therefore, it is especially impressive that Georgina did so well, considering that poetry is purely a hobby for her. Georgina commented, “I can’t really spell and I’m not very good at it but I really like poetry”.

However, although Georgina certainly spent a great deal of time practicing by herself in her room, the English department at Ripon Grammar School supported Georgina leading up to the competition and on the day.

When choosing the three poems for the competition, Georgina noted that it was initially daunting as the anthology was so big, however she knew that she wanted poems that contrasted. Georgina’s elder sister, being a “huge Oscar Wilde fan”, helped her to pick The Ballad of Reading Gaol, whereas Georgina chose The Wedding as she liked the way in which it built up using similes, and finally Rain, a poem which she knew of before the competition and really enjoyed.

When asked what she thought of the competition, Georgina commented saying, “The competition is great because it’s different and poetry is supposed to be spoken, and through saying it out loud you can often understand it better than simply reading it”. Furthermore, the judges said that through trying alternative accents when reciting poetry, you can learn so much more about the poem due to the change in rhythm and stresses on distinctive words and phrases”.

Georgina’s win at the Yorkshire division semi-final is not only an impressive feat, but also proof of the accessibility of the competition. Although, Georgina doesn’t study English literature A level, her love of poetry and enthusiasm for it to be read out loud secured her a first place position.

Teacher involvement  from The Mount school in York:

How we are involved: We have participated in the competition for the last three years and Mount students Niamh Devlin and Amelia Cook went on to win the county competition and perform at the Final. Both students comment on how it has really opened their eyes to the power and beauty of spoken poetry. Interestingly, I think participating in the competition has also really improved my students ‘ability’ to respond to poetry in a more exploratory manner, in their written work. We think ‘Poetry by Heart’ a wonderful and very valuable initiative in promoting the love of and deeper understanding of poetry.

What we do:  At The Mount we get all students in Years 10 and 11, plus our Sixth Form Literature students to learn one of the poems for an initial, internal round. We get the GCSE students to make the poem a presentation, with an introduction about the poet and a personal response to the poem – this can then also be assessed for Speaking and Listening purposes. We get Lower Sixth pupils, who are studying AQA Spec A, to learn a poem from WW1-their chosen area of study-and Year 13 students to learn a ‘Love’ poem. Their area of study is ‘ Love through the Ages’. We also publicise the competition more widely and encourage any student, if she so desires, to participate, regardless of whether they are studying English Literature or not. Once we have selected class/year group winners, we have an internal competition, where the students recite their chosen poems. The winner goes forward to the County final.

The County Contest: The Mount participants and myself thoroughly enjoyed the experience at York Explore this year which was a lovely venue and as always, at Poetry by Heart, the support staff were delightful and what really strikes me about the competition is how friendly and supportive the whole experience is for students. Even though our representative Isobel Sygrove, was not a winner, she found the experience very enjoyable and particularly welcomed the opportunity to hear how the same poem can be interpreted in different ways.

The Future…

As everyone involved in the competition spoke so highly of it, it seems natural to talk about the future of Poetry by Heart. Now in its third year, the competition has been growing steadily in reputation. However, a question posed by several people that we spoke to was: how do we get more people involved?

Teachers Simon Chapman and Fiona Holland (Woldgate College) stressed the importance both of getting children involved with poetry, and of finding a way to make space within the curriculum pressures for those children who really do enjoy poetry.  This competition seems like a perfect way to do that, and in fact, Woldgate College suggested getting children involved from a younger age.

The competition is open to years 10 – 13, but perhaps engaging children in poetry, specifically this kind of performed-poetry, from a younger age would encourage more students to get involved when they reach year 10. It was noted by everyone we interviewed that the performance element really brought something special; it was clear that these poems had come to mean a lot to the young people reciting them.

Parents of one of the competitors on the day mentioned how valuable the videos of previous winners performing had been, telling us that they made the competition and the poetry less daunting.

The videos showcase the competitors, and also what the competition is about. Poetry by Heart isn’t about being a professional poet, or a professional performer; it’s about the students using their own voices, and their own interpretations to really connect with a piece of poetry, and then pouring that emotion into their performances. The video resources are a really important way to demonstrate to those taking part (and to those thinking of taking part) that, as Georgina, the winner on the day, declared: they can do it!

These videos are readily available on the Poetry By Heart website, so let’s spread the word!

Finally, Georgina told us that she would definitely do it again, and would definitely recommend it to others- surely that glowing review will inspire you to get involved? But if not, how about this quote from Don Paterson (courtesy of Hugh, one of the judges on the day): “Most of us can’t own a Leonardo, or a Turner, but if you know a poem by heart then you’ve got one of the world’s great masterpieces”.


About the Authors

 Kate Murphy – I’m a second year History of Art student. I was keen to take part in the PBH work placement as I thought it would be a great opportunity to get involved with something happening in York. Also I  loved the poetry competitions at school when I was little, so the idea of revisiting that but seeing the poetry recited at a higher standard really grabbed me. I was curious and excited to see the performances.

Laura Wood – I’m a second year undergrad studying English and Related Literature. I am really passionate about educational opportunities outside the classroom, and knew about Poetry by Heart from college, so I thought it would be a fantastic thing to get involved with.

 Becky Goodwin – I’m a 3rd year English language and linguistics student. I wanted to get involved in the project because, as a drama-lover, I really liked the  sound of the poetry recital competition.

 

 

 

A view of  Poetry by Heart from Ripon Grammar – Georgina’s School

 

Here at RGS we have followed the Poetry by Heart scheme from its quiet inception three years ago.  Nationally, and within our school, it is growing steadily, and is particularly appealing to students who aim to pursue any career which might involve public speaking.

However, it has also given us a new focus on poetry.  In July a former student, Dr Paul Hullah, visited to speak at our annual prize-giving.  He attended RGS in the ‘70s and is now Associate Professor of British Literature and Culture at Meiji Gakuin University in Japan.   Dr Hullah is also a published author and poet and during his visit he shared his detailed knowledge of the Haiku, running workshops where students produced some fabulous work of their own.

In 2015 we wanted to extend Poetry by Heart and encourage more of our students to take part.  Therefore, in celebration of National Poetry Day, we ran it as a House competition and involved all year groups.  Each of the four school Houses sent representatives and we ran a series of heats at lunchtimes, using the same criteria as Poetry by Heart.  Lower School students could choose any poem, while the older ones had to use the Poetry by Heart anthology. House points were awarded to the successful contestants.

Prior to the competition we took the opportunity to involve our Patron of Reading, Dave Cryer (www.davecryer.co.uk), who ran a ‘hints and tips’ workshop for the contestants on performing poetry out loud.

The school final was held in the library during lunchtime and the performances were wonderful, with all the competitors doing themselves proud.

RGS competitors and judges

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The judges for the competition were Mrs Mars, English teacher, and Simon Edwards, proprietor of our fantastic local independent bookshop, Little Ripon Bookshop.  Mr Edwards commented:

“Thank you for the lovely opportunity to judge the Poetry by Heart Upper School Heats. All the contestants were confident and well prepared and they had chosen some very interesting and challenging poems. I’m sure that the winner will do very well in the next round.”

Juliet, one of our impressive competitors, said:

“We had to select one poem from a given list and learn it well enough to perform, being judged on criteria such as ‘voice and articulation’ and ‘evidence of understanding.’ We all then performed our poems on the Friday in the library with a special guest judge, Mr Simon Edwards of The Little Ripon Bookshop. I must confess that it’s a nerve-wracking experience (certainly not helped by the fact that I left learning my poem until the last minute) but very enjoyable to hear everyone’s takes on their respective poems.“

We are hopeful that some of the younger students will be enthused and will themselves take part in the national competition in a few years’ time.

Of course, the main objective was to find our school winner.  This was Georgina Watkiss, who then went on to represent Ripon Grammar School at the county contest which was held in York on National Libraries Day last month.

We were welcomed to the fantastic, newly re-opened Explore Library York.  Georgina and the other county finalists had the opportunity to take part in a pre-contest workshop to warm them up and then the performances began.  The level was extremely high, with all eight contestants giving fabulous recitations of their poems, and we were delighted when Georgina was announced as the winner of this county contest!  As I write Georgina and I are preparing to travel down to Homerton College in Cambridge for the regional and national finals, and are looking forward to meeting the other competitors and their school chaperones for what promises to be an experience we will never forget.

I am lucky to have a very supportive English teacher, Helen Mars, who is my ‘partner in crime’ for Poetry by Heart.  When she recently attended a cluster meeting with local primary staff she put forward the idea of a competition based on Poetry by Heart for Year 6 children.  The new National Curriculum programme of study for Upper Key Stage 2 includes “preparing poems and play scripts to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action”, and so this suggestion was met with enthusiasm.

We now plan to pilot this scheme in the Summer Term this year.  We will encourage local primaries to hold their own poetry recitation competitions to a find a school representative who will then attend a final event hosted here at Ripon Grammar School.  Helen and I will put together an anthology of poems from which they can choose.  The event will consist of a poetry masterclass and the final, where the Year 6 champion will be crowned.  I am really looking forward to this development, so watch this space!

