Poetry By Heart Blog

Voices Together

28th May 2021

In the Large Group Celebration category of Poetry By Heart, a group of more than six students, perhaps even a whole class, performs a poem by speaking it collaboratively. We want to re-vivify the art of choral speaking in creative, inclusive and exciting ways. We’re armed with little more than a 19th century teachers manual that includes how to dress in togas while speaking chorally, some really imaginative entries in this year’s competition and some cool examples from collaborative slam poetry. To help us think about it, Marie McHugh shares her experience of working in this way and guides us through some approaches to a particular poem her classes have loved performing. If you have experiences of choral poetry speaking to share, we’d love to hear more!

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to imbue them with the shades of deeper meaning.”

Maya Angelou, poet and author

Ensemble delivery of a poem using various voice combinations, solos, and a range of imaginative contrasts to explore meaning, tonal beauty and the particular significance of the words, can be an entertaining and exciting experience for everyone involved. Poetry out loud helps master public speaking skills, builds self-confidence and develops sensitivity to the effects of sound and meaning. This enhances the growth of a rich personal vocabulary, promoting diversity in delivery and empathy in understanding, whilst providing great fun. The classroom atmosphere that manifests learning and fun simultaneously is one to be nurtured.

Collaborative speaking and learning by heart can foster myriad contributions, one way or another, across the ability spectrum. It embraces the joy of whole group involvement: by its very nature choral verse is inclusive. Every student can contribute to a unique interpretation of old favourites or new discoveries and there are opportunities for everyone to get actively involved in the delivery of the poem. Always a few nascent thespians will desire the limelight and want to deliver specific lines singularly or in a small group, while others will be perfectly happy to work in unison with a bigger group.

Those not so keen to court the limelight will be able to blend within the group, much as singers in a choir, who are emboldened by consequence of numbers. Theirs is as crucial a contribution as those not born to blush unseen. Star players and star backgrounders are mutually dependent. No student needs to be put on the spot or stand out in a group and there is a perfect opportunity to employ the diverse individual skills and talents within a group. For example, appropriate music might enhance choral delivery and there may be players available, or those with sufficient musical savvy will have pleasure in the search for something singularly apt.

Whole group performance of a poem can be thrilling for both performers and audience. I have found this to be true across the age and ability ranges. A transformation happens when the poem becomes a unique interpretation reflecting the specific talents of the group, as well as contemporary or pertinent issues. Everyone interested will develop their own methods, but ideas that follow may add an initial confidence if there is little or no experience in organising a whole group presentation of a poem.


Choosing the text with some advice on modus operandi
There are a number of suitable poems in the Poetry by Heart anthologies or there may be some that spring to mind that you have a hunch the group might like. Provide a copy of a number of poems for each student as well as displaying to the group on an overhead screen. Encourage individuals or small groups to improvise by reading aloud particular lines and verses to explore what they like. I can rarely stop myself from joining in, too. This can be very entertaining and students are immediately involved. Having considered several potential choices, possibly over a couple of meetings, decisions will be made by the majority with teacher guidance. Of course, a teacher may decide to choose a poem in advance and present the choice as made. Knowing the group well enables a judicious choice.

Many poems can lend themselves to choral performance but here are some of my suggestions, suitable for children of different ages, listed in no particular order. Those with an asterisk feature in one of the Poetry By Heart timeline anthologies:

The Shooting of Dan McGrew – Robert Service
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge*
The Daniel Jazz – Nicholas Vachel Lindsay
The Lady of Shallott – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sohrab and Rustum – Matthew Arnold
Among School Children – W B Yeats
Cataract of Lodore – Robert Southey*
The Highwayman – Alfred Noyes
Jabberwocky – Lewis Carroll*
The Destruction of Sennacherib – George Gordon Byron*
Kubla Khan – Samuel Taylor Coleridge*
The Dong with a Luminous Nose – Edward Lear
My Last Duchess – Robert Browning*
The Pied Piper – Robert Browning
The Cremation of Sam McGee – Robert Service
Mandalay – Rudyard Kipling
If – Rudyard Kipling*
The Song of Hiawatha – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow*
The Hill We Climb – Amanda Gorman
Josephine Baker Finds Herself – Patience Agbabi*
What If – Benjamin Zephaniah*
The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock – T S Eliot

Beginning the work and seeking below the surface for meaning 
Discuss content and meaning, bearing in mind that a deeper understanding of the words will lend distinction and quality to the choral interpretation. Give some small group time so that students can practise different ways of delivering specific lines or verses, within each sub-group and then to the whole group. Consider the structure or form and invite comments on how the poem works and how best it might be delivered. The whole group reads the poem aloud after which reactions and opinions about delivery can be shared with more examples. Ideas will develop in quality through rehearsal. Try out different voice combinations and contrasts to elucidate the meaning and facilitate tonal beauty as well as the appreciation and significance of the words.

Example: Characters and consideration of some textual features in Robert Service’s, ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’

Discuss with students the various characters in the poem and how they might be interpreted in relation to what happens. Small group feedback to the whole group should elucidate certain subtle inferences in relation to characters and their actions. Consider the poet’s use of dramatic irony and any features geared to persuade and influence the reader to judge particular characters, or create atmosphere and opinion.

Here are some examples of language the poet uses to set the scene.

‘A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon.’

