21st May 2020
In this blogpost, Julie Blake explains what Poetry By Heart’s Poem of the Week is up to. Who is it for? What do you do with it? Where can you find it? When does it come out? Why are we doing it? How can you take it further?
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, a long-ago former student to be precise, tweeted a plea to organisations to stop emailing him all their rather intense announcements of how they could help during the Covid-19 crisis. However well-meant, he had quite enough in his inbox to deal with to keep his job and his team going remotely, to home-school his children, to support his wider family and to simply get through a supermarket shop safely. I saw this tweet just as we were about to launch the new Poetry By Heart Poem of the Week feature. I looked at the email campaign lined up on my screen, ready to blast out our offer of a little support for poetry learning during Covid-19, and I deleted it. So if you’re thinking, “I didn’t know you were doing a Poem of the Week”, that’s why. We launched it quietly.
Even so, just by mentioning it a couple of times on Twitter and in our regular newsletter, we’re already heading for triple figures a couple of weeks on and, with the lockdown beginning to ease a little, it’s time to introduce it properly.
Poetry By Heart’s Poem of the Week is a response to the Covid-19 crisis but it’s also part of the plan we had anyway to create more specific resources for exploring poetry out loud and by heart. The new Covid-19 challenge we had was to adapt what we had in mind to the new conditions where some teachers and students would be in school but most would be teaching and learning at home. We wanted to create a simple poem resource that could be enjoyed and shared by children and their families at home, and used as a starting point for a poetry lesson or activity in school. It’s designed to be low-key and low-stress, easy to start but rich with possibilities for more extended exploration. There’s a link to one of the poems on our website and a short activity. It’s all about enjoying a poem, exploring its sound and sharing it aloud.
So far, we’ve featured Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Eagle’ and contemporary poet Joseph Coelho’s ‘Eastbourne’. This gives a little taste of the mixture of classic and contemporary poets we’ll be featuring. The poems will either have been written specifically for children, or written with children in mind (to follow the poet Rachel Rooney’s explanation of her writing), or they have often been selected for children. We want families or classes with children of different ages to be able to enjoy them together, so the poems will tend to be on the shorter side and they won’t put up too many obstacles to fairly immediate enjoyment. Though poetry excels at “The weariness, the fever, and the fret” of humankind’s existence, as John Keats encapsulated it, we’ll be sharing poems that are positive, funny, joyful, uplifting or sustaining in some way, sometimes through the kinds of closer observation of the natural world that many of us have taken heart from in this quieter phase of the world’s turning.
When you click on the poem link in the Poem of the Week feature, you’ll travel to the Poetry By Heart Mix-It-Up collection of poems. This is a “walled garden” of poems we’ve chosen for younger children. It’s designed to offer a playful interface for children to discover poems. Roll over a poem ‘tile’ and the poem title appears, click on it and there’s an intriguing line from the poem, scroll down and the poem is there in a dyslexic-friendly font. Scroll to the bottom and you’ll find a selection of random other poem-tiles to lead you on to new adventures in poetry. Click on the ‘Mix It Up’ button at the top of the wall of tiles and you’ll see why we called it that – hours of family entertainment right there!
The activity that comes with the poem is all about the sound of the poem. We want children to experience the poem and to feel for themselves poetry’s fundamental basis in voice and sound, in patterns of musicality, and in breath and the human heartbeat. This is the vitamin-enriched foundation needed for deep learning about language and form, when children are formally introduced to it in their schooling, and about all the many ways in which poets catch fleeting precious moments in a web of words. In Poem of the Week you’ll find prompts to have a go at saying the poem aloud – ideas about how to pace it, or where the emphasis fall, or shifts in tone that might need to be voiced. The idea is not to provide a comprehensive guide to reciting any individual poem, but to encourage experience and experiment over a number of weeks and many poems. The default activity is always this: read the poem, share it aloud, have a go at the activity.
But children and families, students and teachers, could go further with it, of course. A simple say-aloud of the poem might be the starting point for learning the poem by heart and preparing a performance of it in the here-and-now of home or school, for neighbours over the socially-distanced garden fence or for distant family over video chat. Sharing and talking about the poem might be the starting point of new poems created by children and adults. Take Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’. Most of us don’t get too many opportunities to watch the movement of an eagle, but what about really watching that blackbird pecking up the flowerbed, or that seagull swooping for chips? Which words could capture that precise moment of movement? Or try Coelho’s ‘Eastbourne’ as a starting point – what other impossible-to-answer questions do people ask you?
There are lots of other creative ways of exploring a poem too. Have a look at ‘The Witch’ poem poster created by artist Ben Westley Clarke. Could you have a go at something like this? All you need is a drawing implement and a drawing surface. I would say “pencil and paper” but I’ve seen some amazing chalk-art on pavements during the lockdown! Or create a video of your poem of the week – recited solo or in a pair or a whole group taking parts chorally, or turned into a mini-movie or an animation. We’d love to see what you can do!
Poem of the Week is free and available to anyone who wants it. It goes out by email on Sunday afternoons all ready for the week ahead – sign up to get it in your inbox. On Mondays, we add the latest feature to the Learning Zone of our website so you can browse the whole collection as it builds, whenever you want to and without inbox-overload. And if that whets your appetite for more poetry, you could also check out these other features that share a poem every day or every week.
Poem of the Day emails
For many years I‘ve subscribed to the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day email. It’s a wonderful resource for teachers and A Level students, often perfectly chiming with the day’s global events or the seasons, sometimes bringing you a loved classic, sometimes a new treasure. I share poems I especially enjoy with family and friends on my Facebook page. But, to be honest, most days it sweeps past me in the avalanche that is my inbox. I wish I could swim faster in the joyful torrent of words but I don’t. But I don’t give up on it either. The strange new conditions of our times are helping me recalibrate my guilt: letting poetry wash over and around me is fine. I’ll open the emails as and when I have – or more than usually need – the mental breathing space. You can also sign up for a poem of the day email with The Academy of American Poets.
Carol Rumen’s Poem of the Week articles in The Guardian
Poem of the day emails are what they say they are, but if you want a more substantial guide to poems you haven’t read before, you can’t do better than the poet Carol Rumens and her wonderful Poem of the Week series in The Guardian. Each week, the feature includes a poem and a commentary all about it. The selection of poems is fantastic – broad and inclusive, comfortable and surprising – and the commentary is pitched perfectly to the curious everyday reader. It’s fantastic radar-widening for teachers (and A Level students) and a model of clear, intelligent, accessible writing about poems. Can you tell I like it yet?…
Julie Blake is the co-founder and Director of Poetry By Heart. As Dr Julie Blake she is also a researcher in children’s literature and a Digital Humanities Methods Fellow at Cambridge University. Her doctoral thesis asked and answered the question: What did the national curriculum do for poetry?