Mrs Dring

Learning Resources Manager/Literacy Co-ordinator

Ripon Grammar School

 

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Poetry By Heart and a View from Russia

20th February 2015

Mariano Mantel – Kremlin seen from the Patriarchal Bridge Creative Commons

Moscow State Institute of International Relations student, Nellie Olphert, offers some thoughts on the fate of poetry and memorisation in Russia.

 

‘…And with the human race anew

I am family through you.’

‘My Journey’ by Olga Adamova-Sliozberg (1902-1991)

 In Russian by heart  is naizust which roughly means “coming from the lips”. I would say that the etymology carries an implication of words emerging from the depths of one’s personality. And memorised verse does, figuratively speaking, become dissolved in one’s blood, ideally merging with its new “owner”.

The reproduction of such cultural phenomena halts when the social demand for them falls. When a society stops memorising poetry, the latter ceases to appear and exist in the way it used to and could. In Russia the vitality of rhyme, metre or vers libre never really faded, and even less so – the mnemonic culture. It is partly the result of the great tradition of the so-called Russian ‘literature-centrism’.

Formed only towards the close of the XVIII century, Russian secular poetry is relatively young (oral folk tradition is yet another story). Its Golden age was seen at the beginning of the XIX century. Back then poetry was at the heart of things; both a craze and a blessing, it led to verse memorisation piercing all spheres of life, public and private: from nursery rooms and finishing schools to grand saloons and ballrooms. It mirrored the entire palette of human emotions and currents of thought. That meant endless reading and creating, sharing in friendship albums, declamation amongst friends and in public, quoting and recognising quotations in everyday speech, since memorised poetry is also a socially significant recognition symbol: of likeness, unity, learning, etc. Poets were, in the words of Alexander Pushkin, the “rulers of minds”. Numerous forbidden (most commonly for political reasons) texts circulated on scraps of paper in pencil and were instantaneously memorised and spread onwards. Before the Decembrist uprising Pushkin’s unpublished verses continued to exist in the minds of just about every insurrectionist. The interest for poetry during the ensuing years resembles a sine wave up to the October revolution when a “flip” of the social strata occurred and an entire unique class of people was swept away – an irretrievable loss.

Young Pushkin taking his first exam before the great poet Derzhavin (1815)

The Bolsheviks at first proclaimed learning by heart a form of bourgeois oppression, but soon the “right” poems were selected, that is, those containing criticism of the tsarist absolute monarchy. Many of them were the very ones prohibited during the XIX century. Literature in the Soviet times was one of the most important subjects at school, present in the schedule from the first to the last year, and learning verse by heart was its part and parcel. Though phrases from popular films were an infinitely greater part of the vernacular, children throughout the country could be heard bantering with each other using crammed excerpts from verse and prose, and any girl that finished eight classes of a Soviet school could recite Tatiana’s letter (“Eugene Onegin”) from memory and not forget her lines after the first quatrain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=6_kyjggnwLU

Both the dominant and the dissident cultures used verse as a weapon in the battle for human minds. It is a double edged weapon, since truly great poetry is what Umberto Eco called an “open work”: an invitation to collaborate, to activate the potential of one’s cogitative faculties to the limit. Memorised poetry creates the “citadel of the mind” which, in my subjective opinion, happens to be its vocation and most genuine form of existence.

The penalty for the diffusion of forbidden texts became incomparably harsher than it was in the tsarist days. As a result, literature, and poetry in particular due to its inherent characteristics, became of an exceptional value – life was at stake. The story of Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem “Requiem” is very characteristic. (Her poem  In Memoriam, July 19, 1914 can be read in the Poetry By Heart First World War showcase – http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-july-19-1914/)  The first “drafts” of ‘Requiem’ were created as Akhmatova spent seventeen months, day after day, waiting in prison queues in Leningrad after her son was arrested by the secret police; one day a woman behind her whispered:  ‘Could one ever describe this?’ and Akhmatova answered, ‘I can.’ But she had to keep it locked in her head for around 25 years before she allowed herself to trust paper with it.

Kuzma_Petrov-Vodkin.Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (1922) Public Domain 

The mémoires of former GULAG inmates contain numerous testimonies of poetry’s significance for human survival – for the preservation of mental health and the private inner world, since the sole space of freedom that is undividedly one’s own lies in the mind. The mnemonic nature of poetry gives its “possessor” the sensation of freedom and at times even of independence from life’s vicissitudes. GULAG camps were in a sense the best poetry school – no-one would commit your verse to memory if they sensed a single false note. The first anthology of GULAG prisoners’ poetry was published in 2005.

Evgenia Ginzburg in her book ‘Journey into the Whirlwind’ describes the first meeting with her son – the future writer Vasily Aksyonov – since his arrest: ‘I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps. Like me, he too found in poetry a bulwark against the inhumanity of the real world. Poetry was for him a form of resistance. That night of our first talk together we had Blok and Pasternak and Akhmatova with us…Now I understand what a Mother is – you can recite your favourite verses to her, and if you stop she will go on from the line where you left of.’

Today poetry surrounds most of us from our very birth, here and there on different levels, so memorising at times is really recalling or putting lines together. That also has to do with Russian literature’s high level of intertextuality. And once it’s learnt it’s quite impossible to forget. Our greatest poets captured things most vital and stirring in ingenious ways; these thoughts and means of expressing them are profoundly Russian (or rather they actually shaped and formulated what Russian truly is and should be…) and at the same time universally existential.

 

A Ukrainian and a New Zealander by descent, Nellie Olphert was born in Moscow in 1994. She is currently studying international journalism and public relations at Moscow State Institute of International Relations and will be graduating later this year with a thesis on dissident media in the Soviet Union.

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Planning the Unplanned Lesson – Poetry by Heart in the Classroom

12th February 2015

Pietro Zanarini 2010 How to Mind Map – Creative Commons

Poetry By Heart Regional Development Coordinator for the North West, Karen Lockney and Head of English, Susie Cooke at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Penrith discuss the lesson that refused to be planned!

 

Walking into a classroom about to teach a lesson you know you could have spent longer planning, is obviously not the best thing to do with Year 10 last thing on a Friday. Yet this lesson was deliberately unplanned (beyond the most skeletal of outlines). It’s lack of potential to be planned was part of the lesson’s very concept – it offered risk and, like risks tend to do, it offered opportunity.

The aim was to use Poetry by Heart web resources to introduce pupils to poems that would be ‘unseen’ to them, but crucially ‘unseen’ to us as teachers also. We would look at poems that neither we nor the class were likely to have seen before, and try to read and respond to them together. ‘We’ll read poems with you’, we said, ‘but be warned, we might not be able to tell you exactly what they mean, we might not even be able to fully understand them yet ourselves’.  They didn’t look 100% convinced.

However our intention was to develop confidence in dealing with unseen poems as part of their exam preparation. Their views on such questions are probably not atypical: ‘We might not understand it’, ’What if we don’t find the correct meaning?’ There it is, the ultimate fear that a poem has a ‘correct meaning’ to be teased out, and even worse, teased out in the pressure of an exam room. The idea of the ‘unseen’ poem may pose a particular challenge as classes cannot be prepared in the same way as they are for named anthology poems, for instance.

We showed the class the Poetry by Heart online anthology. It has a fantastic feature called ‘random dip’ (clearly accessible in a yellow box on the home page). Press this and any one of  over 200 poems will appear. True, we know some of the poems on the timeline, but we agreed that we’d be honest about this and tell the pupils if we had a significant head start. In fact the first poem generated was ‘Blackout’ by Grace Nichols which neither of us knew.  The poem was read out and the pupils were simply asked to note down and discuss images which leapt out to them, which we then discussed together. The overall context did not present itself straightaway, but most of us immediately felt a powerful mood of danger, and we honed in on images and language which gave us that feeling.

All well and good so far, but we were keen to move on. This was all going to be light touch, emphasising the idea that encouraging confidence with poetry comes with frequent exposure that is sometimes very light touch indeed, ‘little and often’ poetry reading, vehemently denying the urge to analyse every poem to within an inch of its life. Easier said than done though, as we realised when we got ready to generate the next poem and one girl said, ‘But what does this Nichols one mean?’, pen in hand, ready to scribble our pearls of wisdom down. Our response seemed counter-intuitive: ‘We aren’t entirely sure yet, but we are interested in going back to it later’. It’s more difficult than we might think to tell a pupil directly that we aren’t going to tell them the answer because we don’t know it ourselves yet, but this was at the crux of what we hoped to illustrate.

We then used the timeline filter (click ‘filter timeline’ in the grey bar at the top of the anthology page). With a glee for the macabre the pupils chose  the ‘Nasty Ends’ category and then ‘How to Kill’ by Keith Douglas. We spent longer on this poem, asking each group to learn a 4 line stanza by heart, putting these together so we had a fairly informal class recital. They made light work of this, and it allowed us to ask them more about their own stanza, and what they noticed in those they heard from others. We talked about whether their increased intimacy with the poem had developed understanding. Some very powerful personal responses emerged about humanisation within the dehumanisation of war. Pupils tentatively offered readings and were asked to justify them. ‘But I’m just not sure if I’m right’, insisted one girl, and we encouraged her to see that could well be an A* type of comment to make, provided the justification was there, and it was. Some of us thought the weapon in the poem a grenade, others a rifle. Which was ‘the right answer’ ? We debated this, searched for clues, wondered how we’d feel in an exam offering our thoughts. A great feature of the anthology is that there are some fantastic notes under each poem, just enough to give pointers and direct further thought. Having decided it would be OK in the exam to suggest either possibility about the weapon, we looked together at the notes. Lo and behold, they suggest there isn’t clarity in the poem. The right answer was that there was no right answer. In terms of the lesson, this was a godsend; we couldn’t have planned it better if we had planned it.