This line evokes the rowdy, yet apparently jocular ambience of the saloon named after the sled-pulling, hugely strong dog, employed in the Yukon during the Gold Rush. Is the Malamute Saloon a place of camaraderie as well as refuge from “out of the night which was 50 below”? Does the phrase “into the din and the glare” introduce an uneasy more contentious mood? How might this rowdy, “whooping it up” atmosphere punctuated by the “stumbling miner” be reflected by the students in performance and a change in the music?

‘The kid that handles the music box was hitting a jag-time tune.’

Think about the difference in the poet’s use of “jag-time” to refer to “rag-time” and try to explain it. Use YouTube to listen to some rag-time music.

‘Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.’

What effect does the alliteration give to McGrew’s name? Is there any significance in where he is sitting and what he is doing? Note the further alliteration where several points are made about Lou. What are they? Look hard at the last line of the final verse and think about poetic effects in relation to the way Lou is described. What purpose is served by the use of hyphens?

‘There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,’

This emotive description of McGrew’s nemesis, a gold prospector seeking retribution, portrays him as a desperate, yet vulnerable character, and acts as a precursor or harbinger of something sinister in the offing. Consider the line, “With a face most hair and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done”… comment on persuasive techniques and any other devices you have noted in this verse or elsewhere in the poem that you find interesting. As distinct from the kid, the miner has a tremendous ability to play the piano and as such his past is imbued with mystery and speculation. Why might the poet desire to infer this?

The narrator/onlooker has a crucial role, yet he remains nameless. Why? How does the poet establish his credibility? How might his voice sound? Students might like to give an example of the voice. Imagine a particular accent and a way of delivery. Is he confident? Should he sound credible?

Further textual considerations
Beginning with the word “shooting” in the title, make a list of all words in the poem ending in ‘ing’. Comment on any apparent significance. The use of the present continuous tense lends a timeless quality to perennial issues of the human condition, like love, greed and violence. Any other ideas you might mention?

There are several uses of hyphens, dashes, ellipses … and one pair of brackets. What function do they serve? They allow the reader space for thought, give room for inference, as well as instruct the delivery of the lines. Consider what specific ideas might be inferred in several such pauses in the poem. The poet does not tell us all the details from the mouth of the narrator. He wants us to speculate.

Note the ethereal atmosphere evoked by the universal imagery in verse 5 and the significant change in the sound of the music beautifully played, and reflect on the impact of the last six words. Consider the difference in imagery in verse 6. Note the juxtaposition of the last two lines and the significant use of brackets. What is inferred about the lady that’s known as Lou in the last line of the verse?

What effect does the music have in verse 7 when it suddenly changes? How might Dan McGrew’s line: “I guess I’ll make it a spread misere” be delivered? What does he mean by these words? Should it have a contradictory, casual delivery or a villainous one?

Wider issues
Discuss atmosphere engendered by the description of the Yukon, referred to as the ‘Great Alone’. Consider further the significance of the imagery in verses 5 and 6. Hunger is not just of the ‘belly kind’ but consider the reference to loneliness and homelessness. Encourage students to think about the area’s geography and history, including the extreme cold and the Gold Rush. How should a choral presentation include significant music to complement the themes? What sounds, other than those of the music, help to create atmosphere? Could someone mimic the howl of a timber wolf, for example? Insights gained here will inform and shape the delivery of the poem, helping students to make it their own. I find it extremely interesting that the range of talents available within a particular group reinterpret a poem and always find something new to celebrate. Are there any other themes of contemporary resonance worthy of discussion and how may they inform the delivery?

Could this poem be described simply as a revenge story? What is the final outcome? Why does the poet choose not to include the other nameless man’s death in the poem’s title?

Invite everyone in the group to write a sentence making a personal response to this poem.

There is so much more to be discovered in this poem. This is an example of a particular approach, but each teacher will have their own toolkit, interests and ways of working. Enjoy discovering, sharing ideas and reading between the lines.

Simply out of interest
Created by the ancient Greeks, choral poetry was usually accompanied by a musical instrument known as a Lyre, similar to a small harp. There were both men and women in the chorus and the poems were mainly religious in character. The actors were made to seem very tall with built up shoes and facial masks depicting various expressions. There could be as many as 50 chorus members in the ensemble but over time the number reduced to between 12 and 15 actors. Perhaps the logistics of preparing many costumes became too much trouble. The task of the chorus in Greek Theatre was to give the audience a deeper understanding of the characters involved in relation to their thinking and motivation. In time choral sub genres developed from choral drama to include and celebrate a variety of public festivals and family occasions.

Wikipedia provides the following occasions when choral speaking would be used in Greek theatre.

The marriage song (Epithalamium)
The lament or dirge (Threnos)
The praise to a god (Paean)
The maiden song (Partheneion)
The processional (Prosodion)
The hymn (In praise of…)
The dithyramb (In praise of Bacchus)
Praise for people (Encomium)
Song at a party or
Symposium (Skolion)

Where might The Shooting of Dan McGrew fit within these sub genres?

Though much is covered here, much remains to be discovered by you and your students!


Marie McHugh was Head of English at Emmanuel College, Gateshead, and a manager of learning and teaching across the curriculum. In the early 1970s, she taught English in Zambia and travelled extensively in Africa. She now writes poetry and prose and has been involved with Poetry by Heart since 2013. Her love of poetry began long ago on first hearing Walter de la Mare’s Nicholas Nye and Rudyard Kipling’s Mandalay. 


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