4th June 2020
In this week’s blogpost, Julie Blake thinks about beginning to learn a poem by heart – by hand writing and hand drawing.
This week we had an email from a state school teacher who said this of Poetry By Heart, the competition and our team: “Beyond the sound pedagogy of the competition and the love of poetry which it aims to foster, there is a deeply caring, humane, committed and thoughtful group of people.” I was lost for words. Lots of teachers say nice things to us about the competition but the word “humane” took me right back to the very beginning of my career in education when I was clear that I wanted to walk in the path of the humanists, concerned with the whole child and their process of becoming creative, critical and capable of acting to make the world a better place. Years of teaching all exam classes knocked some of the stuffing out of my idealism, but fundamentally, it’s still where I’m at. In this blogpost, I’m thinking about how our newest resources, all about exploring a poem through drawing, might create a space for moments of learning that are also deeply caring, humane, committed and thoughtful.
Give it a go: poem posters
We’ve been creating poem-posters since the beginning of Poetry By Heart in 2013 because as former teachers we know the joy of something new and interesting for your classroom wall. Our first ones included a few lines from one of the poems on our poetry timeline, with a related image and some of the words redacted with the idea that this might intrigue students to look up the poem and figure out the blanks. In the end we decided this was merely annoying and in the next and all subsequent series we’ve used the whole poem. We send a pack of poem-posters out each year to schools and colleges taking part in the competition, to help generate interest among your colleagues and students, and we love seeing them up in corridors, libraries and classroom walls when we visit or when we see pictures of your competitions over on Twitter.
Our designers are fabulous and everyone on the Poetry By Heart team has a secret Poetry By Heart poem-poster favourite. But as we’ve thought about this more recently, we’ve realised that there have been gains and losses in the changes we’ve made. The posters have gradually become both more beautiful and more removed from the modest pedagogical ambition of those redactions. They are gorgeous artefacts, and we think they help to raise the profile of your competitions, but what, ultimately, can you do with them apart from attach them to a wall. So, while still sending those out to competing schools, we’ve also been experimenting with a more pedagogically-inflected style of poem-poster, hand-drawn and hand-written.
You might well have already seen our poem-poster for Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s uncanny little poem, ‘The Witch’. We’ve used it in flyers promoting the competition at various times this year and the young artist who created it, Ben Westley Clarke, has blogged about his creative process for us.
Now we’ve added four more designs by Ben, for Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Frog’s Fate’, William Blake’s ‘London’ and John Clare’s ‘I Am’. All five poem-posters are hand-drawn in pencil (later overlaid with ink) and they present the poem in the artist’s hand-written form. They’re in the Learning Zone for you to download and use with your students as you wish.
The question remains, though: what do you do with them? Stick them on the wall, by all means. We asked Ben to work only in black and white so that if you wanted to enlarge them on a basic school photocopier, you could. If you want to get them printed bigger for your classroom, let us know via email@example.com. Post them on your digital platform, too, by all means. But they’re really designed as inspiration for students to have a go at creating a poem-poster themselves, needing nothing more elaborate than a pencil and a piece of paper.
This “unplugged” dimension to our poem-posters is important though it has become so in ways we didn’t predict. Who knew last summer when we started thinking about our poem-posters that we would all be engulfed by the outbreak of Covid-19? With such starkly differential access for students to computers and other devices at home now, our approach looks prescient, though of course it wasn’t.
What we actually had in mind was a number of different ideas that coalesce in interesting ways:
From memory research, the idea that when you hand write something, it stays longer in the memory than something typed on a keyboard. It’s something to do with the embodied act of handwriting, muscle memory and time by contrast with the speed and anonymity of machine writing.
From students telling us time and again that one of the their first steps after choosing a poem was to write it out by hand, sometimes doing so many times over in order to lodge the poem in mind. Sometimes they wrote out a few copies and posted them around the house so they could see them as they washed up or brushed their teeth.
From poetry and memory research, the idea that the parts of the brain that respond to a poem are the same parts of the brain that respond to a friend – hang out together long enough, doing something, and the poem-friendship deepens.
The idea that every text transformation – a poem’s written form into a designed poem-poster or an animation or a song – involves the same fundamental act of commitment, interpretation and appreciation as a poem recitation, and perhaps rather more personal investment, curiosity and enjoyment than a PEE paragraph in an exam preparation essay.
And we thought about Glyn Maxwell’s wonderful book, On Poetry, in which he invites us to consider the first line of a poem as a snapshot, a precise moment captured in which a speaker suddenly breaks the silence in order to say these very particular words. He says:
“The younger arts can help us. As film helps with stanza-break, let photography help with first lines. Imagine any first line as a photographic frame. 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 into 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?” (Glyn Maxwell (2012), On Poetry. Oberon Books Ltd, London.)
Drawing a poem involves seeing a poem, exploring its meaning and values, its verbal texture and its shape. It involves thinking about how to make that tangible for someone else, in a visual form. This visual form that might be enough in its own right, an aesthetic response to an aesthetic object, or it might form the basis for explanation and discussion of a literary interpretation that is unique to the student and precious for that. And for us at Poetry By Heart, it’s a rich and meaningful way to begin to know a poem, slowly, as the basis of learning it by heart, slowly, and to create a unique, personal resource for continuing the process of learning it by heart, slowly. We’d love to feature some student poem-posters in the Learning Zone alongside Ben’s and to see them shared on Twitter in a virtual Poetry By Heart poem-poster exhibition! The first step is for students to explore the poems on the Poetry By Heart website and to find one they love and want to draw. So much lies in the choosing…
To finish, here are some more of Ben’s thoughts about illustrating poems.
Illustrating William Blake’s ‘London’
I was first introduced to this poem by my best friend, about 10 years ago, whilst he was studying for an English Literature degree and I was studying at the Slade School of Art. We lived together whilst we both worked a summer job at a Paella stall on Covent Garden Market. The poem grew and grew on me as I stayed in London – I ended up relating it, with perhaps too lucid a historical imagination, to my own contemporary experience of the sprawling City as a place of alienation, injustice and sorrow. I have been making images of London’s streets for several years and have often drawn from observation in areas like Hackney and Camden, or at events like the Notting Hill Carnival. I’m interested in the bustle of street life – people’s clothing, how things are revealed or obscured by gaps or blockages in one’s line of sight; and the strange clashes that one encounters between completely different types of people. I decided to do a street scene in this vein, using the costume of Blake’s era.
Illustrating Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Frog’s Fate':
I was instantly attracted to Christina Rossetti’s somewhat humble eye for detail in her poem ‘A Frog’s Fate’. I wanted to draw the sequence of events from the poem – the big frog, surrounded by nature, carefree; followed by him meeting his sudden fate at the hands of the horse-drawn wagon which comes careering down a country lane. The ‘Waggoner’ isn’t described in detail – I found his anonymity slightly sinister – I thought of him as a hooded ‘death’ figure, like a character from an Edward Burra watercolour. For some reason, the serious-humour aspect of the poem, as well as its urge to describe nature, also made me think of Japanese woodblock printing and artists such as Kuniyoshi and Kyosai. I wanted to draw in a crisp, clear way – apt to describe nature in detail, but also flexible enough to be spontaneous and inventive.
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?