This was the first of regular, sporadic lessons with the ‘little and often’, ‘light touch, deep meaning’ approach, and they will of course complement other lessons where pupils spend much more time with poems, often in more structured contexts. But this sort of risky, ‘let’s see what we get’ lesson does, we feel, have its place to raise confidence with  poetry, to take it off its pedestal a bit, allowing the brilliance of lines, images, ideas within poems to shine briefly and randomly, and to allow fresh, personal response to emerge with increasing confidence.

From left to right: Karen Lockney, Andrew Forster, Poet and Literary Officer, Wordsworth Trust and Chair of Judges for the Cumbria Final; Susie Cooke and Nikhil Choudhury, Cumbrian Champion and Year 10 student at Susie’s school.

 

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Teesdale School and Poetry By Heart

1st February 2015

Chair of Judges author Anne Fine

Teesdale English teacher Cassie Flint reflects on the use of Poetry By Heart in the classroom.

 

Teesdale School had a great start to the competition with the delightful presence of award winning author Anne Fine as our chief judge. She had some really inspirational comments to make about our students and hopefully this will help them in the next round. We also had an international judge as a colleague was visiting from Pakistan, where the oral tradition remains remarkably strong and recitation of poetry  is, for many students, a daily experience.

Teesdale competitors and judges

Our school is partnered with a school in Abbottabad which is in the north west of Pakistan where I visit each year. Each day  begins with a recitation of a passage from the Qu’ran. As a result of being a judge on the competition, Rafia Naz, our partner from Pakistan is going to be running a Poetry by Heart competition in the school in Abbottabad. The national poet of Pakistan is Allama Iqbal and he is much loved, as we love Shakespeare. Here is one of his poems

 

 

The Age of Infancy

 

The earth and sky were unknown worlds to me

Only the expanse of mother’s bosom was a world to me

Every movement was a symbol of life’s pleasure to me

My own speech was like a meaningless word to me

During infancy’s pain if somebody made me cry

The noise of the door chain would comfort me

Oh! How I stared at the moon for long hours

Staring at its silent journey among broken clouds

I would ask repeatedly about its mountains and plains

And how surprised would I be at that prudent lie

My eye was devoted to seeing, my lip was prone to speak

My heart was no less than inquisitiveness personified

Recitation by girls at the school in Abbottabad

We had prepared for our Poetry by Heart competition by having an extra session of our weekly Poetry Club: in one of these we decided to do a Memory Workshop, chiefly to help our entrants to think about which ways would work best for them in the task of memorising poetry. The main technique we tried was the use of the ‘memory palace’ which  works both visually and by association – and it seemed to work for our students . Here are some useful sites if you are interested in finding out more. We took the verse we were trying to remember and found an image from the first line and made that image as ridiculous and as larger than life as we could, so for example, in Mary Robinson’s Female Fashions for 1799 ( from the Poetry by Heart Anthology) when the first line is

A form, as any taper, fine;

it would make me think of a form, the ones I had to leapfrog over as a primary school child, brown varnished wood and little rounded rubberised feet which cushioned it on the floor- this one would be very bendy and it would be standing on the path outside my front door.

Then, inside the front door there would be a very long thin taper, made of white wax and attached to its side was a massive parking ticket – with that black and yellow edging to it- telling me I had got a fine…..and so it goes on as you construct a whole building ( or palace) within which the strong visual images from this poem will be contained.

Usually in our Poetry Club we do something which we’ve named ‘Wild Writing’ where we devise different ways in which to write poetry both individually and collaboratively. We are a mixed group, though usually sixth form students and a few teachers. One of the early experiments we tried was to do this:

  • Select One from :
  • Playing with the idea
  • Experience
  • Concept
  • Narrative

and then having identified  a ‘way ‘ to write we then came up with a list of words. Our first ones were: element, bus, oak and yellow. We then wrote poems using these parameters.

We also tried our hand at writing song lyrics, writing two lines each, a villanelle and found inspiration from the poetry of the Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik ( whom we have recently discovered).

Here is one of our collaborative ones;

My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,

striding out along the midnight sidewalk:

I am painted in navy blue and the

thin strips of luminescence cast down by the moon.

The calm footfall is a son

only I hear.

Lately though we have been looking through the Poetry by Heart timeline and selecting ones to read and give our reactions to as we prepare for the next round of the Poetry by Heart Competition.

 

Memorising poetry

TED talk on memory

How to use a memory palace

 

Cassie Flint

I have been an English teacher for many, many years and throughout all the changes I have seen, the one constant in all my English teaching has been my love of poetry. I have written myself since I was a young girl and maybe, being the daughter of a novelist, in a way encouraged me. I grew up in St.Ives in Cornwall at a time when there were great artists there and I met them as my father’s friends. For that reason too the sea and the literature which asks the big questions in life appeal to me.  In my later years I have begun to travel and have been lucky enough to be part of a British Council Connecting Classrooms Project which takes me to Pakistan and to work in a school there each year. You might be interested in an article I published on my last visit: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/jan/07/schools-taliban-power-of-education

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Why Poetry?

19th January 2015

Chew Valley Participants at their Poetry By Heart competition.

Deputy Headteacher Chris Hildrew reflects on the importance of poetry in his personal and professional life and his commitment to his ‘Poetry Promise’.

 

This year, I have made a Poetry Promise. My promise is to mark each month of the year with a favourite poem, shared online, with an explanation of why that particular poem is so special to me. The aim of the Poetry Promise is to raise the profile of Poetry by Heart and, by extension, share the love of poetry itself. How could I say no? I was knee deep in favourite poems on New Year’s Eve, trying to find that one I wanted for August!

Reflecting on my choices, I took stock of my relationship with poetry. Poetry has always moved me, really ever since I can remember. But it was at secondary school that it took hold of me, truly possessed me. I wrote tortured teenage verse in my diary, tried in vain to write a sestina that worked, and sat back in awe as my A-level Literature course took me on a tour through time from Chaucer to Heaney. It was the work of Sylvia Plath that was, and remains, my all-time favourite. Reading her work left me feeling like the hanging man in her poem of that name: “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.” I sizzled in the electricity of her verse.

As a teacher, I’ve always looked forward to teaching poetry. There’s something magical about unlocking it, about seeing it click into place in a student’s mind. Poetry never fails to provide those lightbulb moments. But what is it about poetry that makes it so distinct?

One of my favourite lessons that I planned as an NQT, and still use today, is an introductory lesson for A Level literature. In it, I present a series of texts: some prose, some poetry. Some of them are presented as written, others disguised: poems laid out like prose, prose laid out like poetry. I challenge the students to see through the disguises, with the aim of answering the question: what makes a poem a poem? The answers don’t really matter; the discussion is always mind-bending.

From years of teaching that lesson, I think I feel comfortable with the answer “a poem is a poem if we say it’s a poem.” Because the act of saying “this is a poem” lifts the language “above a common bound”, and gives it muscle. Words in poems have extra heft, like they’re loaded with lead shot; but they are nimble, their associations skipping across the page like spiders on a web.

When the occasion demands it, only a poem will do. Wedding, funerals, falling in love, the pain of goodbye…at these moments, dribbling prose won’t cut it. Only the poem can do the emotional heavy lifting required by these landmark events. That’s why the poet laureate is still such a key role, as Carol Ann Duffy has been admirably proving since 2009, in capturing landmarks in our national life. I still think “Translating the British” did a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of London 2012.

Chew Valley Poetry By Heart participant.

As a teacher in a school it’s my job and my pleasure to open up the spinning world of poetry for young people, not so they can pass exams and memorise the difference between a trochaic and an iambic rhythm, but so they can sit back with their eyes shut as they try to touch the edges of the emotions they have just experienced in the words of another. When I saw our students in our Poetry by Heart final this year, I almost forgot to breathe as they animated, inhabited, lived their recitations. The head judge was moved to tears. I will never forget it.

That is why poetry.

Chris Hildrew with his Poetry Promise

 

 

 

Chris Hildrew is Deputy Headteacher of Chew Valley School near Bristol. Follow @chrishildrew and read Chris’s blog at chrishildrew.wordpress.com

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New Additions to the Poetry By Heart First World War Showcase

2nd January 2015

In January and Feburary 2015  the county round of Poetry By Heart will be taking place up and down the country in arts centres, libraries and museums. In forty two different venues students will be reciting not only their pre and post 1914 poems but also a poem chosen from the special Poetry By Heart First World War showcase. In another January Blog post Anne Caldwell reflects on how she made use of the showcase within a memorable First World War commemorative event in Bolton whilst below Poetry By Heart Project Assistant Tom Boughen highlights some of the new additions to the showcase

 

The First World War collection has been an integral part of the Poetry By Heart experience for over a year. We uploaded the first poems to the showcase in November 2013 to coincide with Remembrance Day, and were impressed by the way in which so many students brought these poems to life with emotional and powerful recitations in the County rounds.

We’re very pleased to announce that we have expanded the collection for the centenary year! The aim has always been to include a variety of voices, from the old British favourites Owen and Sassoon, to Guillaume Apollinaire (French), Edward Slonski (Polish), Stadler and Trakl (German), Seeger (American); the contemporary voices (Andrew Motion, Mick Imlah, Owen Sheers), and to also include the voices of women such as Sara Teasdale and Helen Mackay, offering witness to the horrors of war from the home front and hospital units. Taken together from so many different sources, we hoped that this collection would be a diverse showcase of poetry from different corners of the same conflict.

With these additions we hope our collection continues in this vein.

Anna Akhmatova – In Memoriam, July 19, 1914

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-july-19-1914/

Akhmatova’s poem is the first in our collection to shed light on the Russian experience, and concerns the declaration of war on Germany; with a real sense of impending doom.

Laurence Binyon – For The Fallen

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/for-the-fallen/

You already know the fourth stanza; it is quoted every 11th November…

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Discover the rest of Binyon’s elegant and enduring tribute.

Mary Borden – Song of The Mud  

Mary Borden (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/song-of-the-mud/

One of the greatest horrors of trench warfare is often overlooked. Borden writes about the ‘invincible, inexhaustible mud of the war zone’ in a poem that becomes distinctly more nightmarish as it goes on.

Eleanor Farjeon – Easter Monday (In Memoriam E.T.)

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/easter-monday-in-memoriam-e-t/

You may know the prolific poet Edward Thomas – he also appears in our anthology. Eleanor Farjeon, best known for her children’s stories, had a close relationship with Thomas which ended in heartbreak with his death in April 1917. This poem is affecting for its simplicity with a particularly poignant ending. Farjeon’s mourning is tangible throughout the lines.

Julian Grenfell – Into Battle

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/into-battle/

The best-known war poets – for example Sassoon and Owen – are vociferously anti-war and deeply cynical. Grenfell’s poem is one of few in our collection that is overwhelmingly in favour of the war, portraying the soldier’s struggle as one of destiny. It is curious to wonder how Grenfell’s thoughts on the war might have changed had he lived past 1915.

Rudyard Kipling – My Boy Jack

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-boy-jack/

A poem about loss and regret, and barely disguised mourning for Kipling’s son Jack, killed in action early on in the war. A simple poem, but no less powerful for its simplicity

Glyn Maxwell – My Grandfather At The Pool

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-grandfather-at-the-pool/

Contemporary poet and Poetry By Heart judge Glyn Maxwell’s poem is about the act of remembrance and his grandfather, and the effect history has on the living.

Ezra Pound – Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Part I)

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/hugh-selwyn-mauberley-part-i/

This is an extract taken from Pound’s lengthy eighteen-part poem. His language is visceral and contemptuous of the ‘botched civilisation’, ‘an old bitch gone in the teeth’ for which so many men died.

Edgell Rickword – Trench Poets

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/trench-poets/

The first of two new additions by Edgell Rickword. He served as a soldier and survived the war, becoming increasingly more political in later life as a committed socialist. This poem is bleakly comic, describing a solder attempting to fend off the rats and worms from consuming the body of his dead friend (we told you it was bleak!).

Edgell Rickword – The Soldier Addresses His Body

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-soldier-addresses-his-body/

There is a strange sense of detachment in this poem, and Rickword returns to the gallows humour present in Trench Poets. It ends with an unusual sense of self-deprecation, as he decides to ‘have a drink, and give the cards a run and leave dull verse to the dull peaceful time.’

That’s our run through the new additions! With the county contests coming up, hopefully we’ll see and hear some of them being recited at arts venues and libraries across the country.

 

Tom Boughen (standing second from the left with other members of the Poetry By Heart team) is a key part of the Poetry By Heart set up for the 2014-15 competition having completed a work placement with Penguin UK to help out with the Poetry By Heart book published on October 2nd. He is a University of Bristol history graduate and the PBH paid project assistant for the life of the competition.

(Main image above – ‘Poppy Field’ by Mark Shirley – Creative Commons)

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Introducing Poetry By Heart at Simon Langton G.S. for Boys

12th December 2014

Image courtesy of the Simon Langton School website

Poetry By Heart at the Langton

I have always loved reading poetry. Poets seem to have that knack of explaining things that we don’t know that we know. But when poetry is on the curriculum horizon there is a cacophony of sighs and complaints in my classes so the question was: how can I possibly get our boys interested in learning poetry?

 

I needed something to spur things on so I decided to film a montage of rap artists and teachers reading poetry; teachers who one would not expect to be interested in poetry. A physics and maths teacher very kindly obliged. And then I had a brainwave (well so I thought)! If only I could get our Director of Rugby to read a poem on my montage then maybe I could convince the boys that poetry was for all sorts of people not just bookworms like myself. I plucked up the courage to ask him and hoped that he wouldn’t think I was completely bonkers. How wrong could I have been? Nicky was so kind in giving his time and immediately said that he would recite a poem that his coach had read to him and his team during his time as a  Fijian international rugby player – ‘The Man In The Glass’ by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr.  Result! I played this montage to my year 10 class – they cheered when the rap artists and teachers came on but there was a deathly silence with mouths agape when Nicky read his poem. I felt that I had scored a try!

 

Simon Langton G.S. Director of Rugby Nicky Little reciting, ‘The Man in the Glass’ 1934 by Peter Dale Wimbrow Senior

 

Now they keep asking me if I will make another film with other teachers (planned for the New Year) and poetry lessons with  this class are just delightful and engaging. I’d like to think that the montage helped in many ways to neutralise an inbuilt fear of poetry. But, to be honest, it didn’t help me to get potential competitors queuing round the block!

I was so lucky to have such delightful sixth form students who volunteered through seeing the Poetry By Heart posters, strategically placed around the school.  Our competition preparation was very enjoyable. A local poet, Lynne Rees, conducted a ‘Making it Mine’ Masterclass where the competitors spent a relaxed morning discovering and exploring nuances in meanings in their chosen poems. I also gave one to one lunch-time coaching sessions leading up to the competition day. I really wanted the big day to strike a relaxed yet formal note. I think we managed that with cake and biscuits while the judges did their task. We had some wonderful recitations – particularly from our winner who really opened my eyes to a new understanding of Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ and our runner up who had us in stitches with ‘God, A Poem’ by James Fenton.  Now we’re really excited getting ready for the regional final to be held at the Gulbenkian theatre at the University of Kent on January 16th 2015.

I’ll be honest – I had never learnt a poem before and I was not convinced that learning one would help in my understanding. But attending the Poetry by Heart workshop in October at the British Library in London turned me into an avid convert and gave me a wonderful opportunity to develop my teaching of poetry. I decided to learn ‘The Dancers’ by Edith Sitwell. At every opportunity, in the shower, driving to work, weeding the garden, I would try to recite it. I can confidently say that my increased love for, and understanding of, this poem has been overwhelming through learning it. We have a new way forward now – I’m developing more masterclasses with Lynne across the three key stages to introduce all students to the magical world of learning poetry.

 

Liz was born in Newcastle under Lyme and read Human Biology at Loughborough University. She thoroughly enjoyed working for the next nineteen years in scientific and pharmaceutical research. Nevertheless, on being made redundant, she took the plunge and chose to have a change of career going back to her first love – literature. She read English literature at Kent University and completed a PhD researching early modern women writers. She now teaches English at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury , Kent.

 

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Introducing Poetry By Heart to the Primary Sector

2nd December 2014

She Sells Sea Shells by She_Who_Must 2007 Creative Commons

Last week saw Poetry By Heart Director, Julie Blake, taking Brighton University first year Primary Education undergraduates through their poetry performance paces!

 

Starting with some rhythm and rhyme, and not a few comic images, we kicked off by creating a register poem. I couldn’t remember the names but I could remember the cat-lovers and the girls whose names rhymed with frilly! A couple of tongue-twisters got us warmed up for reciting fast and slow, loud and low, after which we went for the full body workout with John Foster’s ‘The Dinosaur Rap’. Pity the class on the floor below… We needed a rest after that so we experimented with storyboarding as a method for really getting inside Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘From A Railway Carriage’ and had it memorised as a class (each person taking a couplet) within half an hour. I finished by putting my money where my mouth had been all afternoon, and recited Irene McLeod’s ‘The Lone Dog’.

But why? Poetry By Heart is for 14-18 year olds? Well, since we launched in 2012, learning poems by heart has been inscribed in the National Curriculum for primary education and we have had very many enquiries from primary teachers and advisors asking us if we can help. Always happy to share what we’ve learned and to collaborate with interested colleagues, we are now working on a primary resource pack. Well, to be honest, we’re not quite sure yet if it will be a primary resource pack, or a Key Stage 2-3 pack, and we welcome all opportunities for dialogue, trialling and piloting. Please get in touch if you’d like to join the conversation:  info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.

Meanwhile, during 2013-14 we were delighted to collaborate with Dr Josie Brady and her PGCE Primary students at Birmingham City University on an action research project. Dr Brady reports on their experience here:

The NATE Conference and the Poetry by Heart Primary Project: A highlight of an academic year.

A real highlight of the 2013-14 academic year for me was the Poetry by Heart Primary Project as helping PGCE Primary students to develop pedagogies for poetry as a verbal art in primary and early years classrooms was both a tremendous challenge and a great joy. The NATE conference in Bristol in July marked the culmination of this endeavour as a group of my PGCE students presented their ideas, experiences, reflections and findings to an audience of teachers, academics and consultants.

Presenting at the NATE conference Bristol July 2014

Looking at the above photo now, I still feel that rising swell of pride and I know students were overjoyed at the positive responses they received. Thank you NATE delegates and thank you Poetry by Heart for making the project possible and supporting us along the rocky way!

Before I sign off, I leave the last words to two of my students, Emily and Kate, who are of course, now fully qualified teachers enjoying and enduring the highs and lows of busy Autumn terms.

“Being part of a project that has collaborated with Poetry by Heart has been a fantastic experience. I had undertaken a very successful project on poetry memorisation in a primary school with thirty 7 and 8 year olds and needless to say I was apprehensive about the outcomes initially. However, I found that not only did the children gain a lot from the project but I did too. My enthusiasm and knowledge of poetry, and poetry from memory, has dramatically increased and having the opportunity to discuss the outcomes at the NATE conference is something that I will always treasure. The support from Poetry by Heart, Julie and Tim in particular, has been fantastic and this collaborative project, I feel, has been extremely successful. The thought of implementing poetry memorisation and recitation into primary schools is now such an exciting thought and I think I can say that speaking not only for myself but other PGCE graduates who were involved in the project too.” Emily

“Going to NATE and sharing, alongside fellow students, my learning journey with professionals was a fantastic experience. Just to be able to hear other people’s opinions on what we have done and where we could go from there was very interesting. It gave me fresh insights which were truly enlightening.”  Kate

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The 3 Rs: Rhythm Rhyme and Recitation

13th November 2014

Photo by Fay Lofty

I am in the extremely fortunate position of working with teenagers for a job and so initially when invited to contribute to the Poetry By Heart blog I thought I’d write a piece about teenagers and poetry.   Just recently, however, I have had conversations with three people at different points on the great spectrum of life and a common theme emerged in our conversations which took me to the heart of Poetry By Heart. I have had the delights of conversing about poetry with a pre-schooler, a teenager and an octogenarian and this is what I learned.

 

Let’s reverse the natural order of things and consider the octogenarian first.  Belinda read English Literature at Cambridge University during the Second World War and today, in what some people might foolishly consider her dotage, is the sharpest mind I know.  Her greatest solace is her mind’s ability to recall Seamus Heaney, Shakespeare, Frost and Donne when her body fails her and this, she argues, is the reason her brain is still fighting fit when other parts are less so. Not just lines but entire poems come back to her as easily as my mobile phone number comes back to me.  She uses this ability now to connect to people and to give them an insight or frame of reference for her world.  Reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 71 in its entirety with its ear-catching iambic pentameter and powerful half-rhyming couplet to end, gives her comfort and leaves her audience wanting another poem and in no doubt as to the state of her mind.

Going to the middle of the spectrum takes us to a delightful young man, spoken word poet and playwright, Tommy Sissons who has just finished his A Levels and is about to go to university.  Interested in what teenagers find engaging about poetry, I asked Tommy to tell me why he loves poetry and this was his reply:  ‘I came to love poetry almost purely through the form of it being spoken. I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry but I find personally that you can connect with verse so much more when it’s performed out loud. You can appreciate the rhythm of the words and the emotions behind the poem a lot more.  A lot of teenagers can see poetry as a dry, old-fashioned form of expression but they’ve only been taught the work of poets that have been dead for hundreds of years in vernacular that modern youth can’t always relate to. When they are presented with spoken word (in a modern form) it speaks to them. I know lots of people my age that have come to love poetry through spoken word.’  I found the genre of rap very hard to access and Tommy was the first person who managed to get me to understand and enjoy rap – which is, as he says, arguably the vernacular of teenagers and relies heavily on rhyme schemes, solid rhythms and being made audible. Poetry By Heart may be occupying a slightly different space in the performance of poetry but it recognises and celebrates the acoustic quality of poetry.

My final conversation was with a four year old and was about the delights of the Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson.  I asked this small person what her favourite poem was and she trotted forward with a mauled copy of Donaldson’s book.  We read it together (twice), both enjoying the familiar cadences of a much-loved and familiar work.  I noticed that while I was reading, her lips were moving and asked her how much of the book she could remember.  She could recall nearly all of it with a few prompts which were related to the rhyming pattern.  When I asked her what she loved about it and why she’d chosen it as her favourite, after some consideration she replied, ‘it’s like dancing, only with words.’ And maybe whether we’re eight, eighteen or eighty that’s what we are doing when we get up and recite a set of words in our head – we’re dancing with words.

About the author

Fay Lofty works full-time as a Widening Participation Officer at the University of Brighton on an outreach programme with young people.  She has a BA (Hons) in Literature from The Open University and is currently doing an MA in Education at the University of Sussex.  In any time considered ‘spare’ she reads and tries to write.  She also runs a bookclub in the very small rural Sussex village where she lives and encounters many other inspirational readers and writers.  She has two daughters.

 

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Fey Popoola’s Poetry By Heart Journey

31st October 2014

Fey Popoola (third from left, front row) at the Poetry By Heart 2014 National Finals held at the National Portrait Gallery. March 2014

Poetry By Heart 2014 National Finalist Fey Popoola reflects on taking poems to heart.

 

I never thought poetry recitation could be so much fun until I tried it…

 

When Kathleen, my English teacher at college last year, introduced me to the Poetry by Heart competition, I must admit that my motivation to join was more escapism than enthusiasm. It was my last year of college and I was feeling the pressure of A2 revision, university applications and impending adulthood. I needed something else to focus on – and poetry recitation seemed just academic enough to not make me feel guilty for cutting my revision time a little short. (Poetry is wider reading, right? Right??)

The Havering Sixth Form College competition was cosy; just four contestants at the back of our library, with a few snacks and some cake (tip to teachers: bring cake!). I could immediately sense, when we were reciting our poems, that there was an atmosphere of respect and togetherness in the room. The whole process of choosing two poems from the anthology, spending hours learning them by heart and then sharing them with friends is really a bonding experience – and this feeling only intensified as I progressed through the competition, right down to the final.

For the last few months I’ve been an ambassador for the Poetry by Heart competition, talking about my experiences at schools, contributing to PGCE workshops and conferences organised by  NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English) and NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education). Perhaps the most common question I’ve been asked about the competition is, “How do you do it? How do you memorise a poem?” My answer is always somewhere along the lines of: “It’s fun. When it’s fun, it isn’t hard.”

I think that’s the main difference between what we think of when we hear “poetry recitation” and what we see and experience during Poetry by Heart. Instead of being force-fed mass produced interpretations, we internalised these poems, forming our own personalised meanings. This was especially noticeable when we had people reciting the same poems in some rounds. They were the same words, but vastly different understandings of those words.  Each person reciting brought a new dimension to their poem.

I believe that when you learn a poem by heart, you access it at a level that is almost impossible to reach just by reading it on a page. Unlike in an exam setting, where you focus on the metaphors and enjambment and other techniques, you actually get to the heart of the poem and can explore its tone, pacing, rhythm and melody. These things can often get overlooked in the classroom.

One of the best things about Poetry by Heart is the atmosphere. There’s a sense of calm and friendliness in the air, from the school competitions all the way through to the finals; we all want each other to succeed. I think that’s because of the shared journey we have all taken with our poems. We are in the company of other people who love – or are starting to love— poetry, which shifts the mood from that which we sometimes experience in our school classes. It creates a safe place for us to geek out about literature, and provides accessible exposure to a variety of poets and poems, from Tichborne to Armitage.

My advice to anybody considering entering the competition: Go for it! You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. You’ll learn so much about yourself, how you learn and how much you can achieve. And to boot, nothing is cooler than reciting poetry at parties (I promise!).

 

Fey in full flow at the national Finals 2014

 

Best of luck and maybe see you around!

Fey Popoola (National Finalist 2014 and Poetry By Heart 2015 Ambassador)

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National Poetry Day and Poetry By Heart

17th October 2014

James reciting at the Poetry Podium in Bristol

National Poetry Day on October 2nd saw members of the Poetry By Heart team hit the road in search of some poetry inspired adventures. Poetry pilgrims Alison Powell, Kath Lee and Tom Boughen share some tales below.

 

Alison Powell (Regional Development Coordinator for the South West) organised an innovative “Poetry Podium” event in Bristol.

 The (Loud) Sound of Sense

How do you make a three-year-old, a distant relative of Andrew Marvell and a retired dancer from Bristol happy?  By giving them the chance to read poetry in public apparently.  To celebrate this year’s National Poetry Day the South West contingency of PBH came up with the Poetry Podium, a flash-mob-style, open-air event in which members of the public were encouraged to join us on College Green in Bristol and read their favourite poem out loud.  And by loud, I mean really loud.  As in, through a megaphone loud!

Robert Frost claimed that poetry has a ‘sound of sense’ and can ‘communicate through its sound even before we grasp its semantic meaning.’  The sound of poetry blasting across the city centre’s favourite picnicking spot brought smiles, laughter and, when Keith Walker read his eulogy to his wife and dance partner, a few poignant tears.  Tim Popple, director of music at Bristol Cathedral, delighted us with ‘Bermudas’, chosen because of his relation to poet Marvell.  And three-year-old Autumn sang to us that famous 19th century poem ‘The Star’ by Jane Taylor (aka ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’).

People came from all over town to take part and to listen in a true testament to the power of poetry spoken aloud.  (Alison Powell)

Autumn aged 3 reciting at the poetry podium in Bristol with a little help from MC Faye Dicker

 

Tom Boughen (Poetry By Heart Project Assistant) enjoyed the Foyle Young Poets awards and a poetry extravaganza at the Southbank Centre in London

On the last two National Poetry Days, I have found myself at a celebration in the heart of London, hobnobbing with a group of talented and passionate people. Last year we launched Poetry By Heart on National Poetry Day (within a week of me starting this job!) This year I travelled down to the Southbank Centre in London with Julie Blake the co-director of Poetry By Heart for the Foyle Young Poets awards and subsequent poetry readings. It was a celebration of both young and established poets, with classic and contemporary styles.

I won’t lie; the Foyle group of youngsters made me feel very old! The young poets had been selected from thousands of entries from around the world and the fifteen deserving winners read their work at the awards. I’ve got a decade on most of them and the level of maturity and sophistication in their poems surprised me. It’s given me a strong reminder that I should no longer be amazed by the talent of teenagers, especially after working with Poetry By Heart! We’re well aware that lots of our PBH students also have a talent for writing, and it would be great to see some familiar faces at the Foyle Young Poets awards in the future.

One of the best things about the day was the encouragement of children and teenagers to engage in poetry. Local schools were invited to listen to readings by John Hegley, Julia Donaldson (writer of the classic ‘The Gruffalo’), and some cool contemporary poets like Hollie McNish, Dizraeli, Ross Sutherland, Raymond Antrobus and Joelle Taylor. They understood their audience, and some of the children watching seemed young enough for this to be their first poetry reading. I’ve come to realise over the past year that one of the biggest challenges facing the world of poetry is convincing the public that it can speak for everybody and challenge conventional thought in the same way that people readily accept other forms of literature can do. Involving children in these kinds of events is an excellent way of conveying from a young age the fact that poetry is universal, whether communicated on the page or in spoken word. That’s National Poetry Day for you!

(Tom Boughen)

Winners of the Foyle Young Poets Award 2014. Photograph:copyright @ Hayley Madden – Courtesy of the Poetry Society http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/

 

Kath Lee (Poetry By Heart Project Coordinator) navigated the magnificent new Library of Birmingham for the launch of the Poetry By Heart anthology and a memorable evening in the company of poet Jackie Kay.

What better way to spend the evening of National Poetry Day than in the company of the wonderful Jackie Kay? Mike Dixon, (Poetry By Heart Regional Development Coordinator for the South East) and I accepted the kind invitation from our friends at Writing West Midlands to the opening event of this year’s Birmingham Literature Festival. It also marked the launch of the Poetry By Heart Anthology.

The best poetry readings are like the best first date; you get all the best stories, a few revelations and wittiest repartee. Jackie’s poems are also populated by a wide variety of voices, so by the end of the evening you’ve also been introduced to the family.  Jackie read mainly from her 2011 collection ‘Fiere’ and those poems are optimistic and cheery, even when addressing the complexities of families and her own less than ordinary personal history. She also read our PBH timeline and anthology choice, ‘Dusting the Phone’ which we loved, but she says she is mystified at its selection from all her work. We’re not sure we had the poets in mind when we suggested people ‘Argue with the Anthology’, but why not? Her Question and Answer session was a happy blend of thoughtful reflection on her writing process and fond recollections of her childhood, and giggling. All this, and her generous praise of the new anthology, meant that by the end of the evening we were completely smitten!  (Kath Lee)

Library of Birmingham: Photographer: Bruce Stokes https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode

 

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Is there a poem in your head?

3rd October 2014

The nationwide Poetry and Memory survey launched on 2nd October, UK National Poetry Day. The survey is part of the Cambridge University’s Poetry and Memory Project, which is investigating experiences of poetry learning, and examining the relationships between memorisation, recitation and understanding. David Whitley and Debbie Pullinger of the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University have been very interested in the work of Poetry By Heart and some of the research undertaken as part of their Cambridge Poetry Teaching Project appears in the Resources section of the Poetry By Heart website. Project Researcher Dr Debbie Pullinger tells us about this new and exciting Poetry and Memory Project.

 

Do you have a poem in your head? Then do come and tell us about it. It can be any poem, and any type of poem – we just ask that it isn’t a song lyric or a nursery rhyme.

There have been quite a few poetry polls over the years, mostly directed at finding the nation’s favourites. Our aim, however, is rather different. We want to discover what poems people know by heart – what poetry resides in our collective memory, at this moment, in October 2014. To the best of our knowledge, this is first time a survey of this kind and scope has been attempted.

As well as asking what the poem is and when you learned it, we’re also asking a couple of open-ended questions about what it means for you. The important thing here is that we’re emphatically not looking for GCSE English answers, or an analysis of what the poem is ‘supposed to be about’. Rather, we want to know about the personal significance of this particular poem. This might be to something do with the meaning, but it could also be to do with the sound. It may be that there’s one line which is particularly special. It may be that how you understand or feel about the poem has changed over the years.  It may be that you associate the poem with a particular occasion or period of your life. Or, it could be that the poem you know actually has very little meaning or significance for you at all – and we want to know about that, too.

Straight off, we expect to be able to announce what poems beat most strongly at the heart of the nation. It will be interesting, too, to see how they map on to those favourites lists. But aside from producing a headline top ten, there’s a great deal more that we’ll be able to do with this data.  We’ll be able to investigate, for example, the reasons why people now learn poetry, and the perceived value of doing so. We’re particularly interested in questions about the ‘use’ of learned poems – how they might act as an emotional resource, contribute to a sense of identity, assist in the development of an ear for language, engender a sense of community, play a role in memories of a personal or communal past. What does knowing a poem mean for someone, and indeed what different things does it mean for different people?

We’re really looking forward to seeing the responses to the survey and sharing the results. But, of course, its success as a piece of research hangs on getting a good response – which means we need lots of people to take part. So we really do need your help. You can do this in two ways.

Take part in the survey – if you have a poem in your head, please come and tell us about it. http://www.poetryandmemory.com/

 

Spread the word –  even if you don’t know a poem yourself, do pass the word on to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. I should also mention that it will be possible for print out a copy of the survey to give to anyone unable to access it online. They can then post it back to us using the Freepost address.

You can get spreading any way you fancy. Phone a friend. Find us on Facebook (The Poetry and Memory Project). Tweet on Twitter: @poetryandmemory #poetryandmemorysurvey.  Print a poster and display it on your favourite notice board.

Whatever you can do, we’ll be enormously grateful.

The survey runs from 2nd–31st October and is open to anyone in the UK aged 18 or over. For more about the survey and the Poetry and Memory Project: www.poetryandmemory.com

image of staff member

Debbie Pullinger is the project’s full-time researcher, based in the Faculty of Education, where she also teaches on the Children and Literature course. Her doctoral project, completed in 2013, was on orality and textuality in poetry written for children. Debbie worked in primary teaching, in educational publishing, and as a freelance writer before returning to academia in 2009.

 

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Publishing Poetry

19th September 2014

Tony Lacey, publisher of the new Poetry By Heart book, reflects on forty years at Penguin and the pleasures and challenges of publishing poetry. Tony also contributes his own choices to this Blog’s ‘Desert Island Poems’ series.

 

Edited by Julie Blake, Mike Dixon, Jean Sprackland and Sir Andrew Motion. Published by Penguin. Publication date: October 2nd 2014

I’ve been at Penguin for forty years and published a huge range of books, from sports personality biographies and war memoirs to upmarket literary fiction. But one of the true highlights was publishing the second series of Penguin Modern Poets in the late 90s. I’d grown up, literally, with the first series, buying each volume as they came out through my teens and beyond: it was through these little volumes that I first read Gavin Ewart, John Fuller, Dannie Abse, and a host of others that became favourite poets of mine. It was also through Penguin Modern Poets that I came to know the Beats and the Mersey poets.

Twenty-five or so years later I was toying with the idea of a follow-up, second series, and slightly to my surprise my colleagues were encouraging: I’d always thought of poetry as a bit of a private passion, best left to those professionals in the field like Faber. We ended up publishing twelve volumes between 1995 and 1997, each volume containing the work of three poets as in the first series, and I think you can gauge the quality by the poets featured in the first and last books: James Fenton/Blake Morrison/Kit Wright and Helen Dunmore/Jo Shapcott/Matthew Sweeney. I’ve just done a quick count on the Poetry by Heart timeline, and I reckon that eighteen of the poets included there were in our series.

I wish I could pretend that the series was a huge commercial success in the way that the first had been. (A figure of one million copies is often quoted as the number of copies sold of the Mersey Poets volume alone, published in 1967 – I can’t prove it because Penguin’s sales figures on computer only go back to the mid70s. But give or take a few hundred thousand, it was clearly a phenomenal figure – those were the days!)  Why the second series didn’t take off in the same way is a question for social historians – it has something to do with cultural climate of the 1960s. But I’m pleased by the way the series has stood up to the test of history – looking at them recently to check a few texts for the Poetry by Heart anthology, it struck me again that they represented a terrific introduction to a new generation of poets.

The fact that we’ll be publishing Poetry by Heart in my last months at Penguin is hugely gratifying. Not just because it is poetry, but because it’s the best kind of poetry publishing, in the great Penguin tradition of publishing the best but to the widest possible audience. And my Desert Island eight from the anthology?

‘The Good Morrow’ and ‘Dover Beach’ – great poems that obviously don’t require any justification from me but I’ve chosen them because, encouraged by Poetry by Heart, I’ve learnt them both in the past few months. No mean feat in late middle age, I can tell you! I’ve known them all my adult life but to be able to recite them feels like a miracle.

‘Porphyria’s Lover’ – because it’s so weird, and never seems any less weird no matter how many times you read it. I know Browning said his interest was on the dangerous side of things, but even so – this is a shocker.

‘The God Abandons Antony’ – I feel uneasy with poetry in translation. Reading it often feels like looking through a slightly fuzzy window: you know there’s something good on the other side but you can’t quite get it in focus. But this does it for me. There may be extra-poetic things going on here, I admit: Cavafy’s life is enormously resonant for one thing, and also I really like Leonard Cohen’s beautiful reworking of the poem, which features in his Book of Longing collection, the most successful book of poems I’ve ever published. (Not quite Mersey Sound figures but getting on…)

‘Skunk Hour’ and ‘I don’t operate often’ – I love the American poets of the 50s and 60s, perhaps above all other twentieth-century poets. Fashion has turned against the men (Elizabeth Bishop has now supplanted them in public esteem) but I persist in revering Lowell and Berryman. There’s a kind of stately excitability about Lowell that I like, and as for Berryman – whole chunks of his Dream Songs have stuck in my head as firmly as any 60s pop lyrics.

‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’ – one of Housman’s exquisite lyrics. I know that ‘exquisite’ is a slippery word, and I’ve heard it said that Housman is top second-division rather than first, but I don’t think all poetry has to be grandiose or all-encompassing, and I think this poem can stand beside the best.

Finally, William Empson’s ‘Aubade’ – this seems to have everything a great poem should: wonderful singability, real intellectual interest, and something of a puzzle about it too so that it never fully gives itself up.

Tony’s Desert Island Choices:

1)      ‘The Good Morrow’ John Donne

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-good-morrow/

2)      ‘Dover Beach’ Matthew Arnold

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/dover-beach/

3)      ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ Robert Browning

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/porphyrias-lover/

4)      ‘The God Abandons Antony’ C. P. Cavafy

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-god-abandons-antony/

5)      ‘Skunk Hour’ Robert Lowell

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/skunk-hour/

6)      ‘Dream Song No 67: I don’t operate often’ John Berryman

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/i-dont-operate-often/

7)      ‘Tell me not here it needs not saying’ A.E. Housman

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/tell-me-not-here-it-needs-not-saying/

8)      ‘Aubade’ William Empson

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/aubade/

 

Tony Lacey went to a grammar school in south London, then read English at the University of Bristol. He joined Penguin straight from university, and apart from one year at Granada, he has been there ever since. He was  Publishing Director of Puffin in the early eighties, succeeding the legendary Kaye Webb, before he moved over to adult books to be the first Publishing Director of Penguin’s new hardcover list, Viking.His authors include Will  Self, Nick Hornby, Claire Tomalin, Matthew Parris and William Trevor, and he has published a number of poetry anthologies – most recently The Poetry of Birds (edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee) and The Poetry of  Sex (edited by Sophie Hannah). He plans to retire in 2015 and at last read Edward Gibbon, Robert Musil, etc etc.

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Words and Music by Nick Freeth

5th September 2014

 

‘Hanging Guitars’ by Zeetz Jones

 

Nick Freeth explores the relationship between poetry and music and discusses musical settings of some of the poems in the Poetry By Heart anthology.

 It’s taken me a long time to stop myself rushing through poetry too quickly. The magic is much more likely to emerge if I recite the lines, or hear them read to me – and these ‘real-time’ processes can’t be hurried. I also love listening to musical settings of some poems, though I know many people have well-founded reservations about this hybrid genre. Words have their own tones and rhythms, which inevitably get overlaid by a composer’s additions; and even the finest verses will be spoiled by dull melodies and accompaniments, or by singers with wobbly voice production and cloudy diction.

 But when poetry and music combine successfully, the outcome is marvellous. I vividly recall participating, as a 12-year-old, in a performance of a choral setting of ‘I sing of a maiden’ by Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989). I don’t think I’d have made much of its Middle English words if I’d encountered them in the classroom. But as my fellow choristers and I learned how to sing them, we gradually grasped their meaning, and were able to absorb their inherent sense of wonder. Berkeley’s hushed, mysterious setting complements them perfectly, and is all the better for being uncompromisingly twentieth-century, not ‘faux-medieval.’

Solo songs, where the singer takes on the poet’s voice, tend to produce a more intense effect than choral works. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote his setting of William Barnes’ ‘Linden Lea’ http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/my-orchad-in-linden-lea/  for soloist and piano in 1901, and created one of his loveliest tunes for its three stanzas. (Most performers use a standard English version of these, though the printed score also supplies the Dorset dialect words.) He sustains some of the syllables in a way that might have surprised Barnes, but the results sound entirely natural, and the music’s lingering over the words “…cloudless sunshine overhead” evokes, for me, an especially English kind of eternal, pastoral present.

In ‘Linden Lea’, Vaughan Williams employs a single, repeated melody; but when composers choose, instead, to ‘tailor’ their notes to every line of a poem, there’s greater scope to vary the mood, and illustrate the text more elaborately. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) excelled at this, as we can hear from his treatment of two items in the Poetry By Heart anthology: a fragment of Christopher Smart’s ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’ in Rejoice in the Lamb (1943); and T.S. Eliot’s ‘The journey of the Magi’ (Canticle IV, for three solo singers and piano, 1971). http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/for-i-will-consider-my-cat-jeoffry/  http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-journey-of-the-magi/  I have to admit that the canticle setting always leaves me cold, for all its ingenuity, perhaps because I find it hard to imagine Eliot’s Wise Men singing to us at all!

By contrast, music is already at the heart of the words in some of my favourite Britten songs. His early collaboration with W.H. Auden, On This Island (1937), opens with the triumphal flourishes of ‘Let the florid music praise!’, before a disquieting change of mood takes hold. ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’, from his Thomas Hardy cycle, Winter Words (1953), supplies music of almost cinematic clarity for the description of a boy with a violin, and the handcuffed convict who breaks into an ironic ditty (“This life so free is the thing for me!”) on the platform beside him. And in the same work, Britten conjures up a choir of angels “singing and playing the ancient stave” for ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’, the tale “the tenor man told when he had grown old.”

Whatever their brilliance and power, though, do we actually need song settings? Isn’t the poetry complete without them? The answer to the second question is, of course, “Yes”, and I think the items I’ve mentioned must be considered as works of art in their own right – incorporating and augmenting the poems without ever supplanting them. However, there’s one category of verse in Poetry By Heart to which slightly different rules apply: the two ballads, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ and ‘Lord Randall.’

http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/the-wife-of-ushers-well/  http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/lord-randall/

These pieces have been passed down through the oral tradition as songs, and only make their full impact when heard with their associated melodies. Because several ‘variants’ of the words and music have been preserved, we have a number of versions of the ballads to choose from: the ones I’ve recommended (sung and played by Martin Carthy, one of the ‘greats’ of English folk) are excellent starting points. Enjoy!

Nick’s choices, with suggested recordings of their musical settings (all available on iTunes):

I sing of a maiden (Anon.)

Berkeley’s setting: Choir of Lincoln College, Oxford

Linden Lea (William Barnes)

Vaughan Williams’ setting: Bryn Terfel/Malcolm Martineau

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry (Christopher Smart)

Britten’s setting (from ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’): Michael Hartnett/George Malcolm/Benjamin Britten

The journey of the Magi (T.S. Eliot)

Britten’s setting (‘Canticle IV’): Derek Lee Ragin/Philip Langridge/Gerald Finlay/Steuart Bedford

 Other Britten songs:

Let the florid music praise (W.H. Auden): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

The Choirmaster’s Burial (Thomas Hardy): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

At the Railway Station, Upway (Thomas Hardy): Robert Tear/Philip Ledger

Ballads:

The Wife of Usher’s Well (Anon.): Martin Carthy (from album ‘Signs of Life’)

Lord Randall (Anon.): Martin Carthy (from album ‘Because It’s There’)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Nick Freeth playing his own ten string cittern made for him by Glasgow luthier Jimmy Moon

Nick was born in London, has been actively involved in music since childhood, and is especially interested in classical and popular English song.

He read English at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, joined the BBC after graduating, and went on have a busy career in music radio production with the Corporation, as Jazz FM’s Senior Producer, and later as a freelance. His BBC commissions included a series for Radio 3 presented by opera singer Robert Tear, shows for Radio 2 and World Service hosted by Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, and a Radio 2 documentary on the British Library’s National Sound Archive. Since 1999, he has been a freelance author, writing extensively about music and American subjects; he also works as an editor and publisher.

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Will the real Helen Mackay please step forward?

17th August 2014

Library of Congress Reading Room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry By Heart team member Tom Boughen reflects on the curious case of two Helen Mackays.


If you were part of Poetry By Heart 2013-14, you would know about the brand new First World War poetry showcase, introduced to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the war and containing 50 poets from the UK, France, Poland, Germany and America. One poet we picked for inclusion was Helen Mackay, a Scottish nurse who assisted in the war.

The poem we attributed to her: ‘Train’, tells the story of a father saying goodbye to his children before being sent to fight at the front. It is a poignant poem and it was an emotive experience for everyone in the room to see it performed twice at our national finals.

Imagine our surprise when an email landed in our inbox from the good people at the Scottish Poetry Library, asking about this obscure Scottish poet who seemed to have hidden her poetic soul very effectively, instead working as a highly-respected doctor in London for nearly her whole life. I did a bit of digging around to find that, in one of those odd quirks of well-intentioned research, we’d followed some misleading internet sources and attributed ‘Train’ to the wrong Helen Mackay!

The Scottish Helen Mackay, whom we erroneously believed had written ‘Train’, was born in 1891 in Inverness and made groundbreaking research into dietary deficiency. She died in 1965 and by all accounts lived an extremely accomplished life as a paediatrician and as the first woman to be admitted to the Royal College of Physicians, but had never written a verse!

After this tip off from the Scottish Poetry Library and some rooting around we came across an American, a Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay. As with the Scottish Helen Mackay, her background was in medicine. She had worked as a nurse during the First World War. But a Google search turned up nothing. Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay, the American poet, was far more obscure than Helen Mackay the Scottish paediatrician.

We needed help in our search, and the Library of Congress, at http://www.loc.gov/, turned out to be our new best friends. The Library has a section on their website where you can ‘Ask a Librarian’, an incredibly useful free resource in which you can – you may have guessed – ask a librarian a question relating to anything the Library of Congress might contain in its vast, hallowed halls and golden bookshelves. Search Google Images for the place; it’s an impressive structure as you can see from the image above.

After enquiring about the poet Helen Mackay, we received a reply a week later. This reply was stocked with information – archived copies of her collections of poetry, a New York Times obituary and Mackay’s entry in Lines of Fire, an illuminating book compiling biographies of female writers in the First World War. Through this information, we found out that Helen Gansevoort Edwards Mackay, writer of ‘Train’ which is found in her collection London, One November, published in 1916 was indeed American, born in 1876. She worked in a Parisian hospital for the length of the war and was a confirmed Francophile, writing narrative sketches of French life and even writing in French herself. The New York Times obituary confirms her fluency in French (and Italian), and names her as a ‘prominent American resident of France’ and especially Paris, where she lived for fifty years. It seems that she must have taken root there after the war and remained until her death in 1961. She was the widow of Archibald Mackay, a member of a New York family with property interests, and seemingly continued her social work in the Second World War.

The American poet Helen Mackay, like many poets on our timeline, lived an exciting, eventful life worthy of a novel or poem of its own. And in common with many of those writers on our timeline, her life was steeped in literature borne out of social conscience.  It’s been fascinating to find out who she really was; thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library and the Library of Congress for helping us along the way.

 

 

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Summer Student Challenge

2nd July 2014

As the end of another summer term and another academic year approaches we know that English Departments are  always thinking of ways in which students can be encouraged to widen their reading over the holiday period. So, here are 6 ideas that make use of the Poetry By Heart website, inviting students to explore the online anthology of 200+ poems and preparing them, we hope, for enthusiastic participation in the 2015 competition.

 

Poetry By Heart – 6 Summer Holiday Activities for Students

1)   Listen to a poem
Yes, really.  Just listen to a poem.  Go to the Poetry By Heart website and click on ‘A selection from the finals’.  Sit back and enjoy the eight videos of last year’s competition finalists reciting poems.

2)   Listen to some more poems!
Explore www.poetryarchive.org and find a remarkable archive of poets reading their poems and also contemporary poets reading classic poems.

3)   Read a poem
Go to the Poetry By Heart website www.poetrybyheart.org.uk and read a poem. There are over 200 poems on the website from the year 1000 to 2014.  Go to the Anthology section and then either:

– use the Random Activity ‘Lucky Dip’ button or
– scroll through and pick a poet you like the look of or
– select the filter option from the top right and choose one of the topics you like the sound of or
– type a random word into the search box in the top right and see what comes up.

4)   Bring a poem to life
Choose a second poem and make it into a work of art.  You could:

– make a collage based on the poem
– transform the poem into a short comic strip or graphic novel or one act play
– make a short film, inspired by the poem.

5)   Write a poem
Write a poem in the style and/or form of one of the poems in the anthology. For example, there are 17 sonnets in the anthology. You can find them by simply typing ‘sonnets’ in the ‘search this site’ box on the homepage. Write your own sonnet and when you are happy with it see if you can learn the 14 lines by heart.

6)   Memorise a poem
This is a challenge but might be easier than you think.  Choose a poem from the Poetry By Heart Anthology and learn it off by heart.  Use the ‘Poetry recitation – developing a strategy’ document from the ‘Resources and Downloads’ section of the website for some top memory techniques.  Entertain your family and friends by reciting your poem and challenge them to learn one too!

If you enjoy these activities get involved in a Poetry By Heart competition at the very start of next term at your school/college and be in with the chance to win a weekend in London!  You will need to learn two poems from the Anthology in order to compete – one from before and one from after 1914 and you will need to be aged between 14 and 18.  Check out those videos of last year’s winners for inspiration and remember that judges will be looking not for the best actor but the reciter who can really share an understanding and heart felt appreciation of their chosen poems with an audience.

Full details of the competition can be found at www.poetrybyheart.org.uk or by emailing the Poetry By Heart team info@poetrybyheart.org.uk.  You can also follow us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/poetrybyheartcompetition and Twitter @poetrybyheart or give us a call on 0117 9055338.

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Desert Island Poems

27th June 2014

Julie Blake chooses the eight poems she would take with her to a desert island from the Poetry By Heart anthology.

My “Desert Island Poems” challenge had all the usual problems of narrowing the choice to just eight, though at least I only had 206 poems to choose from and I already knew some so well that they would have been wasted choices. Instead, I’ve chosen poems because I love them but don’t have them by heart, and in my long months of solitude I’ll change that.

My first two poems will remind me of family. My grandmother can probably still recite ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’, the first line of Felicia Hemans’ ‘Casabianca’. Catherine Robson’s history, ‘Heartbeats: everyday life and the memorized poem’, has helped me understand why my grandmother would always break off at this point and mutter darkly about all poetry being rubbish. I should like to be able to finish the poem for her. Meanwhile, my grandfather left Scotland at a young age to find his fortune in London; only when he went back at the age of 72 to marry his second wife did he start celebrating Burns night but he died soon after and I’ll never know whether he had a poem. I’ll take ‘Ae fond kiss’ with me and make sure I do. Though the BBC’s recording of Alec Salmond reciting ‘A man’s a man for a’that’ is so gorgeous I may need that as my luxury.

The Scottish connection continues though it’s less about roots and much more about sound: Louis MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’. I’m a sucker for strongly metrical rhyming poetry – always have been, always will be, and I’m not going to apologise for it now! And it’s funny…

I didn’t know the next two poems at all before Poetry By Heart. Poets Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland selected the anthology and I guided them in avoiding curriculum clunkers and making sure the timeline was balanced. Charlotte Smith’s ‘On being cautioned…’ duly entered as a must-have sonnet. Its setting is Beachy Head, a place I know well having taught for ten years next door to the hospital to which the suicides are helicoptered. The poem will remind me of the pleasures of teaching – and the madness of walking on headlands. Meredith’s poem simply took my breath away with its super-saturated darkness.

My sixth poem has a different kind of darkness. I taught ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ many times and, being a bigger fan of Margaret Atwood’s poetry than her fiction, always started with her poem ‘Notes towards a poem that can never be written’, dedicated to Carolyn Forché. Forché’s poems can be unremitting in their gaze on the horror of our times, and ‘The Colonel’ is especially so. Jennifer O’Sullivan’s performance of it at the 2014 finals is one I’m sure I’ll never forget.

My final two poems will remind me of Poetry By Heart as they are written by two of our poet-judges. I adore tricky forms and Patience Agbabi’s ‘Josephine Baker Finds Herself’ makes me grin with delight at its technical accomplishment, the second half of the poem a delicious mirroring of the first. And, oh, those Brixton nights…

I can hardly believe how much Poetry By Heart has achieved three years after Andrew Motion and I first talked about it: it’s been immensely hard work by a committed team but also such intense pleasure in hearing young people share the poems they’ve loved and learned. My final choice is Andrew’s new poem ‘The fish in Australia’.  I’ve heard him read it twice and now always hear the cadences of his voice in it. I might learn this one silently and keep it that way.

So if you get the call from the Kirsty Young of the poetry world, which eight poems would you take to keep you company on your sun-kissed desert island?

Julie’s choices

Casabianca (Felicia Hemans)
Ae fond kiss (Robert Burns)
Bagpipe music (Louis MacNeice)
On being cautioned… (Charlotte Smith)
Lucifer in starlight (George Meredith)
The colonel (Carolyn Forché)
Josephine Baker finds herself (Patience Agbabi)
The fish in Australia (Andrew Motion)

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